As a fourth year medical student on a rotation in medical oncology, part of my morning duties were to check on patients prior to rounding with the team, to have a sense of how they had fared overnight and how they were feeling that morning. It was during this pre-rounding that I met a Muslim woman receiving treatment for leukemia. I remember nothing specific about her condition except that there was this sense that there was little more the doctors could do.
The woman herself seemed weak, always in bed, yet peaceful, as evidenced through her reliable and gentle smile. Our interactions were warm, our words exchanged soft though few, and somehow, through our brief interactions, she perceived my own weariness.
“Have you read this?” she asked me one morning, her right arm extended halfway in my direction, her fingers clasped around a small book.
I think my first thought was, I thought it was spelled ‘Koran”.
“No, I haven’t read it,” I told her.
“Take it,” she said and extended her arm further.
“Oh no, I couldn’t take your book,” I declined quickly. Why was she offering it to me? Where would I put it during rounds? Why would I take it if I had no intention of reading it?
But her eyes were insistent, and kind. It seemed so important to her.
So I took it, thanking her, and I put it on my bookshelf, wondering when I would ever have the time or desire to read it.
That copy of the Quran moved with me a few times as I moved east for residency and moved again when we purchased our home, but after awhile it must have ended up in one of the giveaway boxes, as purging remains a necessarily frequent exercise given our limited square footage. It pains me that I never read it. I would like to say that I did, to honor my patient’s memory. And yet, otherwise, I didn’t see the need. I was happy with my religion. Why should I learn hers?
There was a time, years later, that I began to feel isolated as a person of faith. I wanted more people around me to know what I believed and why. When I spoke to women of other faiths, I learned that they had similar concerns. They also wished to be seen and understood. It was around this time that I hosted an interfaith tea party for mothers of different faiths from my kids’ school. While I was a little worried about sharing my own beliefs, I shouldn’t have worried. The other mothers were so eager to share their own experiences and ask questions of each other that all I had to do was refill tea cups!
Meeting these women, including Muslims from different cultural backgrounds, and reading Faith Ed: Teaching About Religion in an Age of Intolerance by Linda Wertheimer, and then reading Carl Medearis’s Speaking of Jesus: The Art of Not-Evangelism, all snowballed into this need to learn more about Islam. I specifically wanted to know what Muslims are taught about Jesus. But besides that, I wanted to know about this religion because it concerns so many -- the millions who practice it...and the many who fear its teaching.
As I began reading the book, I noted the way the author acknowledges that her “engagement with other worldviews had been more about pageantry than pluralism…[and that she] might identify as someone who celebrated diversity, but in reality, [her] worldview was pretty cramped.” (34) How true is this for so many of us? How insular are our circles?
In order to uphold her value of examining the beliefs of others, as well as to debunk the myths that lead to Islamophobia, the author immerses herself in a year long study of the Quran. I appreciate her efforts to provide multiple Muslim perspectives, probing the Sheikh on sensitive issues as well as conducting interviews with Pakastani and Egyptian Muslims who hold different interpretations of the Quran.
Aren’t Muslims right to seek justice, for example? Isn’t that a “cornerstone virtue of Islam”? The Sheikh replies yes, but… “There [would be] justice, ultimately, he said, but it would not necessarily arrive in this life. Allah would provide it in the Hereafter.” He recommended compromise and peace first as a smarter strategy to buy “space and time to do something, to build something” that might later give their people strength. (243) Above all, the Sheikh stresses the Muslim to seek God first and let the minutia of this life, the slanders, the slights, the injustices, fall away. He recommends leading by example, to let a quiet life speak for itself. “True freedom,” he says, “means freedom from desire. True freedom means freedom of thinking.” (255) Have faith, he says. They can not take that from you.
Americans, on the other hand, he views as “slaves of desire, and that’s not good for people. These things are more likely to bring death to America than any Al-Qaeda, any destruction of towers.” (255) A bold statement! And yet, the philosophy and the actions seem linked in a disturbing way. Along her journey the author learns that very few extremists studied at traditional madrasas or Islamic boarding schools. Rather, they were Western-educated. “It was ‘Western-educated types,’ not madrasa graduates, [the Sheikh] said, who harbored the biggest grudges against the West. ‘They want what the West has,’ he said. ‘They want power.’” (266)
Given the severity of potential outcomes from misinterpretation, it was difficult to hear though that the Quran could only be fully understood in classical Arabic. Only after years of study, said the Sheikh, could one purport to interpret the passages justly. The author cycles back to this idea several times as she finds many Muslims doing their own research, ending up with what her Sheikh would call cursory results.
