Moccasin Politics: On the Ministry of Empathy


The most fascinating news item of the last two weeks is the story of the anti-Semitic Hungarian politician who recently discovered that he was Jewish.

According to media reports, Csanad Szegedi was a rising star of the far-right Jobbik party in Hungary, who had accused Jews of “buying up” the country and desecrating national symbols. The 30-year old Csanad was raised as a Presbyterian, and was responsible for the creation of the neo-fascist Hungarian Guard, which was outlawed in 2009. In 2010, he was secretly taped being confronted by an ex-criminal with reports of his own Jewish ancestry. Csanad appeared surprised, and attempted to buy off the convict.

But after the confrontation, Csanad approached his maternal grandmother, who told him the truth of his Jewish ancestry. She was herself a survivor of Auschwitz and Dachau.

Csanad resigned his membership in the Jobbik party shortly afterwards. According to media reports, it appears as if Csanad is spending time discovering his ancestral roots. He met with a Hungarian rabbi and plans to visit Auschwitz soon.

In other words, it appears as if Csanad might have had a change of heart. (More recent news reports seem to dispute this development and hint that Csanad is, in fact, considering starting a new, even-further-right political party.) Any possible change in Csanad’s perspective was spurred by the discovery of his own true identity. He discovered who he really was, and the discovery is forcing him to confront the implications of his politics.

As the old Native American proverb goes, “Never criticize a man until you’ve walked a mile in his moccasins.” Perhaps Csanad is finally walking in the shoes of a Hungarian Jew.

If I had the chance to ask Csanad Szegedi a question, it would be this: “What took you so long?!! Why did it have to become personal for you to acknowledge somebody else’s perspective?”

The world seems to run on a shortage of empathy. Empathy is the ability to enter vicariously into the thoughts, feelings, and emotions of another person. It is the virtue of putting one’s self into the place of another, or to walk in someone else’s shoes.

In the 21st century, I can’t think of a greater virtue for a human being. Empathy is what will enable humanity to prosper and thrive in the future. We must learn to put ourselves in the place of others, to try to see the world from their point of view. We can no longer afford to impose our worldview onto others.

I remember the very first time I discovered “empathy.” I was on a college mission trip to Tijuana, Mexico over a Christmas break. We spent most of our time working and worshipping with a community that lived in a garbage dump. It was my very first direct encounter with extreme poverty, and it shocked me.

I watched the young kids digging through the piles of broken glass, twisted wire, and plastic bottles, and thought to myself, “What if I grew up here? How would my expectations of life be different? What would I believe about God?”

I learned to ask these questions everywhere I go in the world. I have pondered these matters while holding orphans in Zimbabwe, sitting in an airport in Casablanca, worshipping with immigrants in Paris, zipping through the streets of Ho Chi Minh City on the back of a motorcycle, and sunning on the beach in Southern California.

Attempting to answer these questions has helped make me a more honest human, and a more searching Christian.

Without empathy, we are all liable to become like Csanad Szegedi – railing and spewing self-hatred in our ignorance.

As a Christian, I believe that one of God’s own qualities is empathy. This virtue is at the core of our doctrine of the Incarnation.

God took great care in creating us; we are told that we were created “in God’s image.” But because we were “other” from God, and because we seemed to be destined for an eternal separation from God, God chose to step into our situation. God, as it were, “walked a mile in our moccasins” by becoming human, by taking on flesh and blood.

God became one of us in the person of Jesus Christ. This is the supreme act of empathy. And the point of Jesus’ suffering and crucifixion is that God went all the way through with the act of empathy. God didn’t shy away from the most painful part of the act.

As followers of Jesus, we are called to the ministry of empathy, too.

There may be no greater calling at this moment in history, especially in America. What could be more healing to our politics of church and state than to become willing to consider the plight of persons of color, of women, of gays and lesbians, of immigrants (documented or undocumented), of mentally ill persons, of prisoners, of persons of other faiths?

The list could go on and on, because there are an infinite number of persons who are NOT you and NOT me!

Yes, empathy is difficult, and it takes constant work. But it must be done, for the sake of the planet.

There are lots of moccasins to go around. We should get used to trying different ones on.

The View From the Ground: Day 12 of Ramadan

On Saturday evening, I had the privilege of breaking fast with Imam Yaseen and a few of the leaders of his congregation at a private home. Yaseen was entertaining an imam from overseas for a series of Ramadan lectures, and wanted to host him in a more intimate setting.

