This is the third and final sermon in my series on the Three Abrahamic Faiths: Judaism, Christianity and Islam by discussing Abraham and his two sons, Isaac and Ishmael, who were both given promises by God to become great nations. Even though Ishmael is driven out of his father’s house by Sarah (the jealous and protective mother of Isaac), God watches over Ishmael and he becomes, according to the Quran, the father of Islam. Isaac becomes the father of Judaism and therefore a forefather to Christianity. (Please note that neither of these religions existed at the time of Abraham.) We all worship the same God.

The great ninth century Sufi, Bayazid Bastami, described the evolution of these three religions with this image: “its seeds were set at the time of Adam, they sprouted under Noah and flowered under Abraham. Grapes formed at the time of Moses, and they ripened at the time of Jesus. In the time of Mohammad, they were made into pure wine. ”

Muslims believe that God sends a prophet whenever humanity is in need of a course correction. This does not make any of the prior prophets (including Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses and Jesus, among others) wrong, just sort of outdated. Or, perhaps more to the point, many Muslims feel that people have distorted the true messages of the earlier prophets. So, Muslims believe that Muhammad is the most recent prophet to have been sent by God and therefore the most accurate, most relevant message.

So, part two focused on Judaism: Covenant, Sabbath and Blessing, and part three of this series will focus
on what I see as some of the key concepts and/or practices of Islam. I also believe that these concepts are not exclusively Jewish or Muslim, but contain spiritual wisdom for all of us if we care to look and listen. The three I’ve chosen to explore for Islam are peace, prayer and devotion.

(For the full audio version, click here.)


Let’s begin with peace, mostly because that is perhaps the least likely word that non-Muslims would use to describe a Muslim in our world today. And, yet, to moderate and progressive (and probably to most conservative) Muslims, this is an inherent characteristic of someone who follows Islam.

Summing up the teachings of Islam, the Islamic Society of North America makes this statement:

Islam is an Arabic word which means peace, purity, acceptance and commitment. As a religion, Islam calls for complete acceptance of the teachings and guidance of God. A Muslim is one who freely and willingly accepts the supreme power of God and strives to organize his life in total accord with the teachings of God. He also works for building social institutions which reflect the guidance of God.

To be a Muslim means to be a “peacemaker and one who submits to the will of God”

I had an Imam come speak to my religion class at Carthage College a few times and he made it very clear that there is no room for terrorism in Islam. In fact, Islam forbids all acts of violence and disorder in the world. He cited the following verses from the Quran:

  • Sura 11:86 “And commit not iniquity in the earth, causing disorder”
  • Sura 5:33 “… whosoever killed a person – it shall be as if he had killed all mankind”

The Imam was also adamant that Islam condemns aggression, hostility and mischief:

  • Sura 5:3 “Help one another in righteousness and piety, and help not one another in sin and transgression.”

Jihad is a term that the media has co-opted and twisted to mean holy war. The true meaning of Jihad is “to struggle” and “to strive.” There are three levels of jihad. The Greatest Jihad is the struggle against one’s lower self. It is the internal struggle between wrong and right, error and truth, selfishness and selflessness, hardness of heart and all-embracing love. Our inner state is then reflected in words, actions and behaviors.

The Greater Jihad is about being in service to humanity and spreading peace in the world through the teachings of the Quran.

Finally, the Lesser Jihad is a war fought in self-defense only, and is regulated by 19 conditions.

While the Imam was very firm about Islam being a religion of peace, passages in the Quran can be found to support both a pacifist approach and active opposition to unbelievers. To me it seems very much the same way with the Bible.  One can find ample evidence to love your enemy, turn the other cheek, and follow the non-violence of Jesus… or one can follow a God who smote the enemy, destroyed people who worshiped idols and generally caused much death and destruction in the Old Testament.

The prophet Muhammad’s farewell address gives us a very good sense of where he personally stood on this issue: 

“God has made the lives, property and honor of every man sacred. To take any man’s life, his property or attack his honor is unjust and wrong. None of you can be a true believer until and unless he desires for his brothers what he wishes for himself. My movement is based on love.”

My question for us becomes: what does it look like for us to struggle with our lower selves? Can we strive to achieve a level of peace within and then bring that peace to the world?



Most of us are aware that Muslims pray five times a day. For someone like me who truly lacks any kind of discipline in any part of my life, I find this a truly amazing practice.

Their prayer ritual is called Salat, the obligatory prayers to be said at dawn, midday, late afternoon, just after sunset, and between sunset and midnight. Millions of Muslims do this every day as a highly spiritual practice connecting them to Muslims around the world and to all who have uttered the same words down through history.

