Life interrupts us. When we can't fit our life experience into our religion, something has to give, and life can't give. Like a sturdy surgical tool, life cuts back across our religion to save us from it. Just when we figure everything out, when our belief systems, traditions and practices are beginning to play along nicely like a well-trained and tuned symphony orchestra, we stumble across something -- an experience, a fact, a person. And nothing defies our religion so much as finding the sacred in one of "those people." You meet a Muslim man who resembles the character of Jesus more than anyone you've ever met in your church. You find yourself working with a Wiccan woman who is repairing the world better than anyone in your synagogue. You meet an evangelical Christian college student who puts everything on the line to protect the rights of atheists on campus. An atheist wise man or woman comes alongside you and helps you persevere on your path of faith in God. In such encounters, to use the words from Yehuda Amichai's poem, "The Place Where We Are Right," the moles and plows of love soften the stomped soil of a hard ground where we are right.
That's what happened to me.
When I became a Christian, my devastated secular Muslim parents recruited one of Europe's best psychiatrists and 50 relatives to take their best shot at helping me get over my infatuation with God. Even my former girlfriends were summoned to try to evoke sweet memories and prevail over my heart. My mom was on anxiety medication, and after a couple of months, her face looked strained by an unending stream of tears. For the first time in my life, I saw my father cry. Everything evaporated; their respect for Christian institutions, the good deeds of my church and the virtues of the Christian path were all deconstructed by a little army of people zealously researching the private lives of the members of my church. I was informed about which married Christian man had a woman on the side, who stole tools from the workplace and who did not pay back a loan to a neighbor. After two months of this agony, my body and my spirit were weakening, and seeing my family suffer so much jolted me like nothing else ever did. I was tired, hanging on solely to the cross of Jesus, the clearest expression of God's compassion for me.
My parents did not sense my weakness at the time. Like me, they were on the brink of exhaustion, so they resorted to desperate measures and asked a religious person for help. They invited Imam Muhammad, respected in the local Muslim community as a "holy man," to attempt to throw my Christian beliefs into disarray and stir me toward Islam, which in my parents' reckoning was the lesser of two evils.
When Muhammad walked into our home, somehow I felt safe in his presence. Besides being learned in matters of Scripture, he was the most environmentally progressive and socially conscious person I had ever met -- a vegan who walked to our home from a far part of the city, avoiding transportation on principle, to protect the environment. A small gray-haired man with a large smile, Muhammad was emanating peace and playfulness, something my family needed so much at the time.
After being introduced, he kindly asked my parents to leave the room so that he and I could be alone. In spite of his kind manners, I still expected an attack, something I had heard dozens of times before such as, "The Torah and the New Testament are an incomplete mishmash of texts redacted by humans, whereas the Quran was recited by God and is therefore perfect, correct in all ways, superseding and completing all previous revelations! Come to the winner!" Instead, after some initial small talk, he let time pass in silence, and I enjoyed this rare moment of rest. When I was ready, I raised my eyes and looked at him, dreading the inevitable argument. He stood up quietly, walked over to me, sat down and lightly touched my shoulder for a moment.
Then he said calmly, "I am glad you are a believer." And nothing more.
After sitting in peace for a little longer, we stood up, and he opened his arms to invite an embrace. I opened mine. He smelled like wooden furniture and soap -- old but fresh. Hugging him, I thanked God for giving me this break in life.
Neither my parents nor I knew what to do with what had just happened. After he left, my parents nicknamed him "Crazy Muhammad." My parents fell into a deeper despair, and word of Muhammad's foolishness spread in the family.
The grace and truth I had first met at the cross were embodied in this man, who was willing to be taken for a fool in order to help make me whole.
Would I be a Christian today without Muhammad's blessing?
If Muhammad had not spoken, God would have made stones talk to me, I believe. Largely because of this experience, however, I eventually got over my fantasy of Christian supremacy and signed up for the Kingdom of a sovereign God who is Spirit and who cannot be controlled and, like the wind, blows wherever it pleases.
This column is an excerpt from 'My Neighbor's Faith: Stories of Interreligious Encounter, Growth, and Transformation.'