Fragmentary experiences can inform and sharpen one’s understanding of the world.
That has been my experience over 25 years as executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics/EthicsDaily.com.
Here are a few experiences that have expanded and enriched how I interpret the world:
The “prosperity gospel” creates profound challenge for African Baptist churches.
At a packed forum discussion at the Baptist World Alliance gathering in Accra, Ghana, I heard African pastors share that the prosperity gospel, spread by recycled Trinity Broadcasting Network shows, draws away members with promises of luxurious cars, obedient children and untroubled health.
“The prosperity gospel is taking advantage of Africa because of more poverty, ill health, malaria, TB and HIV/AIDS,” a pastor said.
Another pastor told participants that “to be rich is not a sign of righteousness; to be poor does not show we are right with God.”
“Some missionaries planted some poor churches by emphasizing getting the soul saved and not addressing poverty,” a pastor observed.
These Baptists rightly recognized that Bible study, applying biblical teaching and addressing poverty are at the core of faith. None mentioned Islam as a threat to Christianity. It was the prosperity gospel that most concerned them.
On a different front, albeit related to the Bible, my understanding of the Quran’s dependence on the Bible took a big leap forward when my good friend Sayyid Mohammed Syeed, an American Islamic leader, told me he was the father of identical twin boys – Jesus and Moses. He had named his sons in honor of two central biblical characters – one from the New Testament, the other from the Old Testament.
I later met Esa, Arabic for Jesus, at a Christian-Muslim common word conference at Georgetown University. Imagine a Baptist meeting Jesus at a Catholic university.
Conversely, I learned from a Baptist Colby College professor, Cheryl Townsend Gilkes, how Islam has shaped American Christianity. As many as 18 percent of African slaves were Muslims.
From my perspective, their monotheism and knowledge of the biblical story in the Quran made their conversion to Christianity easier.
She pointed to the famous African-American Christian spiritual, “Let Us Break Bread Together.” It reflects the Islamic practice of facing east in prayer.
Remember the phrases “Let us break bread together on our knees” and “when I fall on my knees with my face to the rising sun”? Is there a biblical text calling for eastward facing prayers? Islam influenced a Christian spiritual.
Across the world, Paul Montacute, director at the time of Baptist World Aid, and I traveled to Sri Lanka and India several weeks after the December 2004 tsunami devastated the region.
On a Sunday morning in Chennai, India, Leena Lavanya Garnepudi, “the closest thing we [Baptists] have to Mother Teresa,” took us to church.
We attended a packed service – all the pews were filled, all the space on the floor was occupied, outside the church scores of people stood and sat under a larger shade tree listening to a megaphone. We sat on the platform in our ties and sports jackets – without shoes. We sweated profusely.
After the service, in a small room, drinking warm sodas, we were surrounded by women and children. They pressed against the wall. They sought to touch us. They pleaded in a language I didn’t understand but in a way that communicated urgency.
Feeling terribly uncomfortable, I asked Leena what they wanted. She said they wanted me to heal them. Parham as faith healer! Now that made me uncomfortable. After all, I don’t believe in faith healing.
I felt ashamed later on. I should have had the faith to pray boldly for their healing, knowing that healing comes from the hand of God, not my words. Lord, forgive my ignorance and arrogance.
At lunch at the Breeze Hotel, I asked Leena why they so urgently wanted my blessing.
It is because you are white, she said. They think being white means being closer to God.
Would that that was true.
And now a lighter story. Atop a mountain on the winding Lebanese road from Beirut to Damascus sits the Ain Dara Baptist Church. I spent pretty much the entire day there in 2004.
Sitting on the church balcony overlooking the valley below, pastor Nabih Haddad said that the people of northern Lebanon “pretend” that the cedars for the temple in Jerusalem came from their land.
If that were really true, he said, the timber would have been shipped from Tripoli, not Sidon, as the Bible records.
Because Sidon is closer to Ain Dara, it only makes sense that the cedars of Lebanon came from his region – in the hills and valleys surrounding Ain Dara.
He drove down the hill for lunch in the village. We ate delicious roasted chicken and crunchy fried fries. We drank Cokes.
After lunch, he took us to see his garden. It was a few bushes surrounded by rusty barbed wire. He plucked and handed us a dust-covered fruit. These are the figs that Jesus cursed, he chuckled.
They were quite good.
That experience reminded me of how deep the ancient biblical story is in Lebanon, how the people of the land revere the ancient word.
Robert Parham is executive editor of EthicsDaily.com and executive director of its parent organization, the Baptist Center for Ethics. Follow him on Twitter at RobertParham1 and friend him on Facebook.