Why can’t Christians love Lent like Muslims love Ramadan?

Bim-Adewunmi-007Bim Adewunmi says she loves Ramadan.

“I am not a model Muslim,” she admits, “but Ramadan is the one pillar of Islam I do really well. It’s my time to shine.”

In a July, 2012, article Bim writes:

I think I was 11 when I took part in my first Ramadan. I was at boarding school in Nigeria, and the bell prefect sent one of her minions to wake us up for the pre-dawn meal, the sehri. A few hundred sleepy girls got up to walk to the dining hall at 5am to queue up in front of older girls who dished out piping hot rice and stew. Afterwards, we’d trudge back to our dormitories to catch some extra sleep and/or pray. In the evenings, we slipped out of prep to attend the Taraweeh prayers in the assembly hall. During the day, we would go to class as normal, virtuously turning down drinks and food with exaggeratedly pious expressions. The Ramadans of my youth were brilliant – communal pre-dawn meals of cassava, yams, rice or bread, followed by evenings of breaking the fast (iftar) with fruit, cornmeal and bean cakes. There was alms-giving, introspection and a community feeling; moments that have made it my favourite Islamic month.

It is the reason I still fast today. I am not a model Muslim: I swear like a sailor, I’m not often “modestly” dressed and cannot ever see myself wearing a hijab. I fall down on all the other pillars quite regularly – my zakat is sporadic, I have never done the hajj, and I don’t make five prayers a day; I take heart in the Islamic view that sincerity in intention is the foundation of all actions. But Ramadan, I can do. I am good at Ramadan. I love every element of it – the not eating, sure, but also the long tasbih sessions, the contemplation, the meditation, the communal prayers, the hum of anticipation right before iftar. It is a month where the halal butcher puts a little extra into my bag when I’m buying lamb shanks. It is the time when I throw out “Salam alaikum!” to hijabis and they smile back and reply. It is the time where I overhear Yorubas, who have a greeting for every occasion, say “E ku ongbe” empathetically on the bus. Everyone is better during Ramadan, more patient, more kind.

Ramadan makes me feel connected. There’s a network of us all across the globe; more than a billion of us, all doing the same thing at the same time. However disparate our lives, whatever freedoms we enjoy – or otherwise – however different our experiences, someone else is probably feeling exactly the same way I am. I find that incredibly moving and life-affirming. At this point in my life, I’ve documented my various issues with organised religion – and I’m not entirely comfortable with everything I see. But I know I love Ramadan. I fast because I want to, and because I can.  I fast because it makes me feel good.

When I compare Bim Adewunmi’s enthusiasm for Ramadan with the groaning I sometimes hear among Christians who are giving up chocolate for Lent (smile), I feel that we haven’t embraced the rich possibilities of this season.

Jesus spent 40 days in the wilderness, fasting and praying and being tested by the devil.  Why can’t we get a little closer to that in our observance of Lent?

None of us is Jesus, but we could fast a little more seriously, come to church a little more frequently, say our prayers a little more fervently during these 40 days, and, like Bim Adewunmi, we could throw out cheerful greetings to everyone we meet on the street.  Jesus said that when we fast we should anoint our heads and wash our faces (Matt. 6:16-18).  Wasn’t that a way of saying we should look cheerful instead of miserable?

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if people could say about Christians during this season: “Everyone is better during Lent, more patient, more kind,” instead of saying, “Those Christians sure do grumble a lot about giving up chocolate!”?

This is your invitation to a holy and happy Lent, one like you’ve never experienced before, and maybe one you will look forward to next year.



KOH2RVA: Day 97

Bowling ShoesIt may have been the article I posted back on Day 61 about bowling alleys that inspired me, but whatever it was, when my interfaith group started talking about how we could move beyond dialogue to friendship I suggested that we go bowling together.

Interfaith Bowling.

At first they thought I was joking. I sometimes do. But the more we talked about it the more it seemed that almost everybody was willing to throw a few gutterballs for the sake of friendship. And so we picked a time and place and agreed to show up at Sunset Lanes on a Sunday afternoon a few weeks later.