After we broke the fast with a date, fruit and some appetizers, the men stood up to go upstairs. Yaseen said, “We’re going up for prayers and after that, we’ll eat dinner. You can stay here and finish your appetizers, or you can join us.”
I wolfed down the food in my hand and followed them upstairs. I asked Yaseen if it was alright for me to participate in the prayers.

He said, “Sure! Just follow me.”

And so I prayed like a Muslim for the first time in my life, as I attempted to imitate Yaseen’s every move.

I did not know the words that Yaseen prayed aloud, of course. Instead, I let the sound and experience simply wash over me. I let it happen to me.

In the silent moments, I quietly repeated the words of the Lord’s Prayer, and let that be my own guide to prayer.

In my faith tradition, prayer is viewed simply as an attitude of the heart. We generally eschew different postures of prayer, though at times, we will kneel. Most of the time, however, we pray while sitting or standing. It is a mental exercise.

But Muslim prayers are an exciting blend of mind, spirit, AND body. Every move, bow, prostration is itself a prayer – a prayer of muscles, nerves, ligaments, joints. The cumulative effect is that one is wholly immersed in the event. There is no way you can compartmentalize your prayer, or try to multitask while praying – it is what you are doing with your whole self. You have to be completely absorbed in the moment.

I am perfectly aware, of course, that it is possible to simply “go through the motions” of Islamic prayer, but I think it must be more difficult, because the body is engaged.

And when my forehead touched the carpet on the ground, I found myself deeply awed. I was struck by my vulnerability. I was kneeling forward, head down, neck bared. There is no more vulnerable position than that.

It is a symbol of the supreme Islamic value of “submission” to God. When you are bowing in that position, you are acting the role of slave to God, the Master.

I must admit that, in some ways, this posture makes me uncomfortable. I do not like being “in submission.” It makes me think of African slaves in Southern plantations, and of women cowering under the blows of their husbands. I don’t like to picture God as someone who towers over me, threatening me with his fist at every moment.

But that is not what is meant by “submission.” Instead, something much closer to “reverence” is meant.

When we come to realize that God is above and beyond our every conception of God, and is utterly transcendent, then we, in awe, recognize that we do not even begin to comprehend who God really is. Our best response is to bow down in awe at the wonder and glory of God’s mysterious and baffling grace.

When we come to realize that God is our loving parent, full of compassion and mercy toward us, then we, in profound gratitude, fall down on our faces and let God’s love wash over us.

What I experienced in that posture was “the fear of the Lord,” which is a Jewish phrase that doesn’t mean “fear” in the sense of the human emotion of horror or dread, but an overwhelming feeling of awe, the kind that takes your breath and speech away.

I love that the Islamic posture of prayer embodies these aspects of our relationship to God. I doubt that I will ever be able to convince my fellow Methodists to prostrate themselves on the floor of our church, but it never hurts to try!

Odd Man In: Day 12 of Ramadan

Last week, I posted about the difficulty of fasting alone. Many of my readers responded and invited me to iftar. Twice over the weekend, I participated in breaking the fast with a Muslim community, with plans to do so several times in the future, including tonight (Tuesday) at the Irving mosque.

One reader, named Jami, also commented, “Ramadan is easier, more enjoyable, and more fulfilling when done in community. But going at it alone also has benefits and can provide insight. In particular, I think it helps us identify with minorities and what it is like to be the odd one, with different customs and habits, out of sync with the rest of society — and that can, hopefully, make us more empathetic to that situation.”

I’ve meditated on this comment over the last few days, because I think it gets at the heart of my fasting experiment. As I fast, I realize that I have become the “odd one” in two different ways.

One, I am the odd man out in my family, church, and familiar circle of friends. I am not able to eat lunch or dinner with them. I have to politely decline the doughnuts in staff meeting, and say, “No thanks” to the cup of coffee offered me. My friends joke with me in a good-natured way about my fasting.

This is not a hardship, of course, but it does remind me of the situation of minorities in our culture. Not just religious minorities, but anyone who is simply different from the dominant culture. Minorities must constantly wrestle with their identity, and have to work hard to keep from being swallowed up by those around them.
I can imagine that it would be very difficult to be a Muslim in a country that mostly assumes that everyone around them is, at the least, a nominal Christian.

But there is another way in which I am finding myself to be the “odd one.” When I walk into a mosque, I feel the weight of hundreds of eyes upon me. It is plainly obvious that I am not a Muslim. I don’t wear the right clothes, and I don’t have my head covered. And I am a pale, bland white, in a sea of color.

