Pakistani Christian children look at Christmas decorations in Islamabad. (Getty images)
I have spent the majority of this week in Amsterdam – meeting colleagues from VU Faculty of Theology and the Dutch Baptist Seminary, taking part in several meetings, and – a confession – enjoying some uninterrupted hours in front of computer to reduce email number, which I’ve done quite ferociously. A few more days, and I could perhaps declare victory over my Inbox! Well, tomorrow I’m leaving, so that’s not going to happen, but it’s been good to be here – and, inevitably, being away from the usual surroundings and tasks, to reflect on various things – such as IBTS and its challenging but amazing mission so far, issues faced by today’s Europe, the meaning(s) of Advent and Christmas time…
And what a place it is, to reflect on such things. It started already in the plane, actually, coming over from Prague. The passenger next to me clearly wanted to talk. I’m used to two kinds of reactions when I respond to someone’s question, what is it that I do for a living. Occasionally: “Oh…” and a quick change of subject (quite often because the person has no clue what ‘theology’ is). Or – much more often – the space between us turning into a sort of a confessional. This wasn’t quite the second scenario, but it turned out to be a deep conversation about the meaning of life, the basic desires of human beings, and the importance of listening to the other. My neighbour said he was a Muslim, but not a terribly practicing one. He was quite disturbed by the aggressiveness of some Muslims he’s encountered. (Having recently encountered some rather aggresively behaving ‘Christians’, I silently thanked God that my neighbour apparently hadn’t encountered them.) His wife was a Christian, and he had once taken part in a Baptist baptismal service of a friend. So we talked about the baptistic conviction of each and every person having the right – and the responsibility – to decide over their life orientation, their ultimate loyalty, their community of belonging and their practice of faith, and how difficult this can be at times.
January 2011. Muslims surrounding the Coptic Christmas mass, offering their bodies as “shields” to Egypt’s threatened Christian community.
We wished each other merry Christmas, my plane neighbour and I. “Pray for me,” he asked as we parted.
Next day, I found myself singing in the VU Theology faculty and Protestant Theological University faculty choir (our good friend and the Rector of the Dutch Baptist Seminary, Teun, had recruited me!) for their Christmas service. It was a Christian service, with carols (including ‘Adeste fideles’ with descant!) and Scripture readings and prayers. But before that, we heard a reflection from a female professor who is a Muslim convert from Christianity, about the meaning of Christmas from her perspective.
Listening to her, I couldn’t help but think again of the ‘Ummah Supermarket’ which is just accross the street from our future Baptist House here in Amsterdam, and a clear sense that engaging in conversations with people of other faith, and perhaps especially Muslims, is going to be a very important element in the future, both for IBTS and me personally. As a Lithuanian, I have not had too many encounters with Muslims. I have studied quite a bit about them – I still treasure the lessons I learned from my once teacher and Academic Dean at Lithuania Christian College, and later colleague at IBTS, Dr David Shenk, and his book co-written with his Muslim friend, A Muslim and a Christian in Dialogue. I have taught the Worldviews class a number of times to our CAT students, Lithuanian Baptists and others. But in terms of deep personal encounters and important conversations – those are still to come. And yet I am sure they will take place, because however some of us may dislike the fact, the world is shrinking. The space between us – people like us and people very different from us – is diminishing and will increasingly continue so. Just over this past year, unexpected encounters with Muslims have become a reality for our brothers and sisters in Bulgaria, as they are grappling with the consequences of the Syrian crisis and the refugees who have ended up there.
Sorry, just couldn't resist this one!
I wonder what those refugees will be doing during this Christmas.
But it’s not Christmas yet. It’s still Advent – that often unknown or neglected season of waiting. I cannot get away from the feeling that it may be a much more significant and meaningful time than December 24th and 25th. It is a time of longing, of waiting, and preparing for the coming of Christ and the fullness of God’s knowledge, so full as the waters cover the sea.
Let the Avent continue until that Day comes.
Wishing you all a truly blessed Advent time – and hoping it will guide us all into 2014.