Pillars – How Muslim Friends Led Me Closer to Jesus

“I have waited for a book like Pillars all my adult life, a personal book that discovers similarities and
honors differences between Christianity and Islam, a book that . . . shows what can happen when we
connect rather than collide.”

Marilyn R. Gardner, author of Between Worlds: Essays on Culture and Belonging

I think it was in 2012 when I first “met” Rachel Pieh Jones. We connected online over a mutual love and struggle over lives lived between worlds, over writing, and over a shared connection to Muslim majority countries. Meeting Rachel has been a gift that keeps on giving. Through the years we have shared our hearts and our stories and I have learned much through my friendship with this extraordinary woman.

Today, Rachel’s second book Pillars is released and I cannot tell you how excited I am about this book! I had the honor of reading an advanced copy and feel like I have been waiting for it my entire adult life.

Below is an interview from the press release for Pillars developed by Plough Publishing.


When Rachel Pieh Jones moved from Minnesota to rural Somalia with her husband and twin toddlers eighteen years ago, she was secure in a faith that defined who was right and who was wrong, who was saved and who needed saving. She had been taught that Islam was evil, full of lies and darkness, and that the world would be better without it.

Luckily, locals show compassion for this blundering outsider who can’t keep her headscarf on or her toddlers from tripping over AK47s. After the murder of several foreigners forces them to evacuate, the Joneses resettle in nearby Djibouti.

Is there anything you find daunting about putting your story out like this for the world?
Absolutely. Spirituality is deeply personal. Sharing such a personal story makes me feel incredibly vulnerable. I hope to honor my Christian tradition, even as my ideas of what it means to be a Christian have been transformed and I’m not sure how people will respond to some of my conclusions. I also aim to honor Islam as I experience it in the Horn of Africa and it is daunting to present another faith tradition as an outsider. I hope to have done so respectfully.

Why do you choose to do it in spite of those apprehensions?
I’m a peace-builder at heart and have learned that peace does not come through avoiding hard conversations, and that peace does not mean homogeneity or agreement. Peace is built right in the middle of complexity as we learn to honor another’s perspective. This is something our communities desperately need. Peace is built through shared experiences of joy, grief, fear, and celebration, through choosing to love people without needing to change them, and through realizing that we are the ones being loved too. That conviction compels me to share this story as one example of what peace-building can look like.

How do you imagine your story will be received by North American evangelical Christians? By the Muslim community?
I don’t expect all readers, whether Christian or Muslim, will agree with all the conclusions I come to in Pillars. I even anticipate some pushback because Christians and Muslims have a complicated history that can make it hard to see positive aspects in the other. I hope even in the places that feel uncomfortable, readers will find intriguing possibilities for conversation andfurther exploration. At the same time, I know many Christians and Muslims who have developed
meaningful relationships. I hope these readers will feel less alone in their quest to find common ground.

REVIEWS:

Eboo Patel, author of Acts of Faith: The Story of an American Muslim, the Struggle for the Soul of a Generation
“This is a beautiful story, beautifully told. It’s much more than the memoirs of a Christian American living in Africa and exploring Islam with devoted Muslims; it’s about learning how to be a good neighbor to the people around you, wherever you might be in the world. This is the kind of book we need right now.”

Amy Peterson, author of Dangerous Territory: My Misguided Quest to Save the World
“Filled with hard-won insights of a mature faith lived in long community with Muslim neighbors, Pillars refuses sentimental calls for the kind of peace that glosses over differences. Instead, Jones finds her faith unraveled and rewoven, stronger for what she’s learned in the Horn of Africa and from her Muslim friends. Anyone whose faith has been challenged by life experiences will find a helpful model for spiritual growth here.”

At the end of my full review I said this, and I leave you with it now:

“Read and savor this book, which shows what can happen when we connect rather than collide.”

You can purchase the book here.

And Lent Begins

Lent begins.

