In February 2009, I attended a conference in Egypt taught by Arab Christians from throughout the Middle East.
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During a break in the conference, I met in a small conference room with a dozen Egyptian Christian leaders. I said to them, "I find myself dreaming and praying about peace in the Middle East. Am I naïve to entertain that possibility? From your perspective, what are the biggest issues standing in the way of peace?"
They said that by far the most serious hindrance to peace in the Middle East is U.S. policy toward Israel-Palestine. "Americans don’t know what they're doing to us," they said. They explained that when Americans ignore the plight of Palestinians, this inflames the entire Arab world against the "Christian West," and against Arab Christians as well.
The second problem, they said, is Muslims in the Middle East. "The number of extremist, violent Muslims is growing," they said. "That trend must turn around."
They said the third major hindrance to peace is Christians in the Middle East: Too many of them hate Muslims. "We're working on loving them," they said, "but we have a long way to go." I appreciated their honesty. Throughout the world, it seems, both Christians and Muslims "have a long way to go" in learning to love one another.
That evening, the final meeting of the conference was a celebration of what God had done in the previous year. Men and women paraded into the room dressed in the traditional clothing and carrying the national flags of their countries, then told story after story of spiritual transformation in unexpected places. In every way, it was a celebratory atmosphere.
But the longer we sat there, the sicker I felt. I sensed God’s calling that night with such force and weight that I -- literally -- felt like I got kicked in the stomach. It was a spiritual encounter, but it was so strong I felt it physically.
"I'm calling you to the mission field," I sensed God say. "I'm calling you to be a missionary to American Christians on behalf of the Middle East. I'm calling you to help move U.S. Christians toward a clearer understanding of Arab Christians and Muslims, and of the complexity and tragedy -- for both Jews and Arabs -- of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict."
I've only received such a definite calling three times in my life, and I don't frequently use the phrase "God told me." But that night God told me to be an advocate for the Arab world.
Since that night I've traveled to the Middle East repeatedly to learn and build relationships. I've met with Jewish, Muslim, and Christian leaders in the U.S. and in the Holy Land. Together we’ve shared our dreams of two peoples -- Arabs and Jews -- and three faiths -- Muslims, Jews, and Christians -- living as equals in the Holy Land.
Perhaps most significantly, I've been invited into an ongoing conversation between Christians and Muslims committed to reconciliation and peacemaking. Together we've lamented the eroding of Christian-Muslim relationships in the U.S. following the hostile debate about the Cordoba House project in New York City and the Quran burning threatened on Sept. 11. Together we've prayed for the American, Israeli, and Palestinian leaders engaged in current peace talks. Together we’ve hoped that throughout the world, the best of faith will win out over the worst of religion.
The worst of religion comes in many guises, but it tends to foment division and hostility. The best of faith, for me as a Christian, is found in following Jesus, the Prince of Peace. And I have become convinced that whenever we create a loving, respectful connection with the "other" -- the other people, the other culture, the other religion -- we are creating a space where Jesus can do his best work of reconciliation, restoration, and redemption.
Lynne Hybels, co-founder of Willow Creek Community Church in Illinois, is author of Nice Girls Don’t Change the World.