When I worked in East Oxford, and took weekly Assemblies in the local school I found to my surprise that one third of the children there were Pakistani Muslims. It was a steep learning curve to work out how best to talk to people whose background was so different from anything I had ever met before. Later, I was invited by one of the parents to go out to Pakistan and stay in his house. My first reaction was horror, not just because I am terribly English and am stupidly a little suspicious of foreigners, but because I am obsessive about clean toilets. What would they be like in Pakistan? My Pakistani friend assured me they had Western toilets in his house, and so I went!
Our Readings this week are all about foreigners. In our Gospel (Matt 15:21-28) Jesus knows that his main mission is to his own people, and is therefore very sharp with this foreign woman begging for help. Her witty reply shows him her great faith, and he gives her what she asks for. In another place (Luke 4:25-27) Jesus challenges his own people who think God’s mercy and love isn’t available to foreigners, and later he drives out the money changers from the Temple precisely because their presence is stopping foreigners from coming to pray, and he quotes today’s 1st reading to justify what he is doing (Isaiah 56:1-7) “My house will be called a house of prayer for all the peoples.”
One of the things I learnt, even before I went to Pakistan, was that the faith of Muslims often puts us Christians to shame, especially their sense of the presence of God, and their regular practice of prayer, often in public. Most Muslims are quiet prayerful people who are absolutely ashamed of those few extremists who give their faith a bad name, and we would do well to remember that. Indeed the Catholic Church teaches that Muslims, along with Jews, are the closest to us Christians because, to quote the Catechism, “They profess to hold the faith of Abraham, and together with us they adore the one, merciful God.” (Catech Para 841)
I recently met Adan, now a taxi-driver, who was one of those little children in Pakistan with me. I was reminded how his father Abdul took me to visit one of the great Moghul tombs near Lahore (a bit like the Taj Mahal) and how, when we reached the actual tomb in the centre of this great edifice, this very ordinary young man, opened his hands to pray. How sad it is that we modern Western Christians are losing that practice of prayer. You would never be led in prayer by the aircrew of a Western airline, but when I flew on a Pakistani plane that is exactly what happened. The great Muslim prayer putting us all into the hands of God was recited over the Intercom by one of the crew as we took off. Being a nervous traveller I was much comforted & said my Christian prayers as they said their Muslim ones.
Of course there were things about Pakistan I didn’t like. I was staying in a rich man’s house but I saw plenty of poverty. The Muslim tends to be very fatalistic. Like some Christians they can easily assume that anything that happens is “God’s will” and so do nothing. My host in Pakistan said this once when we were walking beside a drain that was clearly an open sewer. He got a firm lecture from me about how 19thC British cities were once like that, and that Pakistan could change too!
Being the only white person there, was also a lesson in being a foreigner myself, and feeling what it’s like to be stared at. This is surely a very Christian thing to do, to feel what it is like to be different. The first followers of Jesus were all so very different from those around them, that they were often attacked. Yet they were proud to be so, whilst we modern Western Christians, find it very hard to do or say things that mark us as different from the world in which we now live. We could do well to learn from Muslims that being different, being faithful to God, even in public, is a good thing to do.
There is so much more I could say, but I hope I have got my point across. We Christians are called to be part of an international family in which everyone who is a foreigner to us is a brother or sister in our relationship with God. God can and does work in all sorts of people that we may find different or strange. In getting to know them better, we will find some things that are good, that we might imitate. My example was prayer and faithfulness to God. We will also find things that we don’t agree with. My example was a wrong understanding of God’s will.
There are some people who say that all ways to God are the same. I certainly don’t want you to think that! What is wrong is thinking that our way is always right, that there is nothing we can learn from others, that there is nothing good, nothing of God, in other faiths. God is greater than that!