This reminds me of living in Cameroon, West Africa. I was never more aware of my color and race than when walking the streets of Yaounde, or shopping in the markets of Douala, or worshipping in any one of our churches across the countryside. I was always “the white man” to the crowds.

This is an unnerving experience at first. Nobody likes to be the center of attention merely because of one’s difference from everyone else. You want to scream, “Hey, I’m just a guy like you!” But you can’t, because you really aren’t “just” like them. There are significant differences that can’t – and shouldn’t — be glossed over. They are differences, that’s all.

Slowly and surely, however, the experience of being the “Other” transforms the way you look at, and treat, the “Other.” In fact, you begin to stop using that word, “Other.” You start to reject the multitude of ways in which we build up prejudices and walls against people whom we are not like. You stop using language like “illegal aliens” and “towelheads” and other derogatory terms meant to put distance between you and someone else.

Indeed, being the “Other” creates empathy in us, and builds the foundation for us to begin to work to change the enmity that lies between us. Certainly there has been much enmity between Christians and Muslims in the past, but it is time to heal the wounds of the past and begin to live out a new future.

We have the resources in our sacred writings. For Christians, the words of the Golden Rule are a good starting point: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” In other words, treat the Other as if they were “One of You.”

For Muslims, the words of a Haddith may be helpful: “None of you has faith until you love for your neighbor what you love for yourself.” In other words, treat the Other as if they were “One of You.”

One day, perhaps we will grasp the essential unity of us all, and celebrate the beautiful diversity of us all.

Remixed Sermon 1: “Loving Your Enemies”


This is the sermon I preached on July 29, 2012 at First Rowlett UMC. It is the first in a new series called “Famous Sermons Remixed,” in which I take sermons from well-known preachers and “remix” them – meaning I tweak it a little, contextualize it, rewrite bits, and fit it for my particular congregation in Rowlett. I don’t usually write a manuscript for my sermons, but preach from an outline, which is what I did in this case. The sermon below has been reconstructed from my outline. This remixed sermon is called “Loving Your Enemies,” by Martin Luther King, Jr., and was originally preached on November 17, 1957 at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama.

 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven.” Matthew 5:43-45

These are lofty words. Some would argue that they are too lofty, too difficult. Some would say that these are the words of a utopian dreamer.

But Jesus was no dreamer, no impractical idealist. He was a practical realist. His command to “love your enemies” is, in fact, vital for the survival of our civilization. Love will save the world.

Jesus was serious when he spoke these words. He was not playing around. He was not exaggerating to make a point. He knew that it was a hard command, and he was serious. In fact, the command to love was Jesus’ basic philosophy. And so, those of us who consider ourselves followers of Jesus have an obligation to discover how to follow this command.

The first question we must ask is, How do we go about loving our enemies? How is this possible?

We begin, first, by analyzing self.

Now I realize that some people won’t like you, no matter what. They may not like the way you look. They may not like the way you sound. They may not like the way you dress. They may not like the way you do your hair. And there is nothing you can do about that. Those are trivial matters.

But we must also be aware that it is quite possible that people don’t like you for a particular reason. It may be because of something that you did in the past. It may be because of something you said, or did, to them. There may be something else in your personality that arouses the tragic hate response in them.

This is not only true about individuals, but it is also true in the international scene as well.

In the epic battle between terrorism and democracy, we know that we can never accept the actions of terrorists and religious extremists. We know that we can never approve of suicide bombings. We don’t believe that the end justifies the means. We can never accept the actions of terror.

But at the same time, we must look at our own actions and behaviors, and ask if we live up to our democratic ideals. We must ask whether there is something in our own past, our own history, which has sparked the backlash of terrorism. We must ask whether our support of the forced relocation of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians back in 1948 did not itself spawn the deadly terrorist attacks of the present. We must question our own actions, our own prejudices, our own weaknesses in the area of foreign policy, in order to fully understand where terrorism comes from.

That is what Jesus means when he says, “How can you see the speck in your brother’s eye when there is a log in your own?” We must be honest about our own selves first, in order to love our enemies.

Second, we must find the good in our enemy.

Each of us is schizophrenic. We are split up, divided against ourselves – good versus evil. Inside of each of us a civil war rages.

There is something in us which agrees with Ovid, the Latin poet, who said, “I see and approve the better things of life, but the evil things I do.” And we agree with the philosopher Plato who said that the human personality is like a charioteer with two headstrong horses, each wanting to go in different directions.

Our own apostle Paul said, “I know the good which I want to do, but I am unable to do it.”

Within us, the “is-ness” of our being is out of harmony with the “ought-ness”

The truth is that, within the best of us is some evil; within the worst of us, there is some good.

