Fifteen Years

I wrote the first draft of this on Sunday, September 11. Normally I write, edit, and publish in the space of a few hours at most, but I decided to hold off on posting this that day. I wanted to give myself time to reflect, and to let a few others read it and give me their thoughts. I really wanted to make sure I was communicating clearly, and that the message that is most important is the thing that’s getting through. I’ve really questioned whether I should publish it at all, but I—and those I shared it with—think it is an important perspective to share. I hope I am able to effectively communicate the way I see these things.

So you’re probably aware it’s September 11. Fifteen years on, it seems like much of the internet is paying tribute in some way. Honestly, I’m pretty tired this weekend and don’t really feel like writing right now, but as we were praying for the families of the victims both before church as the worship/production team, and again at the end of the service with the entire congregation, I found myself thinking about it and feeling like maybe I should chime in with my perspective, which—as with most things—is a bit different from the average American’s.

As I said, many, many people today have already called that day a tragedy, and prayed for the families of victims, first responders, and others affected. I agree with all of them, but I’m not writing to say what has been said a lot today already. What struck me today is what’s happened in the fifteen years since. How the world has changed. The loss of thousands of lives that day was tragic, but that tragedy has rippled across the years, in many more thousands of lives lost, in the way people think, and in the way people treat those around them. And frankly I think that is just as tragic if not more so.

You may be aware I grew up in the Muslim part of the world, but we happened to be back in the States in September 2001. By the time we went back a year later, air travel and airport security had tightened up like never before. The US had sent troops into Afghanistan, which affected that entire region, including where we lived. And Americans had become far more suspicious and fearful of the rest of the world, particularly Muslims—a trend that has only continued in the decade and a half since.

Since that day my family and I have been torn between two worlds—the country my passport says I’m from and where I’ve found myself living for the past six years now, and the country that at least a part of me still calls home all these years later, even though most Americans seem to think we’re crazy to have lived there. And I’ve seen a lot of misunderstanding, distrust, even hatred from both sides towards the other. Many Americans now equate Islam with small, right-wing, militant groups of Muslims, assuming all Muslims are out to kill them. And many Muslims see America as the country that has deployed troops and drone strikes against much of the Muslim world—killing their friends and loved ones, civilians who happen to be near the militants.

But the stark, night and day difference is that the Muslims who we lived among never once directed their anger at America towards us, but instead welcomed us into their homes, fed us, called us guests in their country. How many Americans who claim to follow Jesus have done the same for the Muslims who live among us and feel more isolated and vulnerable than ever right now?

In the fifteen years since 9/11, I’ve seen the world rally around not only New York, but Paris, Haiti, Japan, and other places where tragedy has struck in the form of either violence or natural disasters. And yet when disasters or extremists strike the Muslim world,[1] the rest of the world either (a) doesn’t notice, or (b) shrugs and says “They’re all terrorists anyways.”

Or worse, expresses the sentiment that this is somehow God’s judgment on the unbelievers.

I can’t really think of anything that makes me more angry than reading that. (Though maybe it was my fault for being in the YouTube comments.)

When we say that, how are we any better than the fundamentalists we fear, yelling “God is great; death to the infidel”?

And now, to top it all off, we have running for president a man who is not only praised for his blatant racism, but has built a platform that takes this fear of the outsider to its natural conclusion—throwing out foreigners, building a wall, separating ourselves from the rest of the scary, scary world, and punishing people for things they had nothing to do with, things done by others who claim to follow the same beliefs. What’s shocking is not that such a person exists. What’s frightening and disturbing is that enough of the country agrees with him that he is one of two people with a shot at the White House in two months. I hope to God this country is not so hateful and fearful as to let him get there. I hope we all realize the danger of electing such a person and vote for someone else.

I’m realizing now this has become way more politically charged than I first intended when I sat down to write what was meant to be a tribute—not just to the violence of fifteen years ago, but to the war-torn and distrustful world that has resulted from that in the years since. I meant this to be more wholesome, more contemplative. But I guess as I got writing, a lot has come out that I’ve felt the need to say for a long time now. I hope what I’ve said isn’t too distasteful on this day, though it almost certainly will offend or even anger some people.

But for those of you still reading, join me in praying—yes, for those affected by the attack of fifteen years ago, and for the people who continue to be misled to think these things are right, but also for those who face persecution simply because they are Muslim or appear to be. And ultimately, for peace, for God’s kingdom to come, his will to be done. For love and reconciliation to win out over fear and hatred.

Come, Lord Jesus.