It begins with minus degree weather and sore legs from prostrations.

It begins with personal pain and so much unknown.

It begins with a stomach that is already gurgling, wondering about its food source.

But still it begins – and that is something.

It begins with forgiveness Sunday, and a heart of compassion toward my church body, even those I may not be fond of.

It begins with a fraction of hope and whispers of Pascha.

It begins with blue sky, and that is a wonder.

It begins with awe and wonder that the God who created the universe reaches out his compassionate hand beyond space and time to comfort and whisper in the dark “you are beloved.”

It begins with the love of God the Father, the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the communion and beautiful fellowship of the Holy Spirit.

Oh Lord, let it begin.

Sudden Storms

Earlier this week there was a high wind advisory in our area. It was well warranted. The winds raged from 44 to 50 miles an hour and shook everything around. Though it must have been predicted, for me it was sudden.

We happened to be in Rockport at the time and our entire condo quivered and shivered throughout the night. Beyond the whistling sounds typical of high winds were the sounds of shutters and vents banging, branches hitting the outside walls, and overall ghost-like moans of the storm.

I lay in bed unable to sleep for a long time. The storm felt insurmountable. When would it end? Would the electricity go off, taking with it the heat and hot water? Would there be damage to the condo? So many questions. I fell into an uneasy sleep only to wake again to the seemingly never-ending storm.

The storm reflects my life right now. A sudden storm of events brought with it howling winds and shaking circumstances. The questions too were similar. When would it end and what damage would it do? These questions crowd my mind as I fall into an uneasy sleep.

But the actual physical storm did end. The electricity didn’t go off. There is no damage. There is no evidence of the violent winds that ripped through the area. Today came and with it sunlight reflected through every window. Beauty and light after a storm.

And with the sun came a quiet hope for the life storm, a tiny capsule of rest and redemption. In this light I begin to believe that someday this will all be redeemed.

The Hope that Kills You

Picture Credit – NPR

Note – Spoiler Alert

I just finished watching the Apple TV show, Ted Lasso. For the uninitiated, this show is about an American football coach who is recruited to coach a failing British football team – the sport known as soccer in the United States. The show is delightful. While the language is salty and my eyes rolled at some of the innuendo (mainly because both feel lazy) you have this truly good man who is thrown into an impossible situation. He knows nothing about football that is not American (ie soccer),he knows nothing about the UK and their ardent and tumultous love of football, and he is clueless that he is being exploited and used. Despite that, he goes into the situation with optimistic joy. He has this ability to make everyone he meets feel a little bit better about life and about themselves. Even the most cynical character is changed by meeting Ted Lasso.

Very little in the show is predictable. While we humans love a story line of the underdog becoming a hero or the losing team suddenly winning, this is not a story that follows those feel good predictable narratives. Instead, it does something far better: It gives the viewer a sense that no matter how bad things get, it really is okay, that resilience is not developed by overcoming a flatline, but by coping with mountains, valleys, and flatlines. That’s the magic of the show.

A marriage fails, an aging soccer star hangs up his jersey, a scorned woman continues to be completely mocked by her ghastly ex-husband, and a team does not win. But despite all of that, the players, the coach, the assistant coach, the locker room assistant – even an arrogant journalist – all become better people.

The players learn to play as a team. The locker room assistant learns that his observations are worthwhile. The arrogant journalist learns to give someone grace instead of maligning them. The scorned ex-wife/owner of the team learns to apologize and really mean it.

It is remarkable.

The last episode of the season is called “The Hope that Kills You” and it is one of the only times when you see Ted Lasso angry. He’s angry about the phrase. His philosophy is not about winning, it’s about playing – specifically, playing well, playing as a team, and having fun. But this last game is against a significant rival and has far-reaching implications for the team. Over and over he’s told “Hope will kill you.” It’s a phrase that grew out of a downtrodden people and team; a phrase that spoke of hope deferred over and over and over until it was no longer viable. Hope is a disaster, or worse – it’s a fatality. This, for Ted Lasso, is unbearable. He can handle multiple insults coming from every side, he can handle outright and subtle ridicule, but he cannot bear watching people dismiss hope.

