Christmas in the Bible and the Al Qur’an

19 12 2016
Govert Flinck – Angels announcing Christ’s birth to the shepherds (1639)

Govert Flinck – Angels announcing Christ’s birth to the shepherds (1639)

“Why do you think God announced the birth of Al Masih (the Messiah) to shepherds?” I asked my Muslim friend.

We had been talking about the Christmas story, and how the Al-Qur’an and the Bible emphasize different aspects of the story, but the Bible definitely includes a lot more detail.

Already mentioned were the similarities between the two accounts—of God visiting the virgin Mary to announce to her the miracle He was about to do by giving her a special son. The Bible tells how God chooses the boy’s name to be “Jesus,” literally, “God saves,” and that he will be called “Son of God” and rule over an everlasting kingdom. (Luke 1:26-38) Later God adds to the shepherds that Jesus is the “Savior…Christ the Lord.” (Luke 2:1-20) The Al Qur’an contributes that Jesus is a “mercy” from God, His Word and Spirit. (Surah Al-Maryam 19:16-21; Surah Al-Nisa 4:171)

The chapter of the Al-Qur’an named after Jesus’ mother Mary (Surah Al-Maryam) focuses in on the story of how Mary’s neighbors reacted wrongly to this immaculate conception, causing Mary to take refuge from them outside the village, but how God took care of her there.

The Bible accounts of Jesus’ birth in Matthew and Luke use a panoramic view to include several other characters in the story, such as the sky being filled with singing angels announcing Jesus’ birth to the shepherds, and the star leading wise men from the east to bring their gifts in worship to a new “king.”

So I asked my friend, why not announce Jesus’ birth to the governor or the king? Why not to the religious leaders? Why shepherds?

“Rich people often use their wealth for evil,” he replied. “Maybe the shepherds had pure hearts.”

“That’s so true,” I agreed. “And I think God wants us to know that He sees all of us. He sees the everyday people, like the shepherds, and He wants to include them in what He’s doing.”

“I have some goats,” my friend boasted. “I’m a shepherd too, you know.”

I smiled at him. Yes, I did know. And I knew that he lived a self-sacrificing life trying to raise four children after the untimely death of his wife, but he had never resorted to wrong ways of obtaining money. He’d worked hard, treated people well, and trusted God. He had a pure heart. And I knew God saw this, and loved him.

“How about this one?” I continued. “Why did God announce the Messiah’s birth to foreign wise men? Were there no wise men in Israel?”

My friend had no answer for this. So I shared my idea: “I think God wanted us to know that this Messiah’s birth was not just for the people of one country, but for everyone around the world.” And for me living in Indonesia, I wanted to add, “I’m a foreigner too, you know.”

No other birth in history has been marked with so many signs—a special star, a heavenly choir, a virgin-birth miracle, so many people receiving dreams and visitations, numerous prophecies fulfilled… No other baby has been given such illustrious names to live up to—Savior, Son of God, eternal King, God’s Word and Spirit, God’s mercy to mankind… Truly this is a birthday worthy of being remembered by Christians, Muslims, and anyone who respects what Jesus brought to this earth.

But for my friend and me, this Christmas we’re challenged to remember that God cares enough about us to include us in what He’s doing—even if we’re only lowly goatherds or foreigners—perhaps He’s just looking for someone with an open heart.

Merry Christmas!





Is Jesus the “Son of God”?

21 02 2016

Jesus statue Rio   Recently I was having a meal in my home with a Muslim brother who often quotes the Bible to me and has a high honor for Jesus. I loved his openness to talk about Jesus, and wanted him to know that at least some of the differences between how Muslims and Christians talk about Jesus (not all) have their roots in historic and linguistic differences.

So I began to share about the phrase “son of God,” which is so difficult for Muslims to accept. The Qur’an clearly states that God cannot have a walad, or a biological offspring. Of course, all Christians would agree—Jesus’ sonship has nothing biological about it. So why did the Qur’an emphasize this point?

