A slightly humorous and possibly profound illustration of how we can focus on Jesus rather than our “Christianity” happened a little over a year ago in Colorado Springs. I was invited to participate in a city wide discussion hosted by a church on the topic of inter-faith dialogue. So they invited the local Catholic bishop, the leader of the local mosque and Islamic center, and two Jewish Rabbis. They needed one more Muslim leader and one more Christian.
When they first contacted me they asked if I knew another influential Muslim leader, anywhere in the States, and if I would be the other Christian guy in the panel.
The first question was simple. I knew plenty of good Muslim leaders who would love to do this and I immediately thought of my Imam friend from the Middle East who now lived here in the States.
The question was more complicated as to whether or not I’d be the other guy representing “Christianity” given my propensity to focus on Jesus and leave the religious stuff to others. But the organizers knew me a bit and said it was okay if I just talked about Jesus and didn’t worry so much about explaining or defending the doctrinal stuff of Christianity. So I agreed.
It was a funny night. Several hundred people crowded the hall as the introductions were made. I was seated at the far left end of the panel. On the other end were the two Muslims. In the middle were the two rabbis, then the bishop and me. So the introductions were like this:
“The honorable Muslim Sheikh, the Imam Yusef el Ahmadi, leader of the Colorado Springs Islamic Society.”
Then it was “The Doctor, Sheikh, leading thinker, Imam Ali bin Muhammad President of the American Muslim Society of Imams”—and other really important things.
Then the two Rabbis, “The Rabbi Yossi Guren of the”—insert name of Synagogue that sounds very important—and “the first lady Rabbi in Colorado” founder and president of the most amazing something which I can’t remember.
Finally, they introduced the Bishop, a man immortalized as the Catholic leader of the Colorado Springs area since the beginning of time.
Then the host came to me and said—this is no lie—“And finally we have….uh…”
“Carl. The name’s Carl,” I said.
He was obviously embarrassed, as he didn’t know my title or my great accomplishments—of which I have neither. So he just said “Mr. Carl” and everyone laughed.
There were two questions each of us was supposed to answer. We each had 3-5 minutes to respond to the question. The first was “How does your religion get you to heaven?”
The two Muslim guys did a fine job articulating the various views within Islam on what it takes to get you to heaven, which comes down to the “will of God.” The two Jewish Rabbis did a great job of explaining the uncertainty of life after death within Judaism, hence the focus on this life within their faith. The Catholic Bishop also did a very good job of helping us understand the various interpretations within Christianity of the afterlife and how to get there.
Then it was my turn. Believe me; I was praying for wisdom and something significant to say. This is what came out: “Actually my religion doesn’t get you to heaven.”
I probably should have explained or added to that, but that’s all I said. The other panelists shifted uncomfortably on their seats and the host asked if I’d like to explain a little more.
“Sure,” I said. “It’s just that I’ve never seen a religion save anyone. All religions are great at laying out some basic rules—do’s and don’ts—that are good for our lives, but they don’t really provide hope or any kind of eternal security. It seems religions end up causing more trouble than solving anything.”
“So then,” said the host, “How do you get to heaven?”
This all seemed so basic, but I thought I might as well go ahead and say the obvious. “Well, it’s Jesus. He didn’t start a new religion. He came to provide us a model for life and a way to God. He’s it. Believing in and following Him is the way. He takes us to heaven, not a religion.”
On to simple question #2.
“How does your religion deal with terrorism?”
The two Muslims felt a little defensive with this question, but did a nice job of denouncing all forms of terrorism and explaining how the Qur’an does not provide a place for it. The two Jewish Rabbis spent most of their time trying to convince the two Muslims that they had clearly misread their own book on the subject. The Bishop did a lovely job talking about mercy mixed with justice.
Here’s what I said:
“I don’t really know. I’m not sure how the religion I grew up in would or should deal with terrorism. But I do have some thoughts how Jesus might deal with terrorists because He had two with Him in His inner circle of friends. A Zealot and a Tax Collector. A political insurgent and an economic terrrorizer of the common folk. What He did with these two was bring them in as confidants. As students. Disciples. And made them Apostles of the early faith. It actually seems to me that the worse someone was, the more Jesus liked them. He didn’t just have “mercy” in the way we think of it, as a sweet sappy lovey-dovey sort of thing. It was mercy with a bite. Mercy that led the people out of where they were into a new place. This is what Jesus did with the worst of His day. He was really only hard on one type of folks—people like us.”
I looked down the line and smiled. “People like me. Hypocrites and such.”
I’m sure they were all wondering why they’d invited me about now. We did some questions and answers for about 20 more minutes and then wrapped it up. Two things happened at the end of the night that made it all worthwhile for me.
I had a little crowd of people around me in the front asking questions. Some happy, others angry, and still others just slightly confused. One lady was more than a little upset with me. I’d obviously shaken up her box where she kept her faith and she needed to tell me a few things. Interestingly it came out something like this:
“You didn’t even mention the Trinity!” she said.
“True,” I replied, “but I didn’t think I was talking about that and it didn’t come up in the course of the conversation so…..”
That clearly wasn’t good enough.
“But surely you do believe in the Trinity, don’t you? And there are some other things you didn’t mention as well that you should have, like the Atonement.”
I knew I needed to tread lightly here with her. Everyone lives in a context and it’s good to be sensitive to the American Christian context as much as someone else’s context. So I simply said, “You’re probably right and of course I believe everything that’s in this book” and I held up my Bible, showing her that it appeared to be well read.
Right then, a young man, hardly able to contain himself, blurted out, “I’m a Muslim. I came with the Imam tonight. I’m from his mosque and he invited me to come.” He turned and addressed the lady who had been speaking with me and said, “If this man had talked about theology or doctrine or even Christianity, I wouldn’t have been interested. I’ve heard all of that from my Christian friends. But he talked about Jesus in a way I’ve never heard before and had never thought of. I thought it was amazing.”
I looked at the lady, trying to not give her the “I told you so” stare and to her credit, she said, “Wow. Maybe you’re right. I wonder if I’ve confused my religion with my Savior?”
At that moment the local Imam—who had been engaged in plenty of interesting conversation at the other end of the stage—came up and said “Carl, Carl, Carl. You had an unfair advantage.” He was smiling but also wagging his finger in my face. I wasn’t sure where this was going.
“What’s that sir?” I said a little timidly.
“While we were all busy defending our religion and our positions, you simply talked about Jesus. You cheated!” Then he let out a huge laugh and slapped me on the back, said “Good job” and walked away.
I actually wonder if that sums it up. We have an unfair advantage. We know the Creator. We’re friends with the King. We know where truth is found and its name. We know the way to anywhere. We know what brings life and what gives life and where eternal life resides. It’s not fair. While others are explaining and defending various “isms” and “ologies”, we’re simply pointing people to our friend. The one who uncovers and disarms. The beginning and the end of the story.