Family is both the most rewarding and most challenging set of relationships ever. 

Many people in this country are coming off a long, long weekend of family meals, shopping trips, and time spent together.  More people travel this Thanksgiving weekend than on any other weekend in the year.  As I drove up Interstate 75 in southern Georgia headed home from Florida I saw one license plate after another from places as far away as Wisconsin, Illinois, even Wyoming.  Maybe one last family trip to the beach before the winter.  Maybe a visit to Grandma who got smart and retired in Tampa.

Family time is filled with laughter, reminiscence, and thoughtful conversation.  Unfortunately there are always tears, regrets, impatience, hurtful remarks, and competition right there too. 

The next three surahs are all loosely connected by a common theme of domestic dispute. 

In surah 64, believers are reminded:

Even among your spouses and your children you will have enemies–beware of them–but if you overlook their offences, forgive them, pardon them, then God is all forgiving, all-merciful. (64:14)

More important than what transpires among family members–some of who are bound not to like each other–is what a believer does next.  The right response is to take the high ground and overlook their offences.  Choose not to harbor grudges.  Forgive.   A very good principle. 

Surah 65 is intensely domestic, as even the title reveals — “Divorce.”  Contrary to traditional Christianity where divorce is still frowned-upon by many of the more conservative types, Islam seems to acknowledge divorce as a fact of life and has made concessions right from the beginning for how to go about it virtuously.  If divorce must happen, the man must give it a three-month waiting period (65:1, 4).  This appears to be connected both to possible pregnancy but also the possibility that God might change their hearts (65:1).  The grounds for divorce must be corroborated by two just witnesses (65:2) and the man must take care of the woman financially (65:6-7).  Above all, both parties must treat each other honorably (65:2) and not make life difficult for the other (65:6-7).   

Finally, surah 66 takes up the issue of gossip and lack of trust in family conversations.  On some occasion, Muhammad discussed a matter with one of his wives in secret (66:3).  As the leader of the Muslim people, we can assume this was not just some simple pillow-talk, but rather something sensitive.   What exactly was said is not stated and isn’t really the point.  This wife revealed these confidences to one of the Prophet’s other wives, and God made this known to Muhammad.  Now, both are called to “repent” (66:4), one for her broken trust and the other for encouraging it presumably.  Now they must choose what kind of wives they will be: virtuous like Pharaoh’s wife and Mary, or disbelieving like the wives of Noah and Lot (66:9-12). 

At a time when gossip is commonplace and trust is constantly eroded, this too is a good message.

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Today we come to the third story in this surah, an interesting tale about Moses unlike anything we read in the Bible. 

Khidr

Moses is on a journey with a servant and maybe others as well.  He is to meet a wise teacher at the spot where “the  two seas meet,” which may mean the tip of the Sinai Peninsula where the Gulf of Aqabah and the Gulf of Suez join to form the Red Sea.  It appears they were to take a fish with them in some fashion where the fish would stay alive.  Moses would know he had come to the right place when the fish disappeared or escaped.  This happens and soon Moses meets the mysterious, unnamed teacher (Islamic tradition calls this man Khidr).  Moses pledges to follow the man and learn what he may, but the man warns Moses that he will have a hard time bearing with the man patiently and Moses is not to ask questions about anything until the man explains it in his own due time.  Moses agrees and off they go.     

As Moses and the man travelled on, they came to a boat and as they sailed the teacher drilled a hole in the hull causing it to take on water.  Moses cries out in confusing, wondering aloud why the man would do such a thing.  He is scolded by the man to not ask questions as Moses had promised.  Next, they happened upon a boy and without warning the man killed the boy.  Moses was shocked and cried out his bewilderment.  Again, the man warned Moses not to ask questions but to bear patiently with him.  Last, the two came to a town and asked for food but were refused.  In response to this lack of charity, the man saw a broken-down wall nearby and built it back up.  Beside himself, Moses again asked why the man did not seek recompense. 