Think about that. This is a hard lesson to swallow. This means that, in Osama bin Laden, there was some good. This means that, in James Holmes, there is some good.

When you come to the point that you can look in the face of any person and see deep down within her the “image of God,” then you begin to love her.

The third way to love your enemies is this: when the opportunity presents itself for you to defeat your enemy, that is the time which you must not do it.

There will come a time when you have the opportunity to defeat the person who has been mean to you, the one who has insulted and cast you aside. Perhaps you will have the opportunity to say a bad word against her to her superior; perhaps you have the chance to stick a knife in his back.

But don’t do it.

That’s the meaning of love – the refusal to defeat another person.

When you rise to the level of this kind of love, you seek only to defeat evil systems. You learn to make a distinction between individuals and systems. Evil systems can, and must, be defeated. But individuals who happen to be caught in that system, you must love.

The Greek language helps us here by giving us three different, and distinct, words for love.

First, there is the Greek word “eros,” which refers to aesthetic, or romantic, love. Eros is the love you feel when you see someone who is attractive and you pour out all your love and attention on that individual. At its best, eros is love of the beautiful; at its worst, eros is selfish and possessive.

When Jesus said, “Love your enemies,” he was not talking about eros love.

Second, there is the Greek word “phileo,” which refers to the affection between friends, a brotherly love. Phileo is that good-natured affection that people feel for one another, when they genuinely like each other.

When Jesus said, “Love your enemies,” he was not talking about phileo love.

Jesus was talking about the third kind of love, the Greek word “agape.” Agape love is the understanding, creative, redemptive goodwill for all people. Agape love seeks nothing in return. Theologians call this the love of God working in the lives of people
At this level, you love others, not because they are likeable, but because God loves them. You look at every person, and you love them because you know God loves them.

Again, when Jesus said, “Love your enemies,” he was referring to agape love.

Notice he didn’t say, “Like your enemies.” There are a lot of people I don’t like; I don’t like what they do to me or to others; I don’t like how they act, nor do I like their attitudes.
But Jesus says love them.

And love is greater than like.

This leads us to a second great question. Why should we love our enemies?

First, because hate for hate only intensifies the hate and evil in the universe.

If I hit you and you hit me and I hit you back and you hit me back .. it goes on forever!

Somebody must have a little sense, and be the strong person. The strong person is the person who can cut off the chain of hate, the chain of evil.

Somebody must have religion enough and morality enough to cut it off and inject within the very structure of the universe that strong and powerful element of love.

Hate doesn’t cut off.

When we lived in Cameroon, I often had to drive my car long distances on the highways. I tried to keep from driving at night, because it was dangerous. But sometimes I couldn’t avoid it.

One time, I was with my wife, Leah when we were driving on the road after dark. Car after car would approach with their brights on, making it difficult to see anything. I would flash my lights, but rarely would anyone respond by dimming their lights. Finally, in exasperation, I said, “If nobody else will turn off their brights, then I won’t either!”

Leah said, “If nobody is willing to dim their lights, then we’re all in trouble!”

So many civilizations refuse to turn their brights off because their honor has been offended. Too few civilizations are willing to say, “Enough of this madness!”

But it’s a descending spiral, ultimately ending in destruction for everyone.

Only love can end the spiral.

Second, we must love our enemies because hate distorts the personality of the hater. When you hate, you do irrational things – you can’t see straight, walk straight, stand upright, vision distorted. The ugly becomes beautiful, and the beautiful ugly. The good becomes bad, and the bad becomes good. The true becomes false, and the false becomes true. That’s what hate does. Hatred destroys the very structure of the personality of the hater.

Hate is a cancer that gnaws away at the very vital center of your life and existence. It is like eroding acid that eats away the best and the objective center of your life.

And third, we must love our enemies because love has within it a redemptive power.

If you hate enemies, you have no way to redeem and transform them. If you love, you will discover that the enemy can be changed.

And so, you must keep loving people, even though they are mistreating you. If your neighbor is doing something wrong to you, keep being friendly to that person. Keep loving them. Don’t do anything to embarrass them. Keep loving them, and they can’t stand it too long. They might react in the beginning. They might react with bitterness because they’re mad that you love them like that. They react with guilt feelings, and sometimes they’ll hate you a little more at that transition period, but love them even more. And by the power of your love, they will break down under the load.

Love is redemptive. It builds up and is creative.