  1. I feel the need to point out that terrorists have killed far more Muslims than non-Muslims worldwide. At the same time, most mass shootings within the US—all of which are acts of terror—have been at the hands of non-immigrant Americans. Though the media seems to reserve the label of terrorism for violence committed by Muslims. ↩︎

Where Is Your Sting?

You may have heard of the explosion that rocked Lahore, Pakistan, yesterday. Having grown up in that part of the world, it hits pretty close to home for me.

The sad thing is that it isn’t even an unusual occurrence. The sad thing is how—well, mundane—these blasts have become in the region. How often I feel a buzz and look down at my wrist to see yet another news alert with yet another body count. And I have to wonder at just how detached I’ve become. I look down and all I see are numbers. Maybe it’s a defense mechanism. If every one took an emotional toll it’d be too much. But then once in a while, something makes me take a step back and feel that emotional reaction to the evil and tragedy of it all. And it breaks my heart.

And yesterday it hit harder than it has in a while. Because yesterday those buzzes on my wrist came literally as we were singing that Christ has risen, that he is victorious over death. That he brings light to the darkness. While out there in the world it’s as dark as ever, and death is still very, very real.

I feel like there should be some takeaway or something, but I got nothing. The thing is, this is where we are right now. On the one hand we proclaim Jesus’ resurrection and victory over the evil one and death itself, and on the other we’re still waiting for the final, utter vanquishing of evil, and for the restoration of creation to be completed. And until then we live in a world where a bomb will kill dozens even as we celebrate Jesus’ resurrection.

So as I stood in that auditorium yesterday, as the alerts came in with the climbing death toll, I sang through the tears that were welling up, “You give life, you are love, you bring light to the darkness.” And I sang it praying that his light would pierce through the darkness hanging over Lahore right now.

Because as dark as it seems right now, the darkest day in history was that Saturday two thousand years ago. But when all hope seemed lost, Jesus came back. And the very thing that seemed to have beaten him is what clinched his victory. So we celebrate that victory, we proclaim it and live in it, even in the face of unspeakable evil. God’s light is breaking through the darkness, and we are carrying it, knowing victory is ours.

Death is swallowed up in victory.
O death, where is your victory?
O death, where is your sting?

1 Corinthians 15:54-55

We’re in This Together

You may or may not have heard of the controversy that’s erupted around Michael and Lisa Gungor, the Christian musicians who’ve caused an uproar by saying that they don’t believe in a six-day creation or a literal Adam and Eve. I’m not about to wade into the creation-evolution debate, and I know Christians are increasingly on both sides of the fence on the topic, but I have a few thoughts about how I’ve seen this news about Gungor unfold and the reactions of many Christians to it. Actually, these are all things that bother me in general, and this specific episode has just been the latest example of how these play out every time this kind of thing happens.

First, it really frustrates me that a lot of people seem to be all worked up over this without even having read the original post itself, except as quoted by those criticizing it. Now, I don’t know for sure that people aren’t reading it, but from what I can tell, and from what I know of human behavior, many or most haven’t.

The original blog post, What Do We Believe?, was actually written back in February. I don’t remember hearing anything about this back then. It’s only in the last week or so, after some Christian site picked this up and wrote about it, that it’s suddenly become a huge deal. Ironically, the whole point of Gungor’s post was that we shouldn’t be so quick to pass judgment on each other for our differences in belief.

In the last couple days, Michael Gungor has written two follow up posts, I’m With You and Part 2.

I don’t think anyone should be commenting on the issue without reading all three of these in their entirety. This is really just a general principle, as far as I’m concerned. It’s a bad idea to jump to conclusions about anything, let alone voice them, based solely on second-hand information. It’s irresponsible and can really end up making you look foolish.

Today Ken Ham’s response to “I’m With You” showed up in my Facebook news feed. Until this morning, I’d heard bits and pieces of this whole controversy, but hadn’t really paid much attention or looked into it myself. But today it was all over Facebook, so I started reading up. The first link I saw happened to be Ken Ham’s, so I started there.

He takes all the quotes out of context, making them seem far more unreasonable, aggressive, or even crazy. But when I clicked through to the full post, I took those same words in a completely different light in context. People have way too much power when quoting to cast the quote in almost any light they want for readers to rely on the quotes as an accurate representation of the original.