At this the wise teacher announced that he and Moses would be parting ways.  As he had predicted, Moses was simply unable to bear patiently with the man.  Before they parted, though, the teacher took time to explain the three strange actions he had taken.  First, the damaged boat belonged to a poor couple who needed the boat to make a living but very shortly all intact boats would be seized by the king.  The damage would actually keep the couple from losing their boat for good.  Second, the boy was in fact headed to a lifestyle that would bring hardship on the parents, so by killing the boy the man had actually made way for the couple to have an obedient boy who would be a blessing to them.  Last, the wall that the man repaired belonged to man who had recently died but not before he buried a treasure under the wall intended for his sons when they reached maturity.  With the wall crumbling as it was, soon the treasure would be exposed and these inhospitable townspeople would take the treasure for themselves leaving the orphans to beg.  The wise teacher was honored the father’s intent and rescued the boys from destitution.       

Simply put, the message is a simple one: things are not always as they seem.  Abdullah Yusuf Ali says this about the ironic turnabouts at the end of this passage:

There are paradoxes in life: apparent loss may be real gain; apparent cruelty maybe real mercy; returning good for evil may really be justice and not generosity (18:79-82). God’s wisdom transcends all human calculation.

Can we walk with a faith that trusts the wisdom that leads us or are we too tied to our own judgment?  It will take discipline and patience.  We will have to restrain our tongue.  We will have to remain open-minded and humble.  We will have to seek after a source of wisdom, and then give ourselves to it.    

Bear in mind that this is Moses we are talking about.  Educated in the royal courts of Egypt, Moses was no country bumpkin.  This is the same Moses who had the wisdom to lead his people to the Promised Land.  Tradition also says he wrote the first five books of the Bible.  That Moses.  Even he did not possess all wisdom.  If Moses needed a humble spirit of submission, how much more do we?

Noah, Hud, Salih, Abraham, Shu`ayb and Moses.  They can teach us a great deal about what it takes and what will come from a “prophetic” ministry.  Much like those of the Old Testament, a prophet is more so one who speaks God’s corrective words into a situation than one who tells the future.  With this in mind, we realize there are prophets all around.

Prophets are sent to their own people (11:25, 50, 61, 74, 84).  So it is no wonder that a prophet desperately pleads for the welfare of his people, wanting to see them turn, not burn (11:26, 52, 61).  One who longs to see punishment, is no prophet (i.e., Jonah, the anti-prophet).  A message of punishment is always secondary to the message of forgiveness and salvation (11:52, 61, 90).

Prophets speak the same, simple message: worship God and Him alone (11:26, 50, 61, 84).  This is the baseline.  You build on devotion to God.  Morality makes no sense without a covenant with God.  Belief reorders one’s entire life.  Only when one decides to follow God undividedly does life begin to become whole.  The message doesn’t have to be terribly complicated.

Prophets more often must point to evidence for God in the natural world than rely upon miracles (11:52, 61, 64).  God is there to be found, if one is willing to see.  Hud pointed to life-giving rain.  Salih appealed to the creative force of God and to a camel.  The flash and bang of miracles may seem nice and convincing, and they were what the people wanted (11:53), but that does not seem to be God’s way much of the time.

Prophets must walk by faith (11:39, 56, 81, 88).  They speak faith-filled words into a situation.  They hope with confidence, but not with proof that what they say will come to pass.  A prophet cannot operate without trust: “I put my trust in God, my Lord and your Lord” (11:56).  Their faith is not just wishful thinking; prophets know that what God ordains will happen (11:43, 45, 55, 66, 76, 92).

Prophets don’t pin their sense of accomplishment to their audience’s response (11:36, 93).  Simply put, some will not believe.  It is enough to obey God and be satisfied in that (11:51).  Prophets are simply mouthpieces.  They also do not bring judgment, so their job is simply to speak (11:33, 45).

Prophets don’t expect life to be easy (11:27, 38, 53, 62, 91).  The message need not be complicated.  The hard work of changing hearts is God’s work alone.  Success is defined internally through obedience, not externally through people’s response.  Still, though the work of a prophet is very straightforward, it is not easy.  Noah was called a liar and mocked for only having success with the lower class.  They laughed at his preposterous boat.  Hud and Salih were rejected outright because of their lack of proof.  Salih suffers the sting of being told by his people that they had expected more from him.  Shu`ayb was labeled as weak and his own countrymen threaten to kill him for his foolishness.  Life was not easy for Abraham’s family in Sodom.  Moses ran for his life from the murderous Pharaoh.  Prophetic ministry is a high and noble calling, but it will not be a cakewalk.

