About a third of the surahs in the Qur’an start with one to five Arabic letters (i.e., “Alif Lam Mim,” 2:1).  There are many theories on these and many think they are largely some sort of memory device.  This new surah, the twentieth, starts with “Ta Ha,” two letters again but also the way one would say “O man!” as if to get the reader’s attention.  This chapter is largely a retelling of the stories of Moses and Adam.

Memory is the major theme that runs through the first section of this surah.  The Qur’an describes itself here as a “reminder” to a world that has forgotten (20:3).  The implication here is a connection with what has come before, in this case the Bible.  To be a reminder, the stories of Moses and Adam would have had to be well-known. 

Three further points are made about memory.  First, prayer is intended to help the worshiper remember God (20:14).  How can one pray genuinely and not bring God and His good deeds to the front of their minds?  Second, Muhammad is warned to be mindful of how closely allied he allows himself to get with unbelievers (20:16).  They will become “distractions” and turn his mind from remembering God.  Third, one of the benefits to having Aaron alongside him as a partner will be that they together will be able to remember God better (20:34).  Community helps with memory. 

As today’s section ends, God gives Moses a dual mission: go to Pharaoh but also remember Me.  This is very interesting.  It was not enough for Moses to go.  His mission was not simply one of obedience.  God does not frame Moses’ mission simply in terms of the task he is to do.  Every bit as important was the internal reality that Moses was going to have to keep firmly in mind if he were to have success in his mission.  The internal memory was every bit as important as the external actions.      

This reminds me of a description of the effective spiritual life Henri Nouwen has given in several of his books (the same thoughts can be found in this online article).  Nouwen encourages us to picture the ideal spiritual life like an old wagon wheel.  We must start at the center or hub of the wheel.  This is our internal, personal devotional life, what Nouwen calls “solitude.”  This is us and God.  This is the domain of prayer and Scripture and fasting.  Like the wheel, this is what holds everything  together.  This is where we hear we are loved and accepted by God, where we gather the strength to face whatever else may come and to do so with virtue.  This would be Moses’ prayer life. 

Nouwen then proceeds out to the spokes.  This is “community,” those like-minded believers we surround ourselves with.  They give our external life structure and move us out into the world in many different directions.  They are connected to the center of the wheel in that they too are experiencing private “hub-moments” with God, but they are also connected to the tire tread as these friends deliver us into the unbelieving world, where the “rubber meets the road” so to speak.  This is Moses’ companionship with Aaron. 

Finally, Nouwen describes the tire tread as “ministry,” those places where we interact with an unbelieving world in an attempt to connect them with both the community and God we have found.  Ministry is the real purpose for solitude and community.  We are here to shape our world.  Just like a tire, this is where the stress and pressure is.  Tires pop and have slow leaks.  Maybe this is the “distress” 20:2 was talking about.  This is Moses’ mission to face Pharaoh.

The greatest point today is this: a successful spiritual life cannot be lived on auto-pilot.  It takes intentional effort to remember and let those memories guide us.


Larry McKenzie, with his cowboy hat and Texas roots to boot, is one of the ministers at the church my family attends.  He is truly a great man, one of those you know “gets it” and who inspires you to “get it” as well.  When you meet Larry in the hallways of the church or at the supermarket he always responds to the typical “How are you?” with the reply, “Grateful!”  Even over the past few years as he faithfully cared for his ailing wife until her passing, his response remained the same.  Maybe that’s why he “gets it.”  He is grateful.

This is precisely what Michael Zigarelli argues in his book Cultivating Christian Character.  Zigarelli and his team surveyed Christians to determine the degree of Christian virtue or character they had and what traits and practices they had that contributed to their level of virtue.  What Zigarelli’s team found is that a disposition of gratitude was possibly the most important trait of all for a life that is highly virtuous:

Gratitude is one of the distinguishing marks of the high-virtue Christian.  But in fact, we can go much further with this statement: we’ve found that gratitude is the characteristic that most distinguishes high-virtue Christians from average-virtue Christians.  More than joyful living.  More than the practice of any — or all – of the spiritual disciplines.  More than anything else. (emphasis his)

Today’s reading says something similar:

If you are thankful, I [Allah] will give you more, but if you are thankless, My punishment is terrible indeed. (14:7)

In this surah it is Abraham who is used as the supreme example of gratitude:

Praise be to God, who has granted me Ishmael and Isaac in my old age: My Lord hears all requests! (14:39)

Unfortunately, humans are “truly unjust and ungrateful” (14:34) and only “offer ingratitude” in “exchange for God’s favor” (14:28).

As the Qur’an sees it, the issue at stake is not God’s glory.  Even if every human should fail to give Him the gratitude and glory He is due, this would not diminish God’s worth and glory in the slightest (14:8).  The issue is whether we as humans will benefit from the life that gratitude produces.  The Qur’an sees a higher quality coming from gratitude because of the direct favor and blessings of God it provokes (14:7, 37).  It also should be noted, though, that gratitude simply produces a greater appreciation for life and a positive attitude with which we approach the vagaries of life, whatever they may be.  However you see it, gratitude paves the way to a richer life.    