Last weekend, I attended a ceremony of iftar at a local mosque. I spent some time speaking to the imam, named Musa. He had lived in the community for over 25 years. I asked him how the community had responded to the Muslim presence.

He responded by telling me a story. He said that a woman and her husband, a pastor, had moved into a house next door. At first, they didn’t communicate much. But over time, the two families began to speak, became friends, and even shared meals together.

One day, the woman saw Musa in the yard and waved him over. She said, “I have a confession to make.”

Musa nodded.

She said, “When I first moved into this house, I was terrified to be living next to you. I asked God why he would ask me to live next door to Muslims. But now, I thank God everyday that I live next door to Muslims. You are a part of my family now.”

I thank God that love transformed this situation

There is a power in love that the world has not discovered yet.

Jesus discovered it.

Gandhi discovered it.

But most never discover it.

They believe in hitting for hitting, They believe in eye for an eye, tooth for tooth. They believe in hating for hating.

But Jesus comes to us and says, “This isn’t the way.”

Of course, throughout history, some people are oppressed by other people. How can those who are oppressed deal with their oppression?

They have, essentially, three options.

First, they can rise up against their oppressors with physical violence and corroding hatred. But we have already seen that this is not the way. Violence creates more problems than it solves.

Second, they could acquiesce and give in to the oppression. But that isn’t the way, either – non-cooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good.

But there is a third option. They can organize mass non-violence resistance based on the principle of love. This seems to be the only way forward. This is the way to make this old world, a new world

Jesus discovered this.

Not only Jesus, but even our great military leaders have discovered it. At the end of his life, Napoleon said “Alexander, Caesar, Charlemagne, and I have built great empires. But upon what did they depend? They depended upon force. But long ago Jesus started an empire that depended on love, and even to this day millions will die for him.”

I can see Jesus, standing on a hilltop, and turning down the Roman Empire’s way. I can see him explicitly rejecting hate and violence, and instead, gathering an army of men and women who will be armed only by love

I’m proud to stand here in Rowlett this morning and to say that army is still marching. It grew from 11 men to more than a billion today.

Because of the power and influence of the personality of this Christ, he was able to split history into b.c. and a.d.

Because of his power, he was able to shake the hinges from the gates of the Roman Empire.

And all around the world this morning, we can hear the glad echo of heaven ring, in the words of the old hymn:

Jesus shall reign wherever sun
Does his successive journeys run
His kingdom spreads from shore to shore
Till moon shall wane and wax no more.

In Christ there is no East or West
In Him, no North or South
But one great fellowship of love
Throughout the whole wide world.

This is the only way.

And our civilization must discover that. Individuals must discover that as they deal with other individuals.

There is a little tree planted on a little hill and on that tree hangs the most influential character that ever came into this world. But never feel that that tree is a meaningless drama that took place on the stages of history. It is a telescope through which we look out into the long vista of eternity, and see the love of God breaking forth into time.

So this morning, as I look into your eyes and into the eyes of all my brothers and sisters in Texas and all over America and Iran and North Korea, I say to you, “I love you. I would rather die than hate you.”

Let us pray:

O God, help us in our lives and in all of our attitudes, to work out this controlling force of love, this controlling power that can solve every problem that we confront in all areas. O, we talk about politics; we talk about the problems facing our nuclear civilization. Grant that all people will come together and discover that as we solve these problems – the international problems, the problems of nuclear energy, the problem of terrorism, the race problem – let us join together in a great fellowship of love and bow down at the feet of Jesus. Give us this strong determination. In the name and spirit of this Christ, we pray. Amen.

Be Careful Little Eyes: Day 10 of Ramadan


One thing I’ve learned about Ramadan is that it’s not just about abstaining from food and drink. That is only the tip of the iceberg.

When I sat down with Yaseen before Ramadan started, he explained to me that it is also a fast of the eyes, mouth, and ears.

What does this mean?

It means that one takes special care not to see, say, or hear things that are not pleasing to God.

I am reminded of the Sunday School song that I learned as a child: “Be careful little eyes what you see, be careful little eyes what you see, for the Lord above is looking down in love, be careful little eyes what you see.” Subsequent verses include “Be careful little ears what you hear,” “Be careful little hands what you do,” and “Be careful little feet where you go.” I never cared for the song much as I grew up, mostly because I didn’t want to be restricted in my freedom and liberty. The idea of God watching from above like a security camera also gave me the creeps.

But Ramadan has forced me to take a new look at the wisdom found in this simple song, and to see it from a different angle.

The point is not that we should be careful what we do lest God strike us down, but that we should take care to act in such a way that is consistent with God’s intentions for us. In other words, we must live up to God’s hopes and dreams for us!

