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Never saw anything like it: two devout Muslims at the front of our church’s “sanctuary” facing Mecca and chanting their sundown prayer to Allah.

We invited them to introduce Islam to us for two Sunday evening education sessions. They did a marvelous job of it, sketching both the profound similarities and the key differences between our religions. It didn’t hurt that the main presenter, an internationally recognized Islamic scholar, grew up in Edmonton and was raised by a Roman Catholic mother and a Muslim father. He knew, more or less, where we were coming from.

Because our session spanned sundown, our presenters needed to pray their evening prayer. They offered to go out into the parking lot, but we persuaded them to stay right where they were. They were courteously mindful of our “sanctuary,” our “holy space,” but in our branch of Christianity a church is a people, not a steeple.

We learned much about Islam. Dialogue doesn’t have to make us see things the same way—it doesn’t have to be a win/lose proposition. By understanding Islam better, Christians can critique it more honestly and fairly. That’s a win/win. The ninth commandment forbidding us from bearing false witness against our neighbor extends to Muslims as well. If we criticize Muslim beliefs and practices, we’d better be sure we know what we’re talking about or we sin against them.

Here’s an example. Someone asked an excellent question: “If following the five pillars of Islam gets Muslims to heaven, then doesn’t that mean that Islam teaches a ‘works-righteousness’ by which people earn their salvation?” The response was enlightening. Our presenters told us that Allah bestows on people the joys of heaven as a gift of overwhelming generosity and mercy, since that gift is so much unimaginably greater than all acts of human piety. Besides, they said, those five pillars and Muslims’ ability to follow them are in and of themselves gifts of Allah’s grace.

I missed the next question because I was breathing a silent prayer asking God’s forgiveness for maligning Islam in more than one catechism class on this very point. As the scholar clearly emphasized, there are enough differences between our religions that we need not invent more. Islam has its own holy book that, Muslims believe, trumps all others, including the Bible. Islam denies the Trinity, the divinity of Christ, original sin, and substitutionary atonement.

Nevertheless, after this experience I have much greater respect for Islam’s view of Allah. Theirs too is a God of grace, not the vengeful tyrant our media tend to ascribe to all Muslims, rather than to the fundamentalist radicals they happen to be covering.

I’d like to go back for next week’s Q&A session; it should be a real hummer. But I’m hopping a plane to attend the baptism of my new grandson. As wonderful and perfect as Micah seems, he needs a good scrubbing in the water that symbolizes our Savior’s blood. That simple reenactment places in such bold relief how differently Christians and Muslims see our relationship to God. In contrast to Islam, the Bible teaches us how deeply we humans have fallen and how deeply God the Merciful, God the Compassionate, stooped down in Christ to bring us back to him.

How great is our God!

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