In the era of the Prophets of Israel, everyone was looking forward to the coming Messiah. He would be the “Anointed One,” the King who ushers in God’s Kingdom, the offspring of King David.

This concept of a King anointed by God to rule invoked a special relationship with God, which God chose to describe as a “Father-Son” relationship. In Psalm 89:20-27, we read that God called David his “firstborn,” and that David was to call God “Father.” This is even clearer in the case of Solomon, where God declares:

“I will be his a¯b (father), and he shall be my ben (son).”

Did you realize Jesus was not the first person to be called God’s son? But as Messiah, and rightful King, God spoke from the sky a similar pronouncement over Jesus in Luke 3:22:

“You are my ben (son), whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”

So for a 1st century Jew, hearing a voice from heaven calling Jesus “the Son of God” would be understood as declaring him to be the Messiah (see also Matthew 16:16).

Now fast-forward to the 7th century and the birth of Islam. The Christian faith had spread throughout Greek and Roman culture, which both had religious traditions of major gods having sexual relations with other gods or with mankind to produce offspring, or minor gods—making the phrase “son of god” susceptible to more elastic interpretation. The Arabs themselves had centuries ago left the monotheism of Abraham and his son Ishmael and turned to worshiping a plurality of gods, which included male gods, female goddesses, and gods who were their offspring. There needed to be a clear call back to monotheism, to exalt God’s Oneness, and make it clear that He could have no offspring  (no walad, as opposed to the slightly more flexible Arabic word for “son” which is ibn, and has been used symbolically–like ben–in other Arabic texts).

While Christians believe that Jesus did have a unique relationship with God as the “eternal Word of God made flesh,” (John 1:1-14) the term “son” should not be a dividing point between Muslims and Christians, but a point of agreement. Jesus was not a walad, a biological son—far be it from God to have biological offspring—but an anointed Messiah-King, the “Al-Masih” mentioned in the Qur’an.

For those who want to explore many other Muslim-Christian misunderstandings based on historical or linguistic differences, let me recommend these two sources:

1) short video lectures on “Jesus in the Qur’an” accompanied by excellent articles from reputable Christian and Muslim scholars who are finding common ground at http://equalaccess.org.au/index.php/resources/videos

2) the outstanding book by Mark Siljander, A Deadly Misunderstanding, available at www.amazon.com or at http://www.adeadlymisunderstanding.com/

So when someone asks you, “Do you believe that Jesus was the Son of God?” take a moment to understand what the person is really asking. Don’t let the terms divide you, when in reality you may believe much the same thing!





A Shining Day for America

14 10 2015

bremertonmuslimsupportLike anyone, America has its good days and its bad days. October 10, 2015 was one of our good days.

Let me quote from one report about the anti-Muslim protests across our nation:

“Most of the planned protests simply didn’t happen after all. Among the few rallies that actually came together, the counter-protesters well outnumbered the anti-Muslim activists.”

In Michigan, Maryland, Tennessee, Alabama, Oklahoma, Oregon and Washington DC, hardly anyone showed up to protest, but concerned neighbors and churches were there anyway to show support.

Phoenix, AZ was the only place that actually felt like a protest, but though a lot of guns were seen, thank God it passed peacefully.

In heavy rain falling on Bremerton, WA, about 35 locals came, concerned for their Muslim neighbors (photo above). No protestors braved the storm. “We don’t mind getting wet,” one of them told Hatewatch. “It’s worth it to defend our friends.”

One of the best stories came from the Noor Islamic Cultural Center in Michigan, where one lone protestor showed up. A Caucasian man exited the mosque to start a conversation with her. She thought he was Muslim and responded with “Get behind me Satan!” The man told her he was actually Jewish, and after some dialogue got her talking with some of the Muslim women from the mosque who also affirmed how much they were against the violence and murder of ISIS-type groups. The story ends with the protestor coming into the mosque to join a special breakfast they had prepared for all the protestors! She thought she was taking a stand against the enemy and discovered new friends.