And too often, it is the things we do with our eyes, mouth, and ears that pull us away from God’s will.

For example, Yaseen told me that if I am walking through Wal-Mart and see a woman with too little clothing or provocatively dressed, I am to avert my eyes. He said that this is the thing I should do on a normal basis, but that, especially during Ramadan, I must be aware of such temptation.

So I have tried to be conscious of what my eyes are doing, and was surprised to learn that my eyes do indeed wander. Not only that, but our culture is saturated with media images of scantily-dressed, airbrushed and burnished bodies. They’re on television, on billboards, in magazines at the grocery counter – everywhere!

We are fed a diet of unrealistic body images which have the dual consequence of making us feel less-than-acceptable because we don’t look like “that” and causing us to entertain lustful, objectifying thoughts in our heads.

Islam does not ask us to ignore natural attractions or the pleasure of beauty, but implores us to keep our attractions in their rightful place, and to show respect to both men and women.

I heard a Muslim woman speak on this topic once. She challenged men who were quick to look at pornography or lustfully gaze on women: “Would you want someone to look like that at your mother, your wife, your daughter, your sister? Don’t you know that every woman is someone’s daughter, or wife, or mother? Don’t you know that every woman is truly your own sister in God’s eyes?”

But it’s not only about sex. This admonition to watch one’s eyes also applies to anything else that distracts us from putting our attention on God. This includes television programs, sports, movies, and long hours on the Internet.

So I have accepted the challenge to think about what I see, and to remember that I have a choice of what to look upon.

Not only that, but I am also to consider the words I say. According to Yaseen, we are to restrain ourselves from “useless talk, backbiting, slander, abusive speech, false speaking, obscenity, hypocrisy and enmity.” This might prove to be even harder than turning our eyes away from tempting images …

If we are honest, we will confess that there is an over-abundance of this kind of speech in the public square. During the election season, people say some of the worst things about fellow citizens – and it’s not just the politicians. We chime in with our opinions as well. We love to abuse our 2nd Amendment right of freedom of speech, by making all sorts of charges, accusations, and slander against others.

What if we kept ourselves from snipping at others behind their backs, and instead, complimented them? What if, instead of criticizing others, we offered words of encouragement and support? What if, instead of using language that is coarse and blue, we strove to speak in love to one another?

Perhaps it would be easier to speak this way, if we also refused to listen to such kind of talk from others. Gossip and backbiting doesn’t go very far, after all, if there are no ears to hear it, and then pass it on.

Again, this is the way we should behave all year round, not just during Ramadan, or while we are fasting. But having a specific time set apart for the explicit purpose of fasting with our eyes, mouth, and ears reminds us of what God requires of us.

This concept is certainly not foreign to my tradition as a United Methodist Christian. For one, the Bible contains clear practical guidelines for living lives of purity and holiness. In I John 2:15-17, for example, we read, “Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world — the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life — is not of the Father but is of the world. And the world is passing away, and the lust of it; but he who does the will of God abides forever.”

The founder of Methodism, John Wesley, was concerned with helping Christians live more holy lives, and he encouraged regular fasting. But for him, as well, the fasting was not merely about food and drink, but about putting aside sinful distractions: “We abstain from food with this view, that, by the grace of God conveyed into our souls through this outward means of fasting, in conjunction with all the other channels of his grace which he has appointed, we may be enabled to abstain from every passion and attitude which is not pleasing in his sight. We refrain from the one, that, being enabled with power from on high, we may be able to refrain from the other.”

And so the fast continues, not just from food and drink, but from all those things which keep us from God.

The Neighborly Thing To Do: Day 8 of Ramadan

Last night, for the first time, I broke my fast in community.

I responded to one of the comments on my blog, from a man named Osman, who invited me to iftar (break fast) at the mosque in McKinney, which is only a few miles up the road.

Osman met me at the door of the McKinney Islamic Association with a smile and a handshake. I hadn’t been sure what to wear to this gathering, but Osman was wearing black jeans, a t-shirt, and a backwards baseball cap. I was wearing jeans, too, so I immediately felt at home.

He said, “Come in. This is a good time for me to introduce you to everyone.” He ushered me into a carpeted room, and I began to meet the different men and boys who were gathering.

The imam, a man named Musa (Moses), was busy putting down a blue tarp on the floor, covered by thin white plastic. Then he began arranging bottles of water and small styrofoam cups of orange juice on the plastic.

