What We Can Do about ISIS

Father NabilAt one point on my recent trip to the Middle East an Army chaplain said to me with tears in his eyes, “We are at the beginning of something like the Protestant Reformation, and Father Nabil Haddad is like Martin Luther.”

Father Nabil Haddad is the Catholic priest who invited six of us to World Interfaith Harmony Week in Amman, February 1-7. For several years now Father Nabil has been working with Episcopal priest Bill Sachs, who convenes our interfaith group in Richmond, and he and Bill agreed that it would be good for us to have this experience. Apparently our group is something of a novelty–Muslims, Christians, and Jews who not only “dialogue” about the serious business of interfaith relations, but who also eat together, travel together, and sometimes, just for fun, bowl together. Father Nabil wanted to see that for himself, and also wanted his colleagues here in Jordan to see it.

And so he invited us to his house for dinner, where we were greeted by his wife and adult children (“Wait a minute. Wife and children? Didn’t you say he was a Catholic priest?” Yes, he is. A Melkite Catholic priest, which is closer to Greek Orthodox than Roman Catholic, and yet in full communion with the worldwide Catholic Church). His children were perfect hosts (I got the feeling they’d had some practice), and his wife had cooked the entire meal we enjoyed, and we enjoyed it entirely.

Along with our delegation Nabil had invited a half-dozen US Army chaplains he’s become acquainted with. This was a surprise to us, but we’re learning that with Father Nabil you have to be ready for almost anything. The chaplains turned out to be terrific guys and one of them identified himself to me as a Southern Baptist pastor from Washington state.

As we were getting to know each other our conversation was interrupted by the news that the Jordanian pilot being held by ISIS had been executed, and in the most horrific way imaginable. Someone asked Father Nabil if he would lead us in prayer, and we all stood and joined hands while he prayed for the family of this pilot, and for the country of Jordan, and for peace in the Middle East.

For the rest of the evening this tragic news was the topic of conversation. We ate dinner with the television on, and at one point Father Nabil got a call asking if he could come and make an appearance on national television. That’s when I got into a conversation with the chaplain who told me that Nabil was like Martin Luther.

It surprised me, coming from him, because in the course of conversation I learned that he was a Mormon, and I felt my spine stiffen just a little bit. I can talk to Muslims and Jews. I can even talk to Episcopalians (smile). But here was someone who was not exactly “orthodox,” if you know what I mean: someone whose religion was just enough different from my own that all I could see were the differences and all I could feel was an urge to distance myself.

But I stayed with it. I kept on talking with him. And then he said that remarkable thing, with tears in his eyes, and it made me look at him in a different way: as a fellow human being, certainly, but as someone who was also looking for peace in the world and between our warring religions.

Like me.

That’s been my experience over and over on this trip, as I ride on the tour bus beside a Muslim imam, and talk with my Jewish rabbi roommate after the lights have gone out at night: I’ve been seeing all the ways in which we are like each other on the human level, but also in our desire to see that day when all of God’s children can live in peace. Father Nabil said, “When my Jordanian friends see you–Muslim, Christian, Jew–eating together, traveling together, laughing together…I think they are very jealous! You are setting an example for us.” That doesn’t mean my interfaith group is trying to create “one world religion.” Not at all. In fact we are finding that the more passionately we embrace our own religious identities–as Christians, Jews, and Muslims–the more we are able to respect and appreciate each other’s religions. And what is central to each of them is a love for God and neighbor.

Which makes it clear that ISIS is not Islamic.

When ISIS killed that Jordanian pilot (a faithful Muslim) it let the world know that its agenda is not Islam vs. Christianity; its agenda is to gain control through fear, and it doesn’t care who it kills in order to achieve that goal.*  But suppose that instead of eyeing each other with suspicion the world’s religions joined hands and prayed–for the end of ISIS, the end of extremism, the end of fear?

That’s what we did in Father Nabil’s living room. I joined hands with a circle of friends that included a rabbi, an imam, a Catholic priest, a Baptist minister, and a Mormon chaplain, and we prayed together for an end to the kind of violence and hatred that could do such a thing to another human being. We did it in part because Father Nabil believes this is the only way to achieve peace in the world–for the many religions to stop arguing with each other and join hands in prayer to the One who would love to see his children come together…

…in peace.