Similarly, in Christianity, the Bible is a complex text, and without guidance from a pastor or community of believers, we too might misinterpret its meaning. On the other hand, I love that the Bible can be translated into every language without losing its potency. I love that it remains a living text that can speak to its reader directly. I love that it's a physical demonstration that God’s love is meant for all.
As the Sheikh explained the origins and practices of his religion, he necessarily had to acknowledge differences of belief with regard to Judaism and Christianity. I didn’t find his views to be antagonistic, and yet, his perspective was so different from mine, it made me want to reach through the pages and suggest alternative or deeper explanations for what I felt were misperceptions. Basically, I couldn’t agree with his interpretation of Muhammad’s life, and he couldn’t agree with my interpretation of Jesus’s identity.
It was hard to read the Sheikh’s statement that “Christians...went to extremes by confusing their prophet Jesus with the divine.” (33) For sure, Paul and the apostles went to extremes to spread the Gospel, but this seems to skip over the beginning of the story -- when the disciples struggled to believe, when it was God himself who went to extremes to rescue sinners through Jesus.
Similarly, while my religion agrees with the Sheikh that to worship any God but God is a sin (shirk in Islam), the mystery of the Trinity requires avid study, and while difficult to define, is not impossible.
While the Sheikh claimed, “Christians are not so concerned about what Jesus did…[whereas] our spirituality comes through [acting] as the Prophet Muhammad did. We want the closeness of God through this history.” (53) On the contrary, Christian do study what Jesus did so that they can better understand and grow closer to God.
On the other hand, in so many examples, I felt like the Sheikh and my goals (mainly to know God and honor him) were completely aligned.
I wanted to celebrate Islam’s perspective on submission to God, the prostration in prayer...and share the beauty in Jesus’s message to submit to each other as we submit to God, to be humble in all areas of life. I love the idea of designated times of day to pray, to create “a separate peace” sacred to God. (110) Of course, Christian monks and nuns have prayed according to the clock for centuries as well; the concept is present in Christianity...yet not as well seen or likely as well practiced.
I loved learning how Islam is rooted in the prophets and other Bible stories. And yet, it was shocking to read about differences that shifted the interpretation. For example, Islam says that Mary, the mother of Jesus, is descended from King David, and not Joseph. I loved learning that Muslims believe that Jesus ascended into heaven, and yet, I am confused as to why they don’t believe he was crucified first. I loved learning about how important women were in early Islam...just as they were important in early Christianity.
I also appreciated the author’s observation of the “porous quality between a spiritual experience and ordinary life [that] is a feature -- and a strength -- of Muslim life.” (213) This reminded me of what Christianity has to say about the importance of bodies, in addition to that of souls, which I considered while reading Tish Harrison Warren’s book Liturgy of the Ordinary and also recall now as I remember a pastor admonishing us to be “spiritual in natural things and natural in spiritual things.”
At the end of her journey, the author circles back to a secondary purpose for this book -- to consider faith for herself. Near the beginning of the book when she is discussing her non-religious upbringing, she quotes her father:
“‘I would love to believe,’ my father would say, spreading his arms wide, as though waiting for some deity to arrive in his embrace. None ever did.” (37)
By the end, the author does not convert either but admits that the “year with my own sheikh and the Quran provided [her] with many moments of grace…[where she] found comfort in how small [she] felt reading the text, as when [she] considered the images of the “Lord of the heavens and the earth and everything in between…” (291)
On the other hand, the author is disappointed that the Sheikh has made no conversion of his own, no move toward her worldview. The author takes him to an art museum and wishes for him to acknowledge the beauty in the paintings which she believes pay tribute to her secularist worldview. She is discouraged when he does not. And while reading this, I felt similarly frustrated. Here was a woman mesmerized by the beauty of art, which I view as a potential portal to appreciating the beauty of God. I feel the Sheikh missed an opportunity to reach her.
The author did, however, receive renewed faith in her own beliefs. As she writes, “Our lessons were rites paying tribute to my belief that to be fully human is to try to understand others.” (300) And yet, she concedes that “understanding difference” is not solely a secularist’s value, but rather “also a Quranic one. Only through diversity, says the Quran, can you truly learn the shape and heft of your own humanity.”
I would add that “understanding difference” is also a Christian value, and after reading this text, I appreciated the chance to reexamine my own beliefs as I learned about the faith of others.