Meanwhile, many interfaith groups across the country planned events to show their support for the Muslim houses of worship, some including positive social action plans.

The Huffington Post concluded that the end result of the protests, in fact, was a large outpouring of love and interfaith support for the Muslim community.

Well done, America! Thank you for your prayers for peace this weekend. Thank you to those who showed up at a mosque. Way to turn hate away and show that #LoveYourNeighbor is still worth standing in the rain for!





#LoveYourNeighbor

8 10 2015
A demonstrator holds a sign at a "Freedom of Speech Rally Round II" across the street from the Islamic Community Center in Phoenix, Arizona May 29, 2015.  Arizona police stepped up security near a mosque on Friday ahead of a planned anti-Islam demonstration featuring displays of cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad, weeks after a similar contest in Texas came under attack from two gunmen.  REUTERS/Nancy Wiechec

A demonstrator holds a sign at a “Freedom of Speech Rally Round II” across the street from the Islamic Community Center in Phoenix, Arizona May 29, 2015. Arizona police stepped up security near a mosque on Friday ahead of a planned anti-Islam demonstration featuring displays of cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad, weeks after a similar contest in Texas came under attack from two gunmen. REUTERS/Nancy Wiechec

In my last blog I let you know about the anti-Muslim protests planned for this weekend. In this update, I want to share with you what just one person is doing about it.

Catherine Orsborn is from Shoulder to Shoulder, a Peace Catalyst-related organization. Here’s a letter explaining how she is rallying people to respond:

Hi, all,

Thank you so much for all of you who have made connections with your local clergy in the lead-up to this weekend’s hate rallies targeting Muslims.  We’re sending the below email out to the Shoulder to Shoulder community lists tonight to mobilize a mass social media move against the hate rallies this weekend.  It’s been complicated trying to organize local communities on this because most of the Islamic Centers we have connected with do not want any extra media attention brought to these protests, and therefore are asking us to refrain from counter-events- we got coverage in the Huffington Post on this point.  However, we need to be out in public showing our opposition to this hate, so have been working with some other national groups on social media strategy.  It’s included in the note below.

Our asks for you: Will you 1) use your denominational or organizational owned social media to participate in this social media campaign starting this Friday at 3 pm (not before, please, to concentrate the timing with our national partners!), 2) send this note out to your communities as you’re able, and 3) have your head of denomination or other high profile clergy participate in a tweet, and send it to us (@S2SCampaign or Catherine.Orsborn@s2scampaign.org) so we can highlight many religious leaders speaking out at this critical time.

Thank you!

In solidarity,

Catherine

This weekend:  #LoveYourNeighbor #HateUnchecked

Many of you have heard by now that there are a number of anti-Muslim events planned to take place around the country on October 10 (this Saturday).  Our partners at the Center for New Community are tracking these on this site and have an interactive map where you can see the locations, with links to the Facebook pages, for the events.  These are demonstrations of hate that go against the values of our religious traditions to love and extend hospitality to our neighbors, and against the highest ideals of our nation.

We know that there are Shoulder to Shoulder partners, along with concerned clergy, communities and individuals, around the country who have been actively fighting against anti-Muslim bigotry in their communities and building long-term relationships with their Muslim neighbors for a long time.  Public demonstrations of hate targeting the Muslim community are the reason Shoulder to Shoulder exists as a network of religious and interfaith individuals and groups.  This is a time when the Muslim community needs to hear and see our support.  Our national leaders are speaking out against this, as are many local clergy.

If you have not already, we encourage you to check on this map to see if there’s an event planned near you, and reach out to your Muslim friends and neighbors, and to interfaith networks that are in conversation with the local Muslim community.  Offer to help or to stand with them in solidarity, and ask them what they would like their friends from other religious communities to be doing right now to show support for American Muslims.