These prayers are not just phrases to be spoken, they include a set of movements so that Muslims pray body, mind and soul. Prayer is thought to do the following:

  • Strengthen belief in God’s existence and goodness and carry this belief into the depths of the heart and every aspect of external life.
  • Purify the heart, develop the mind and conscience, comfort the soul
  • Encourage good and suppress evil
  • Awaken one’s innate sense of higher morality and higher aspirations.
  • Words of praise and bowing express continual gratefulness and surrender to the One.

While mouthing the words and performing the outer actions they should be concentrating on the inner prayer of the heart. The prophet Muhammad reportedly said, “Prayer without the Presence of the Lord in the heart is not prayer at all.”  In other words, they are  expected to be prepared to pray by removing the hindrances from their hearts and minds. They should attempt to be attentive and open to the movement of the Divine while at the same time offering their whole self to the process.

This prompts me to wonder whether we just go through the motions of prayer, or worship, or volunteering, or devotional readings… or do we consciously strive to have an appropriate inner preparedness for giving of our hearts to the Divine and receiving within our hearts the Divine? What would this look like and feel like?


DEVOTION – love, loyalty, faithfulness, commitment, enthusiasm for a cause

I get a feeling of a deep sense of devotion that Muslims have to the Divine . At the very core of their faith is the intent to meditate on and give themselves (submit, if you will) to the will of God. They seek a change of heart, a oneness with God, and to live with peace and kindness. There is a devotion that is obvious, from their commitment to pray 5 times a day, to the millions of people who make a pilgrimage to Mecca, to the discipline and dedication it takes to fast (from food and drink) from sunrise to sunset during the month of Ramadan. It brings to mind the old 80’s song: “I’m hopelessly devoted to you…”

I find myself wondering: are we devoted to the Divine? Are we devoted to our spiritual paths? What does that look like, or what could that look more like?

I offer these Muslim practices of peace, prayer and devotion, to not only to give us insight into the Muslim understanding of, and relationship with,God, but also to offer us things to think about when it comes to our own spiritual lives.

Assalamo Alaikum (Peace be unto you),



Last week we began this sermon series on the Three Abrahamic Faiths: Judaism, Christianity and Islam by discussing Abraham and his two sons, Isaac and Ishmael, who were both given promises by God to become great nations. Even though Ishmael is driven out of his father’s house by Sarah (the jealous and protective mother of Isaac), God watches over Ishmael and he becomes, according to the Quran, the father of Islam. Isaac becomes the father of Judaism and therefore a forefather to Christianity. (Please note that neither of these religions existed at the time of Abraham.)

Parts two and three of this series on the Abrahamic Faith focus judaism-3on what I see as some of the key concepts and/or practices of Judaism and Islam. I also believe that these concepts are not exclusively Jewish or Muslim, but contain spiritual wisdom for all of us if we care to look and listen. The three I’ve chosen to explore for Judaism are covenant, Sabbath and blessing.

(For the full audio version, click here.)


A unique belief introduced into Jewish theology was the idea of a covenantal relationship between the Jewish people and God. This was a two-sided agreement with the Divine, a sacred promise, a contract, in which both sides have a responsibility to the other. On the people’s side, obedience to God is expected. On the divine side, God grants special favors and is bound by God’s own ethical agreements to the people. These were the three great covenants in Jewish history:

  • Noah – God sets a rainbow in the sky as a symbol of God’s covenant to Noah, his descendants, and every living creature, to never again send another great flood.
  • Abraham and God – essentially God says, “I will be your God and your protector, you will be circumcised.”
  • Moses “re-established” the covenant between God and the people. God is said to have met Moses on Mt. Sinai and given the people a set of rules for righteous living (Torah). This includes the 10 commandments. It also includes a set of social norms, prescribed religious feasts, and detailed instructions for the construction of a portable tabernacle (think Indian Jones and the Ark of the Covenant). These make up the 613 mizvot, laws, or divine commandments Orthodox Jews are required to keep. Conservative Jews and Reform Jews have more options about which laws they can choose to follow or not.

A covenant describes a personal and interactive relationship, including responsibility and accountability, between the Divine and humanity. The question this raises for me is whether we, as Christians, feel that we have this sort of relationship with God? Or do we simply rely on God to be present at all times, to provide strength, comfort, guidance, or whatever is needed without any return on our part? And how do we feel about that? Do we have a responsibility to God?


