Monday, January 26, 2009

Muslims, Jews, and Christians March for Peace

Our march for peace made the front page of today's Johnson City Press.

A congregation of more than 50 people silently marched along State of Franklin Road as the sound of Sunday afternoon traffic quickly passed them by.

An American flag, children holding the hands of their parents and a sign that read “United we stand for peace and justice in the Holy Land,” could clearly be seen by every individual who drove past this group.

Although they were marching silently, their cry for peace rang throughout the city.

The group consisted of locals from the Judaic, Christian and Islamic faiths. They marched from ETSU to the Carver Recreation Center for a prayer vigil.

The Vigil for Peace was held in response to the recent atrocities in Gaza and to enlighten the community of East Tennessee to the turmoil in Israel and Palestine.

On the way back from a similar march in Washington, Shanna O’Brien and RJ Powell, coordinators of the event, felt they needed to bring awareness to the people of the region upon returning to Johnson City.

“The only way for peace is unifying people together,” said O’Brien. “If we here in Johnson City can bring three faiths together in a peaceful way, then maybe there’s hope that we can spread that to other areas and ultimately the world.”

As the vigil began, people from all three Abrahamic faiths sat together and listened to representatives from each faith speak on what can be done to bring peace to both sides of the conflict.

The humanity of the people in the Middle East was the main focus of all those who spoke at the vigil.

“It’s not Quarans, Old Testaments or Torahs that die in wars; it’s human beings,” said Mike Pinner, representative of the Christian faith.

Taneem Aziz, president of the Muslim Community of Northeast Tennessee, reminded everyone in attendance that there comes a time when turned heads must be straightened, closed eyes must be opened and silence must be broken.

Aziz hopes the turnout of the event not only provides awareness and prayers for peace in the Middle East, but also leads to a political activism for the people of East Tennessee.

“If we see each other face to face and remain human in each other’s eyes, I think that’s ulitmately the solution on a small scale and a broad scale,” O’Brien said. “If we can see the humanity in each other, then maybe we can stop killing each other.” reported on it as well. Make sure you check the videos at both websites.

Over 100 were present at the Carver Center! Thanks to all for making this stand for peace!

Reading Schedule

In 2009, we are going to become familiar with the Muslim faith and our Muslim friends in part by reading the Qur’an. The January reading consisted of chapters 1 and 2. For February, we are going to move to the end of the Qur’an and read some the earlier revelations. For February please read:

Chapter 53, verses 1-18 and
Chapters 81-114

Along with this, please read the introduction to Michael Sells, Approaching the Qur’an: The Early Revelations, pp. 1-31.

Here is the reading schedule from the Qur’an for the year:

January, Chapters 1 and 2
February, Chapters 81-114
March, Chapters 3, 4, and 5
April, Chapters 6, 7, and 8
May, Chapters 9-13
June, Chapters 14-18
July, Chapters 19-23
August, Chapters 24-29
September, Chapters 30-39
October, Chapters 40-51
November, Chapters 52-60
December, Chapters 61-80

Each month’s reading will consist of approximately 40-50 pages. In addition there are some additional texts to help in our understanding. They include the Michael Sells book I mentioned above.

Also, I recommend The Story of the Qur’an: Its History and Place in Muslim Life by Ingrid Mattson. Dr. Mattson, who is president of the Islamic Society of North America led one of the prayers at the inauguration.

Both of these books are recommended by Taneem Aziz who is president of the Muslim Community of Northeast Tennessee. I have invited Taneem to speak to our adult forum and he in turn invited our community to a potluck with them. More details to come! Also, anyone is invited to participate in Friday prayers in Johnson City at 1:30 p.m.

Finally, on the fourth Tuesday of each month, we will go over the readings for the month.

Our February meeting will be at First Presbyterian Church of Elizabethton,
Tuesday, February 24th from 12-1 p.m.

Do follow along on Qur'an and Jive!

Friday, January 9, 2009

Our Qur'an Quest Makes the News

Thanks to Greg Miller of the Elizabethton Star for this article in today's paper about our reading the Qur'an cover to cover in 2009. Check it:

First Presbyterian Church begins study of the Qur'an

By Greg Miller
Star Staff

First Presbyterian Church of Elizabethton has embarked on a new adventure -- a study of the Qur'an.

"Last year, 2008, we read the Bible (including the apocrypha) cover to cover," said the Rev. John Shuck, pastor. "For 2009, we will read the Qur'an cover to cover."

Participants in the study, which has already begun, will read about 1/12 of the Qur'an each month through December, according to Shuck. A special service will be held each month throughout the year. "We will use some portions of the Qur'an for prayers, perhaps a chant in Arabic," Shuck said. "During the sermon, I will speak about something in the Qur'an that we had scheduled ourselves to read for that month."

