Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Following Jesus into Real Friendship with OTHERS: Sacrifice and Blessing

The fruit of Jesus-centered peacemaking is real, authentic friendship.

This is much more than a politely-tolerate-one-another level of “friendship,” because in Jesus’ economy tolerance is a bar set too low and He calls us to actively love others, even those with whom we have real differences. Of course, He modeled this in an ultimate way by dying for us while we were still sinners and enemies of God so that we might become friends of God (Romans 5:8), and He compels us to follow His example by living sacrificially for others (1 Peter 2:21).

Jesus calls us to be the kind of friends that Paul describes in Romans 12, the kind who are “friends” to even their enemies and who intentionally feel the weight of what others are experiencing, thus sharing in their joys and sorrows (Romans 12:9-21).

Real friends enjoy one another’s company. Real friends play together and help one another. Real friends make scheduling and financial sacrifices so they can spend time together. Real friends talk openly and respectfully about deep matters of the heart. They share their convictions about faith and family and politics, eager to learn and persuade all at once. And real friends do all this with an abiding confidence that their friendship is bigger than their differences and that love (a commitment to pursue good for someone) covers a multitude of sins and disagreements.

Here in Raleigh, our Peace Catalyst community is working to foster these kinds of friendships between Muslims and Christians—friendships in which we laugh and cry together, talk openly about our deepest convictions, and work together for the common good.

What follows are a few recent highlights from our friendship-building efforts:


LOVING OTHERS in the Way of Jesus

LOVING OTHERS in the Way of Jesus: A Kingdom Approach to Reaching Out to Those Not Like Me is a Bible-based, Jesus-centered curriculum we developed to help Christians follow Jesus into authentic friendship with those outside of their own faith communities. We have taught it in churches as an intensive weekend seminar, as a class that meets weekly over eight to twelve weeks, and we are even working on a short book version of the material.

In putting together the course, we try to be very intentional about scheduling occasional guest speakers who represent rather different perspectives on life and faith. Typically, we invite Muslims to speak, and we encourage the Christian class participants to approach our Muslim guests with absolute honor and respect and in the humble posture of folks seeking to learn and love and bless. My conviction is that these guest speaker nights are infinitely more instructive and impactful than all my lectures combined!

So it was that a few weeks ago we had Samar Shawa as a guest speaker in our present offering of LOVING OTHERS. Samar and her husband, Iyad, are dear friends of my family. They are Arab Muslims of Palestinian descent who are now American citizens, having lived and worked and raised their children in the Raleigh area for 24 years. Samar has an advanced degree in sharia law and is all-at-once gracious and delightful and opinionated, which is exactly why I asked her to present.



Samar Shawa pictured at far right next to her husband and other Muslim and Christian leaders in a Raleigh restaurant

During our class session, Samar shared about growing up in the Middle East, her outright fear at the thought of moving to America, and how North Carolina truly has become their home. She also spoke about how September 11 changed everything for them, noting that in the days after the attacks she and Iyad went door-to-door in their neighborhood to introduce themselves and to denounce the attacks. All in all, the class discussion with Samar was brilliant and beautiful. Class participants asked hard, heartfelt questions, and Samar responded with gracious honesty. Before the evening was over, we all laughed together and cried together and even prayed together--with class members praying powerful prayers of blessing over our dear Muslim guest. We all agreed that we'd like to have Samar return to share further, and we're working to set that up soon!

As Samar was leaving, she told me that she will brag to all of her Muslim friends about this church that is showering her with love and respect!!


Thus, at the halfway point of our LOVING OTHERS course, the response from class members, including several pastors, has been overwhelmingly positive and encouraging. I can't wait to see where God takes us over the second half of the course.



Turkish Muslims Invade an Evangelical Church Facility 


On May 3, about 15 Muslim Turks invaded the sanctuary of Fellowship of Christ, an amazing Evangelical Presbyterian Church in Cary, North Carolina. 


With Fellowship of Christ’s support, we lead a missional community that we call the Blessing Our Community Group, a group of Jesus-followers who purpose together to consistently share the love and blessings of God with others in our community. On the first Saturday evening in May, we did this by inviting one of the local Turkish communities to join us for an evening of food, fellowship, and friendship-building. Counting children, we had over 40 people present, with a rather equal split of Muslims and Christians.


We kicked off the night with a meal prepared painstakingly and lovingly by the Christians. Muslims typically follow strict dietary rules, and church members wanted to honor and bless our guests. So, the Christians purchased meat from special Muslim markets, learned the ins and outs of halal (permissible) food, and prepared a feast for our guests. The Turks were visibly moved by this act of hospitality and love, and one of the leaders noted that he had never before been in an Evangelical church building and that they had never before had Christians prepare halal food for them. 


After dinner, we had a human raffle. The Christians wrote their names and phone numbers on slips of paper, and then the Muslims drew out names randomly. The prize was a coffee date to be scheduled in the month of May, so that each Muslim woman would meet for coffee with a Christian woman and each Muslim man with a Christian man. Both Muslims and Christians were excited about this!!


To wrap up the evening, I interviewed three of our Turkish guests--two men and a woman--who had agreed in advance to share themselves with the group in this way. In the interview, we learned about their educational and professional backgrounds, their experiences as Muslims in America, and something of their fears and hopes. It was a beautiful, wonderful evening together!


Afterward, our Turkish guests kept telling me that they were overwhelmed by the love and kindness of the Christians, and the Christians raved about the evening as well! I can't wait to hear the stories that come from all the coffee meetings. 



Church-Synagogue Gardening Project


Merl Mangum, our brother and Peace Catalyst colleague, loves to garden. Over the last couple of years, Merl has been the impetus behind our getting Muslim, Christians, and Jews to garden together with produce going to the local food banks.


Merl has done it again!


Because of Merl's gentle persistence, Christ Baptist and Beth Meyer Synagogue, faith communities whose facilities are next door to one another in North Raleigh, have broken ground on a joint community gardening project. Christ Baptist is a very large Southern Baptist Church, and Beth Meyer is a very large fellowship in United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. The two communities have started simply with one raised-bed plot, and the Jewish and Christian youth groups will work together to manage and maintain the garden.


This is an amazing way to for people with real differences to begin building genuine friendship and partnership with one another.



Youth from Beth Meyer Synagogue and Christ Baptist getting dirty together!!
Merl Mangum with Bob Stevens of Christ Baptist and Steve LaSala of Beth Meyer Synagogue--both lay leaders who are key friends of Peace Catalyst Raleigh and who were instrumental in the church-synagogue gardening project.

My Question for You

With our Muslim friends here in the Raleigh area, we garden, we exercise, we have family play dates, we celebrate birthdays, we play golf, we share meals in one another’s homes and coffee dates out, and we even pray together. We try to find every possible reason to get together, and we prioritize these friendships in our schedules and with our finances. Real friendship requires sacrifice and commitment, and multi-faith friendships are even more challenging. In the end, however, the blessings far outweigh the work.


When we followed Jesus into authentic friendship with those outside of our own faith community, our lives were transformed in three big ways: 

  1. We found that our faith in and love for God expanded and enlivened.
  2. We began loving others more and doing more practical good for them.
  3. We were and continue to be surprised by unprecedented opportunities to share with others our deepest convictions about life and faith, all in the context of real friendship.
So here's the question: Will you join us in following Jesus into real friendships with OTHERS?