Sunday, July 17, 2005

Repeating Abraham's Mistake

Sitting at my computer in my home office, I can hear all sorts of sounds at night. One of the regular sounds comes from just below my office window. Our night guard, Mr. Moussa, is Muslim. At the prescribed hour, he unrolls his prayer rug, assumes a posture of prayer, and begins his nightly ritual of singing and chanting.

It’s a comforting sound in this sometimes riotous and loud country. It always humbles me to hear people of other faith in prayer. And it always causes me to reflect on the question of Muslim-Christian relations. Cameroon has a large Muslim population, although most are located in the northern part of the country.

Our driver, Mr. Djibril, is also Muslim. We make sure Mr. Djibril is always available to attend his mosque on Fridays. And in return, Mr. Djibril is extremely respectful of our churches, since he is the one who usually drives us to church every Sunday morning. Even though he doesn’t have to, when the service starts, Mr. Djibril usually enters the building and sits in the congregation to listen to the music and preaching. And every Sunday, when the offering is taken, he always walks forward and contributes something.

While a committed and faithful Muslim, Mr. Djibril is a living, breathing example of someone who shows extreme respect to people of other faiths. When I return from a trip, he greets me and asks, in his broken combination of Pidgin English and French, if I had a good time. When I reply, “Oui, c’est bon,” he says, “Thank you, God!” I say, “Amen!” to that. I use the phrase on him when I ask about his family, and especially his infant boy, Babanya.

Our relationship with Mr. Djibril reminds me of a story in Genesis, which I read recently. It’s the story of Abraham traveling through the kingdom of Abimelech (Genesis 20). Abraham persuades Sarah to pass herself off as his sister instead of his wife. Abraham is afraid that someone would kill him to get at his beautiful Sarah. Her beauty does indeed charm Abimelech, who takes Sarah into his palace. But God warns Abimelech in a dream that Sarah is really Abraham’s wife. The shocked king says to Abraham, “What were you thinking? Why did you do this to me? You almost brought great destruction and guilt upon me and my kingdom!”

Abraham’s answer is revealing: “I did it because I thought to myself, ‘There is no fear of God at all in this place’ …”

I think most of us have made Abraham’s mistake at some point in our lives. Just like Abraham, we find it hard to believe that other people, men and women of other religions, could possibly have any “fear of God.” It seems implausible, since their prayers sound so unusual, their theology seems strange, and their dress looks so different. It doesn’t seem possible, but time and time again, I find myself being surprised by an Abimelech, who does indeed have the “fear of God” and demonstrates it in ways that challenge my own faith commitment.

Sometimes we make Abraham’s mistake to the point that we do ridiculous things, like tell lies about Sarah, or show discrimination or intolerance. We tell horrible jokes, or perpetuate injustice. We ignore the voice of God in the faith histories of others.

But we’re not the only ones who repeat Abraham’s mistake – his own son did, too! Only six chapters later, Isaac is passing through Abimelech’s land, and pulls the same stunt with his wife, Rachel.

You’d think Abimelech would have learned his lesson about these Hebrew women … but perhaps Abraham should have taught his son that the fear of God can pop up in the unlikeliest of places!