Here’s the situation: I applied to a competitive writing course this past spring but was rejected. (I wanted to personally thank you for applying. I’m so sorry we couldn’t offer you a spot in this year’s class. I was, however, impressed with your application and I hope you’ll consider taking more classes at…)
Why not me? I thought I had a grand application!
One of my writer friends got in though, and when she mentioned receiving a required reading list as part of her workload, I asked for a copy. I figured that just because I wasn’t enrolled didn’t mean I couldn’t learn alongside.
Skimming the list of books on craft, I immediately knew who I wanted to read first.
I took a different, shorter course on memoir writing this summer instead, and while my instructor made several points about craft that allowed me to consider different ways to approach my own storylines, we spent most of our class time in workshop mode. That is to say, at least fifty percent of class time was spent praising and critiquing peer material.
In preparation each week, I spent hours reading and rereading my classmates’ work, considering the plot, the characters, the word choice, the conflict, the pacing, and what I am coming to realize is the hardest part of memoir: the layering of the narrator’s and character’s voices.
Gornick says this is the key. “Every work of literature has both a situation and a story. The situation is the context or circumstance, sometimes the plot; the story is the emotional experience that preoccupies the writer: the insight, the wisdom, the thing one has come to say.” (13)
This wisdom, she says, must be arrived at honestly by the hands of a reliable narrator. The narrator allows the writer to make sense of what happened. As her own gifted teacher of writing once said, “Good writing has two characteristics...It’s alive on the page and the reader is persuaded that the writer is on a voyage of discovery.” (14)
The tricky part of memoir is that the narrator and protagonist are one in the same...except at different points in time and at different points along an emotional journey. Referencing an essay by George Orwell regarding his post in Lower Burma, she describes how “paragraph upon paragraph -- composed in almost equal part of narration, commentary, and analysis -- attests to a reflective nature now regarding its own angry passions with a visceral but contained distaste.” (16)
In order to gain the right perspective (and develop the reliable narrator), Gornick recommends finding the right tone, syntax and point of view -- “to pull back -- way back -- from these people and these events to find the place where the story could draw a deep breath and take its own measure.” (22) The narrator provides the insight that organizes the writing. The narrator’s sympathy for the protagonist “creates a dynamic in writing, the one necessary to stimulate internal movement” -- through which a writer struggles “to make sense of [complex] feelings.” (32-33)
But how to gain this perspective? That’s still not clear to me. Many writers say it just takes time. Or that you need to put your work in the drawer for a while and pick it up after emotions have cooled. But my writer friends and I also talk about where we like to write -- Coffeeshop? Office? Mountain cabin? Some of us were scandalized that one of us wrote in bed. (No! Bed should be a protected space!) But I hadn’t considered why certain places worked over others until I read Harry Crews’ explanation of why he lives in Gainesville in order to write about Georgia:
“If you don’t leave home you suffocate, if you go too far you lose oxygen.” (46)
I guess it makes sense -- you have to be close enough to the memory in order to conjure it, but far enough from it that your narrator can stand on her own feet.
In the end, Gornick concludes that since it’s not possible to teach someone how to write (although I think she does a great job of explaining the nuances of the craft!), the point of these courses is to “teach people how to read, how to develop judgment about a piece of writing: their own as well as that of others…[to ask] what is this all about?” Such questions turn the writer’s attention to the narrator and how to use that narrator to relay the story of the subject struggling with the material. (159)
Gornick says that a good essay, for example, will demonstrate the narrator “moving from unearned certainty to thoughtful reconsideration to clarified knowledge.” (36) I hope I’ve made a similar journey over the past few months. I don’t know if my writing has improved at all this summer, but I know I’ve benefited from a humbling experience that spurred me on to further study. And I’ve definitely benefited from reading the stories of others. I have learned how to dissect a piece in order to figure out what’s working and what isn’t, so at the very least, I have a better grasp of what I need to work on.
It’s time to tear it up. I’m moving on to revision, because even though it’s an emotional process, I agree with Gornick that:
“That impulse -- to tell a tale rich in context, alive in situation, shot through with event and perspective -- is as strong in human beings as the need to eat food and breathe air: it may be suppressed but it can never be destroyed.” (90)
Little did I know until I cracked the cover that this was the very population Lewis was invited to address, initially delivering his words over radio broadcast in England during World War II. By that time (so the preface to my edition tells me), many English had become disillusioned with faith. Not intellectual enough for me, they said. And yet, where to turn to for hope while London is ravaged by bombs? How to carry on amidst the senseless evil of the world?
