I remember walking along down the streets of Jerusalem back in 1999. I had ended class for the day, headed to a shop in a different district in Jerusalem, minding my own business, moving briskly. I was on my guard, for the day before there had been car bomb about a mile away.
Despite my single-minded focus on getting to my shopping destination, something stopped me in my tracks. I passed by one store, a rug seller from the Far East, and I heard something that seemed a bit strange in this neighborhood – singing and praying. I could not resist – and I went inside.
There I found a mixed group of Jews, Muslims, and Arabic Christians standing in the midst of all the hanging rugs, praying for peace. Praying for the peace of Jerusalem. It was enough to turn anyone’s heart.
In this country we can get such a skewed idea of the truth of the Holy Land and its people. It turns out religious differences were secondary to these folks, as they are for many. Not everyone is a religious nut (very much like USAmerica! In reality there are lots of people who don’t really care about religion much at all).
The reality was they were all neighbors – the friends and family of adjacent shops. And they were fearful that any more violence would hurt friends and neighbors and ultimately decimate the neighborhood. Common ground was easy to find.
In our scripture today, Paul and Silas stop people in their tracks too. They are singing and praying in prison. It isn’t that earthquake in the midst of it that gets the guards attention (although earthquakes in Oklahoma have been getting ours!). They are singing and praying despite the chaos around them. They proceed to preach. They baptize. And when morning comes, the magistrate sent the police saying, “Let those men go!”
Paul, realizing he has turned their hearts, decides to play his trump card – and really rile things up. He is a Roman citizen. “They have beaten us in public, uncondemned, men who are Roman citizens, and have thrown us into prison; and now they are going to discharge us in secret? Certainly not!”
As a Roman citizen he has rights. If he tells the right people of the atrocities that have been committed against him, the roles could be reversed. It would be the guards and the magistrate who would be in prison, and Paul would be set free.
Paul withheld. He chooses grace. He chose to draw them closer to the heart of Christ and welcome them as brothers, instead of turning their lives upsidedown.
I mention this not to vouch for the power of prayer and singing, although it is powerful. What is at hand is the power of relationships – and the power of God in our midst, bringing us together. The power of God to draw people together is there, when our hearts are open to it.
With all the animosity for Muslims so prevalent these days I wonder what the answers are to draw people together. We simply must discover our religious similarities – not dwell on the differences and divide our lives even more.
Just the other day, my friend Imam Imad Enchassi was grieving on Facebook how tired he is getting of only fielding questions from the media about terrorism, 9/11, Al Queda, and ISIS. Why not ask him about the environment, education, health care, homelessness, or poverty? He is a really smart guy and has great community-building things to say about all that.
The temptation is to always dwell on difference. It is human nature I suppose.
Millions of clear-thinking, peace-loving Muslims want reconciliation. Millions of clear-thinking, peace-loving Christians want the same thing. And yet, we become mesmerized by our televisions, convinced that divisions exist greater than they are.
Continue to pray for peace and goodwill for ALL God’s people.
You are welcome to join me at 9:40am this Sunday for my Israel Class: Jesus and the Land. Room 217, FPCOKC.