I brought home a gift from the Ayatollah Sistani.

I’m still savoring and pondering the significance of our visit with Sistani during a trip last summer with Muslim pilgrims in Iraq. Yes, I’m a Christian minister. More on that later.

For those who don’t know the name Sistani, think of clerics with turbans and beards. But be careful how you interpret their dress code. It is true some clerics have said inflammatory things in the past about U.S. foreign policy in the region, but so have I.

Apart from a rejection of the previous American presence in their country, they still would offer me, an American citizen, tea and genuine hospitality.

I was actually surprised we got to sit down with Sistani. His normal audience has included Pope Francis and the Secretary-General of the United Nations in recent years.

I was impressed with his humility and accessibility. He addressed simple petitions from members in our group for health challenges and God’s blessing in their lives. This Ayatollah lives in a modest home in Najaf, where we took refuge from the blistering heat of an Iraqi summer for a conversation.

Sistani is famous for issuing a fatwa (a declaration to the community) resisting Paul Bremmer’s efforts at writing a constitution for Iraq during the Bush administration after Saddam was ousted.

One of my new Muslim friends on our tour asked the Ayatollah an amazing question during our visit: “What is the greatest lesson you’ve learned from your life’s experiences?”

Sistani pondered for a minute and then mentioned the following three things:

  1. Be good towards all people.
  2. Help those you encounter.
  3. Have good morals in your life.

Wow! Softened by these sage words, we began to collect our thoughts. To a person, we were all impacted by this humble man.

People walking outside with a mosque in the background in Samarra, Iraq.

Samarra, Iraq. (Photo: Andrew Larsen)

I was pulled aside by one of the staff as we were leaving, clearly the outlier in this group of Muslim pilgrims, and asked to wait. As I stood there wondering what was up, our leader, Dr. Takim, came into the circle to help interpret.

I was asked a few questions. Who was I? Why did I come to Iraq? Dr. Takim said I was a Christian brother who came to visit in order to learn and pay respects. All true, by the way.

The lead staff person reached for my hand as he placed his own hand on his chest in a form of warm greeting, perhaps surprised, by my presence. After a few more exchanges, the gentleman stepped behind a door and came out with a gift for me! He gave me a ring from Sistani, as a remembrance and thanks for my visit!

In the big world outside that space, there were many reasons to both fear and hold animus towards each other. But here we were sharing heartfelt respect, perhaps even love. It was going both ways. I only wish they had allowed selfies with Sistani.

One of the questions that has come to frame my talks and sermons after this visit to Iraq is this, “What on earth are we here for?” It’s a question that was never adequately answered in my evangelical upbringing. Sure, there was an answer, but it never satiated my soul, that deep hunger for understanding my purpose in the world.

It was suggested that “my personal peace with God” was the end-all. Getting others, especially those from my own circle, into the same track followed so that when the roll is called up yonder, me and my friends wouldn’t be “left behind!”

That nasty little verse about “loving one’s enemies” or the notion of peacemaking and shalom was rarely suggested as compelling, or a core component of Christian discipleship in the real world beyond sibling quarrels or church squabbles.

The Holy Shrine of Imam Hossain in Karbala, Iraq.

The Holy Shrine of Imam Hossain in Karbala, Iraq. (Photo: Andrew Larsen).

Think about that for a second. Isn’t that kind of pathetic, if not also a little narrow? The God of the universe had no other plan beyond saving a few people out of this world so we could sing praise songs in heaven someday.

Does God have anything to say about the many places around the globe on the precipice of destruction, or already engaged in armed conflict? What am I to do on this beautiful planet with all of its people, slowly burning up from global warming, or killing each other off with bullets and things that go boom? Does my religion have anything to say to this world other than “get out while you can!”?

I’m finding others who also have found the old Christian evangelical program less than compelling! Many are rediscovering the call of Jesus to peacemaking that’s been there all the time in our Bibles.

Clearly, peace with God is a real thing. It’s important. But many are discovering way more to the biblical plan for peace.

I’ve imagined several times what I wish I had said to Sistani. I might apologize for what my country did in our effort to oust Saddam Hussain.

As a follower of Jesus Christ, I might have declared I believe that each human being carries the image of God. To dump a bunch of bombs without apparent concern for the collateral damage and civilian carnage is immoral.

I might have also mentioned Paul’s admonition in Ephesians 2:14: “For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility.”

Interestingly, upon return, the U.S. customs agent asked why I went to Iraq. I said I was a Christian peacemaker. He looked really curious but clearly needed to keep the line moving.

But my question continues to dance in my head, “What on earth are we here for?”

Editor’s note: This article is part of a series calling attention to February 1-7 as World Interfaith Harmony Week. The previous article in the series is:

Beyond Harmony to Friendship | Robert P. Sellers

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