Saturday, November 16, 2013

Talk With the World, Not Just About It: Reflections on the Global Faith Forum

Greetings from 30,000 feet!  I'm writing while on my way back from the Global Faith Forum at Northwood Church in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, where I just enjoyed an amazing weekend with many, many world-class leaders.

I'm grateful to Bob Roberts, who has been a friend of several years, but also a great coach to me over the past two years as I have tried to lead our network of churches in engaging the Muslim community in our area.  It all started just over two years ago, when a Maryland state legislator who attends one of our churches called me, and asked if I would be willing to meet with members of the Turkish Muslim community.  At the time, my state and a province in the Republic of Turkey were working on a "sister state" agreement, and this lawmaker asked me to participate in conversations that would alleviate misconceptions that, at that time, Turkish Muslims and evangelical Christians had about each other.  At this point, the sum total of my knowledge about Islam came from two weeks of a 16 week religion course I took in seminary back in the 1990s, which is to say that I knew nothing of substance about Islam--at least nothing beyond the core beliefs of their faith!

This is when I called Bob, and for the past 24 months, God has taken me and a few of our pastors on a roller coaster ride in this new and still-emerging relationship.  I'm still a conservative, evangelical who believes the Bible is the final written revelation of God Himself.  I still believe everything about Jesus, heaven, hell, redemption, atonement, resurrection, and the second coming that I did when I started on this journey.  But if I've learned anything over the past 2 years, it is that the way we engage the world needs to radically change if we want that story to get a hearing, and if we want to make the kind of impact on the world that Jesus expects.  Global Faith Forum is one of a few models for how I think this conversation needs to take place.

Bob has created a healthy environment in which strong convictions can continue to be held and openly shared, but also in which friendships among those of the world's religions are not contingent on whether they become like us.  In this environment, serious conversations that affect  the world can take place with the trust necessary to work together, and move forward toward a better world.  Once you have been honest about your differences regarding eternity, talking through issues related to this present world don't seem so tough.  The first panel discussion compared and contrasted Jewish, Islamic, and Christian views of just warfare.  The second focused on the various understandings of the role of women in each of these faith traditions--and those discussions were led by women on the platform!  Yep, Christians, Jews and Muslims had an open, public, honest conversation about warfare and women, and no one became enemies!  Subsequent issues were equally intriguing and challenging.  Leaders in business, medicine, education, and government were present, and were equipped to better understand the world and how to make a positive impact.

With Ayatollah Ahmad Iravani, who teaches Islamic Studies at
Catholic University, Washington, D.C. 
Various professionals in communications, including Christianity Today Editor Mark Gali, spoke on the importance of messaging in today's world, and last night, the topic of reconciliation touched on ways that our various faith communities can play a critical role in helping to alleviate conflict around the world.  Prior to that meeting, I had the privilege of spending the afternoon with Ayatollah Ahmad Iravani.  With a short window now open for the United States and Iran to ease the tensions that have existed between our countries for more than 60 years, this Baptist preacher was very interested in what an Iranian-born, Ayatollah who is now an American citizen would want to say to Christians in the U.S.  Be patient, I'll let you know what he said in a subsequent post!

This morning, I was honored to participate in a panel discussion on using faith in community engagement, and it was great to hear Andy Braner, Suhail Khan and others share stories of how they are using their professions to bring reconciliation in their spheres of influence.

So why would a Baptist pastor responsible to mobilize 60 Baltimore-Washington area churches for Christian missionary work travel to Texas with Christians and Muslims from my area to a meeting like this?

1. Incarnation.  Jesus not only told we who claim to be His followers what to do.  He also modeled how to do it, and post-resurrection tells His disciples in John 20 "As the Father has sent me, so also do I send you."  A simple glance at the life, message, work, and methods of Jesus reveals the way in which we should engage our world.  Jesus didn't remain on the precipice of heaven and preach a sermon.  He incarnated Himself among us, walked in our world with us, broke a number of rules of social propriety in order to reach us, and went to those everyone else was either afraid of, or thought were unworthy of redemption (and they were, but so are we!)  My friends in other faiths will tell you that I'm not shy about sharing Jesus, and expressing my desire that they know Him as I do.  But they don't need me to just preach a sermon.  They need to see the Gospel incarnated.  They need to see me doing what Jesus commands, in the way that He commands it.
2. Trust. Whether it is two diplomats seeking to stave off an international disaster, or a community with various factions that need to understand each other, trust is the first and most important thing you need, and you can't have trust without relationship.  Many of my Turkish Muslim friends are men with whom I would trust my wife, my children, and my bank accounts, and I think they would tell you the same thing about me.  I genuinely love these men, and trust them.  It has taken time to build that trust.  No, you can't build it in two days at a conference in Texas, but you can certainly get started developing the kinds of relationships necessary to watch it grow.
3. Peace.  I'll be honest.  When I watch the way some followers of Jesus so quickly and willingly beat the drums of war, it would make me think Paul had never penned the 12th chapter of Romans.  "If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone." (Romans 12: 18).  I'm not a pacifist.  I do believe there is evil in the world that at times requires the use of lethal force.  But I'm equally convinced that we in the Christianized west have so twisted just war theory that Augustine would not recognize it if he were alive today.  I don't believe my Muslim friends and I are currently on our way to heaven together.  But God has placed us on the earth together, and commanded that those who claim to follow Jesus do everything within our power to live in peace.  How can we do that if we aren't even willing to know our neighbors?

We need more venues like the Global Faith Forum, and I'm thankful for a guy like Bob who will stick his neck out in the middle of the Bible Belt in order to start these conversations.  Stay tuned, because our churches are working to bring a similar event to the Baltimore-Washington area next fall!

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