SIWG, Bismilla, Lent

Two days ago I attended a meeting of the Southend Interfaith Working Group (SIWG). I have been involved with the group since it began three years ago and have supported and seen the need for its existence, which according to the text at the head of the SIWG website is about: Council and faith communities in partnership, improving communication and facilitating faith groups support for the local community. It seems to me quite evident there are many needs in the community, particularly but not exclusively around poverty and social exclusion and disempowerment, that aren’t being currently met, and faith groups are well placed to meet some of those needs and even more so if they can work with the Council.

Some may think it strange that someone so dogmatic when it comes to what he believes to be right should be interested in anything to do with interfaith. My response is that it is true that I believe my take on religion is the right one and others that do not subscribe to the tenets of my faith therefore can’t be right. Even so, I increasingly recognise my understanding is limited and others have perspectives that are valid that I may not be so aware of.  Besides which, we share much common ground and we need to create better understanding and do things for the good of the community. Thus the interest!

The meeting was held at the local mosque in a room quite familiar to me as it was where my son six years earlier had attended 11-plus preparation classes. Here we received what I know is customary hospitality. As is my habit, while waiting for the meeting to start, I surveyed the room and one poster in particular caught me eye, which included a number of wise statements that were designed to impress and inspire the students. The first was to greet each other with “Salaam” (peace), which I had already done with our Muslim hosts. The second though was something new, at least to me, and it was that we should invoke “Bismilla” (in the name of God) before starting our activities (study in the case of the 11-plus class and, I suppose, what we were about to discuss in the case of our meeting).

It occurred to me that Bismilla was the very thing many Christians seek to do in their various activities, and that Salaam and Bismilla are two of the common ground matters we could agree on. Just after, I had a discussion with two Christians about whether or not we should be removing our shoes, given the classroom was part of the mosque and that this is what the Muslims would do as a matter of course. I said that I felt while it was appropriate for us to do likewise, out of respect, our hosts realised that non-Muslim visitors might not be aware of their practice and it was something voluntary, for they would not want anyone to feel embarrassed.

Just prior to our meeting, I had a short but fairly intense discussion with an Anglican vicar, who asked me how I was finding Lent. I had to confess, to my embarrassment, that the main reason I knew it was Lent was because I followed “the Archers” where the fictitious vicar of Ambridge would invariably set his congregation tasks during the Lent period, the most memorable being doing some random act of kindness each day. I have no doubt my traditional Brethren upbringing helped fuel this ignorance and indifference toward celebrating special days including, in some quarters, Christmas. I did say though that I thought some of the ideas about Lent were good for all the year round and that I felt the disciplines of those who followed the Christian calendar were right and proper for us all. I was relieved later when at my computer at home and having looked up Lent on Wikipedia, I found that this was indeed about “the preparation of the believer through prayer, penance, repentance of sins, almsgiving, atonement and self-denial”.

In the discussion that followed, we agreed that the sort of emphasis that Lent gave needed to be balanced by other Christian virtues and it was quite appropriate that at the end of the Lent period we have Holy week. It was not that the week ends on Good Friday, when Jesus was killed on the cross in order to atone for our sins, making all this sober reflection and self-denial all that more significant, but that on Easter Sunday he rose from the grave, victor over the devil, death and darkness and thereby creating the hope of life eternal for humankind. As Christians, we are about celebrating that Jesus is alive and living the life of Jesus in us with all its many implications.

Part of my struggle as a community activist is finding the right balance and when we go wrong, as often we do, it is because we fail to find that balance. Looking ahead to the dark days leading to Calvary (the place where Jesus was crucified), to be followed by the joyous exuberance following the triumphant resurrection of Jesus, is just one an example of quite different profound truths we need to hold dear and of the balance that we need to strive after.