Friday, June 3, 2011

The difference . . .

I was traveling West to from Fez to Rabbat in the small but beautiful country of Morocco.  It was about four in the morning and I had a crew of students and leaders in a European-styled mini-bus.  A driver had picked us up very early in the morning in order to take us back to the airport after serving with an English school there.

The small bus was quiet, all you could hear was the hum of an old engine and sleepy breathing.  I was looking out on the arid Moroccan countryside - lit by the now rising moon at  4 am.  Everyone was asleep except  the driver I and I saw that he was about to slip into dreamland as the mini-bus swerved a few times.  Thinking it was better to engage him in conversation than wind up in a ditch, I climbed over seats and began a conversation with him in French.

He was a very nice man who loved to talk.  No, he loved to teach.  I let him do most of the talking and I turned it into a little field anthropology.  I asked him everything I could about Islam, as he was a Muslim.  I learned a great deal about the life of Mohammed as well as the spiritual shortcomings of Americans.  It was obvious that he had been schooled to accept that America was the Great Satan.

Funny thing was I could understand what he as saying in a small way.  I had just spent time in a country that several times during the day break from what they are doing, walk down the street and pray at a Mosque.  There are no billboards of scantily clad women.  The TV shows are modest in every way.  Alcohol and drugs are existent but much difficult to get your hands on.  Women are afforded great respect, but also given less freedom.  It was an interesting culture that looked more 'holy' than our divorce-heavy, sex-saturated and 'endzone dancing' society.  I can at least understand why they view us as purveyors of evil.

Growing up Episcopalian and realizing that as a church-goer I had no idea what being a Christian meant, I thought it would be interesting to find out what he thought about spiritual things.  It is one thing to look at religious literature written by the experts, it is an entirely different animal to ask the rank and file.  This is where the rubber meets the road theologically.  As I had conversations with people in Fez, I came to realize that superficial knowledge is a universal thing.  Like any good Catholic in the states, most Muslim young adults couldn't tell me about Islam beyond the kitschy phrases that they learned in Catechism.

So I listened eagerly as he told me about how to get into heaven as a Muslim. My theological French is a little rusty, so I had to ask questions along the way to discover the meaning of certain words.  Essentially you can do everything right as a Muslim - hit all the five pillars of the faith (go to Mecca, give money to the poor etc) but it really is entirely up to God.  And if God doesn't like you, you (literally) don't have a prayer of making it into heaven.

I pressed on this and asked him about how that can be, "God can just reject you for no reason?"


I mused on this out loud, saying something like, "hmmm, that's different."

"What do you mean?" he asked.

Caught off guard, I just mumbled that it is very different than Christianity.

"In what way?" he asked.

Hoping to observe my place and not push things too much (it is illegal to proselytize in Morocco), I tried my best to be honest and sensitive to his background.

"Well, there is a big difference.  Christianity says that it is God's grace that invites you into heaven regardless of the sins that you have committed.  The Bible says something like, "even while we were sinners, Christ died for our sins."  It sounds like you are saying that Allah can be approached by sinners who repent, but even then Allah can reject you for any reason . . . Christ seems to be the opposite . . . you are accepted regardless of what you have done."

I am not sure the exact wording, but even as I said it, it was all becoming clear to me.  Here I was on this moonlit pre-dawn trek across the dessert, talking to a brother of mine from across the Atlantic.  Both of us having very different definitions of God and grace.  As I sat there looking out the window, it soon became apparent that the silence was growing.  He said nothing for a very long time.

As I listened to the hum of the engine and grew aware of this awkward silence, I wondered what he was thinking in his head.  Was he intrigued by my notions of God and grace?  Or was he silent because it all seemed ridiculous to him?  It is funny that again, this man from Galilee makes all the difference.  We had talked religion for over an hour and it was very interesting.  The difference was Jesus.  As soon as  I bring up the distinction of Jesus, everything changes.  So is he interested or disgusted?  I will never know.  He broke the silence in the very next moment:

"Let's change the subject."

And we did.

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