Thursday, October 04, 2012

What Turkish Muslims Taught Me About our Changing World

My job sometimes requires pretty extensive travel, and through my service to our churches, I've had the opportunity to, literally, see the world.  But I've just returned from a trip that I think has had a greater impact on me than any other trip I've taken.

From September 21-30, six area pastors and myself traveled throughout the Republic of Turkey with members of the Muslim community.  This journey actually started more than a year ago with a call from one of our state legislators who is a member of one of our churches.  The Governor of Maryland had included her in a trip to Turkey as part of an eventual "sister-state" agreement that was signed between my state and a province in that country, but once the leader of the Turkish organization discovered that this representative was an evangelical Christian, he expressed hesitation, because, as he put it, "I always thought evangelical Christians hated Muslims."

Seeking to put this false rumor to rest, I reached out to the members of this community, and got a warm embrace in response that has lasted more than a year.  I've been in the company of people from nearly every tribe and tongue, but when it comes to hospitality, no one does it better than the Turkish people!  They are some of the finest and most gracious people I've ever met!  Eventually, this new relationship resulted in their invitation for us to join them in their home country last week.

Let me say that again.  Muslims openly invited more than a half dozen Baptist preachers to the middle east, and even covered a significant portion of the cost of the trip!

During our time abroad with our new friends, I have never experienced such hospitality!  We toured sites together that were important to both Christians and Muslims.  We visited schools, newspapers, and hospitals built by this group in the hopes of improving the lives of others in their home country.  We visited the homes of influential Turkish business leaders and learned of their own involvement in trying to improve conditions, not only in Turkey, but throughout the middle east.  One young pharmacist we met near the border with Syria told me "I want to take what we have done in this city, and spread that peace across the border and throughout this part of the world.  I want my city to be the starting gate for peace."  I love that guy's heart!

It is unfortunate that nearly everything about this part of the world that is broadcast on American news media focuses on extremist elements.  To be sure, those elements are very present (as was demonstrated after our departure with the Syrian violence crossing the border into Turkey), but the so-called "Muslim world" is full of good people who are trying to make a positive difference, and its working!

All of this probably sounds very strange coming from the mouth of an evangelical Christian, and to be sure, my convictions have not changed.  I still believe the Bible is the Word of God.  I still believe Jesus is God, that He was crucified as a substitute for sinners, that he rose bodily from the dead, and that nothing short of repentance and total faith in His death and resurrection will save.  But these convictions don't hold me back from the relationship I now have with my Muslim friends.  On the contrary, they propel me more deeply into relationship with these precious people!

This experience is but one example of how the way we engage the world as followers of Jesus needs to change, and I've addressed that issue in more depth here.  But as we explore further ways to walk together with the Muslim community here, I'm taking several things away from our recent trip that will continue to inform our ongoing relationship.

1. The sincerety of their faith is motivating them to change the world, starting with the region where they live.  Our Turkish-American guide for this trip told me that years ago he asked the question, "why is it that when it comes to science and technology, education, and health care, that the Muslim world seems to lag behind everyone else?"  According to his own testimony, he found mentors within his own faith who believed that Islam should actively engage all these areas, and contribute to the global community.  In short, he and others like him who live in Turkey have found meaning and purpose that they believe is anchored in their faith.

2. The Movement we witnessed in Turkey is cross-generational.  While many young people are "out in front" seeming to make positive waves, older generations are seeing their passion and responding with financial support and other things necessary to accomplish their goals.  Inspired by Imams of centuries past who encouraged Muslims to invite "outsiders" in, they have taken one step further and are taking the initiative to introduce themselves to the non-Muslim world.  They are disheartened by the way the media have focused almost exclusively on the radical elements of their faith, are weary of being automatically identified with those radical elements, and are eager to share the good that is happening throughout the middle east and among Muslims worldwide which is so under-reported.  It was not uncommon for us to visit a home where three or four generations of Turkish Muslims spoke of their commitment to these goals.