Is it worth it?  That had to be what was on Muhammad’s mind as he came down the mountain to Mecca.

Today we finish the third surah, and I hear a Prophet in this section who is discouraged.  As we read closely we can figure out why Muhammad might feel this way.  He has recently fought the Battle of Uhud in which his soldiers abandoned their posts in favor of loot causing others in the army to be killed, not exactly what you want as a leader.  Beyond the army, Muhammad is leading the entire group of early Muslims and they have all been driven from their homes in Mecca (3:195).  Meanwhile, their foes — the polytheists of Mecca — continue to trade to and fro getting richer all the while (3:196).  People mock Muhammad using his own words (3:181).  There is an undercurrent that suggests the Prophet was struggling with the fact that some people who had come to believe were quick to “sell” their faith for the quick satisfaction that comes from wealth (3:177, 187).  He comes to Jews and Christians who in his mind worship the same God who is speaking to him and he shares with them the good news that their same God has spoken again in grand fashion, the Qur’an.  But these “People of the Book” soundly refuse to accept Muhammad’s message (3:176, 184).  That’s a lot for a prophet to take! 

I imagine most of us can relate.  We aren’t prophets.  We don’t have new revelations from God that are being rejected.  We haven’t been chased from our homes, risked death, or had our troops go AWOL.  Still, walking with God isn’t easy.  And some days it doesn’t even seem fair.  Why does he get ahead, the reprobate he is, while I struggle to get by though I am obeying (3:196)?  And discouragement creeps into the heart of all but the Pollyannas among us.

God’s response in this section is helpful. 

  • Don’t think that God is going to be diminished by criticism (3:176).  How many times have I thought I have had to defend God?  A little arrogant, don’t you think? 
  • Repeatedly, he is reminded that God is in control (3:179, 189) and knows what is going on (3:180).  Don’t worry that someone is going to get away with something. 
  • A time of recompense is coming (3:181).  I don’t want to be the kind of person who finds solace in the impending judgment of a person.  But I have never seen my soldiers die, my friends and family chased from their homes, or had someone try to kill me as the Meccans had tried to do to Muhammad.  Maybe I would feel differently if I stood in Muhammad’s sandals. 
  • You are not alone (3:184).  Many other prophets had suffered the same type of rejection.  This sounds like Elijah in 1 Kings 19. 
  • There are things that look good right now but the best things come later (3:185; 197-98).
  • People who really want to see God will find Him (3:190-191).
  • There are people out there who are going to respond favorably and you wouldn’t even expect it (3:199).
  • “If you believe and stay mindful of God, you will have a great reward” (3:179), even if the reward only comes on the “Day of Resurrection” (3:185). 

I have the great privilege to teach religion in a private high school.  Our classes are thoroughly confessional; we are unapologetically Christian and attempt to both teach knowledge of the Bible and help our students form genuine relationships with God.  There are those days when a student moves past the “religion” that has been inherited to discover their own “faith.”  Days when kids boldly testify to the work of an active God in their life.  Days when they manage to put themselves second and the needs of others first.  These are Mt. Carmel days, when you can outrun chariots, when you can take on hen-pecked husbands and blood-thirsty queens. 

But there are other days when those same kids end up in embarrassing situations, when they end up pregnant six months after graduation, when they willingly cast aside the name of Jesus or even God and boldly proclaim on Facebook that they are “spiritual but not religious” or even outright atheists, or when they think the greatest achievements they have made are those that will lead to high salary careers.  It leaves me discouraged too.  I imagine some of you other teachers and ministers and parents who have experienced the same things feel the same way. 

Then I wonder if the problem isn’t that I think I have to do something to change things.  I need to teach better.  I need to invest in more relationships.  I need to have better answers.  I need to be a better example to my sons.  I need to . . . I . . . I . . .

I certainly need to do the best job I can but I am not God.  And when I play God (back to yesterday’s post) who am I really trusting?

