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The right kind of tolerance

“Tolerance” is a much misunderstood word these days. I remember hearing a barn-burner of a chapel message back in college from Josh McDowell, warning us that the biggest sin in the worlds eyes in upcoming days would be “intolerance”, which they would define (roughly) as “saying someone’s beliefs are wrong”.

The fact of the matter is that it’s impossible to be tolerant if you don’t disagree with someone, since tolerance is, by definition, allowing the existence of something that you disagree with. I was recently witness to an illustration…

Our associate pastor, Robin, and his wife, Kathryn, hosted a foreign exchange student last year. His name is Ahmed and he is from Egypt. When I first heard about him (just a few weeks ago – guess I’m out of the loop!) I thought to myself maybe he’s Coptic Orthodox or something… that’d make sense if he’s living with a Christian pastor… but nope – Ahmed is a Muslim. Some experience that must’ve been, I thought.

Then two weeks ago, after the sermon in our Sunday morning service, Pastor Robin invited Ahmed to join him on the platform and they spent nearly 15 minutes discussing Ahmed’s year here. Ahmed told the story of his initial trepidation of being hosted by a Christian pastor. He told a couple of funny fish-out-of-water stories that had everyone laughing. He admitted that American high school was a much more laid back and pleasant experience than his all-boys French Catholic high school back in Egypt. And he spoke proudly of the Egyptian people’s overthrow of the Mubarak regime in this spring’s revolution.

Then Robin invited Ahmed to share with us the basic beliefs of Islam, and asked him to talk a bit about how Muslims view Jesus and what some of the key differences are between Islam and Christianity. Our church listened intently as Ahmed described the Five Pillars of Islam and that the Muslims revere Jesus as a prophet though they don’t believe that he was crucified and resurrected.

When the discussion time was over, Pastor Robin prayed for Ahmed, asking God to guide him and watch over him as he returned to Egypt. Then Ahmed was presented with a parting gift: a McDonald’s gift card. (Apparently Ahmed has developed a taste for Big Macs.)

This, my friends, was a beautiful display of the right kind of tolerance. There was no pretense in the entire conversation (or, clearly, in the entire relationship between Ahmed and his “parents” Robin and Kathryn) that they agreed religiously. However, the love and respect between them as they discussed their differing beliefs and shared experience of the past year was evident and obviously real. Ahmed was also quite gracious in his willingness to be prayed for by a man who believes so differently. (I sometimes wonder whether I and my Christian brethren would be as gracious if the roles were reversed.)

That Sunday morning discussion between Robin and Ahmed was valuable for all of us in several ways. We learned a little more about Islam. We gained a better appreciation for seeing our own Christian practice through foreign eyes. And whenever some rabble-rousing politician or media fear-monger wants to stereotype Muslims, we’ll be able to look back to this handsome, genial, friendly young man and remember that those who follow Islam are, for the vast majority, like him, and not like those extremists that we are told to fear.

My friends, this is true and good tolerance, and I am all for it.

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