After serving as an air raid warden, Lewis began to “speak about the problems of suffering, pain, and evil, work that resulted in his being invited by the BBC to give a series of wartime broadcasts on Christian faith.” (XVII) Lewis “told his radio audience that he had been selected for the job of describing Christianity to a new generation precisely because he was not a specialist…[and] that he had accepted the task because he believed that England...had never in fact been told in basic terms what the religion is about.” (XIX)
Over the past few years, I have felt exactly the same way about my own community, where I feel a lack of knowledge and understanding has led to false assumptions at best and prejudices at worst. Where is the intellectual curiosity? When did Christianity lose its mystery? I know I can’t answer those questions here, so I’m going to ask for Lewis’s help in tackling a different question that ironically, he makes easier to answer.
Among the objections raised regarding the Christian faith is the question of the Trinity. How can you claim to believe in one God and yet say he is three persons -- Father, Son and Holy Spirit?
Let me begin by saying that this question can be difficult for Christians as well. The very early church was split about the identity of the Holy Spirit, and many struggle to explain the divinity of Jesus, let alone a more mystical being like the Spirit. But I’ve heard some good sermons on this topic and particularly like the way Lewis teases out the issue. Before I turn to his rationale, I want to use this fundamental, go-to verse as a basis for discussion:
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son that whosoever believes in him will not perish but have everlasting life.” (John 3:16)
I memorized this as a child. It was probably one of the first verses I memorized. I heard it repeated everywhere -- Sunday School, “grown-up” church, summer camp, kids’ clubs and youth groups… But I don’t ever remember someone explaining the word “begotten”. I had always wondered, why a “begotten” son? Thankfully, Lewis provides an answer.
“To beget is to become the father of; to create is to make. And the difference is this. When you beget, you beget something of the same kind as yourself. A man begets human babies… But when you make, you make something of a different kind from yourself. A man makes...a statue. If he is a clever enough carver he may make a statue which is very like a man indeed. But of course, it is not a real man.
“Now that is the first thing to get clear. What God begets is God; just as what man begets is man. What God creates is not God; just as what man makes is not man. That is why men are not Sons of God in the sense that Christ is. They may be like God in certain ways, but they are not things of the same kind. They are more like statues or pictures of God.” (157-8)
What it comes down to is this: that when the verse says God gave his begotten son, it is saying that God gave God. The son has to be God too.
Lewis makes a further point on this, to say that while we read this event as a sequence, as though the Father came first and then later, the son existed, isn’t the case. Rather, “there never was a time before the Father produced the Son.” (173) Christians believe that the three-in-one God was not created when Christ arrived in the manger but rather has always existed.
So already here we have God in two. How can this be?
“The human level is a simple and rather empty level. On the human level one person is one being, and any two persons are two separate beings -- just as, in two dimensions...one square is one figure, and any two squares are two separate figures...In God’s dimension...you find a being who is three Persons while remaining one Being, just as a cube is six squares while remaining one cube. Of course we cannot fully conceive a Being like that: just as, if we were so made that we perceived only two dimensions in space we could never properly imagine a cube.” (162)
Lewis stresses that it’s not so important to be able to imagine a three-in-one being. We shouldn’t let our limitations prevent us from “being actually drawn into that three-personal life” where we can experience all of God. (162-3) What might this look like?
“An ordinary simple Christian kneels down to say his prayers. He is trying to get in touch with God. But if he is a Christian he knows that what is prompting him to pray is also God: God, so to speak, inside him. But he also knows that all his real knowledge of God comes through Christ, the Man who was God -- that Christ is standing beside him, helping him to pray, praying for him.
“God is the thing to which he is praying -- the goal he is trying to reach. [God the Father] God is also the thing inside him which is pushing him on -- the motive power. [God the Holy Spirit] God is also the road or bridge along which he is being pushed to that goal. [Christ]
“So that the whole threefold life of the three-personal Being is actually going on in that ordinary little bedroom where an ordinary man is saying his prayers. The man is being caught up into the higher kinds of life -- what I called Zoe or spiritual life: he is being pulled into God, by God, while still remaining himself.” (163)
Lewis has one more illustration for us in order to help us understand this complexity. To return to that famous verse that begins, “For God so loved the world,” we are reminded that God loves. And not only that, God is the expression of love itself. We have all heard the phrase “God is love.” But have we considered what it means to say that? Because saying “God is love” has “no real meaning unless God contains at least two Persons. Love is something that one person has for another person. If God was a single person, then before the world was made, He was not love.” (174) But since the three-in-one God has always existed, love has too. Christians believe “that the living, dynamic activity of love has been going on in God forever and has created everything else.” (175) Now that’s a hopeful message, that love has always and will always be present!