Many local Muslim groups have asked that people not turn out in large groups to the protests in order to avoid giving these groups more media attention than they have already gotten.  Other local groups may want interfaith allies to show their support through turning out people to surround the Islamic Centers (or perhaps another Islamic Center nearby) in a ring of solidarity.  Regardless, our nation and the world needs to know that this type of anti-Muslim hate doesn’t go unchallenged by our faith communities.  Whether or not your local Islamic Center wants a physical display of support from their interfaith partners this weekend, and even if you live in a location with no protests, we are encouraging everyone to participate in a social media pushback against this hate.

Join us starting this Friday at 3 pm EST (please wait until then to maximize social media takeover potential) on Twitter and Facebook to begin the nationwide social media pushback against these hateful acts.  We are using the hashtags #LoveYourNeighbor and #HateUnchecked, and we encourage you to post photos, videos or other sharable content with these.  Here’s a Facebook event page concentrated on the #HateUnchecked piece of this campaign, and as an inter-religious organization, we have added #LoveYourNeighbor.  Some ideas for social media engagement:

  • Post a photo that shows positive interactions between Muslims and non-Muslims in your community (from a dinner, a service project, or just hanging out), tagged with #LoveYourNeighbor #HateUnchecked
  • Post a quote from your religious tradition (scripture, a quote from a religious leader, etc) tagged with #LoveYourNeighbor #HateUnchecked
  • Post a video of yourself or with others stating what in your religious tradition drives you to stand against this hate, tagged with #LoveYourNeighbor #HateUnchecked
  • Post a photo of yourself (in clerical clothing, if that applies to you) – alone or with others in your community- holding the attached sign and tag with #LoveYourNeighbor #HateUnchecked
  • Some sample tweets:

o   Silence from the majority will destroy our country.  We can no longer sit back.  We must all raise our voices against #HateUnchecked.  #LoveYourNeighbor

o   My religious tradition teaches us to #LoveYourNeighbor.  We won’t sit silently when there is #HateUnchecked.

o   Our country is at its best when all communities are treated with equal dignity and respect #LoveYourNeighbor #HateUnchecked

o   “Do unto others” means religious freedom for all #LoveYourNeighbor #HateUnchecked

If you want to get together with others this weekend, you might consider hosting a public watch party of Unity Production Foundation’s new short film, “American Muslims: Facts vs Fiction” or one of their many other excellent productions on Islam, and hold a conversation about the issue of anti-Muslim bigotry in America.

There are many ways to engage and stand up with your Muslim neighbors this weekend.  Please tweet at us @S2SCampaign and let us know what your community does to come together in support of American Muslims this weekend!

In Solidarity,

Catherine

Personally, I love Catherine’s creative response! If you’d like to see another one, I’ll leave you with a link to a very different kind of response, but equally beautiful, that was successfully tried before (the photo beginning this article comes from this event):  http://tempe.redemptionaz.com/resources/blog-posts/detail/a-bright-night-for-the-church-a-recap-of-the-phoenix-mosque-protest/

Thank you for caring enough to take time to look at these links. Our country is not under attack by Islam. It is under attack by hate and prejudice. These can be found in people claiming any religious faith.

Is our love big enough to take this challenge? #LoveYourNeighbor





Love Excludes Prejudice

4 10 2015

mosque protest

 

There are anti-Islam protests—some armed—planned across America this Sunday, October 10th. Please take a moment to read about it here: http://imagine2050.newcomm.org/2015/09/29/anti-muslim-protests-some-armed-planned-for-at-least-20-sites-across-the-country/

How does that article make you feel? Is it possible to be a patriot and yet love your neighbor too?

This Sunday my wife and I enjoyed a wonderful church service in Indonesia, specifically for the poor, the prostitutes, and the mentally insane. About 60 people, or half the congregation, came from this last group. These were women who used to wander the streets naked, or were rejected by their families because they had become unable to function in the world. Some of them still don’t speak at all. But they were welcome at this special church service for them.

