When the word came that I would be deployed and sent overseas it was a shock. I didn't know where I was going, but I did know that one big issue would be the Islamic culture which I would encounter. Part of the job of the chaplain is to prepare the soldiers for the culture they will encounter and help promote peaceful cooperation by respecting that culture and honoring their customs. As a chaplain I don't carry a weapon or shoot at the enemy. My job is to save lives by reducing conflict and helping the soldiers to cope with the tremendous amounts of stress they face in combat. In teaching the soldiers respect for the new culture they will be facing, I am considered a "combat multiplier." In other words, I help to make our human resources stronger and better able to accomplish the mission so they can hopefully come home safely. I constantly tell the soldiers that if they honor and respect the people with which they will be coming into contact, it is less likely that they will shoot you in the back or betray you. In fact, one small step can be made to promote world peace and mutual understanding. In many cases those who follow this rule make new friends who are sad to see them leave when they go.
Anyway, knowing that I would need to educate myself on the subject of Islam, I immediately went to work. It certainly was an eye opening experience. While we Christians fight to get our youth and young adults to church, the muslim prays five times a day, attends mosque, and does a daytime fast for a month each year. While we're bribing our children with treats at Children's Moments and looking for ways to create the perfect play time event to attract youth to actually attend a youth group meeting, Islamic children are memorizing the Qur'an (The Words of the Prophet Mohammed). I also found out that many Muslims know more about our Bible than most of our own members.
However, the most surprising thing that I learned surrounds the issue of Muslim belief in Jesus Christ. While we are struggling to accommodate the unorthodox leadership and accommodate their denial of things like the virgin birth, the divinity of Christ, etc. (you know, just about everything found in the Apostle's Creed) the Muslims have no problems with some of these beliefs. In fact any faithful Muslim can affirm more of our foundation doctrinal beliefs than the liberal left in our denomination. According to my studies, all that remains for the liberal left to be able to convert to Islam would be to recognize the Qur'an as the authority for doctrinal teaching. As in Islam, many of the christian liberal left see Jesus as a Prophet and teacher but not as messiah or Lord. Many maintain that the atoning blood of Jesus Christ is not the vehicle to receive salvation. Many deny the resurrection of Jesus Christ and the authority of the Bible as the inerrant Word of God. (The Muslims also see the Bible as flawed because of its human writers). In Islam, the Qur'an is the direct dictation of Allah's (God's) word of direction to humanity through the Prophet Mohammed. (Allah is arabic for God's name and one which cannot be attributed to any other god.)
While attending one of our denomination's seminaries many years ago (Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, Illinois) I was involved in a question and answer session. During that session I raised my hand and asked the question: "If according to John Wesley we are to be in agreement with the essentials of salvation, then just what are those essentials?" There was silence in the room and the question went unanswered as another question was received from the group. It wasn't that they didn't hear me, it's just that the question was not going to be considered. My guess is they probably thought it would impede academic freedom, spiritual investigation, and promote schism. And so the question has gone unanswered and our doctrinal standards have been left unprotected. If, in fact we have no standards to which we are accountable, then the only thing which is holding us together is the property clause which prevents churches from taking down the United Methodist sign and putting up one they like better.
As a result of my study of Islam, I now see Christianity in a new light. I now find myself including sections of the Articles of Religion in the weekly bulletin. There is a new urgency in my preaching and teaching to educate our children as to what Christians believe. I now see the answers to these questions as more important than ever: Who is Jesus Christ? Was he just a prophet and teacher or was he Almighty God in the flesh? Am I a sinner in need of a savior, corrupt to my very core, and needing to be saved from "the wrath to come"? Or like my muslim brothers and sisters, will I be judged by my faith and good works and hopefully be found worthy by Allah? These are eternally important questions which need an answer from our denomination. In our Comfortable Christianity we have found it easier to lower standards and turn a blind eye to such a degree that unity has no fertile ground left upon which to grow. Agreeing to disagree is not walking in unity, it's just occupying the same general space.
Rev. / Chaplain Kent L. Svendsen is the pastor of the 1st United Methodist Church of Forreston / Leaf River United Methodist Church Cooperative Ministry located in the Northern Illinois Conference. He is also a military chaplain in the Army Reserve.
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