When I got there Bill Sachs from St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church was waiting, his bowling shoes already laced up. I paid my money and got my shoes and a ball and was feeling pretty good until Ben and Karen Romer from Congregation Or Ami showed up, with their own custom-drilled balls and non-tacky bowling shoes.

I should have known right then.

Imad Damaj and his son, Bilal, from the Islamic Center of Virginia showed up a little later. Several in our group had to cancel, and so we ended up with just the six of us—two Christians, two Jews, and two Muslims. We bowled three games, and talked and laughed and cheered each other on, but when we added up the totals at the end it was clear:

The Jews killed us.

I know that doesn’t sound very “politically correct,” but it’s true. Karen Romer, the rabbi’s wife, is a personal trainer and a regular bowler, and she was bowling strikes or spares in almost every frame. She had a high game of 188, which was so much higher than my own high game I won’t embarrass myself by telling you the number.

But apart from all that friendly competition, interfaith bowling “worked” in the sense that it brought us closer together. It helped us see each other as human at a different level than when we’re all dressed professionally, sitting in a conference room, talking about our work and how important it is.

It’s hard to be pretentious when you’re wearing bowling shoes.

Why is interfaith friendship so important? Because religious pluralism is a fact of life in America these days. We can no longer pretend that we are a “Christian nation.” It leaves us with a choice: when we learn that our new neighbors are Muslim we can either hunker down and hide behind our neatly trimmed hedges or go over and invite them to tea.

If the Kingdom of heaven is ever going to come to Richmond, Virginia, it’s going to come by extending an open hand, not by raising a clenched fist.

And that applies to everybody.

KOH2RVA: Day 83

hands-with-plantBack in September I had coffee with Jeremy and Monica, church planters who are working here in Richmond. They had visited First Baptist several times and appreciated our emphasis on reaching the city with the love of Christ. That’s what they’re trying to do, too. They are a delightful young couple who don’t look at all like you might expect “church planters” to look. It’s just one of the things I appreciate about them.

When we had coffee I asked them if they would be willing to partner with us on our year-long, every-member mission trip. I said, “We’re trying to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia, and it sounds like you are, too. We can’t offer you money, but we can pray for you and encourage you.” They said that would be perfect, and when I left that meeting I had this wonderful feeling that in addition to all our members who were out there bringing heaven to earth we had Jeremy and Monica, too.

Here’s the latest update from them:

Some of you may have heard from us about an Egyptian Muslim family we came across last month. We were waiting to meet a friend at a festival, and this lady and her two sons sat next to us as a table. They started asking us about what we thought about Jesus, the Bible, the Koran, Mormons, Islam, culture, Egypt, American and global politics. This conversation went on for about an hour then they gave us their contact info and we invited them over for a meal.

Now, they were previously complaining that Americans never “hang out” for more than an hour, so we had them over for 4 hours and just enjoyed a wonderful meal while talking about many of the same issues at more length. Finally, the mother shared her frustration with “American Christians,” so we decided it was time to share the gospel with her and help her remove her focus from “American Christians” to the person of Jesus Christ. We unpacked many elements of what it means to be forgiven by the Lord through the work of Christ, we talked about the Trinity (as they had been asking about that!), and we talked about eternal life based on grace (not based on works).

At the end of the conversation one of the sons said, “In Egypt, we could never have these conversations without everyone getting angry and screaming at each other.” And they went on to say that they were very appreciative of being able to have those conversations here in our home with freedom, grace and charity. No one was yelling, no one was being rude, we were all just taking turns sharing and asking questions and LISTENING!

Please pray for Jeremy and Monica as they continue to build their friendship with this family, and consider their example of inviting your Muslim neighbors over for a meal, not so much to look for ways to convert them, but simply because this is what Jesus tells us to do—to love our neighbors. I believe that in the context of true friendship you will have plenty of opportunities to share your faith as well as to ask questions and listen, just as Jeremy and Monica did.

Interested? Look for tomorrow’s post: “How to have your Muslim neighbors over for dinner.”