Another thing that bothers me is how a lot of Christians react when another believer, especially a well-known one, even begins to ask questions about things we believe or consider other interpretations of Scripture than the traditionally held one. Especially about certain topics—this being one of them. People get not only defensive, but aggressive. Again, I’m addressing a number of times this has happened fairly recently. Several months back, Dan Haseltine, the frontman for Jars of Clay, started asking questions about the Bible and homosexuality on Twitter, just looking for open and honest discussion. The response was venomous. This has happened again and again. I mean, is it wrong to ask questions? Look at the Psalms. How often do David and the other psalmists question things, even God himself? But what we see is that through that, they and their faith come out the other end stronger.

Another article I read this morning was on Relevant, titled Why Are People So Upset About What Gungor Said? The whole thing is a really good read, and makes a lot of good points that I won’t repeat here. But one passage in there says:

I use this analogy often, as Christians we tend to act like we have a belief system that is like a bubble: It is fragile and easily popped if anything even touches any part of it. We think we have to protect our bubble.

But when did the Christian faith become so fragile? It is OK to ask the tough questions, to question our beliefs to find them to be true (and if not true to find the truth God is revealing to us).

I mean, really, if we believe what we believe is true, why should we be afraid to question or discuss it? Aren’t we confident that it will hold up to scrutiny? And if it doesn’t, should we be believing it at all? I know a lot of people in the church will disagree with me here, but in one point at least I agree with Gungor: our faith should be intellectual. If the Scriptures are true, the evidence will back them up. If the evidence doesn’t support our particular interpretation of Scripture, maybe we need to think about another interpretaton that makes more sense. This has happened time and time again over the centuries. And it was not popular in the church when that paradigm shift began, but over time, it became taken for granted. When was the last time you heard someone arguing for a literal intepretation of the Bible’s references to the corners of the earth or the sun going around the earth?

Now, please, before you jump on me, I am not agreeing (or disagreeing) with Gungor’s stance on creation. I am intentionally trying to steer clear of that debate, because it is beyond the scope of this blog and frankly I just don’t feel equipped to tackle that issue in such a public venue. But my point is that, in this area and others, I don’t think we should be afraid to look at the evidence and let it inform our faith, so that our faith can grow and become stronger. I know a lot of people will think that’s counterintuitive. But I know when I look at the sciences and the way the world works—from the way these mathematical equations and constants keep showing up again and again in nature, keeping the world spinning and functioning, to the miracle of our bodies, how they are constructed and how they work all the way down to the most microscopic of details, to the vast cosmos full of stars and galaxies more massive than we can possibly comprehend, and nebulae, pulsars, black holes—my mind is blown again and again, and I can’t help but stand in awe of the God who made it all, and set it up to work the way it does. (Especially in light of how hard it can be for me to make a few lines of code work the way I want them to.) And maybe I’m skating dangerously close to the edge here, but honestly, if it turned out that he chose to use the mechanics of evolution to create it all, that wouldn’t hurt my faith a bit.

Now, all that said, the Gungors aren’t just asking questions, but openly already believe something other than the traditional six-day, young earth creationism of orthodox Christianity. But that brings me to my next, and most important, point: How much does that matter, really, to the rest of us? More importantly, does this trump the unity we should have with them as the body of Christ? They still believe and follow Jesus, and all the essentials held up for two thousand years as the core beliefs of Christianity. I would hope everyone reading this would agree that there’s no reason this disqualifies them from being followers of Jesus. Because it doesn’t. And if they’re followers of Jesus, and we’re followers of Jesus, we are one. Whether we like it or not. Jesus said we would be known as his disciples by our love for each other (John 13:35). When I look at the perception of the church—especially in the West—by most of the outside world, that doesn’t make the top of the list. I don’t think that even makes the cut. Not only that, he prayed that we would live in such unity that the world would know he was sent by God (John 17:21). All of our disputes and venomous attacks and hatred for each other over these issues fly in the face of these verses.

If you take nothing else away from this post, take this: we are following Jesus. Jesus, who came to earth and turned the world on its head. He turned the Pharisees’ worldview on its head by challenging the centuries of pointless moral code they had built up that was only making themselves feel good and oppressing everyone around them; by telling them that more important than any of that, we are to love God and love those around us. And then he lived that out by hanging out with everyone from the Pharisees to the most despised people in society. He turned the world’s social order on its head by choosing fishermen, tax collectors, and revolutionaries as his disciples, and teaching them to love each other and to live by serving others. And then he sent them out to change the world. He turned justice on its head by suffering and dying with our sin on his shoulders, and then conquering death, so that we could join him in this new way of living. We need to live by keeping our eyes on him, and by helping the guy next to us who’s also trying to follow him, regardless of our differences. We’re in this together, and Jesus is our guide, leading by example.