This is where Ted Lasso and the current state of the Pandemic world collide. Hope within this pandemic has died. It’s a disaster, or worse – it’s a fatality. We are daily given doses of why we can’t hope, why we must be cautious, why nothing will ever get back to “normal.”

It’s exhausting to have so many voices telling us that hope is going to kill us. And I for one, am done. Not only does the pessimism exhaust me, it defeats every thought, every dream, and every plan. It’s not just a disaster, it’s a fatality.

So I’m going to go all Ted Lasso on you – I’m going to loudly proclaim that hope is not what will kill you, it’s the opposite. No – hope won’t kill you – it will help you live.

Hope, my friends, will help you live. Sometimes it’s all we have.

Somehow in our world we give gold stars to sophisticated cynicism and educated skepticism. Those with hope are audaciously childish and need to be put in their place. So we put them in their place. We put them in their place with statistics and data, with charts and graphs, with “that will never work” and snide side glances. And if that doesn’t work, we put them in their place with mockery and ridicule. Just like the crowds in Ted Lasso.

He responds with unrelenting optimism, with tireless goodwill, with determined effort to see the good in each human being and situation he encounters, and it drives some people crazy. But he keeps it up.

I want to be like that. And if it’s put on my tombstone “Above all, she had Hope” then what a grace.

What a grace indeed.

“The living can’t quit living because the world has turned terrible…..They can’t because they don’t. The light that shines into darkness and never goes out calls them on into life. It calls them back again into the great room. It calls them into their bodies and into the world, into whatever the world will require. It calls them into work and pleasure, goodness and beauty, and the company of other loved ones.”

Wendell Berry in Hannah Coulter

[Picture Credit https://www.npr.org/2020/11/10/933599086/how-ted-lassoed-his-way-into-our-hearts%5D

Grace-filled Snow

A soft snow fell over night, blanketing our city with white grace. I woke up to grace still falling – huge flakes floating effortlessly from a grey sky.

A city gathers dirt quickly. All the trappings that make our modern life easy and comfortable find their way into the air and onto roads and buildings. Silently moving over and through the city, snow covers all of it.

As I look out on the snow, I think on how desperate I am for snow-like grace, how I am looking, longing for, and trying to grasp mercy and healing for myself and for others. It is an awful and wonderful privilege to be invited into the pain of another. And yet, there is a cost. Sharing and bearing the pain of another does not come without a price tag.

My theology should fare well under pain, I think to myself. Is not Christ my example? Christ, the Suffering Servant? Christ – the one who was wounded for our transgressions, bruised for our iniquities?

In the second century, a slave named Felicity was imprisoned for being a Christian. She was a slave of Perpetua, a wealthy woman who was also a Christian and had discipled Felicity. Both were young women and on their imprisonment they lost everything. Perpetua was put into a part of the prison reserved for the wealthy, the only ones who had relatives wealthy enough to bribe the guards, ensuring better treatment of their loved ones. Felicity remained in the worst part of the prison, that part reserved for slaves.

Perpetua had a baby and Felicity was pregnant.

Both were sentenced to die a martyr’s death in the arena unless they renounced their faith.  Before the time came for them to be put in the arena, Felicity gave birth. On seeing how much pain she was in during labor and childbirth, the guards mocked her. How would she stand the arena, they wondered, when something like childbirth caused her so much pain.

“Now I am the one who is suffering,” Felicity said “but in the arena, Another will be in me, suffering for me, because I will be suffering for Him.”

Felicity knew that in the arena God would not leave her, that he would be fully present bearing her pain. I never thought of the arena being filled with grace, but how could it not be grace-filled with the presence of God’s spirit when those killed were killed because of their faith?

