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Who Will Be at the Banquet?

Reviewing Pillars by Rachel Pieh Jones

April 27, 2021 by

REmbed
Rachel Pieh Jones

Islam, Christianity. Is one right and one wrong? Will one group find themselves in heaven, the other in hell? What can we learn from each other? These are questions I have often puzzled over.

The Bible states clearly in Romans 10:9–11 that “if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved. For Scripture says, ‘Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.’”

But scripture also indicates that it is what we do with our lives that counts, not so much what we proclaim as our belief. In Matthew, Jesus describes the righteous as those who act on mercy: “Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me’” (Matthew 25:37–40).

So where does this put me in the scheme of salvation? Or is it even important where I fit in? I recently read a book that resonated so clearly with me, as the author struggles through similar questions – Pillars: How Muslim Friends Led Me Closer to Jesus by Rachel Pieh Jones. Born and raised a Baptist in Minneapolis, Rachel had life figured out, with herself and everyone she met contained neatly and tidily in a box:

I was really good at being a Christian. I like structure and rules. I like to know what expectations are, the clearer the better. Christians didn’t drink or smoke or swear. They didn’t wear bikinis. Bikinis led to sex and Christians didn’t have sex. Christians were in church on Sunday morning, Sunday evening, Wednesday evening, Friday night, and sometimes Saturday morning for cleaning days (5).

I can relate, at least to some of that. But Rachel hasn’t spent her life surrounded by like-minded people. Rather, she took her courage in her hands (or maybe I should say she put her life in God’s hands), and moved to Somaliland with her husband and twin toddlers in 2003. Talk about culture shock; talk about suddenly being the infidel, the outsider. Talk about discovering that being a good Christian isn’t the end-all and be-all, the glossy ticket to heavenly bliss. After ten short months in Somaliland the family fled. Three bullets, three people dead. Would they be next? Instead of tempting fate, Rachel and her husband grabbed a few belongings and moved to Djibouti, where they have lived for eighteen years.

In Pillars Rachel takes us on a journey. Yes, it is her journey, but perhaps it is all of our journeys – a pilgrimage to discover true faith. She says,

“When I looked at Jesus in the New Testament, studied other biblical passages, and developed relationships with Muslims, old answers crumbled like the walls of Jericho. For the first time in my faith life, I was terrified. I might not have all the answers. I might not even be asking the right questions.
What if faith is certainty and mystery? What if God is beyond knowing, full of surprise and inscrutability, yet also tangibly revealed in Jesus? I didn’t understand it then, but this was when my life of faith truly began…The gospel is more expansive than I had imagined it to be” (18-19).

She organizes her book around the five pillars of Islam, sharing anecdotes and reflections on her journey and how her Muslim friends deepened her own faith in God. Here are two that I found striking:

Zakat: Almsgiving. After helping a friend, Hibo, start her restaurant business over by paying for all the supplies she needed, Rachel was approached by a blind beggar. Rachel kept her eyes on the ground; certainly she had given enough. Hibo, however, had less than forty cents and nothing for dinner. Yet Hibo pressed her money into the blind man’s hand. Rachel says, “I was broken by the depths of her poverty and her instant generosity in the midst of it. I was shattered to recognize my pride and the weakness of my faith, which suddenly seemed more transactional than relational. I put in a few good deeds and some generosity, though not so much that I would feel the pinch, and expected God to bless and honor it. I thought I could do some good, but I held part back. I clung to the coins in my pocket. . . . Comfort came from a surprising place, the Muslim mystic Al-Ghazali. He wrote, ‘One’s giving should be done with a sense of shame at one’s meanness in holding back the rest of one’s wealth from God’” (155–157).
Hajj: Pilgrimage.I hadn’t moved to Africa for an easy life. My reason for adopting Muslim traditions …or exploring the Muslim liturgical year (like joining the Ramadan fast) was not to make life in Djibouti easier. I took these steps because I believe that finding common ground matters. I believe that learning about another’s faith – and sharing my own – is essential in this world. This is my pilgrimage” (230).

I wouldn’t say that after reading Pillars I am any closer to knowing who will be gathered at the table when Jesus returns. But Rachel’s journey, her foray into Muslim culture, and the lessons she shares with us, strengthen my belief that we will be surprised who we’ll find at the banquet– if we make it there ourselves. I recall the hospitality of the Muslims I met in the refugee camps in Lesvos, Greece, during the height of the migrant crisis in 2015. Although the only food they had was what we and other humanitarian organizations had provided, still they invited strangers like us into their tents to share it. They fed the hungry, welcomed the stranger, gave water to the thirsty.

There is a peace in the knowledge that God is both 100 percent love, and 100 percent justice, and it is a love and justice that surpass anything you or I could imagine. Jesus gave us a glimpse of what judgment looks like when he declared that the one without sin should cast the first stone; when he dined with the tax collector; when he allowed a sinful woman to anoint and kiss his feet. I believe we will be judged by how we love and care for our neighbors, not by whether we call ourselves Christian or Muslim. Truth be told, I sometimes think that my only words of defense when I stand before the throne of judgement might very well be, “I love you Jesus, and I tried. Please have mercy on me.”

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Vivian Warren

Vivian Warren

Vivian Warren lives at Maple Ridge, where she cares for the elderly and works in the community kitchen.

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