When the congregation read the Bible through last year, Shuck set up a blog -- -- and had quizzes and summaries for each reading.

"I have also set up a blog -- -- for the Qur'an reading that will have resources. I am not sure if I will have a class yet. If there is interest, I will."

In the White Spire, the church's newsletter, Shuck said that the Qur'an is about the length of the New Testament and is divided into 114 surahs (chapters). "Within each chapter are verses," he said. "For instance 2:112 is Chapter 2, verse 112.

"The Qur'an is not ordered chronologically in the order that Muhammed received the revelations. His followers put the text together and ordered it into these chapters. Except for chapter 1, 'The Opening,' the earliest chapters are the longest, and they progress from longest to shortest."

Shuck says the Qur'an is a "bit of a challenge" to read. "It is a challenge because it is not a story like the gospels or the book of Genesis, for instance. It is more like reading one of the Hebrew prophets. Without guidance, it is at times difficult to know the context behind what is written. It is written in the first person for the most part. God is the speaker who is calling on the prophet, Muhammed, to recite what God is saying."

Many characters in the Qur'an, Shuck says, are also in the Bible. "There is more about Mary, the mother of Jesus, in the Qur'an than in the Bible," Shuck notes. "You will find Jesus, Adam, Noah, Abraham, Ishmael, Moses and others. They are all prophets. The message was the same -- submit to God. One of the central meanings of Islam is 'to submit.' A Muslim is one who submits to God. If you submit to God, you are a Muslim. Abraham is credited as being the first Muslim, and he and his son Ishmael (spelled Isma'il in the Qur'an) created the holy shrine in Mecca."

Qur'an means "recitation," according to Shuck. "Is the recitation of God's revelation. For Muslims, it is only the recitation when it is in Arabic. An English translation or any other translation is not the Qur'an but an interpretation of the Qur'an. To hear the Qur'an, one needs to learn Arabic. A Muslim discipline is to memorize the Qur'an in Arabic.

"There are many English translations, some are better than others. The most popular would be by Yusuf Ali. The one I enjoy and will be using is by Tarif Khalidi, who is professor of Islamic and Arabic Studies at American University in Beirut."

For 23 years, Shuck says, "Muhammed received revelations from God. Through them, God communicated instructions for how to live. Here is an English translation of the first surah:

"In the name of Allah, Most Gracious, Most Merciful. Praise be to Allah, the Cherisher and Sustainer of the worlds; Most Gracious, Most Merciful; Master of the Day of Judgment. Thee do we worship, and Thine aid we seek. Show us the straight way, The way of those on whom Thou hast bestowed Thy Grace, those whose (portion) is not wrath, and who go not astray."

Shuck continued, "A couple of things here. The word Allah is the Arabic word for God. If you were to read a Bible that was translated into Arabic, the word translated in English as God would be translated in Arabic as Allah. The purpose of the Qur'an is to show us the straight way, the way of God."

Shuck recalls a course on Christian-Muslim relations while he was in seminary was influential to him. "I read about the Roman Catholic priest, Louis Massignon, who made great strides in peaceful relations with Christians and Muslims," Shuck said. "He encouraged Christians to appreciate Muhammed as a prophet and to read the Qur'an 'devotionally' that is as if we were hearing the word of God to us. He wanted Christians to approach Islam from the inside. He was fully a Christian and fully comfortable in the world of Islam. It was his ministry that influenced Vatican II to be more open to Islam in ecumenical relationships."

Shuck continued, "Louis Massignon is a model for me. I want to be able to understand my Muslim sisters and brothers as they would wish to be understood. In doing that, I wish to read their sacred scriptures sympathetically. I would hope, they in turn, will read my sacred scriptures with sympathy as well.

" I think it is very important that we understand others as they wish to be understood," said Shuck. "Treat others as you would like to be treated. There is a great deal of misunderstanding by Christians of Islam. There are real differences between our faiths and our approach to spirituality and to God. But, we must not exaggerate these differences or misrepresent others to make ourselves look good. It is important that Christians and Muslims build bridges of peace. This is one of the main reasons we are engaged in this project."

Shuck says the congregation will be looking at the similarities and differences between Christianity and Islam. "That is a huge question that we will be exploring this year," he said. "I would say that there is a great deal more that we have in common than we realize."

Shuck says the church plans to connect with the Muslim Community of Northeast Tennessee. "We are looking forward to fellowship activities together. This will be the best opportunity to ask questions. Perhaps we will be able to host an educational event for the larger community. The Muslim Community of Northeast Tennessee has a mosque in Johnson City, and they are wonderful folks. I hope that others will make connections with our Muslim neighbors. This is their Web page."

Sunday, January 4, 2009

First Sermon: A Sympathetic Reading

We are reading the Qur'an cover to cover in 2009. This is my first sermon of the new year that outlines the quest.