I noticed the worship band was made up of good-looking, smartly dressed young people who were there to serve others. As they sang, everyone was invited to dance to the music, which many of the crazy people seemed to really enjoy. Those able to speak were invited to take the stage and share how God had answered their prayers. It was a beautiful, joyful moment in the week when everyone’s individual problems could be put aside to belong to God’s family together.

The next morning I was reading the Passion translation of the Bible, and came across this heading to James chapter 2: The Royal Law of Love Excludes Prejudice. Verses 8-9 instruct us: Your calling is to fulfill the royal law of love as given to us in this Scripture: “You must love and value your neighbor as you love and value yourself!” For keeping this law is the noble way to live. But when you show prejudice you commit sin and you violate this royal law of love!

Here James is quoting both Moses and Jesus. He reminds us that following Jesus doesn’t mean there is no law—the Law of Love has become our “noble way to live.”

This love excludes all forms of prejudice. Whether it’s telling a black person to sit in the back of the bus, or giving a woman lower wages than a man for the same job, or refusing to sell your wedding cakes to a homosexual, or protesting the building of a mosque/church/any other house of worship in your community, or talking about any group of people with negative stereotypes—there is no room in the Royal Law of Love for any kind of prejudice.

The offering this church took from the poor and crazy I doubt would cover the cost of electricity for their sound system or their bread and juice for communion. Did they really need a full worship band with five vocalists and two dancers? After all, half the congregation might go home and immediately forget everything that happened. This church gave their best for the poor just as they probably had given in an earlier service that morning for the rich.

So I ask the American Christians reading this blog—is protesting at Islamic Centers across the nation the best we can give our Muslim neighbors? If not, what could we give them that shows our love? I’m talking about showing the same kind of love if those were our church members being victimized by hate? If that protest was outside our church, instead of our neighbor’s house of worship, what would we do?

One of the great challenges of being a peacemaker is loving all sides of an issue—loving the victimized Muslim neighbor, and loving the protesters shouting their hate at the same time. For those of you living in one of the targeted cities, I encourage you to ask God for your own creative way to fight prejudice with the Royal Law of Love.

“For keeping this law is the noble way to live.”





Web Interview with Jim on Loving God and Others

2 02 2015

bc12e5bb[1]   This week on the always uplifting blog 7 Christians (http://7christians.blogspot.com/), Victoria Buck has posted Part 1 of an interview with me. Part 2 will be posted next Monday. She asks some really insightful questions. If you’re interested in what other American Christians are concerned about regarding Islam, check out this interview!

I was excited to see the interview was picked up by the First Manuscript Daily News:  http://paper.li/DaxMacGregor/1308327425

Victoria is also an author of the futuristic Christian thriller, Wake the Dead, available at Amazon.com, and a Christian who publicly takes a stand for the Great Commandment—to love God with all our hearts and to love our neighbors as ourselves—even if that neighbor is from a different religion that scares us.

My wife arrived home yesterday from a trip to London, and one thing that stood out to her was how many Muslims she saw at the airport, at the grocery store, just about everywhere. She said it felt like going to parts of our home town of Los Angeles where entire neighborhoods are Asian or Latino and a Caucasian or African-American really stands out. Many of the perspectives from this interview address an American audience for whom opportunities to love Muslims may be fewer than our British counterparts today, but looking at population growth and immigration trends, we know this will be an increasing opportunity in America for us and our children.

I hope you see it like that—as an opportunity. I recently heard of yet another Christian leader who wants to move to the mountains of Montana to escape all the troubles coming to America. To me, this is the exact opposite of what Jesus taught and lived.

When the Samaritans built a cultural and religious wall to keep the Jews out, what did Jesus do? John 4:4 says that “he had to go through Samaria.” No Jew ever went through Samaria—from Galilee in the north they would cross the Jordan River, walk south along it and then recross the river to visit Jerusalem rather than take the direct route through Samaria. Why does the Bible say Jesus had to go through Samaria?

