It is hard to know where to begin to express my humble gratitude to the members of the Muslim community who are showing their solidarity with observant Christians this Lenten season by participating in #Muslims4Lent.
Words will never do justice to the love, faithfulness, and compassion Muslims are showing by taking a stand for peace and interfaith bridge-building in the midst of a nation so often hostile to them. I don’t want to focus on this hostility right now, but it should be mentioned. Despite the strong interfaith friendships many Muslim Americans have, they are constantly subjected to negative portrayals in the media and treated with suspicion as many mosques are under government surveillance. Pundits demand that all Muslims apologize for the violent actions of a few but refuse to listen when they do. While individuals may (or may not) feel at home in their communities, this is no doubt a difficult time for the ummah. It would be easy in these divisive times to seek reinforcement from one’s own faith community by defining one’s self against others, but #Muslims4Lent are persuaded by their faith in God, respect for humanity, and desire for peace to reach out across boundaries of religion in love. It is an inspiring gesture, and I am deeply moved.
But what I really want to say is more personal than any of that. And it starts with a confession. For as genuinely touched, grateful and happy as I am that Muslims are seeking avenues of interfaith communion, I’m also, I’m ashamed to say, a bit jealous.
I mean, here I am, drinking the last of a soda I kept telling myself I would abstain from, with Lent barely a week old, reading hashtags of Muslims pledging to give up chocolate or junk food or even, yes, soda. I can’t help but think, “Dang! They do Lent better than I do!”
It’s so ridiculously petty, but there is a complicated history behind this jealousy. I don’t want to excuse it though; I want to banish it, like Satan from the wilderness. It is horrible how negative mimesis can infiltrate even the most beautiful things, like an interfaith solidarity movement, but that is the nature of mimetic rivalry. The temptation to jealousy, to letting self-doubt taint my admiration for others, is a struggle that I am slowly overcoming, and something about the Lenten season emboldens me to admit this vulnerability. After all, Lent is a time to honestly confront our weaknesses. But my jealousy is not simply due to the fact that I think Muslims (with the practices of scheduled prayer and fasting to help them develop physical and spiritual discipline) might demonstrate better self-control at abstaining from certain foods or drinks.
For the longest time, I wrestled with my own religious identity. I have already told the story of my conversion to Islam and my subsequent reaffirmation of my Christian faith. After falling out of Islamic practice and before reaffirming my Christian faith, I struggled in an uncomfortable “in-between” place, unable to affirm Islam as I had before, afraid to turn back to Christianity. I was once so terrified of getting God “wrong” that I was almost spiritually paralyzed. Now, my faith in Jesus continues to deepen as I learn and pray and grow. But something about seeing members of a faith to which I once belonged, practicing a part of the faith to which I now belong, without any anxiety, brings admiration that unfortunately teeters on jealousy. I see Muslims – who for me will always represent a part of my past — seeming to better live into the person I want to be now. They’re keeping Lent and practicing interfaith reconciliation better than I am! Perhaps the whole situation is reviving latent insecurities.
Writing about all of this, however, helps me confront those insecurities and wrestle a blessing from them, and already they’re fading away as their ridiculousness is exposed to the light of reason. I know, of course, that Muslims reaching out in solidarity with Christians can only enhance faith in the God we worship, a God of mercy and love who transcends the boundaries of our religious differences. This is particularly true for me when this movement inevitably reminds me of the love, support, and graciousness extended to me by my Muslim friends, especially my dear spiritual sister, Sheima. And that’s what I really want to talk about.
It is no exaggeration to say that without Sheima, I wouldn’t be who I am, and it is no exaggeration to say that without Islam, Sheima would not be who she is. It was Sheima who modeled Islam as a religion of peace and rational elegance and who welcomed me into the faith that became a haven from the doubts I had about the Trinity and the fears I had about atonement when I was a teenager. She introduced me to the calming, centering discipline of prayer and taught me the musical rhythms of Qur’anic Arabic that ring in my ears to this day. Because of her, I will always know the generous, merciful spirit of Islam and carry it in me, because Sheima is a part of me. I would not recognize myself without her.