Blessed are the Peacemakers

In light of some of the recent national conversation about Muslims, their books and their buildings, I was interested to read about Francis of Assisi’s meeting with the Sultan of Egypt during the Crusades.  This is an excerpt from a longer article in Leadership journal called “What Would St. Francis Say Today?” by Gordon McDonald.  If nothing else, this story gives us a “St. Francis way” to engage our Muslim neighbors.


Though it might offend the politics of some, I can hear Francis raising the topic of peacemaking and wondering why many modern Christians have so little to say about it. “Ought this not be an essential piece of your faith?” he might ask me.

Francis’s hatred of conflict had an origin. In his younger years he had gone merrily off to war expecting honor and booty and ended up a POW in a hell-hole. There he came face to face with cruelty and disease and discovered that combat was not a game. From that point forward he repudiated war and embraced peacemaking.

Thus, it was not surprising that, when the “Christian movement” of his time (the Crusaders) marched off to the Middle East in hopes of annihilating Muslims, Francis traveled there himself, passed through enemy lines and introduced himself to Malik-al-Kamil, the Muslim sultan of Egypt. While there, the two men spoke extensively of matters of faith and peace and became friends.

Francis’s host listened carefully to the Christian message Francis shared with him. And, not surprisingly, Francis returned the favor by listening to the Sultan’s Muslim convictions, something I don’t ever remember being taught to do when I was younger.

Francis was not successful in his effort to make peace, and he did not convert the Sultan, and, as a result, the Crusaders got their war. But that he tried to avert bloodshed says something significant. At least Francis was known as a peacemaker, the kind of person Jesus praised in the Sermon on the Mount.

Gordon MacDonald is editor at large of Leadership and lives in New Hampshire.

A Simple Question

My recent visit to the mosque stirred up a good bit of discussion on Facebook, most of it from a college friend who is convinced the Muslims are trying to take over America.  I don’t believe “the Muslims” (all 1.5 billion of them) are trying to do anything of the kind, although I wouldn’t put it past some Muslims (or Christians, or Jews, or Buddhists, or Hindus) to give it a try.  There are extremists in every religion.  

One of the extremists in my religion has declared September 11th “International Burn a Koran Day.”  His name is Terry Jones and he is the pastor of Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville, Florida, which he describes as “a New Testament church—based on the Bible, the Word of God.”  A link on the church’s web site directs you to a Facebook page called “International Burn a Koran Day,” where you are greeted by a banner that reads, “Islam is of the Devil.”  Under the banner is this announcement:

On September 11th, 2010, from 6pm – 9pm, we will burn the Koran on the property of Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville, FL in remembrance of the fallen victims of 9/11 and to stand against the evil of Islam. Islam is of the devil!

Frankly, I cannot imagine a more effective way to stir up the anger of the Muslim world than to publicly burn its sacred text.  I can think of a hundred good reasons not to do it.  But the one that comes to mind most quickly comes straight out of the New Testament, which Pastor Jones describes as “the Word of God.”  Here it is, from Matthew 7:12: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

So, I want to ask Pastor Jones a simple question: “Do you want a Muslim Imam to burn a Bible on the property of his Mosque on September 11?  If not, then don’t burn a Koran on the property of your church.  This is good advice, and it comes from Jesus himself.  If he is your Lord, and not just your Savior, then you might want to do as he says.  If you won’t do what he says, then (with all due respect) what kind of pastor are you, and what kind of ‘New Testament church’ is the Dove World Outreach Center?”

I’m just asking, because I don’t want to have to answer that other question, the one my Muslim neighbor will ask me on September 11: “Why are you Christians burning the Koran?”

“Hey, wasn’t that you at the mosque?”

Yes.  Yes it was me.  Those of you who have studied the photograph on the front page of the Richmond Times Dispatch “Metro” section have correctly identified the out-of-focus figure in the back as Dr. Jim Somerville, pastor of Richmond’s First Baptist Church, standing somewhere behind Imam Ammar Amonette in a show of solidarity during yesterday’s press conference at the Islamic Center of Virginia. 

