Growing up in North Wales did not introduce me to a plethora of different faiths and nationalities. Three times a year, though, my family travelled down to the big smoke – Cardiff – to visit my grandparents. While we were there, we’d travel into the city centre, and there we would see people of different races and nationalities, women wearing hijab, and men in long flowing gowns. It all fascinated small-town Trystan and I remember asking my mum whether these people who looked so different from me were Christian. She told me that some of them were, but some were of other faiths, and she added, “but whether they’re Christian or not, God loves them and he wants us to love everyone, whatever their background, whatever their race, whatever their faith”. “But mum,” I retorted, “didn’t Jesus say that no one comes to God, except through him?” To my surprise, my mum answered, “no, Trystan, he didn’t say that”. Before I could rush to my bookcase to show her John 14:6 in my children’s Bible, she explained – “Jesus did not say that no one comes to God except through him, Jesus said no one comes to the Father except through him”.
By seeing God as our “father”, we Christians hold that we are brought into a particular type of relationship with God – a relationship of trust, of forgiveness, of unconditional love. This is a relationship that reflects a human relationship between father and a daughter or son. This personal relationship is one of the amazing things that I, as a Christian, believe makes my faith unique. Jesus came to show us how to attain that relationship, because that relationship reflects who and what God really is – a God of love, a God of forgiveness, a God of compassion.
We Christians believe that Jesus offers us that unique relationship, but the consequence of that belief is not that other faiths should be disparaged or dismissed – quite the opposite. Our belief doesn’t mean that we Christians own God and that we should box him up as our special property. It doesn’t mean that those of other faiths, and even those of no faith, don’t connect and engage with God. It doesn’t even mean that people of other faiths don’t have their own relationship with God. And it certainly doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t love, laugh with, learn from, and stand up for people of other faiths. This is perhaps something of what Desmond Tutu meant when he said: “God is not a Christian”.
Part of my ministry involves journeying with people who are themselves called to Christian ministry. In my first meeting with a candidate, I ask them who has helped them on their Christian journey – who, down the years, have helped them to connect with God, to see God in different places. Sometimes they mention friends, sometimes family members, sometimes someone in church. When I ask myself that same question there are so many people that come to mind – my mum and dad, my old school chaplain, a lecturer at university, a close friend of mine in my first job, a number of Christian writers whose books I have read but I have never met, and my wife Sandra.
But I would also add another name to that list. And that is the name of a man called Sameh Otri. Sameh is now a lecturer in the Middle East, but he was, a few years ack, my fellow chaplain in Cardiff University. Sameh is a humble person, a deeply spiritual person, a compassionate person, an inspirational person. But what makes him different from many of the people on my list is that Sameh is a Syrian Muslim – he was the Muslim chaplain to the University. Yet I learnt so much about God, about faith, about prayer, about love, through Sameh.
I remember meeting up with Sameh for coffee one spring morning, for example. As we sat down in a Cardiff café that serves just the best cakes, Sameh said to me “oh no! I just remembered, it’s Lent for you, so you must be fasting and can’t eat anything!” I explained to him that actually, for Christians, fasting during Lent was very different to fasting during Ramadan, and that Christians usually give up something specific, like chocolate or cakes. “Ah I understand now”, he said as he chose a big slice of cake, “so what did you give up?” “Oh no”, I quickly replied, “what I meant was that other Christians give up something during Lent, but I haven’t given up anything and so can eat as much cake as I want!” This led to a lengthy conversation on why fasting is important, why self-discipline and self-control are helpful, and how fasting can bring us closer to God. I must admit, and not for the first time with Sameh, I went away with my faith challenged and, in some little way, changed.
Sameh taught me so much during my time as chaplain and it would be nice to think that he is now chatting to friends in his local mosque in Buraydah, telling them that he also learnt something about God through me. Our call is to both teach others and learn from others, whoever they are. It would be good if all of us could open our eyes, our ears, and our minds to allow people of other faiths to teach us something about God and about our faith. In the gospels, there are gentiles who are learning about God through Christ and his disciples, but it is clear that Jesus wanted his followers to also learn something about God and faith through them – “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith”, he said to his disciples about a centurion (Luke 7:9). We live in a world that’s increasingly obsessed with differences, and with trying to encourage us to fear and distrust those who are different from us and those who have different views from us. But that’s not how Jesus worked. He didn’t want to make people the same as him so he could engage with them. He simply reached out to all people, and encouraged his followers both to love others and to learn from others, whoever they are, however different they may be to them.