How can we foster a greater level of gratitude in our life?  That is a post unto itself.  This surah gives us part of the answer though: “remind them” (14:5), “remember”  (14:6, 7, 35).  It is hard to be thankful when we do not slow down long enough to notice the blessings of life and the moves of God.  A strong memory allows God to live right here, with us, a constant companion.  Remembering moves us to praise because we know our life is dependant on God, not simply our own power.  Memory leads to gratitude which leads, in turn, to spiritual strength.

Long ago, Cicero summed up this thought nicely:

Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all the others.

What are you grateful for today?

I’m back and back for good, I promise.

Over the past two weeks I have lost my luggage in, well, I don’t know where.  I was in San Antonio, TX but my luggage might have seen Pittsburgh for all I know.  After being reunited with my clothes, I was blessed to visit with fellow Christian school leaders and teachers, and to share what the religion faculty at my school is presently doing to impact the hearts of youth with the gospel of Jesus.  I walked through the Alamo, floated through the wonderful Riverwalk, and ate schnitzel in historic New Braunfels, TX (who knew some of the earliest European settlers of southern Texas were Germans?!).  I made it home long enough to pack again and head with the family to one of our favorite places in the world, the Smoky Mountains.  Check out my 12-year old son’s short video of our trip (yes, I am proud of him!).  We hiked and shopped and rode go-karts and ate out to our heart’s content.  I am blessed to have a wife who enjoys a beautiful waterfall as much as a sale at the scrapbooking store.  It was all very restorative.

Tom Branch Falls along Deep Creek Trail, GSMNP

Okay, forgive the self-indulgence.  Back in the saddle.  I hope the extra time has allowed us all to digest the many ideas and questions that are presently swirling in the world right now concerning Islam.

Living with others is hard.  People want things their way.  And when that doesn’t happen it becomes easy to think one is missing out on what others have.  Conspiracy theories abound and things seem unfair.  Community is hard.

It seems Muhammad is dealing with exactly these challenges in this new surah entitled “Battle Gains” or “The Spoils.”  This Medinan surah is situated months after the Battle of Badr, the first battle between the Muslims and the Meccans shortly after the Hijra (the migration to Medina). The battle ended with a stunning battle and now some of the soldiers are complaining about how the spoils of battle are being divided.  Allah weighs in on the matter in this surah.

Dividing the Spoils

Allah starts strong: true believers don’t fuss about things like this.  They don’t dream of questioning God.  They trust, pray and give.  They don’t worry about getting more (8:2-4).  And true believers “remember” (8:7, 11, 26, 30, 42, 43).  They remember what God has done thus far.  They remember that they were outnumbered at Badr.  They remember they had to fight the harder of two opponents.  They remember they should have been defeated but were victorious.  God takes care of true believers.  Just as He will right now as the “battle gains” are divided.

Spoils — whether of war or from a day of work or an inheritance or some unexpected windfall — have a way of making us forget.  All we see is the potential power lying within the object itself.  We forget how it came to be before us.  We forget from where it ultimately came.  We forget there may be a reason it has come our way. We forget that this object is only a tool to be used for some greater purpose.  All we want is to have.  So don’t stand between me and that object.

And it is at this moment that we become “the worst creatures in God’s eyes . . . those who are willfully deaf and dumb, who do not reason” (8:22).

Today, remember.  We did not get here by ourselves.  We are surrounded by a “great cloud of witnesses” who have all contributed a few stitches to the tapestry of our lives.  Community is precious; don’t tear away at it.  More so, we are carried along by the grace and mercy of a providential God who overcomes all odds to advance his kingdom through the likes of us, his people.  Remember the ephemeral objects of this world are not the true rewards.  Remember the one in control knows best.  Remember He is good, right and fair.  Remember.

What specifically do you need to remember today so as to avoid becoming “deaf and dumb?”

“Have you lost your mind?”

I heard those words more than a few times growing up.  Now, I say those words on occasion as a parent.  I even said those words recently as a teacher to a student who, well, had lost his mind.

Today’s passage starts with the admonition to stay away from intoxicants and gambling.  Devout Muslims have a complete prohibition (haram) against any involvement with either.  Purists won’t even use soy sauce or vanilla extract that contains alcohol.  (Forgive me, but I find it ironic that I can buy a beer and a lottery ticket at my neighborhood gas station owned and operated by Muslims.)  This passage makes it clear why:

With intoxicants and gambling, Satan seeks only to incite enmity and hatred among you, and to stop you remembering God and prayer. (5:91)

In other words, they will make you “lose your mind.”  And they will.

I can remember when I was about fifteen the carnival came to town.  In the middle of the midway, they had this one gaming table where you could “play the ponies.”  It was a simplified roulette table with twelve spots around the circle where you could lay down a dollar bet.  The “carnie” would spin the five or six spinning horses, and they would whip around the table until they each stopped on one of the spots.  If no horse landed on your spot, you lost your dollar.  If a horse or two or five did, you won that many dollars.  I remember working my way up to $24, big money on $1 bets.  I remember thinking I ought to walk away now.  Within a few more spins it was all gone.  I had lost my mind.

