The meal was a traditional Turkish one, served in courses. There was a delicious lentil soup, followed a dish of eggplant, potatoes, meat, followed by rice and green beans, all of this accompanied by homemade bread and side dishes of salad from the family garden, something made from yogurt, mint, and cucumbers, and a wonderful eggplant salad made with smoked eggplant, yogurt, and spices I couldn’t quite identify. Then we retired to the living room where we were brought plates of fresh watermelon, and lastly, the end to most Turkish meals, a small glass of hot tea.
We feasted like kings and queens with our hosts scurrying about in a kitchen cramped by the nine of us, quickly removing one bowl or plate and replacing it with another. The husband, Baha, did most of the talking, but both he and his wife, Binnur, were incredibly enthusiastic in their hospitality. Conversations were interesting, with Bilal, the Fairfax, VA imam who is leading us in our Turkish odyssey, having to translate back and forth.
It was a remarkable evening, with many touching moments, but a couple stand out. The first happened over introductions. This family has hosted groups like ours many times before, but we were something of a novelty. With the exception of Bilal, all of us are Christian pastors. They had never hosted pastors before, and when they learned of this, Baha called us “friends of God” repeatedly and excitedly. And he spoke of seeing the light of God in us.
But I think the moment that touched me the most was when Baha said how rich he was because they were able to host us. That’s not how I usually hear people use the word “rich.” Perhaps there were some issues with translation, but I don’t think so. He and his wife were treating us like royalty, and he felt enriched and blessed by the opportunity to do so. It was an amazing demonstration of the biblical call to show hospitality to the stranger, a call I have often found to be considerably more evident among those of Islamic faith.
A hectic schedule and the lack of reliable WiFi in our hotel has led to a delay in finishing this post. In the meantime we have again dined with a Muslim family. This family was younger and the evening somehow felt a bit different. One colleague spoke of the previous night being “moving” but this meal being “fun.” Yet one constant remained: the remarkable level of hospitality that genuinely felt joy and gratitude for the opportunity to host us.
As I reflect on these two evenings (we have another in a couple of hours), I’m struck by the connection that we made at these dinners despite significant language barriers. More striking, this connection achieved despite the difficulty understanding each other’s words happened between people who are sometimes divided by words.
I suppose that all faiths, in an understandable attempt to more fully understand that faith, use mountains of words to explain and detail the essentials of faith, to make sense of our faith stories and how they are to impact our lives. Yet so often our words become our fences, the lines we draw around our group that leaves others on the outside. Too often our words become weapons to say who’s in and who’s out. For Christians, our great commands are about love, yet we have often had little trouble telling others that our loving God is happy to damn them to hell for all eternity if their words don’t match ours.
I’m reading a wonderful, historical novel that takes place in Turkey at the end of the Ottoman Empire and the early days of the Turkish Republic, Birds without Wings, by Louis De Berniers. I ran across this quote in it. “(T)he first casualties of a religion’s establishment are the intentions of its founder. One can imagine Jesus and Mohammed glumly comparing notes in paradise, scratching their heads and bemoaning their vain expense of effort and suffering, which resulted only in the construction of two monumental whited sepulchres.” (pp. 142-143, Kindle edition)
The observation is perhaps a bit harsh, but not without its truth. When we Christians forget about the command to love neighbors, along with Jesus’ teachings that broaden the neighbor to include even our enemy, then we inevitably misuse and abuse his words and words in general.
Since I’m quoting folks I’ll throw in another by Barbara Brown Taylor. “(I)n an age of information overload . . . the last thing any of us needs is more information about God. We need the practice of incarnation, by which God saves the lives of those whose intellectual assent has turned them dry as dust, who have run frighteningly low on the bread of life, who are dying to know more God in their bodies. Not more about God. More God.” (An altar in the World, p. 45)
Said another way perhaps, Not more words about God, not more words, but more God. Of course it's taken me a whole lot of words to say that.