A Sympathetic Reading
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee
January 4th, 2009

In the creation of the heavens and the earth,
In the cycle of night and day,
In ships that plough the sea, to humanity’s benefit,
In what God causes to descend from the sky of water,
Giving life to Earth, hitherto dead,
And peopling it with all manner of crawling creatures,
In varying the winds and clouds, which run their course
between sky and Earth—
In these are signs for people who reflect.
Qur’an 2:164

Last year, we read the Bible, cover to cover. This year, we are going to read the Qur’an. Actually, we are going to read interpretations of the Qur’an. For Muslims, the Qur’an is only the Qur’an when it is read in Arabic. We are going to read interpretations or meanings of the Qur’an.

Why? What is the purpose of this exercise?

It is what this congregation does. This is from our mission statement:

Honor our Christian heritage while we explore the knowledge and wisdom of multiple religions, science, philosophy, humanities and psychology to deepen and enrich our spiritual journeys.

I have some of my own reasons.

First, I think there is a great deal of misunderstanding regarding Muslim people, their religion, and their holy book. Islam, like Christianity, is being co-opted by extremists. The extreme voices in religion have become loud, shrill, oppressive, and in some cases, violent.

The extreme voices in religion advocate against science, against human rights, and for superstition.

Bishop John Shelby Spong wrote a book, Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism. We also need to rescue the Qur’an from fundamentalism, both Christian and Islamic.

Hopefully, by becoming familiar with this text, we can better understand the complexity of this 14 hundred year old religion that has over one billion adherents worldwide, including adherents in our own neighborhood.

That brings me to the next reason. I am advocating becoming familiar with the Qur’an for the sake of being neighborly. The Muslim Community of Northeast Tennessee has a mosque in Johnson City. I have had some e-mail exchanges with the leader of the mosque. I am looking forward to having our two faith communities have some kind of fellowship in the coming year.

Third, I am curious. I don’t know too much about Islam or the Qur’an. I took a course in seminary, but have forgotten much of what I learned. I have certainly studied the Bible enough, but not this book that has a close relationship to the Bible. Many of the characters are the same. There is more about Mary, the mother of Jesus, in the Qur’an than in the New Testament.

Also, I am curious from a literary point of view. The Qur’an is a spiritual classic and that alone is reason to be familiar with it.

Fourth, I believe that the way to peace requires us to be sympathetic. I titled my sermon “A Sympathetic Reading.” That means a couple of things for me. To be sympathetic literally means to have a similar passion. When I read sympathetically, I am on the same side of what I am reading.

That is true whether I am reading a text or the story of a person’s life. To read sympathetically is to make the effort of appreciation, of honor, and of respect. That does not mean I agree with everything or that I do not read critically, but it means I read with an openness to hear something.

A sympathetic reading is one that expects that what I am reading will have something to say to me. In Chapter 7 verse 204 of the Qur’an, we find this verse:

"When the Qur'an is recited, listen to it and remain silent; perhaps you will be shown mercy." 7:204

Perhaps if we read with an open spirit and an open mind we may be blessed. The Qur’an is believed by Muslims to be the recitation of God to the prophet, Muhammed. If God has any realism for us, then to read the Qur’an sympathetically means to listen for the voice of God.

There is no reason to dismiss or accept the claim that the Qur’an is the Word of God any more than there is a reason to dismiss or accept the claim that the Bible or Jesus Christ is the Word of God. You can’t prove it either way. The reason we are gathered in a Christian church today is more than likely sociological than theological. If we were living in Indonesia, we would probably be Muslim.

The course I took in seminary was entitled “Christians and the Call to Islam” and it was about Christian-Muslim dialogue. The course was an introduction to Islam. But it was more than that. We learned about the history of the interaction between Muslims and Christians.

One of the figures I remembered from that study was Louis Massignon. He wanted Christians to read the Qur’an devotionally. His central concern was how Christians could appreciate Muhammed. Massignon was a mystic who had an “erotic love for the Divine.” He devoted his life to helping Christians discover Islam from within.

He was a fully Christian person--he became a priest in fact—yet he was completely at home with Islam. He died thinking he was a failure who no one understood. Yet his life experience and his commitment to understanding Muslims sympathetically influenced Vatican II and its openness toward Muslims.

His is the model I would like to follow. I am not interested in debating theology, nor in converting people. I am interested in the spirituality of it all and in finding ways to connect at that level. And I am interested in finding things we can do to work together for peace.

That is the sense in which I wish to give the Qur’an and my Muslim neighbors a sympathetic reading.