Sadly, too many of us have seen first-hand or in those around us how alcohol can make a person lose their mind.  And their job, their marriage, or even their life.

Let’s move past the two examples given in the Qur’an.  Anger can do it too.  The red flash of rage and all control is gone.  I hear shopping can do the same for some people.  A couple of hours and a credit card and more damage is done than is realized.  Pornography or other sexually illicit behavior creates a rush that suspends reason and prudence.  The possibility of attention is heavily intoxicating for some too.  Even video games seem to have the same effect for some.  What else?  A great number of things can cause us to lose our mind.

The Qur’an specifically mentions how alcohol and games of chance stir up people against each other, make one forget about God, and hinder prayer.  I am not sure there are three more deadly results to behavior than those.  Strained relationships with God and with others and the feeling that you cannot reach out with the words necessarily to restore those relationships.  Spiritually lethal.

There is something else that stands out in this same passage, though, and I believe it is God’s answer.  The phrase “mindful of God” occurs six times in these 18 ayahs.  Instead of losing one’s mind through alcohol or gambling, let your mind be filled with God.  The apostle Paul said something similar:

Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery.  Instead, be filled with the Spirit. (Ephesians 5:18)

According to the Qur’an, mindfulness makes belief easier (5:93, 108).  Obedience then comes more easily as well (5:93).  A mind fixed on God knows what to do and is more easily kept on track (5:96).  Being mindful of God is the path to spiritual prosperity (5:100).  Where your mind is your body is soon to follow.  Lose your mind and you are likely to lose much more.

I have fond and powerful memories of my maternal grandmother.  She is still living, now over 80 years of age, spending most days in front of a television in the commons at the nursing home in the small Ontario farm town that has always been her home.

I remember picking peas with her in a garden that seemed to be bigger than a football field.  I remember the rhubarb patch outside her farmhouse where she would get the materials for pies my father loved.  I remember her Christmas pudding, chocolate pies, and corn.  It was just regular corn but even my own sons have grown up calling her “Great-Grandma-who-makes-the-best-corn.”  It really is a title like that.  I remember how she made quilts with ladies from churches and afghans at home as she watched Hee-Haw on Friday nights when we would arrive from the city.  I remember the Christmas she gave all twenty-four of us grandchildren afghans to take with us into our marriages (even the twelve-year olds) because she was sure she was going to die very soon.  That was fifteen years ago.  I remember how each of us grandchildren would always get a bag of gifts at Christmas, always the same gifts: socks, toothpaste, deodorant, and a box of Cadbury’s chocolate candies — all wrapped by Grandma herself.  I remember how up to only a year ago she always insisted I bend my 6’5″ frame down to her height at less than 5’0″ for a full kiss on the lips (not one of my favorite memories!).  I remember taking my grandmother out for a drive a few years ago and how we went to the cemetery so she could water the flowers she kept growing around my grandfather’s grave stone.  These wonderful memories contribute to the varied tapestry of my identity.

Where would we be without our memories?

My grandmother began to lose her independence about three years ago.  Like many, she didn’t accept this easily.  But the nursing home — a good one — was inevitable.  About two years ago my mother would talk about how Grandma’s memory was slipping.  We sent pictures for recognition sake, and Mom would keep Grandma updated on my family.  We are usually only able to visit Canada once or twice a year, so I expected she would not know who we were anymore.  But for the next two or three visits she did.  She would mention my sons’ names.  She could connect me to my mother.  She remembered details of our history.  She would comment on the fulness of my beard, which really had more to do with the increasing pudginess of the cheeks under my beard.

Then last October, my last visit home, Grandma had no idea who I was.  Mentally, she has deteriorated considerably.  She used to talk about “those people” who would sit down in the commons staring at the television all day, now she does the same.  She is still very pleasant, and not all who suffer from dementia are.  What breaks my heart is the emotion that seemed to grip her the most as we sat in an empty dining room trying to make chit-chat and keep alive the bonds of relationship.  She seemed terrified.  I can only wonder what must have been going through her mind.  Who is this man?  Why are we alone in this dining room?  What is he referring to?  I hurt, not for what I have lost.  I still have those same memories, and her ailments cannot take those away.  I hurt for her, and what she has lost.

Who do we become without our memories?

As I count it, the word “remember” is used eight times in this twenty-one verse section of the second surah.  Allah speaks directly to the Jewish “children of Israel” reminding them of their chosen position, rescue from Egypt, guidance through the Law, provision in the Desert, and protection in Conquest.  We need to recall that Muslims claim Allah is the same God of the Jews and Christians.  The history of the Bible (at least the big events) is assumed in the Qur’an.  After all God has done for the Jews  in the past, will they truly ignore Him now when He speaks to them once again through the Qur’an (2:41)?

As the Qur’an describes it, the key is whether the Jews will “remember.”  If they will not, they will lose their identity.  Fear will engulf them.  Uprooted from the past, they will be unable to trust.

What is it that makes you who you are?  Where have you been?  What has God done to bring you this far?  That we must remember.