I wasn’t one of the featured speakers, and nobody from the press asked why I was there, but if they had I would have been ready.  I would have said, “I’m here because I’m a Baptist.”

That’s right: Baptist.

For more than 400 years now Baptists have been passionate defenders of religious liberty.  That’s why we came to this country: we were looking for the freedom to worship as we pleased.  Even so, some of our preachers were arrested and jailed because (as British colonists) they didn’t have a license to preach from the Church of England.  When the Revolutionary War was over Virginia Baptist pastor John Leland met with James Madison to insist that the new Constitution of the United States of America be amended to include the right to religious freedom.  The situation was tense.  Leland had a huge following.  If he didin’t support the new Constitution it might not be ratified.  If Madison wouldn’t amend the Constitution Leland wouldn’t support it.  In the end, Madison made the amendment, Leland endorsed it, and the Constitution was ratified.  What we now know as the First Amendment begins with these words: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” 

If we cherish this freedom for ourselves, we cannot deny it to others.  And although the headline in today’s newspaper read, “Area faith leaders ask for tolerance,” we cannot merely “tolerate” the existence of other religions. 

Listen to what John Leland said:

“The notion of a Christian commonwealth should be exploded forever…Government should protect every man in thinking and speaking freely, and see that one does not abuse another. The liberty I contend for is more than toleration. The very idea of toleration is despicable; it supposes that some have a pre-eminence above the rest to grant indulgence, whereas all should be equally free, Jews, Turks, Pagans and Christians.” 

Those are strong words.  They were uttered more than 200 years ago by a Baptist minister from Culpeper, Virginia, where several of his fellow Baptists had been locked up in the local jail for preaching without a license. 

He wasn’t going to let that happen again. 

John Leland is widely recognized as a hero of religious liberty.  His image is featured in one of the stained glass windows in the chapel of Richmond’s First Baptist Church.  As pastor of that church, I felt compelled to go to the mosque yesterday, and take a stand for religious liberty.

It’s what John would have done.

The quote from John Leland, above, is from A Chronicle of His Time in Virginia.

Getting to Know You

If men could only know each other, they would neither idolize nor hate. 
                                                                              —Elbert Hubbard


Articles in last week’s Time magazine and the August 23rd edition of the Washington Post hint at a growing anti-Muslim sentiment among Americans.  Or maybe I should say “anti-Muslims” sentiment—plural—because that’s part of the problem.  When you lump people together you tend to stereotype, and judge the whole group on the behavior of a few. 

It’s happened to me. 

Three decades ago a Southern Baptist evangelist named Bailey Smith said publicly, “God Almighty does not hear the prayer of a Jew.”  He claimed that he said it “with all due respect to those dear people,” but last Sunday afternoon I was invited to an open house at a local synagogue where I got the feeling that some of those dear people had not forgotten what he said.  They greeted me warmly, thinking I might be a prospect, but when I introduced myself as pastor of First Baptist Church there was a brief  pause and then the question: “Are you…Southern Baptist?”

This kind of thing happens to me often, and not only in Jewish synagogues.  Because some Baptists have done or said offensive things, many people assume that all Baptists are like that.  I encourage them to get to know some Baptists, because no two of us are exactly alike.  Billy Graham is a Baptist, but so is Bill Clinton.  Jesse Helms was a Baptist, but so is Jesse Jackson.  Lottie Moon was a Baptist, but so is Britney Spears.

See what I mean? 

I would guess that the same is true for Muslims, that if we would take the time to get to know some of them we would find that they are like people everywhere: concerned for the health and well-being of their families, for their children’s education, and for the freedom to enjoy some of the simple pleasures of life, like a picnic lunch on the Fourth of July.  And in the same way I wouldn’t want anyone to judge me on the basis of the worst they have ever heard about Baptists, I wouldn’t want to judge an entire religion or its 1.5 billion adherents on the basis of what some Muslims have done, would you?

So, get to know your new Muslim neighbor.  You may find that he has as much in common with Osama bin Laden as I have in common with Britney Spears, which is to say…not much.

BONUS: Here’s a song that will have you humming the rest of the day.