That’s when hearing words like God gives Muhammad are helpful.  Better yet, it is good to remember the Parable of the Sower.  We are the sowers of our world.  We are the ones who broadcast the word of God across the soils of the souls in our classrooms, sanctuaries, dining rooms, carpools, and so on.  But that is where our job ends.  We can’t control the quality of the soil.  We don’t often even know the quality of the soil.  Our job is to sow, and to harvest when that time comes.  We can’t make things grow.  But God can, and he is really in control.

If you are steadfast and mindful of God, that is the best course. (3:186)

More than almost anything else, what has the greatest ability to erode our trust in God?  I would like to suggest that the answer — as unpopular as it may be — might just be money. 

Quickly on the heels of a discussion of the stunning victory at the Battle of Badr, today’s section turns to a far less glorious battle.  The Battle of Uhud was the second time the Muslims of Medina led by Muhammad met the Meccans.  Much like Badr one year before, the Muslims were greatly outnumbered but started the battle with great success, driving the Meccans back.  Then, when the battle looked like a sure victory, the Muslim archers abandoned their posts in order to plunder the Meccan camp.  This allowed the Meccan cavalry to circle behind the Muslim line and bring a surprise attack from behind.  Ten percent of the Muslim force was lost and many more were injured including Muhammad himself.  The Muslims retreated and the Meccans marched home victors.   

It is interesting how the Qur’an described the fatal moment in the battle:

God fulfilled his promise to you: you were routing them, with His permission, but then you faltered, disputed the order, and disobeyed, once he had brought you within sight of your goal — some of you desire the gains of this world and others desire the world to come — and then he prevented you from [defeating] them as a punishment. (3:152)

The Qur’an sees this fundamentally as an issue of disobedience driven by greed.  They fail the test of whether they would trust in God or not (3:154).  Instead they run after riches thinking that somehow money will bring a greater reward than can be found in God.  But “believers should put their trust in God” not money (3:160).  A pure relationship with God is “better than anything people amass” (3:157).

As I mentioned yesterday, the combination of the Badr and Uhud stories in quick succession with the messages they both present — victory in trust, defeat in distrust and greed — call me back to the stories of Jericho and Ai in Joshua 6-7.  The similarities are striking.  At Jericho, Israel proceeds with unquestioning trust and obedience.  The result is a victory we even teach to our children.  Then the very next chapter Israel suffers a humiliating defeat at the hands of the underwhelming people of Ai.  Why?  The same reason we saw in the account of Uhud: greed and disobedience.  Achan, an Israelite soldier, had disobeyed the command to leave all of the plunder in Jericho as a sort of “firstfruits” for God.  He stashed gold under his tent and as a result a sure victory was compromised. 

This tandem of tandems (Badr and Uhud, Jericho and Ai) asks us the same question: who or what will you trust?  Both take on riches as prime competition to real trust of God.  Both admonish people to rely solely on God.   

Money has this way of creeping into our consciousness and flavoring everything we experience.  Money offers false promises, but we have a hard time seeing the lies.  Money convinces us we have power, and for a time it might even give us some.  Money liberates us from our dependency on others; with a wad of bills in our pocket we can strike out on our own.  We tell ourselves we don’t need “handouts,” and the hands that offered therefore become less important.  Soon we see a small stockpile and convince ourselves it was of our own doing.  How long before even God becomes unnecessary?  How long before we only look to our pocketbooks to solve our problems?  Ask yourself: what do you immediately think when your car has an unexpected breakdown, when you do your taxes and you owe more than you thought, when a tooth begins to give you problems, or when the leadership at your church asks you to increase your giving?  Does your first thought go to how much money is in your bank account?  Yeah, me too.  In whom or what do we trust? 

Here’s an irony: we place “In God We Trust” on our money in America.  Are we sure?  Or are we trying to convince ourselves?

This past Sunday, the minister at the church I attend asked us to state our life’s goal in one sentence.  Good exercise!  Let’s switch that around a bit: in one sentence, what is it that God most wants from us?  Last year in Memphis, I heard Marcus Borg (a bit too liberal for my tastes on several topics, but when he talks about living out Christianity I am usually in wholehearted agreement) sum it up this way: love God and love the people God loves, a memorable summary of Luke 10:27

Of course this is the right answer.  Jesus said as much, but it begs the question what does love look like?  How do I show love to God, in particular?  I would like to assert that showing genuine, unflinching trust in the midst of uncertainty is one of the best ways.     