I was invited to sit with my legs crossed on the floor, alongside the other men of the community. Someone passed around small bowls of fruit for each person, and then came a plate of dates.

We each took one date, which is the traditional food first eaten by Muslims to break their fast. And at the appointed time, as a young boy prayed, we bit into our dates, lifted our cups and drank.

It was a holy moment.

Holy, because I did feel connected to the others in the room, even though I did not know them.

Holy, because I had been accepted and made welcome, even though I was obviously an outsider.

Holy, because God was there, in the same way that God is present when we take the bread and cup of Holy Communion.

We enjoyed the refreshments for a few leisurely moments, but then Musa announced that it was time for prayer. Men stood up, and then began arranging themselves into rows. The imam’s son-in-law led us in prayers. I asked Osman what was appropriate for me to do, and he said it would be fine if I sat in a chair with some of the older men, who couldn’t kneel and bow.

During the prayers, I was struck by both the foreignness, and the familiarity, of the ritual. The prayers were, of course, in Arabic, and I was unable to understand the words. But at the same time, while the men were kneeling and bowing, a number of children were playing noisily in the back of the room. Toddlers were giggling  and running around, while their fathers and grandfathers were intently praying only a few feet from them.

In many ways, it was just like a typical gathering at my own church! It was a mix of fellowship, worship, and family time.

After prayers, we lined up and filled our plates with chicken, rice, naan bread, hummus, and sweet pastry. As we ate, I began to get to know the members of the mosque.

I learned that their brand-new mosque, only a few blocks away, would be opening in a few weeks. They’d hoped it would be ready for Ramadan, but they’d run into the usual construction delays.

McKinney is an old county seat town in Texas, and has recently exploded in growth. But it’s still regarded as a primarily WASP (white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant) community. So I asked several men if they’d perceived any resentment or animosity from other citizens about their presence in the community.

“Not at all,” they all said. In fact, the landlord of their current space had gone out of the way to accommodate their growth.

Musa himself has lived in McKinney for 26 years, and runs a thriving auto repair business in town. He told me a story about one particular neighbor.

Some time ago, a woman and her husband, a pastor, had moved in next door to Musa’s family. Over time, the two families began to get to know each other, share meals, and enjoyed each other’s presence.

One day, while out in the yard, the woman saw Musa and called him over. She said, “I have a confession to make.”
Musa raised his eyebrow at her.

“When I first discovered that we would be living next to you, I was terrified. I asked God why He would ask me to live next to a Muslim family. But now, I thank God that I have Muslim neighbors. You are a part of my family now.”

Even though the woman’s husband has since died and she has moved away, she still returns to visit Musa’s family on a regular basis.

That story stuck with me as I left Osman and my new friends, and returned home.

This is the essence of my Ramadan fast. I am, of course, drawing closer to God and enriching my own spiritual life. I am receiving personal, and private, spiritual benefits.

But I am also beginning to make new friendships. And these friendships break down the walls of stereotypes, prejudices, misunderstandings.

It’s corny to say this, but it’s true – this is how peace breaks out in the world. It breaks out when people who were formerly distrustful or wary of each other, sit down and eat together. It breaks out when people from different cultures and religions, come to observe each other’s rituals and prayers.

You can’t launch a war against people with whom you regularly break bread.

I am reminded of the beloved story in my own tradition, the Gospel parable of the Good Samaritan. A lawyer had asked Jesus, “What is the greatest commandment?” He responded, “To love God with all your heart, mind, and soul, and to love your neighbor as yourself.” The lawyer said, “Yes, but who is my neighbor?”

Jesus answered by telling a story about a man who had been beaten and robbed by thieves, left on the road to die. A priest came by, but instead of helping him, passed by the other side. Then another religious man came by, but passed by as well. Finally, a Samaritan came by. Samaritans were hated and despised by the Jews for cultural and religious reasons. But this Samaritan bent down, cleaned the man’s wounds, and carried him to safety.

Jesus ended the story by saying, “Now, in this story, which one was the neighbor?”

Jesus’ listeners were taken aback. They couldn’t have imagined that a Samaritan would have been able to love a Jew.

I would propose that we Christians need to hear the story of Jesus anew. If he told it today, he might very well tell it as the story of the Good Muslim.

Muslims are our neighbors. They are very good neighbors.

The burden lies on us Christians to get to know them, to open our homes and churches, and welcome them.

Finding Grace in Ramadan: Day 7

While eating my pre-dawn breakfast this morning (which consisted of fried eggs and Malt-o-Meal), I groggily checked my email on my iPhone.