We grew together not just in faith, but in life; in the moments that made up our days and years and seasons. I sought refuge in her home and probably spent as much time there during the second half of my high school career as I did in my own house. But in all we did, from studying together to laughing and joking around, we felt our bond enhanced by the faith we shared.
So when I knew, years later, that I would have to reveal to her my reaffirmation of the Christian faith, I was terrified. I didn’t want to hurt her or lose the bond we had forged. My mind concocted all manner of less-than-pleasant things she might say to me. And beyond her there was her family, a mother and grandparents and sisters I had considered my own in my early Muslim days, and a community that I did not want to disappoint. I didn’t want anything to change.
Of course, things did change. But I should have put much more faith in our friendship. When I dared to be honest about the things my years of partly-expressed doubts and long silences had already revealed, I found myself in Sheima’s loving embrace, reassured that we would continue to grow in friendship and faith, still learning from and sharing with one-another. There was pain and awkwardness, but Sheima still accepted me for who I was. And when I surrendered my fears to honesty, I realized that my anxieties had been distorting my image of my best friend. She proved far more loving than my fears, and now our relationship is one of relaxed honesty as well as deep connection.
In this way, it is a human reflection of the loving relationship we both share with the One God.
I don’t think Sheima is participating in #Muslims4Lent, but it doesn’t matter. She has shown solidarity with me as a Christian in other ways. One way is in being able to discuss theology and listen with an open mind even when we express beliefs that seem contradictory. But perhaps a deeper way is simply in being herself and letting me be mine, and letting our history make us stronger today instead of being an awkward reminder of who we no longer are. She has taught me not only about Islam, but about the grace of God by her ability to transform pain with love. The difference between the fears I had about being myself with her and the acceptance she has shown me is a shadow of the difference between the fear I had of getting God “wrong” and the embrace I increasingly feel as I receive God’s unconditional love.
Muslims4Lent has made me reflect on the similarities between Lent and Ramadan, and how the spiritual practice of daily prayer that conditions Muslims for fasting would also help Christians prepare for the sacrifices of Lent. In both the Ramadan fast and the Lenten renunciation of a particular pleasure, the goal is not the deprivation itself, but the empathy that comes from voluntarily abstaining from things which others are involuntarily forced to forego. Fasting illuminates the struggles of the hungry, fostering compassion and generosity. For practicing Muslims, daily prayer provides a security, vulnerability and discipline that keeps the heart, mind and body focused throughout the fast. Trust in God built through regular prayer builds a security that provides inner comfort and facilitates the ability to reach out in love. Reflecting on this and watching as Muslims observe Lent gently urges me not only to try harder to keep my Lenten commitments, but to resume the practice of the daily office, channeling my days of five daily prayers for strength and perseverance. And to not be ashamed when I inevitably fall out of practice, but calmly to try again.
Islam once again inspires and shows me how to be a better Christian. I am moved to not give up on giving up soda.
But much more importantly, I am blessed by #Muslims4Lent to be tested and reminded of the true meaning of Lent. In giving me the opportunity to confront my insecurities, #Muslims4Lent ultimately reminds me that Lent is far more than the individual sacrifices we make. We make these sacrifices to remind ourselves of our reliance on God and to increase our empathy for one-another, but the small things we do are only a part of a much larger process of turning ourselves around and opening our minds to the truth of God’s unconditional love. Confronting my feelings of inadequacy helps me remember that my identity is secure in God, just as it is for the Muslims who feel confident enough in their faith to share in the season of Lent. And it ultimately reminds me of the deeper blessings of fellowship I share with my Muslim friends, fellowship that continually strengthens and inspires me to be an instrument of God’s peace.
So a deep, heartfelt thank you to the #Muslims4Lent, Sheima, and all my Muslim friends. And above all, thanks be to the One God who holds us all in love and increases our love for one-another. Alhamdulillah.
For more on how Lent is about finding our identities secure in God, see Adam Ericksen’s lenten reflection.