A few months ago, I was profoundly inspired by a diverse collection of religious leaders from several very different faith communities. This crew included faithful Muslim imams, Jewish rabbis, Mormon leaders, and reps from a few other groups. As this interfaith crew processed in front of me into a good friend's service of installation (that's the church's celebration of their new pastor's arrival in the work), I felt a rush of gratitude and hope. The minister being installed has cultivated a relationship with these leaders, and they showed up in force to support her and the church as they began her pastorate. We were all going to be part of the service, so we met together and then processed into the church sanctuary.
Not all Christians believe that interfaith conversation is helpful to faithful Christians. They rightly recognize that these other traditions believe very differently than we do. These Christians believe that the only valid purpose for serious conversation with people from other religions is to attempt conversion. I understand this point of view. In fact, the very widely respected Yale theologian, Miroslav Volf, once told me that his Muslim colleagues would be disappointed if he did not try to convert them, and he would be disappointed if they did not make the same effort towards him. Their reason? "If your belief system is not significant enough to you to want me to embrace it, it's not significant enough." (This is my paraphrase of Miroslav's words.) However, Miroslav's conversations do not stop when conversion doesn't happen, because there are other ways that interfaith conversation can help faithful Christians. I'd like to reflect on one of those with you this morning.
A few years ago, as I prepared to lead a study group to Turkey, I flew over a few months beforehand to scout the trip plan with an experienced guide to show me around. In the person of my guide, I got a profound bonus. This guide was a treat, not only because he knew his history and geography through and through, and not only because he was a curious, cosmopolitan, New York Times-reading renaissance man who kept intelligent conversation, but because he was devout man of faith. That journey marked the first time I’d spent much extended time with a practicing Muslim, and I was blessed.
I was fascinated and inspired by what I saw. It wasn't his beliefs that did it -- we talked very little theology. Rather, it was his practice. A driver sped us around to the various historical sites, but in the middle of our conversations on the road, well before our destination, with plenty of petrol in the tank, we’d mysteriously pull over to the curb and stop. The two would hop quickly out of our little van and into a convenience store or supermarket or petrol station for a few minutes, then very inconspicuously come back and get in. Then, without a word, we’d drive away.
Once in a while my guide asked, before he hopped inside, “Allen, would you like a snack,” but it was clear we weren’t stopping for that. I didn’t want to be nosy, but the fourth time ‘round this little stop-and-go, my curiosity got the best of me, and I asked, "What's with the pit stops?!" His answer made sense and won me over: we had been pulling over regularly all across the Turkish countryside, wherever a stop could be had, for my two new Muslim friends to pray. They were keeping the hours: sunrise, noon, afternoon, sunset, and night. On our little scouting journeys, I was mostly catching the middle three.
I tell you this story, because it supplies one of the ways that interfaith conversation can help Christians: we can learn important insights and examples about how to practice our own faith from people who practice a different faith faithfully. My Muslim guide has a very different belief system than a devout Christian holds. His picture of Allah is quite a lot different in some ways than my own belief about how God shows up in the world. In fact, those differences are far too many to chronicle here. But, even though our belief systems differ, our faith practices overlap. In this case, Muslims pray and Christians pray. In this case, my Muslim friend prayed a lot more often and faithfully than I prayed. So being next to his practiced habit of praying "on schedule" challenged my infrequency in prayer at the time and helped me to aspire for more constancy in my own practice.
Friends, populations are moving and the religious make-up of our nation(s) is changing. Navigating this wildly diverse world of ours is complicated, because belief systems vary widely. But one possible way forward toward living peaceful and constructive lives together in a pluralistic society is finding ways that we can help each other. Yesterday, I was grateful for the faithful example of people who believe very differently than I do. And I hope my story might help you, as you walk your day.
Prayer - God, we are different than one another, and sometimes this causes friction. Help us to find the ways that our difference can help us, in Jesus. Amen.