I had to rub my eyes a few times, because my inbox was flooded with comments from my blog!

It seems that, literally overnight, my blog started to pick up an incredible flow of visitors. Thanks to reposts by Facebook friends, retweets by Twitter followers, and my inclusion on the Huffington Post Ramadan Liveblog, this blog started to reach a new audience, mostly of Muslims.

And I am overwhelmed by the response.

Every single response has been an outpouring of support, encouragement, and advice on how to succeed in this fast. I’ve received practical tips – drink lots of water, try cucumbers in yogurt, drink more water, stay away from red meat when breaking the fast, drink more water – as well as spiritual wisdom – try to break fast in community, make sure to take on extra disciplines of charity, reading of the Quran, and remembrance of God.

As the day wore on, I continued to receive kind and loving comments on this blog, and people continued to visit. I honestly didn’t expect that I would get this kind of response. In fact, I have to admit that I worried that some of my Muslim brothers and sisters might view this as nothing more than a “stunt,” a kind of ridiculous, self-serving ploy to draw attention to myself.

True, I wanted to draw attention to myself, but not for my sake, but for the good of my Muslim friends. I have been honestly troubled by the way some of my fellow Americans view and treat Muslims, especially since 9/11. I wanted to do something to help begin to change the perceptions and overthrow the prejudices.

But I never expected that, so far, my greatest experience in Ramadan would have been one of profound and humble … grace. I have received nothing but grace-filled responses from readers.

For all of my Muslim readers, the word “grace” is extremely important in my faith tradition. Methodists talk about grace all the time, because we believe it is the primary characteristic of God. We understand grace to mean that we receive the love and mercy of God through no merit of our own, but simply because of God’s great compassion and tenderness towards us as His children.

I was particularly blessed by my Quran reading today, when I read this verse: “And Allah is Lord of extreme grace” Al-Baqara 2.105.

All of you have shown great grace to me today. I am extremely thankful and grateful. Your words have inspired me to continue to be faithful to this fast, and to continue to seek nothing but blessings and peace between us.

Thank you.

A Permanent Buzz: Day 6 of Ramadan


I called Yaseen yesterday afternoon to ask a question. He didn’t pick up, and I left a message on his voicemail.

A couple of hours later, he returned my call. “Hey, I’m sorry I didn’t answer earlier,” he said. “I was taking a nap. Helps the day go faster.”

I laughed and said, “So it’s not just me?”

It was an enormous relief to hear that Ramadan professionals also take naps as one way to endure the fast, especially in the late afternoon during the heat of the day. As the traditional time for dinner approaches, I “feel” the fast the most.

But the Ramadan fast is all about “sensory experience.” That’s the biggest difference between a Ramadan fast and a wimpy Methodist one. I don’t remember really struggling to get through a Lenten fast.

This is different. And it “feels” different.

Let me try to describe it:

First, I feel a constant “buzz” in my head. I can’t think of a better word than “buzz.” My throat and mouth are on the verge of being cotton-mouth dry all the time, and there is a dryness inside my head that stretches from the back of my throat straight up into the middle of my head, somewhere in my brain. And that dryness makes a very soft, gentle buzz-y feeling, of which I am always aware. It’s not a sound, just a vague sense; neither is it uncomfortable, just persistent.

This buzz serves a useful purpose, by the way. It keeps me conscious of God, of God’s presence, of God’s will that is bursting to become real in the world. And so when something else isn’t going on in front of me, the buzz reminds me to speak to God.

Besides this buzz, I feel more alive. I am more alert to my surroundings, to sounds and colors. And when I do finally eat in the evening, everything tastes like a gourmet feast. My wife, Leah, threw burgers on the grill last night and prepared a pretty simple hamburger, which is something we eat at least once a week. But it tasted like manna from heaven. Every bite was unforgettable. Meanwhile, I sipped a glass of water, which tasted as sweet as if it had come from a spring in the Rockies. I even groaned in pleasure as I ate and drank, prompting Leah to roll her eyes at me.

This kind of experience prompts a raw feeling of gratitude. I have never been more thankful for a hamburger.  It reminds me that I am usually not that grateful for anything. I don’t remember the last time that I was desperate for something, utterly desperate for something terribly important.

Another result of my Ramadan fast is that I suddenly find myself with more time on my hands. I don’t need to break for lunch in the middle of my day. I don’t have to think much about food preparation or planning either. And no need for snacks, for driving through Sonic for Happy Hour, or raiding the children’s ministry office for jellybeans.

Yes, all the extra time on my hands is helpful …

Think I’ll take a quick nap.