You and I are unlikely to die the death of a martyr, but daily we do battle in the spiritual arena.  Daily we face wild beasts and lions, often disguised as benign pets. These arenas can cause extraordinary spiritual pain. And we are sometimes called into the arena of another. Called to love, called to fight for them, called to walk with them, called to help them bear the pain, called to be reminders of the presence of God. In the words of my dear friend Lois, we are “given the calling of ministering grace in painful and profound ways.”

In the Arena, another will be in me, suffering for me, because I will be suffering for Him.” The words of Felicity, spoken so long ago, are a profound challenge to which I prayerfully respond: May it be so, Lord Jesus. May it be so.


 Note: Parts of this blog were previously posted under another post “In the Arena” published in 2016.

The Fragility of Goodness

I have been thinking a lot about “goodness” lately – that word that speaks to the quality of being kind, virtuous, morally good. What does it mean to grow into goodness, to grow beyond the childlike attribute of being “good” and grow into someone whose character makes you think of true goodness.

As children, many of us hear the words “Be good” on a regular basis. “Be good for grandma!” “Be good to your brother!” It is said so often that it sometimes loses both its meaning and its power. Perhaps the importance of how we can mature into goodness is also lost along the way, lost in a world that doesn’t necessarily reward goodness beyond childhood. Instead, being savvy, smart, intellectual, and quick-tongued and quick penned are what gives us an edge in many spheres.

As I’ve thought about goodness, I came upon the story of Bulgaria’s Jews in World War 2 as relayed in a book I am reading called The Lemon Tree: An Arab, a Jew, and the Heart of the Middle East. In this particular section, the author is telling the story of a Jewish family in Bulgaria who ended up in Palestine. Central to their survival in Bulgaria is the larger story of the Jews in Bulgaria.

A deportation order had been written that would deport all of Bulgaria’s 47,000 Jews. Unlike most of Europe, this planned deportation was never carried out. It wasn’t carried out because ordinary people and leaders found out about it. The Metropolitan and the Bishop of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church stood up for the Jews, approaching places of power and “imploring the king to demonstrate compassion by defending the right to freedom and human dignity of the Jews.” A member of parliament (Dimitar Peshev) publicly went against his government, gathering signatures and approaching the king stating that a deportation “would be be disastrous and bring ominous consequences upon the country.” Along with these, leaders of professional organizations and businesses, and ordinary people across the country stood by the Jewish population.

The deportation order was stopped temporarily in March of 1943, and then indefinitely in May. The Jewish population of the entire nation of Bulgaria did not die in gas chambers.

The author goes on to say this:

“None of this would have happened withough what the Bulgarian-French intellectual Tzvetan Todorov calls the ‘fragility of goodness’: the intricate, delicate, unforeseeable weave of human action and historical events”

Evil spreads quickly and virulently. Like a virus, it is hard to stop once it takes root. Todorov says that once it is introduced into public view, it spreads easily, whereas goodness is temporary, difficult, rare, fragile. And yet possible.

I have been thinking about this story and the idea of the fragility of goodness all week. Each person in Bulgaria who spoke up for the Jews, people who were their friends, their neighbors, their business partners, and their community members, is a chain in the link of goodness that ultimately preserved life and human dignity. While Tdorov speaks to the fragility and the “tenuous chain of events” that led to a stay in the deportation order, maybe it is not as tenuous as he supposes. Maybe what appeared tenuous and fragile was far stonger then he could imagine.

In my experience, goodness is far stronger than we know, far more powerful than it may appear. Its power is in its moral strength and its stubborn refusal to quit. That’s what I see, not only in this story, but in the small ways that goodness moves in, refusing to give up, determined that evil will not have the final word.