Lewis points out that the Son is “the self-expression of the Father -- what the Father has to say” as “light from a lamp, or heat from a fire, or thoughts from a mind” and yet, God chose to describe himself as “Father and Son [because it] is more like the relation between the First and Second Persons than anything else we can think of. Much the most important thing to know is that it is a relation of love. The Father delights in His Son; the Son looks up to His Father.” (173-4)
This, Lewis says, is “perhaps the most important difference between Christianity and all other religions: that in Christianity God is not a static thing -- not even a person -- but a dynamic, pulsating activity, a life...a kind of dance.” Lewis admits that the Holy Spirit is more difficult for us to understand. The Holy Spirit isn’t something we look at. Rather, “he is always acting through you...God is love, and that love works through men -- especially through the whole community of Christians. But this spirit of love is, from all eternity, a love going on between the Father and the Son.” (176)
And what about that last half of the verse? The part of John 3:16 that talks about believing in God’s son and receiving everlasting life? Lewis explains that should we accept God’s gift to us, then we undergo a transformation. Whereas we begin as only statues of God’s creation...
“This world is a great sculptor’s shop. We are the statues and there is a rumour going round the shop that some of us are some day going to come to life.” (159)
That is to say, that for now we are invited to “this three-Personal life…[to take our] place in that dance” and that we will receive a new spiritual life -- “sharing a life which was begotten, not made, which always has existed and always will exist.” (176, 177)
Every June, our church hosts a vacation Bible school program they call Summer Blast. Last year I wrote about how much effort goes into making the weeklong program meaningful for its many participants. This year, with so many events being cancelled due to coronavirus, my family held our breath and wondered what our church leaders would come up with.
Turns out that after hundreds of hours of work, the resultant virtual program was phenomenal and reached more than twice the number of kids who participated last year (about 300!). I’m guessing it helped to have a couple dozen tech-savvy teenagers to iron out the details!
Every morning, my family tuned into a half hour video message that introduced the bottom line for the day, encouraged us to get up and sing with the worship team, taught us some cool games and crafts, and concluded with an engaging Bible story. Following the video, we ran to the boxes of materials that had been shipped to us and found the packets to guide us in the day’s games and crafts. In the evening, we signed onto Zoom for a slideshow of the day’s photos and to debrief the finer points of the Bible story and message.
Along with all of the programming, every year our church leaders highlight a mission or charity for which the kids can raise money, as a way to teach service. This year though, the kids weren’t supposed to just bring in money. They were asked to identify adults in their lives who would sponsor them for acts of service done for their siblings or parents. The kids could also earn money by memorizing Bible verses or reading scripture. I thought the chart of options the church provided was brilliant -- until one of my children voiced this concern:
“You mean, we do all this work, and then they get the money? Why don’t we get anything?”
I was flabbergasted. But then again, we had just gone through an intense season where we all had felt loss. Special events and milestones had been erased from the calendar, and along with them, most of our good humor. What more did we have to give?
I noticed this particularly in my own attitude. How could I devote any more time or patience or attention to my children when I was completely spent? How were we ever going to fill our buckets again?
It turns out, as they tend to be, our church leaders were onto something. They had been living this season right alongside us. They felt similarly drained.
But they knew the antidote: Prayer. Scripture. Service. Acts of kindness.
I told my children that the point of service was to serve others, to remember that there are those whose needs are greater than ours. But -- in this case, I said I had a hunch that if we gave it a try, we would get something out of it too.
Our acts of kindness were bursty and patchy, but as we assessed our progress over the week, the kids’ eyes lit up when they were reminded of how they shared or were kind or helpful. And those who were helped by those actions were lifted up as well.
The night before we made our final donation to the Promised Land Covenant Church (to help feed and care for people affected by COVID-19 while also seeking to bring racial reconciliation in New York City and beyond), the kids added up their acts of service and tallied a total for the family. I was pleased that they neither compared their results nor competed for the highest “score”. Each child was proud of his or her own acts and total amount raised. And I was proud of them.
Here you will find a catalog of my writing and reflections.