For about the last 3000 years, Jews have observed their Sabbath from sundown Friday to sundown on Saturday. It was so important that it was commanded by God in the 10 commandments and echoed in Leviticus and multiple other places in scripture. It was not just a day to stay home from the office, if you will, but to slow down, reflect, build relationships through conversation and prayer, give time to your spiritual life through reading and study, and rekindle your marriage through making love. Everyone was given the day off… even from making food and lighting a fire.

We find the basis for the Jewish Sabbath in Genesis 1, in the story of Creation. God created the world and all that is in it in six days. On the seventh day God rested and enjoyed God’s creation. If resting was important for God, then certainly it is even more important for people!

Obviously, this has not been strictly a Jewish concept. Many of us can remember “back in the day” when Sundays consisted of church, sharing a family meal, and spending time with family and friends. Shops weren’t open, and there weren’t kids sports on Sunday mornings. It was a day of rest, renewal, nurturing your body and your relationships.

Sadly, we’ve lost this essential rhythm to our lives. We fill our lives with things to do… because action and accomplishment are “better” than rest, better than doing “nothing.” Even when we have down time, we fill it with our computers, phones, iPads, and televisions. We read books, but not necessarily to edify, to escape.

Our lack of rest and reflection colors all that we do and all that we are. When we are exhausted – physically, mentally and spiritually – we become more anxious, more fearful, less grounded and less able to make good decisions. When we don’t seek to grow spiritually, our souls stagnate and lose touch with the Divine.

There is a little book called Judaism’s 10 Best Ideas by Arthur Green, who is one of the world’s preeminent authorities on Jewish thought and spirituality. Green suggests that there have been whole generations of Jews who have rebelled against the Sabbath laws, until their observance became the exception rather than the norm. Still, he says, that Shabbat (Hebrew for Sabbath) is needed more than ever, but perhaps it needs a more contemporary perspective and so he offers a simplified Shabbat for moderns

Ten Pathways toward a New Shabbat


  1. Stay at home. Spend quality time with family and real friends.
  2. Celebrate with others: at the table, in the synagogue, with friends or community.
  3. Study or read something that will edify, challenge, or make you grow.
  4. Be alone. Take some time for yourself. Check in with yourself. Review your week. Ask yourself where you are in your life.
  5. Mark the beginning and end of this sacred time by lighting candles and making kiddush [a ceremony of prayer and blessing over wine] on Friday night and saying havdalah [formal prayer marking the end of the Sabbath] on Saturday night.


  1. Don’t do anything you have to do for your work life. This includes obligatory reading, homework for kids (even without writing!), unwanted social obligations, and preparing for work as well as doing your job itself.
  2. Don’t spend money. Separate completely from the commercial culture that surrounds us so much. This includes doing business of all sorts. No calls to the broker, no following up on ads, no paying of bills. It can all wait.
  3. Don’t use the computer. Turn off the iPhone or smartphone. Live and breathe for a day without checking messages. Declare your freedom from this new master of our minds and our time. Find the time for face-to-face conversations with people around you, without Facebook.
  4. Don’t travel. Avoid especially commercial travel and places like airports, hotel check-ins, and similar depersonalizing encounters. Stay free of situations in which people are likely to tell you to “have a nice day” (Shabbat already is a nice day, thank you).
  5. Don’t rely on commercial or canned video entertainment, including the TV as well as the computer screen. Discover what there is to do in life when you are not being entertained.

How would it feel to try some of these? Could you consider a Sabbath day once a month? Or a Sabbath hour, or half day?


One thing we rarely hear about Judaism is the role of blessing. Yet there are hundreds of traditional blessings that Jews have for every occasion. From blessing the different kinds of food they eat, to the varied things in creation, to kindnesses, good news and bad news, and everything in-between. The purpose of the blessing is awareness, to increase the conscious awareness of the Divine in our lives and our world by offering a blessing for it.

Simply put, if I bless an apple I’m saying: in this apple, I see God.

There seems to be a blessing for everything. My favorite is the bathroom blessing:

Blessed are you, Eternal God, Sovereign of the Universe who created humans with wisdom and created within them many openings and many cavities. It is exposed and known before Your Throne of Glory, that if one of them were to be ruptured or one of them were to be blocked it would be impossible to survive and to stand before You for even one hour. Blessed are you, Lord, Healer of all flesh who acts wondrously.

Rabbi Jack Riemer, in his blog, said, “with all due respect for traditional blessings, I believe we need a few new blessings, such as before we perform the sacred act of voting, and before we use our computers, to help remind us not to misuse this powerful tool to spread malicious gossip or evil speech. Here’s another one I highly recommend: a prayer to recite when facing the difficult task of emptying the contents of our parents’ home after they die.”

