A few years ago I was invited to a fundraising dinner for Temple Shalom, the first Jewish congregation in Northwest Arkansas. It was held at a local Methodist church. The speakers included a Christian minister, a Rabbi, and a Muslim. This was a big deal. The congregation had been around since 1981, but construction of the Temple had run into a little difficulty, and so a Palestinian contractor in Northwest Arkansas stepped in and offered to build the Temple free of charge. This was now a story of understanding and peace, and it made national news.
After the silent auction, the dinner, and the presentations, we were given an special opportunity to donate by purchasing a chair for the sanctuary, and so I gave for one. I thought it would be great to have “Rev. Omar Al-Rikabi” stamped on the back of a synagogue chair.
Since I bought a chair, I decided to go to the dedication the next year. Being named “Temple Shalom,” this Reformed Jewish community invited leaders from the area of different faiths to offer prayers for peace in their own traditions as a way to bless the new house of worship.
The sanctuary was packed, and so I squeezed in the back, between a Jew in his rainbow kippah and an Arab in his red and white kafia. This was going to be an adventure.
A member of the synagogue welcomed us, and noted it had taken Moses and the Hebrew people forty years to possess their new homeland in the Exodus story, but the Jews of Temple Shalom did it in twenty-eight.
We sang a song about Jacob and the lovely dwelling place of Israel, and another adapted from Psalm 122 for the peace of Jerusalem, for Israel… and also for Ishmael. I thought this was good form, seeing as one of his descendants had helped build this place.
Then the litanies began.
First up were to ministers from the Universalist Unitarian Fellowship. They read a poem about peace on earth.
Next was a professor from the University who also served as the faculty advisor for one of the Islamic student associations on campus. He sang some passages from the Quran in Arabic, then gave a brief homily on the Prophet Muhammed and passages in the Quran about peace.
Third up was a member of a local Native American tribe. With a big, light-hearted smile, he began by mentioning the earlier comment about the Arkansas Jews getting their land in only twenty-eight years, and then reminded us that the land had once belonged to his people. The congregation chuckled, and he went on to tell us about the great spirit wind that brings us peace. “All land is holy land,” he said, “and all people are relatives.” Then he played an enchanting song on a Native American flute. Everyone cheered.
Now came the Episcopal priest. As the applause for the Native American flute faded, the priest, maybe from nervousness for having to follow that, laughed and said, “Well, I come from a tradition that is not as exciting as these others.”
To me it sounded almost like he was apologizing for Christianity, and he said a few words about peace and said a quick prayer.
As the service went on, a Hindu monk offered traditional prayers for peace in his native language, followed by a Tibetan monk, who did the same in his.
Then we heard from another Christian minister. The reverend stood up, and declared how happy she was to be a part of such a historic event, with so many people of so many faith traditions here to help our local Jewish community dedicate their temple as a place of peace. Then she landed it with, “My faith was informed by a Jewish carpenter. And in the words of the Carpenter, “blessed are the peacemakers.”
Christianity was informed by a Jewish carpenter? Really? That’s it?
Why couldn’t she say Jesus? Now that I think about it, the priest kind of skirted around saying too much about Jesus as well. But why? The Jewish man spoke of Moses and read from the Psalms. The Muslim spoke of Mohammed and read from the Quran.
I felt my team had waved off. No Jesus. No New Testament.
I wrestled with this for several days. In a dedication centered around peace, why wouldn’t the Christians definitively talk about Jesus, the Messiah we call the Prince of Peace?
I came to the conclusion that a minister who would speak so directly about Jesus would probably not be invited to speak at such an interfaith event, or else might not accept the invitation. It’s often one extreme or the other: One end preaches a “you’re either with me or against me” kind of Jesus who needs you to convert first before we can talk about something like peace. The other preaches a “we don’t want to offend” kind of Jesus who really is nothing more than a benevolent big brother we should try to emulate. And those stuck in the middle struggle to want to get involved.
It all seems to boil down to exclusive at the expense of welcoming vs. inclusive at the expense of orthodoxy.
So which is it? I say both extremes miss the point, and the middle gets lost in ineffectiveness.
But this is important stuff, maybe the most important.
As a pastor, I struggle walking that mine field of remaining orthodox in my Christian theology while welcoming the prayers for peace from different traditions… and then leading prayers from the pulpit on Sunday morning (especially while trying to avoid the political potholes out there).
What were the prayers like in your church this Sunday? Were there prayers for peace? Specifically, were there prayers for peace in the Middle East? If so, what did they look like?
Once again we hear the all-too familiar refrain of “crisis in the Middle East.” Civil war in Syria. Islamic war in Iraq. Political oppression in Egypt. The brutal human toll of war between Israel and Gaza… and all the children in the middle of it.
The Middle East may seem far away, but what goes on there has a direct connection to our faith and our future: Christianity is a Middle Eastern religion, and our country invests a lot of money and lives in the Middle East. Peace in the Middle East is in our best interests as a faith and a nation.
Over the last couple of weeks, in different settings, I’ve asked two questions: Did your pastor pray for peace in the Middle East in church on Sunday? and What do you pray for when you pray for peace? Most of the answers boil down to one idea: the absence of conflict.
But I don’t need the Gospel story to want security and the absence of conflict. As St. Matthew would say, “Even the pagans want that.”
If God became human in Christ to be with us, and Christ said, “I leave you with my peace,” then what did he really leave us? What do we mean when we say, “Peace be with you?”
What are we praying for when we pray for peace?
And what should our prayers lead us to do and be, since the Jewish Carpenter (who did more than just inform our faith) said, “Blessed are the peacemakers.”
This week I’ll post part of a series looking at what we pray for when we pray for peace and why, called Signs of Peace.
So until tomorrow, Shalom… Salaam… Peace be with you.
To be continued…