More Thoughts on Our Muslim-Christian Conversation

Carol Lobell sent these reflections on last Sunday's World Cafe conversation...

I had a very emotional experience last Sunday at K.C. as I greeted our 16 Muslim visitors. Tears came welling up from a deep place inside me as the first group of women in head scarves and long dark clothing entered our Sanctuary. My tears came from the realization that I have never before in my 70 years engaged in a conversation with a Muslim. I felt sadness around this lack and now suddenly I felt enveloped in their warm smiles and friendly laughter.

Perhaps a part of me had been missing until I met these women and talked heart to heart with them. Now my sadness is replaced with joy as I experienced the miracle that somehow God had brought them to us so that we could all learn from one another.

I really connected with those in my small group as we shared the theme of love casting out fear. We identified fear as the root of most hatred, stemming from ignorance of those who are different; customs that seem strange and religions and cultures that are unfamiliar. As the afternoon continued and new small groups were formed, we all seemed eager to bridge this gap of ignorance and mistrust. Some small miracle was happening and I felt blessed to be a part of God's healing presence. Ideas for future meetings to continue building bridges were eagerly discussed.

After reading the many responses to our Muslim-Christian conversatons at Kittamaqundi Community, I most resonated with Rev. Heather Kirk-Davidoff's blog account of this World Cafe experience. She said:
"If a million of us could dine together in groups of 4-7, maybe we'd even prevent the next war. Thats the kind of process I have faith in".

I join Rev. Heather and Ruth Smith, the sponsors of our Sunday afternoon "World Cafe" experience, in their quest for world peace through the gathering together in small groups to dispell ignorance and fear, and to find sisters and brothers of different faiths that are on the same quest.

It is interesting that in the last year I've read some books and watched some videos that I believe prepared me for this Christian-Muslim experience. Perhaps many Americans are eager to learn about people who are different from us, for these books that have all been on the Washington Post Bestseller list and are very intriguing to read. I'd like to highly recommend these books as a way to connect with other cultures.

Here is my list:

1. "The Kite Runner" and "A Thousand Splendid Suns" by Khaled Hosseini - both are fiction about universal issues regarding relationships and healing, set in Afghanistan.

2. "Three Cups of Tea" by Greg Mortenson - Non fiction telling Greg's personal conversion story about going from being a mountain climber to feeling called to build schools in small villages in the Middle East.

3. "Beauty School in Kabul" - A true story of an Hispanic Texan woman beautician who helps build cultural bridges through classes at her beauty school in Kabul.

4. "Arranged" - a video available from Blockbusters - Non-fiction about an Orthodox Jewish woman and a Muslim woman of Syrian origin who build a friendship in America.

5. "Kundum" - The story of the current Dali Lama, starting from when he was first "discovered" as a child and going through his exodus into India as a young adult.

Breaking Things Up

My daily email from The Writer's Almanac this morning reminded me that today is the anniversary of the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger. Immediately upon reading that, I had a vivid memory of that day. I was in my freshman year in college in 1986 when the explosion occurred, and I was spending every morning buried in a building at the edge of campus trying desperately to pass Intensive Japanese. I was walking to lunch after class when I heard the news from another student. Later studies showed that something like 85% of Americans heard the news within an hour after it happened.

But the ones who heard it first were by and large kids in school. Because Christa McAuliffe was on the plane, the first "Teacher in Space", thousands of schools broadcast the launch live and every classroom gathered around the television. I've heard a number of my peers describe that experience--the shock of the adults, the confusion of the kids, some of whom exclaimed "cool!" and other of whom burst into tears as the smoking pieces of the shuttle shot off into different directions against the bright blue sky.

I've heard a number of people describe the explosion of the Challenger as one of the defining experiences of my generation--"Generation X" or whatever we should be called. I think this might be true, and not just because so many of us can remember where we were when we heard the news.

My parents' generation remembers watching the first lunar landing and hearing Armstrong's claim that all of mankind was stepping forward in that moment. My sense is that they believed it, too. Technology was the engine of progress, and governments and groups gathered their resources to create massive projects that Pushed Us Forward.

But my peers and I grew up with technology. I'm on the older edge of GenX, and even I had computer classes in grade school. I did all my writing, from high school on, on a personal computer, not a typewriter. So technology was a tool at my personal disposal like a toothbrush or a paintbrush, not a source of wonder and awe. The television program I do remember watching during high school was "The Day After" a nightmarish depiction of the aftermath of a nuclear attack on the U.S. And then came the Challenger explosion. The lesson for me and my peers? Technology isn't much good for holding us together. In the end, things fall apart.

And yet, technology is embedded in the culture of my generation, so our response was never to reject the tools but rather to use them differently. Is it any surprise that a generation with the image of a technological masterpiece splintering into the air embedded in our memories is perfectly happy to let technology become more diffuse and more diverse? The technological masterpieces of our generation look a lot more like Wikipedia than they look like a lunar landing. Hundreds of thousands of entries, mutually edited and refined, connected in purpose and vision while remaining not just tolerant but nurturing of mind-boggling diversity and the opinionated argument that involves.