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*When Ammar Amonette, the imam who was traveling with us, heard what ISIS had done to the Jordanian pilot he said, “This is not Islam.  The Quran does not allow this kind of killing.”

For God so Loved the Church

Before I say another word, let me say that last night’s “Simple Gifts” concert at Richmond’s First Baptist Church was a musical love feast.  I sat there in my pew glowing like a light bulb, so joyful, so grateful, so proud of every person who participated.  As I wrote in my prayer journal this morning, “I think I fell in love with my congregation last night.”  Every man, woman, and child who sang or played became precious to me in a whole new way. 

I remember hearing one of my seminary professors say that you don’t become a pastor on the day you are installed at a new church.  You become the preacher, but not the pastor.  That can take months or years, and it doesn’t always happen.  But it happened for me last night.  I thought about those traditions where the minister is referred to as “Father.”  That’s how I felt: like a proud papa.

But now the concert is over, and all that’s left is those delicious memories and the sound of music still ringing in my ears.  Sunday’s coming, and this Sunday is the Day of Pentecost.  I was looking through some of my old files for inspiration and found these thoughts in a sermon preached in 2005 called, “For God so Loved the Church.”

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On the Day of Pentecost, God gave the gift of the Holy Spirit.  And here’s the wonderful thing about a spirit:  you can’t abuse it.  You can’t steal it, you can’t break it, you can’t nail it to a tree.  For God so loved the church he gave us something we couldn’t damage or destroy. He had learned that if you give people the Ten Commandments, they will break them; if you give them the Promised Land, they will fight and kill each other over it; if you give them your one and only son, they will crucify him.  So on the Day of Pentecost God gave us a spirit—an unbreakable, un-ownable, un-killable Holy Spirit—and for two thousand years now that gift has survived unscathed.  Not that we don’t try to scathe it.  As I was working on this sermon I had a vision of people chasing after the Holy Spirit with brooms, baseball bats, butterfly nets, wooden boxes, running up and down the aisles of the church, jumping over pews in the balconies, trying to catch it, kill it, shut it up.  But it’s a spirit, not a thing.  You can’t contain it.  It got loose in the church on the Day of Pentecost and it’s still loose. 

Sometimes it gets into the preacher and he says things that make the church gasp.  Sometimes it gets into parishioners and they do things that are shockingly new.  No wonder people thought those first disciples were drunk when they saw the way they behaved, but Peter said, “No, this is just what the prophet Joel was talking about, that time when God’s spirit will be poured out on all people and your sons and daughters shall prophesy, your young men shall see visions and your old men shall dream dreams.  Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my spirit and they shall prophesy.”  Do you hear what Peter is saying?  You can’t control this spirit.  You can’t shut it up in the Ark of the Covenant.  You can’t contain it behind a curtain in the Holy of Holies.  You can’t confine it to the rigid lines of the Apostle’s Creed.  You can’t limit it to the conclusions of the Council of Nicaea.  You can’t bind it between the leather covers of the Bible.  You can’t chain it to the pulpit of the medieval church.  You can’t sell it to get a single soul out of Purgatory.  You can’t nail it to the door of the Wittenberg Church.  You can’t close it up in the Westminster Confession.  You can’t shut it up in the Constitution and Bylaws.  This spirit is loose in the church.  It’s loose in the world!  It can get hold of almost anybody and cause them to do unusual things.

It got hold of Stephen in a way that eventually cost him his life.  It got hold of Philip in a way that led him to baptize an Ethiopian eunuch.  It got hold of Paul on the road to Damascus in a way that turned his life around.  It got hold of Peter on that rooftop in Joppa in a way that changed his mind about the Gentiles.  Read the whole of the Book of Acts and you will see the Holy Spirit smashing through one barrier after another—race, religion, nationality, geography—as the kingdom comes, God’s will is done, on earth as it is in heaven.  It begins with the rush of a mighty wind and builds from there, until it begins twisting across the religious landscape like a tornado, smashing against the coastline of convention like a holy hurricane.  For God so loved the church he gave us something we couldn’t contain, and can’t contain still.  Who knows where this spirit will lead us in the days ahead?  Who knows where that mighty wind will blow?  I only know that on this day, the Day of Pentecost, as I draw a breath to blow out the candle on the birthday cake of the church, I make a wish that the wind of God will blow where it will, and that you and I will find the courage to follow.