At this point in the third surah we come to mentions of two significant battles fought by the first Muslims during the life of Muhammad — the Battles of Badr and Uhud.  The way they come packaged, one right after another; the outcomes of both battles; and the lesson the Qur’an appears to be teaching from these battles make me immediately think of the Old Testament stories of Jericho and Ai in Joshua 6-7.  Today we will look at Badr and tomorrow at Uhud. 

Battle of Badr, iranian miniature

The Battle of Badr, Iranian miniature

The Battle of Badr pitted the first Muslims against the polytheists of Mecca.  Skirmishes had taken place between the Muslims and the Meccans before this time; the Meccans had been successful in chasing Muhammad and the Muslims out of Mecca in 622 CE.  But Badr would be the first large-scale battle and it is remembered as one of the most decisive.  On March 13, 624 CE the greatly outnumbered Muslim army marched into the gently sloping valley where the wells of Badr were, anticipating the advance of the much larger Meccan army.  Muslim tradition says the Muslims had 313 troops to the over 900-man, better-equipped Meccan force.  On the day of the battle each side presented their champions for the traditional 3-on-3 individual combat.  Surprisingly, the three Muslim champions were victorious.  This quickly turned into all-out battle, and when all was said and done, with some give-and-take on both sides, the Meccans suffered many more losses than the Muslims (some sources say 20% vs. 4%) and retreated.  Historians say this was the tipping point for Muhammad’s popularity; he had become a force to reckon with in Arabia.  The Muslims would no longer be anybody’s whipping boys. 

It is interesting how the Qur’an describes what takes place in the battle.  The Muslims are outmanned, weaken and losing heart.  So they pray for God’s help.  What happened next is described this way:

If you are steadfast and mindful of God , your Lord will reinforce you with five thousand swooping angels if the enemy should suddenly attack you, and God arranged it so. (3:125)

When by all accounts the Muslims should lose, God intervenes to make the impossible possible.  Victory comes, but from the hand of God.  They proceeded in faith and obedient steadfastness and God brought reward. 

Jericho

Now imagine you are an Israelite soldier marching into your first battle in Canaan.  You come over a rise to see Jericho, the great walled city.  You are undermanned and underequipped, never mind that your battle plans sound more like instructions for a parade.  What would drive you to take another step?              

Trust.  And that alone. 

Before the non-Battle of Jericho ever started God had said: “I have delivered Jericho into your hands” (Joshua 6:2).  In the midst of the marching, Joshua encourages his troops that “the LORD has given you the city” (Joshua 6:16).  And, of course, the victory comes when the walls fall by no feat of the Israelites themselves.  But would the walls have fallen had the Israelites not marched?  I don’t believe so.  God was wondering one thing.  Will you trust me?  I’ll give you a plan that the most inept soldier would reject, but will you still go?  I’ll stretch it out over a week so the ridicule from the people of Jericho increases by the day, even so will you obey?  If I give you a test, will you pass?  They did.  Why?

Trust.  And that alone. 

And the lesson seems to be the same at Badr.  You are outmanned, will you trust me?  You have no significant victories under your belt, will you go anyway?  The tide of battle is turning against you, will you turn and run or turn to me and pray?  Will you pass my test?  And this is exactly what the Qur’an calls it (3:140-42)?  Today’s section begins with the admonition that trust is what Allah desires from his people at the lowest point in the battle most (3:122).  The section ends with further exhortation not to lose heart but to be steadfast (3:146).  The Muslims were and reward came. 

Really, we are talking about faith, but that word has developed so much religious baggage that I wonder if the word “trust” doesn’t actually help us understand the concept better.  Trust gives up control.  Trust surrenders.  Trust submissively says we will do it your way and I’ll look to you to lead the way.  Is this not what God wants most from His people?  Is that maybe how we best say we love someone, even God? 

And is this not what the very word “islam” means?