What would it look like to walk through life offering blessings even for the littlest things? The sun, the sky, the rain, our coffee or tea, our animals, creation, music? Could we incorporate more moments of gratitude and blessing in such a way as to remind us of God’s presence in our daily lives?


So, I offer these Jewish concepts of covenant, Sabbath and blessing, not only to give us insight into the Jewish understanding of, and relationship with,God, but also to offer us things to think about when it comes to our own spiritual lives.

Shalom, peace be with you,


The Abrahamic Faiths

“One figure stands at the dawn of every subsequent endeavor. One individual holds the breadth of the past – and perhaps the dimensions of the future – in his life story. Abraham.” ~Bruce Feiler, Abraham

It was brought to my attention yesterday that, at least in a good many cases, abrahamic-faiths-2the Christian churches have been lax in letting folks know that good old Father Abraham is the forefather of the three great monotheistic religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Maybe it just didn’t seem important enough to include in kid’s Sunday School lessons. Or maybe no one wanted to lend any credibility to Islam. Maybe if this fact was more well-known, we’d have less intolerance between the religions.

(For the full audio version, click here.)

Here’s the skinny… Abraham had two sons, Ishmael by Hagar (his wife’s Egyptian slave) and Isaac by his wife Sarah. There is contention between Sarah and Hagar, but God blesses both boys. An angel tells Hagar that through her son, God would make her “descendants too numerous to count.” By the way, this makes Hagar the ONLY woman to receive the promise of descendants and essentially places her among the patriarchs. It is then through Isaac that God establishes “an everlasting covenant, to be his God and the God of his descendants.” (Genesis 16 and 17).

In essence, we have two half-brothers who are forced to go in different directions (Sarah insists that Hagar and Ishmael be sent away) and become the forefathers of two distinct nations. Ishmael becomes the father of Islam and Isaac becomes the father of Judaism. And it is off of the Judaic branch that Christianity sprouts.

There are hundreds of stories about Abraham, but only about 1% of those are in the Bible. The rest were created by the Jews, Christian and Muslims in the last 3800 years. Still, everyone agreed on one thing: Abraham believed in one God. He was the first great monotheist.

Judaism, Christianity and Islam all believe in one God – the God of Abraham. Yes, the Jews use the word Yahweh or Jehovah and the Muslims talk about Allah, but those words simply mean “God” in their own languages. It is NOT a different God.

From here we recognize that there are many similarities, but to expect it to extend into doctrine and practices isn’t realistic. Not only do all three religions believe in one and the same God, but they believe that God works within human history, interacting with humanity. They all believe in prophets, angels and divine revelation. All three stress moral responsibility and accountability. Prayer, worship, giving to charity are core practices of all three. And they all believe in the Golden Rule – do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

Peace is also central to all three faiths. Many Christian churches traditionally share signs of greeting and peace during their worship. During the mass, Catholics will turn to one another, shaking hands and saying, “Peace be with you.” Muslims greet one another with the words, salaam alaikum, and Jews will greet one another with shalom aleichem which both mean “peace be unto you.”

All three religions also believe in their special covenant with God. The Jews have their covenant through Moses, the 10 Commandments and the Torah. Christians accept God’s covenant with, and revelation to, the Jews, but traditionally has seen itself as superseding Judaism with the coming of Jesus. Christianity talks about a new covenant and a New Testament (NT) through Jesus. Islam has respect for all the Biblical prophets of Judaism and Christianity, and the Quran makes frequent reference to Jesus and to the Virgin Mary (who is cited more times in the Quran than in the NT). But Muslims believe that Islam supersedes Judaism and Christianity – that the Quran is the final and complete word of God and that Muhammad is the last of the prophets. While Muslims recognize the “revelations” (Torah and NT), they also believe that much of what is written in the Old and New testaments is a corrupted version of the original revelation to Moses and Jesus, and that Christianity further corrupted it with the development of doctrine such as the belief that Jesus is the Son of God who died to redeem the people.

In our age of globalization and with the understanding that in a few short years there will be almost as many Muslims as there are Christians in the world, there is a deep need for religious pluralism. This does not mean all becoming one great religion, nor does it mean watering down the religions to focus solely on the similarities and ignore our differences. What it means is an appreciation of the diversity of all religions, uniformity and agreement are not the goals.

Pluralism recognizes that the Divine is too huge to be encompassed by any one idea, theology, name or religion. Pluralism understands that no one has a monopoly on the truth when it comes to God. It recognizes that there is much out there that we don’t know and don’t understand, and we allow others to honor and worship God in ways that make sense to them.  Pluralism believes that other religions have validity.

Peace, Salaam, Shalom,