All of this brings me to our conversation yesterday with about 14 women and one man from the Iranian-American-Muslim community. My favorite part of the afternoon came at the end when we responded at our tables to the question, "What question could we ask that would move this conversation to the next level?" When we de-briefed our answers, I was amazed at the widely differing approaches our groups had taken. One table asked, "Who is responsible for the sanctions against Iran, why are they continuing, and how can we change them?" Another table asked, "How can we begin to tell the story of our history together?" and another said, "How can we broaden this conversation to include a much larger number of people?"

And then a young woman in a headscarf took the microphone and said, "The question that we felt would take this conversation to the next step is 'Would you come to my house for dinner?'"

That question rang true to me. I liked all the others, too, and I do hope we have another, larger conversation eventually. But it just might be that the next step is for a couple of us to have dinner together. If a million of us had dinner together, in groups of four or six or seven, maybe we'd even prevent the next war. That's the kind of process that I have faith in.

Paying Attention to Peace

Rosa was in a pensive mood as we walked along the bike path to a friend's birthday party yesterday. She'd been re-reading the journal she had written in each day of second grade at the start of the school day. "I noticed something," she told me. "Last year I wrote a lot about the world. You know, helping it out, making it a better place."

"Hmm..." I said. "Why do you think you were doing that?"

"Well, if you are actually going to make the world better, you have to imagine it better. Don't you think, Mama? Otherwise you just complain all the time. And then you end up noticing all the bad things and you end up complaining even more."

As usual, she had a good point. We talked the rest of the way about how once you start imagining a better world, you can notice parts of that better world already happening in our not-so-perfect world here and now.

Today, I'm getting ready to notice the way in which people are working now to make peace with each other, even in the midst of nations and leaders who conspire to make war. Our congregation has invited about 15 Iranian-American muslim women and men to join 15 of our for a conversation over cookies and tea this afternoon. Our conversation will be led as a "World Cafe", a process that is both simple and ingenious. It releases the collective wisdom of a group like nothing else I've experienced.

This is a conversation that has been several months in the making, and when we first considered it, there was so much talk of war with Iran coming from our President and other national figures that I was becoming convinced that another juggernaut had started to roll. War would soon be unpreventable. Things have calmed down a bit since then thanks to the bravery of some members of the "intelligence community", but the situation is far from resolved as recent events have reminded us.

Even Rosa knows that when you expect to see hostility every where, you'll be likely to notice it. So today I am getting ready to notice something different in my interactions with Iranian muslims. I am getting ready to build a relationship that might be one of thousands which will--just maybe--change the expectations of our leaders.

Faith, Babylon and Iran

There are a variety of way to judge the “success” of a sermon. Sometimes I consider whether anyone has started to cry; sometimes I check to see if anyone remember the subject of the sermon the following Sunday (that is usually humbling). But I think the best measure of whether or not you hit the nail on the head as a preacher is to see if anyone leave the service agitated. Unsettled. And the person its probably most important to unsettle is yourself.

That’s what happened last Sunday. I preached on the passage in Jeremiah where God tells the people in exile in Babylon to plant gardens, build houses and have babies. I talked about how easy it is to root our faith in the future and in the past, and how hard it is to make faith a functioning part of our life in the present. Afterwards, and for several days following, people told me I had “touched a nerve” for them. They left worship feeling agitated.

So did I, incidentally. I keep musing about what it means to engage my faith in the present moment. I realize that I’ve done a lot more thinking about disengagement as a spiritual value. After all, if we’re living in a sick, broken and corrupt culture, isn’t withdrawl the holiest option? Shouldn’t we step back and form a community which stands out as an alternative to the world around us?

But on Sunday, I somehow convinced myself that the Word from God that Jeremiah relayed to the Israelites in Babylon might just be the Word from God to me, here and now. And believe it or not, that has me thinking about Iran again.

Back at the end of September, a small group of us from KC spent the evening talking about the relationship between the US and Iran. All of us were anxious about the inflammatory statements being made by both governments. All of us had the sense that the next war was already being planned. We remembered the amazing amount of organizing and protest worldwide in advance of the start of the current Iraq war, and we expressed a sense of helplessness to prevent a war that we believed would be truly disasterous for all parties.

Then we started thinking. What would we do if we believed that we could make a difference? We could engage our own fears and look to dispel them. How do we do that? We could learn about Iran, someone suggested. We could work on deepening our understanding and appreciation of Islam and of Middle Eastern culture. We could build connections with individual Iranians—here in the U.S. and in Iran.

How do we do that? Well, once we started talking we could think of a whole number of ways. Several people in the group had neighbors from Iran. We have connections with local mosques. We started planning an evening of hospitality at our church that could perhaps lead to friendships and connections, even in Iran. We left the church that night feeling a tiny bit hopeful.

We’ve been nudging along on that dream for the past few weeks, and my irritation with Jeremiah (and with God) has got me working on it again. It feels like engagement in a deeply broken current moment that isn’t just wishful and isn’t just cynical. It feels like faith that lives and breathes in the present.