There are two areas where I am deeply challenged in all of this. How can I chase goodness the way I chase beauty in my daily life? When will I get to the point where I choose good without even thinking because it is so much a part of me? Secondly, Like many of you, I’ve increasingly felt disillusioned and discontent with social media. In its best form it serves as a connector, a friendship builder, a way to challenge, build bridges and encourage. In its other forms, it is none of that. It builds anger, doubt, mistrust, discouragement, discontent, and convinces us that we will never have what others have. Where is goodness in our online selves? Why do we usually head for the lowest denominator, convincing ourselves that it really doesn’t matter.

How can I chase goodness the way I chase beauty? When will I get to the point where I choose good without even thinking because it is so much a part of me? I don’t know. But it gives me hope when I think of ordinary people going about their lives in Bulgaria in 1943, deciding that they would speak up and out, never knowing that they would be a part of a chain called the fragility of goodness.

In all this, I am reminded of Christ, the author of goodness, the one who strengthens the fragility of goodness making it into a force that challenges and destroys evil, for it is he who daily calls me to chase after goodness, truth, and beauty.


Note: all quotes are from The Lemon Tree by Sandy Tolan

Masked Mourners & Bagpipes

Across the street from our house stands an old Catholic church, its magestic steeple reaching far into the sky. From eight o’clock in the morning until ten o’clock at night, the church rings out the hours on bells that echo across Charlestown. During this time of year, along with the bells are old Christmas Carols – “In the Bleak Midwinter,” “O Come O Come Emmanuel,” and “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” are all treats for the ears during this season. The carols start at the beginning of Advent and go through Epiphany on January 7th.

It is also a church that holds a lot of funerals. Almost weekly, parking signs will appear warning us not to park across the street by the church. The unspoken message is for us to give honor to those attending the funeral by giving up our hard fought parking spaces, for it is a city, and fights landing people in jail have happened over parking spaces. Most of us willingly give up our spots, our contribution to what is already a grief-filled time for those who attend.

In recent months the most common scene at the church has been masked mourners, the most common funeral sound bagpipes, their melancholic sounds echoing through the neighborhood. It has brought me to tears more than once. Could there be an instrument more mournful? I don’t think so.

Whenever I hear the bagpipes I know that a hearse is not far behind.

Though I feel sad, I also feel hope with these funerals. People are gathering. They are mourning together. As a family that has gone through profound grief alone, postponing a memorial service for months following a death, I delight in seeing these masked mourners gather. They are bearing witness to grief and in doing so showing the strength of community.

As I think of the regular occurrence of funerals across the street, and the millions of other deaths and subsequent funerals from this past year, I think of the words of Psalm 139, a Psalm that I have been reading and rereading during these first couple of days of the New Year.

More than any other Psalm or words in scripture, this one gets to the heart of a God who knows and loves us. The words “all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be” are a powerful reminder that God knows the number of our days. He knows when the masked mourners and bagpipes or their equivalent will be played for each person.

But the Psalm is so much more than just knowing our days. The messages are profoundly comforting: We are seen clearly. We are known fully. We are loved extravagantly. The disconnect comes as I contemplate the truth of those three things with the way I live my life. If I really believe that I am seen clearly, known fully, and loved extravagantly, would I not rest easier? Would I not be more secure? It’s something I’ve struggled with for possibly my entire life.

The Psalmist, because he is human, seems to understand the disconnect. Indeed, he admits his own inability to understand saying that it is too much and too wonderful to understand.

Our world offers a lot of substitutes for the truths in Psalm 139, and many of them feel quite real, but the past year has shown that they are fleeting at best. Our security in health, jobs, travel, friendships, and safety is an illusion. While the “enemy” used to be something that the West thought they could keep out with high fences and strong borders, an invisible virus has broken through all of those illusions, making us servants to fear and grasping and gasping for hope.

What better time then, to lean in hard to these truths of being seen, known, and loved, for the more I lean in, the more aware I am of false substitutes and the more I find rest in God’s safety net.

All things find refreshing calm and peace when they have found their center.

Based on writings from St. Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain written in verse by Scott Cairns in Endless Life