Sam's Life

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Father Abraham’s Sons

During the past three years of my life…

God surrounded me with Quakers! Through what was called a “Clearness Committee,” these brothers and sisters in faith, supported me emotionally and spiritually as I sought new direction in my life. I had shared with a minister friend, the Rev. Bill Hathaway of First Presbyterian Church, and my Quaker friends, “I just want be in a place where God can use me in service to others.” Well after all that praying (and a whole lot of needless concern) I now find myself on the eastern shore of the Red Sea in Saudi Arabia. And this time I’m surrounded by Muslim friends!

Sam with his Syrian assistant Kimo. He assists Sam with research and also acts as interpretor and translator.

I’m convinced there are many Americans who are middle-aged and older who are in similar circumstances–or perhaps are currently unemployed or under-employed and not knowing quite what to do. If you find yourself wondering where to go next in life, I encourage you to think outside the box. You are free to relocate anywhere in the world. You can commit your life in service to others or to a significant, worthy cause. It really isn’t as difficult as one might think. You just need to focus your life on the “next chapter”; look at all the opportunities; and then courageously act. (I know, the “courageously acting” part can really be difficult.)

For me it meant letting go of my condo and its contents and moving nearly half way around the world. However, after being in Saudi Arabia for just over a month, I’m convinced that I’ve made one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.

I’ve always been inquisitive

I’ve always wanted to know why people think and behave the way they do. This built-in drive to know ‘why’ has been with me since childhood. Even as an adolescent growing up in North Georgia, I had so many questions. I wanted to know why the Cherokee Nation had been forcibly relocated to Oklahoma. I wanted to know about the U.S. Civil War. I had questions about the Great Depression, Civil Rights, etc. I wanted to know everything…all the details.

Since the age of 18, this interest in studying history and the sociology has taken me out of the U.S. at least once a year (sometimes more often) in search of answers.

I wanted to know the circumstances that drove the German people to support Hitler. So at 18 I found myself hitchhiking through Germany, staying with German families and asking them about World War II. By the time I was 20 I wanted to know why communism opposed religion? I got a cheap flight to Luxembourg and then a train to Czechoslovakia and stayed with Czech and Slovak families (I later married my Slovak interpreter!) I kept going back to Eastern Europe as often as possible and asking more and more questions until I got arrested in the Soviet Union at age 21! In the mid-70s I became interested in Asian history, so I got a scholarship for crash courses in Asian religions, political science, medicine, the arts,  and international relations at National Taiwan University. In the 80s I wanted to know why many American Christians refused to help men, women and children living with HIV/AIDS, so I started working in hospitals with AIDS patients and training others to do the same. And now, at age 64, I find myself in the Middle East asking the question: Why can’t Muslims, Christians and Jews live together in peace?

Here I’m necessarily learning about Islam–its culture, its history and the faith of its adherents. My Muslim friends here are from throughout the Middle East and Africa. We are one in heart and mind as we seek to understand the commonalities of Judaism, Islam and Christianity. Building upon what we consider common characteristics of faith, we hope to contribute to lasting peace, both here in the Middle East, and around the world. On this blog I’d like to consider some of these shared concepts in faith.

One commonality for Jews and Muslims, genetics 

Jews and Muslims both are descendants from the Old Testament patriarch “Father Abraham.” In other words, they are cousins!

As a result, the Hebrew and Arabic languages are very similar in their base. Both read from right to left, and what we in the West would consider the back of a book is actually the front for Jews and Arabs. Both languages have similarities in vocabulary.  For example, the Hebrew word  for peace is שָׁלוֹם pronounced “Shalom”, while in Arabic it’s سلام “Salam.”  There are also similarities in phonetics and grammar. Since they do not use the same alphabet, in writing they are quite different. Despite the similarities, they are still not close enough so that the speaker of one language can understand the other without studying it first. (This very often contributes to many misunderstandings.)

A couple of thousands years later, enter the Christians (the followers of Jesus). Christians believe they, too, by faith, are “grafted” into the lineage of Abraham. Christianity is defined in the Bible as a type of “spiritual adoption” by God. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise” (NT Galatians 3:29).

So you see, we Jews, Muslims and Christians have a strong, historic connection in faith. And thus, we three are considered the “Abrahamic faiths.”

I read recently that the word Islam means “submission” or “surrender” to God. And the word is derived from the Arabic word I mentioned earlier salam, meaning peace. It refers to the “peace” that comes when one stops running from, resisting the pursuit of the loving God of Abraham and finally submits or surrenders.

While considering how we Christians, Jews and Muslims are believed to be submitting by faith to the God of Father Abraham, I’m reminded of a song I learned as a child in a southern Baptist Sunday school:

  • Father Abraham had many sons;
  •   Many sons had Father Abraham!
  • I am one of them, and so are you.
  •   So let’s all praise the Lord! Amen!

I know what you’re thinking–if only it were so simple, right? Yes, there are extremists in all three faiths who don’t want to speak to each other–they resist even the notion of sitting down together for discussions about reconciliation. There is a lot of hatred and bigotry out there. But, we have some good news!

A new generation of the three Abrahamic faiths is on the horizon. And here in the Middle East my colleagues and I believe there is now an historic opportunity to focus less on our differences and concentrate on our commonalities as we seek answers to that most important question: “Why can’t we just live together in peace?”


January 8, 2012 - Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , ,

1 Comment »

  1. Sam, I like very much your synopsis of your history – around questions…. and am so happy you’re happy doing what you’re doing. The vision is an important one and I will work for it. Love, Mardy

    Comment by Mardy Burgess | January 31, 2012 | Reply

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