What about the Qur’an? To get us started. The Qur’an contains 114 chapters or surahs. They are ordered by length, longest to shortest. They are not chronological. They are not in the form of narratives like the gospels or the narrative portions of the Hebrew scriptures. They don’t tell about Muhammed’s life. They are similar in style to the Old Testament prophets. If you sit down and read Amos, you will find that God is pretty serious. That is kind of like the Qur’an.

You will find in there familiar characters from the Hebrew scriptures as well as Jesus. Muslims have a high regard for Jesus as a prophet but they believe that Christians exaggerated him. They have a point. It is an equally valid point to say that Muslims exaggerate the Qur’an.

That is what religion is, really, exaggeration—or a better word--metaphor. You have heard me preach now for three years. Probably you have recognized that my approach is metaphorical. A metaphor takes two things (one familiar and one unfamiliar) and links them.

God is Father is a metaphor. God is unfamiliar, father is familiar. God is mother. The earth is God’s body. Jesus is the word of God. The Qur’an is the word of God. Those are metaphors not descriptors. They say what is and at the same time say it is not. God is and is not father, and so on.

Metaphors evoke. Like a lightning strike, they offer a flash of insight, then are gone. A metaphor is not descriptive. Much of the frustration I have had with much of religion is when it hardens metaphors and parables into descriptions. Metaphors morph into dogmas and creeds and soon you are burning heretics and infidels at the stake.

I have no problem saying the Qur’an is the word of God and taking that quite seriously as a metaphor. I also have no problem saying Jesus is the second person of the Trinity as a metaphor. Metaphorical theology allows for contradictions, surprises, and odd combinations. The purpose is to open our senses to new relationships.

In the Qur’an, you will run across the phrase, “The People of the Book” that refers to Jews and to Christians. There is a guarded approach to the people of the book. They are both right and wrong from the Qur’an’s perspective. But the Qur’an regards them as brothers and sisters. There is a benefit of the doubt extended to Jews and to Christians that is not often expressed in the media.

The Qur’an is complex and ambiguous on many points. There is allowed great freedom of interpretation. As with the Bible, the rigidity comes from its interpreters.

The Qur’an is in the first person for the most part. God is speaking and often uses the royal we. It is repetitive and at times a little hard to read. God is pretty serious. But if you can read it sympathetically, you can find there some very important things.

Islam means among many things "to submit." It is an infinitive. One who submits to God is a Muslim. If you submit to God, you are a Muslim. Abraham is the first Muslim. According to the Qur’an, Abraham and his son Ismail set up the holy shrine at Mecca. You will read about this in the second surah or chapter. You will read about Ramadan, the importance of daily prayer facing Mecca, almsgiving, and making the hajj or the pilgrimage to Mecca once in a lifetime if you are able.

The Qur’an is all about monotheism. One God. It does not view polytheism favorably, nor what it refers to as the worship of idols. And of course, the Trinity makes no sense. It is an exaggeration.

When you read it, consider reading it out loud. There are websites that recite the Qur’an in Arabic. It would be good to memorize a few verses, perhaps the first chapter. This is recited five times a day when Muslims face Mecca to pray.

The sound is as much the message as the words. That is not an exaggeration. The sound itself conveys meaning. That is one reason why you only really can hear the Qur’an when you hear it in Arabic.

Guides to help in your quest. There are several English translations. I have about seven of them. I am taking this seriously! The most enjoyable is by Tarif Khalidi. It is called The Qur’an: A New Translation. Khalidi is a professor of Arabic at American University in Beirut. His translation is contemporary, lyrical, and from the reviews I have read, faithful to the content and the poetry of the Arabic.

A helpful book to go with it is The Story of the Qur’an: Its History and Place in Muslim Life by Ingrid Mattson. Prof. Mattson teaches at Hartford Seminary in Connecticut. She describes herself as “a Western academic who is also trying to live as a faithful Muslim.” Those two books would be a good start. You can find them on my blog, Qur’an and Jive.

On the blog and in the newsletter, I will post the readings for the month, different resources, and because I am just weird that way, a quiz for each month. We should try to make it fun.

I am going to close by being a bit philosophical.

I am not sure how or to what extent religion brings out the better natures of humankind or how or to what extent religion leads to violence and destruction. It has done both.

It seems to me that a sympathetic reading can go a long way toward peaceful relations. In the end we human beings are on the same side. We operate with different metaphors toward the mystery of life. If we can relate sympathetically with each other’s metaphors and stories perhaps we will see in one another a flash of insight to the truth and beauty of the universe that we may not have known without this encounter.

Let us read each others’ texts and stories and metaphors with a similar passion, with sympathy. In so doing let us give ourselves to the task of glimpsing the divine presence –or as the Qur’an invites us—to sell our soul for the pleasure of God.

“Among people is one who sells his soul seeking the pleasure of God. God is tender towards his worshippers.” 2:206

May it be so.