3. They speak boldly and loudly to the violent elements in their faith, and so should we!  Though the media pay them little attention (honest appraisal of the positive elements of a movement or religion rarely sells a lot of newspapers or increases viewer ratings), they are quick to condemn violence committed in the name of Islam.  We had barely landed when our guests openly and forcefully condemned the recent attack on our embassy in Libya in response to the "Innocence of Muslims" film made in the U.S., and apologized to us for the way their faith was represented in that violence.  (We responded by condemning the film itself.  The language and sexual content alone should make that film as offensive to Christians as it is to Muslims.  We also acknowledged that idiots are entitled to their 1st amendment rights also!)

Call it propaganda if you want, but the truth is that Muslim critics of violence abound, we just don't listen for their voices. (Harris Zafar is but one example in our own country.)  Instead, we tend to suppress our awareness of the violent tendencies present in ourselves.  Sure, we Christians don't have anyone flying airplanes into skyscrapers.  But when was the last time you heard a Christian openly condemning a violent attack on an abortion clinic, or the bullying of a homosexual?  Our tendency is to see a masked gunman shooting a defenseless young lady who simply wants an education, and blame it on  the inherent violence of Islam.  But I have a few folks in my family tree who, decades ago, also put on masks and intimidated the weak with a burning cross in the background.  That doesn't make Christianity a violent faith, it makes those who appeal to it while committing atrocity cowards!  Our new Muslim friends agree with us that ALL people are created in God's image and likeness, and when violence is done to any of them, the reason doesn't matter.  Such violence should be condemned.

4. This new relationship is a new platform for the very kind of "public square" evangelism in which Paul participated.  You could spend years as a "traditional" missionary in a Muslim country and never achieve the level of access we achieved in a single week!  From the beginning, we have been up front with our Muslim friends regarding what we believe, and told them our greatest desire is for them to come to know Jesus as we know Him.  But we have also stressed that our continued friendship is not contingent on whether they become Christian.  After all, "forced conversion," is not conversion.  It is conquest, and both Christians and Muslims have already given each other too much of that in our history together.

At the same time, I can't help but think that if Paul were alive today, this is precisely the platform he would leverage in order to spread the Gospel.  On several occasions, our group had this opportunity, and we seized it with the blessing of our hosts, most of whom were and are curious about Jesus.  In general, Muslims have great respect for Jesus.  They just don't know much about him, and recognize that Christians spend much more time focusing on Him.  So when they encounter Christians, they are often anxious to hear a story about him.  Though most seminary textbooks on the subject claim that Muslims reject the doctrine of penal substitution, the truth is that many Muslims have never even been offered the opportunity to consider the concept.  In one of my conversations this past week, one man asked "tell me again what you mean by 'Jesus paid the price.'  I've never heard that before!"

5. In our current North American context, walking in close relationship with Muslims is the epitome of being "counter-cultural."  Let's face it.  Most Americans, even Christians, are afraid of Muslims.  We are conditioned by our media, and even most of our political leadership to keep our distance.  So what could possibly be more counter-cultural than our willingness to to walk together with these precious people, and do it publicly?

6. If the Gospel is truly "the power of God unto salvation," then what on earth are we afraid of?  I still believe Romans 1:16-17 is true.  And because I believe this, I want to walk closely with those who have yet to accept its claim.  Our new friends are anxious to talk about faith, and there is much that we hold in common!  But in the midst of discussing those commonalities, I have, and will continue to challenge them concerning the basis for forgiveness, and a sure hope of eternal life.  And I'll do it because they are my friends.

Our group learned much while traveling with our friends, and we look forward to learning more, to engaging them in matters of common interest, and to consistently present the Gospel of Jesus to them at every opportunity.  God is at work in places we too quickly brush off as "lost."  I saw it for myself, and I look forward to experiencing all that He has in store in the future for us, and for our new friends.

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