Last Saturday night, my church hosted our 12th Annual Advent Dinner with our local Muslim friends in Northbrook, Ill. It was a wonder-filled time involving about 40 Muslims and an equal number of Christians enjoying fellowship, a delicious meal, songs of carols in a candle lit room and listening to the Word of God proclaimed by one of our pastors. During the Advent season, we love embracing the beauty of Christmas together. What struck us this year was that it was our 12th year of joining together for this Advent dinner. Twelve years is a long time! From the beginning of our efforts, we hoped to be obedient to our Lord’s command to love our neighbors as ourselves and thus help bring peace on earth as best we could; that simple. Christmas without peace is not Christmas at all.
In these 12 years, numbers of churches in the Chicagoland area and other cities across America, have initiated similar bridge-building relationships with their Muslim neighbors, modeled after our program that we call Communities of Reconciliation. Often, church members will confess their fear, anger and hatred toward their Muslim neighbors before they embark on this journey of peacemaking. As much as they might want to shun, ignore or marginalize their Muslim neighbors, at the same time they want to be obedient to Christ’s command to love their neighbors as themselves and even love their perceived enemies, if they can. But many in churches that participate in this process of reconciliation end up calling me excitedly saying; “It is not what we thought. There was hardly any tension in the room whatsoever. We felt the presence of Christ with us when we were dialoguing with our Muslim neighbors.”
This year at our Advent dinner we were honored to have the Council General of the state of Bosnia-Herzegovina for Chicago, Elvir Resic, join us. He was invited by our dear friend, Imam Senad Agic, senior cleric of the Sabah Mosque in Franklin Park, Ill. Imam Senad wanted the Council General to experience the joy our two communities share each time we get together, especially during this time of year when we celebrate the miraculous birth of Jesus, which both Christians and Muslims recognize. During the dinner, Imam Senad was moved to deliver a special message. He rose from his chair, cleared his throat, and spoke these words: “Tonight, we are celebrating 12 years of being together in our community of reconciliation. Both of our faith communities have been so moved by this experience that we have arrived at a point of never wanting to be apart from each other. The last thing we want is to return to living in hostility and fear as we once were tempted to believe. It is now my conclusion,“ Senad said, “that if these kinds of interfaith relationships had been started and nurtured in Bosnia, Croatia and Serbia after the fall of communism, there would never have been the tragic, ethnic wars and genocide of the Balkans in the 1990s. We must tell the world about the magic experiences we have had with one another and with God these past 12 years.” His words were very moving.
Peacemaking is hard work. It does not just drop out of the sky whenever we call upon it. It begins in our hearts when we confess our prejudices, fears and judgments of one another. It grows when we walk down the street, knock on the door of a perceived enemy and seek to find common ground and understanding with them. It flourishes when we keep on meeting and relating to people different from ourselves, not once or twice a year in ceremonial fashion, but all during the year as a way of life. For this reason, Jesus told his disciples, “God blesses those who work for peace, for they will be called the children of God.” (Matthew 5:9) Children of God work for peace.
Jesus is our model peacemaker. As his creation, we were the enemy he came to earth to love and save. At the time of his incarnation that we will celebrate in a few days, the old covenant of laws was crashing. God’s people were failing to follow his commands. Each was going their own way, doing what they wanted, with increasingly little regard for God’s commands or way of life. Selfishness, hypocrisy, and cruelty were becoming the new norms of the day. God could have chosen to blast and punish humanity if he had wanted. Instead, he chose to love his enemy, live among us as the Messiah, and set an example for us to follow forever.
During the Advent dinner, my wife, Sharon, and I were sitting with Muslim friends. One of them turned to me and asked, “Is December 25th the actual day Jesus was born?” “No,” I said, “no one knows the exact date. Rather the date was chosen according to the Roman calendar that recognized the winter solstice in late December. On December 21st, one of the earth’s poles begins to tilt back toward the sun, inviting more sunlight into each day – just as Jesus brings more light into our lives.” By the time I had finished my little explanation, I realized I was talking to all at our table, further expounding how we Christians consider Jesus to be the Light of the World. One of our Muslim friends at the table exclaimed, “Okay, now, we know why Christians everywhere cover their houses and towns with so many lights!”
In the first chapter of the Gospel of Luke, we are told that Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, was filled with the Holy Spirit when he said these words; “Praise the Lord, the God of Israel, because he has visited and redeemed his people. He has sent us a mighty Savior from the royal line of his servant David, just as he promised through his holy prophets long ago….because of God’s tender mercy, the morning light from heaven is about to break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, and to guide us to the path of peace.” (Luke 1:68-70,78-79). May we never forget that the purpose of the “morning light” is to bring greater peace to our world.
On a number of occasions, people have said to me, “Your Communities of Reconciliation program has been so effective in bringing Christians and Muslims together in peaceful dialogue. Why can’t we encourage the same kind of bridge-building efforts between Republicans and Democrats, or people of color and whites?” And, I say, “No reason at all!” In fact, I have been encouraging Christian communities to do so. If we the Church do not take the lead in our society today in these regards, who will? We are living in an extremely contentious time and matters will most likely get worse in the coming years if we are not vigilant and active. Let us always remember Jesus’ words, “Blessed are the peacemakers.” In our families, communities and towns, we are to point people toward the Prince of Peace. He gives peace to even those who are warring, sitting in darkness, or nearing shadows of death.
There is a peace train coming. It is called the Kingdom of Christ. It began on the day Jesus was born; it is still coming today, and for those who place their trust in our Savior, it has no end.
My family and I wish you and your loved ones a very happy and peaceful Christmas.