I believe it’s because the kind of love emanating from the Messiah’s heart had to go touch everyone, regardless of the human walls built by either side. Jesus never walked down the opposite side of the street to avoid the demonized, the prostitutes, the Roman soldiers, the lepers, or even the hypocritical religious Jewish leaders who were out to kill him. He even told his disciples that he was going to Jerusalem to die. He went to the cross, not away from it.

So the next time you are in a rush and have to go through the part of town that’s different from your culture, or have to go to the drugstore or gas station attended by someone who doesn’t look like you, try to look at it through Jesus’ eyes. Maybe you have to go there because there’s a wall that needs to be broken by Jesus’ love in you.

Check out the interview at: http://bit.ly/165ZSGk . And maybe post a comment thanking Victoria for being a Christian doing her part to make a difference. Enjoy!





Jihad and Jesus

21 01 2015

Beheading   We are all troubled by the images of terrorist acts in France, or ISIS beheadings in the Middle East. It’s shocking and offensive to us that civilians are often the target. The term jihad may be the most hated word in the world today.

But before we join all the political pundits pointing fingers, let’s remember that the concept of jihad, or “holy war,” didn’t start with Islam. The Bible has several examples of God sending His people to kill others. Joshua and Saul were commanded to lead genocide of whole people groups, including the children. Samson initiated a suicide attack that murdered 3,000 men and women. This week I was reading in II Kings 9-10 about Jehu—this story has a military coup, the beheading of 70 relatives of the king, the mass slaughter of religious leaders of a rival religion in their own house of worship—doesn’t this story sound like something we might read about in the Middle East today? Yet God was behind it: His prophet commanded Jehu to do it. At one point in the story, Jehu says, “Come with me and see my zeal for the Lord” as he goes on a killing spree. And when he’s done, God commends him!

Today we see the same stories played out on the nightly news, of beheadings and massacres by those “zealous” for the One they worship, believing that He will award their deeds. Many people have compared modern-day Islam to life in the Bible’s Old Testament. Their understanding of God as Creator, sender of the prophets and holy books, and man’s responsibility to follow His law, including giving alms, keeping prescribed fasts, and going on pilgrimage, has extensive parallels. One more similarity is an acceptance of violence done in the name of God.

The coming of Jesus changed everything. The Bible says Jesus is God’s eternal Word that took on flesh (John 1:14). God met man in the person of a Messiah. The Bible also says that looking at Jesus is the best way to understand what God is like, since he’s “the image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15).

Jesus had enemies—the Jewish religious leaders jealous of his favor with the masses; King Herod, fearful of any political rival; Pilate and the Romans, their occupied territory threatened by popular uprisings. Some of Jesus’ disciples wanted to fight with swords, see Jesus overthrow the Romans and become their new king. But Jesus was bringing a different kind of Kingdom, launched by love and pursuing peace. Even through Jesus’ death on the cross he treated his enemies with compassion, one of his last, dying utterances being this prayer: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do” (Luke 23:34). All of Jesus’ teachings about “love your enemies,” and “turn the other cheek” he lived consistently to the end.

If looking at Jesus is the best way to understand God, the implications of this are profound. Because of Jesus, if we say we love God, we have to love man. Because of Jesus, when we accept Jesus’ divinity and follow him, even if we thought it was justified to kill in the name of God, we can never kill in the name of Jesus, for it’s the opposite of all Jesus stood for.

The cross started as a symbol of death. During the crusades of the Middle Ages it unfortunately became a symbol of Christian warfare and atrocities. But for those who accept this mystery of God’s Word becoming man, it is the most perfect symbol of love. One beam points up to heaven, representing the love between God and man; the other beam stretches left to right, representing the love between man and man, both of these based on Jesus at the center.

I have many wonderful Muslim friends who absolutely condemn the barbaric acts of ISIS and other jihadists today. They are good people with a sincere faith. I also happen to believe that the Messiah came not just for the Jews, but like the Prophet John said, Jesus is “the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” (John 1:29), while another prophet ascribed to Jesus the title, “Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6). For those who are zealous for God in any religion, I say to you, that following Jesus changes everything.