Spaces to play and to discover 

Spaces to play and to discover 

Holy texts of all religions are distributed all over the world, but can we assume that just because they are read, they are understood? The Ethiopian eunuch’s cry in Acts 8:31 “How can I,” (understand) “unless someone explains it to me?” would indicate otherwise. We know that Muslims may be able to read the Qur’an in Arabic but ask your friend what it means, and he/she may not be able to tell you. And so, the signs which each prophet is said to bring with them are lost to the reader. 

Christians and Muslims share over 20 of the stories of the prophets. Moreover, the Bible and Quran share themes, such as Creation, the early influence of Satan on humanity’s life, Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son, the provision for Noah and Jonah in the boat and the fish respectively, Jesus’ birth and the coming final judgement, amongst others, which can make for fruitful joint exploration through storying. And this is just what local, neighbourhood groups of women from both faith communities have been doing through following The Prophets’ Stories in a range of venues over the past 6 years. 

Using an approach which encourages discovery of new things rather than an expert teaching or ‘telling’ of the truth, women are listening to each other and learning, together, how these stories and themes teach us about God and what they have to say to us today. Myths about ‘the other’ are dismantled, fear and suspicion turn to love and respect, strong bonds are developed, deep things are shared, and new insights gained.

Rather than using the text from the Holy Books we use a series of picture prompts in postcard size which are laid down on the table in front of us. This means that there is a weaving in and out of the one story (of a given prophet) from the 2 traditions. We pause to notice the points at which there are differences. Some are incidental and some constitute and explain distinctives in our faith stories and traditions. This helps to underline that we are telling the same story but that it may hold different emphases and meanings for us. 

The kinaesthetic nature of this story telling activity means that, at times, there is an altering of the order of events or a surprising insertion into the story that one or other of the groups were not aware of. For example, the Qur’an’s story of Joseph has an extended section on Potiphar’s wife (Zulayka in the Qur’an) which Muslim women love to relate. Hagar, whose story is entwined in the biblical Abraham’s story, is seen twice in Genesis and referred to again in the book of Hebrews. But her story is absent from the Qur’an except for a reference to the running between the hills of marwa and sarwa at the celebration of the Haj. 

This engagement in hermeneutical play might well be unsettling for some who may wonder whether a greater insistence on keeping to the text would be more helpful in sharing the good news. However, it can be truly transformative for some. The voiced experience of one of my Muslim friends stays with me:

 “Being a part of this group has been one of the best times in my life”. 

When asked to expand on that she said: 

“ I understood for the first time that God loves me and is not angry with me; and because I know that, I am not afraid of all the things I used to fear and, you know what? I don’t even think I deserve this” 

The Hospitality of God is the ethos which underpins the Prophets Stories resource. It is a recurring rich theme to reflect on and return to whenever and wherever we engage in faith dialogue. Cathy Ross’ writing on the reciprocity of true hospitality pushes us, in this context, to ask ourselves how open we are to receive, by listening to others’ stories as well as to tell our own? She also encourages a consideration of hospitality as creating space. She sees, in the community of the Trinity, the spaciousness of God, in whose generosity we find “much space”. And lest we stray into coerciveness in our engagement in mission(al conversations), Ross points us to corrective words from Nouwen: 

“Hospitality is not to change people but to offer them a space where change can take place” 

The accounts, in John’s gospel, of Jesus meeting first Nicodemus, and then the woman at the well demonstrate these elements of God’s hospitality – reciprocity, spaciousness and change – beautifully. In each of these incidents Jesus, by using questions teased, out both response and understanding from his co-conversationalists. He invited them to speak, to offer their prior understanding and knowledge to him and to voice their own queries:                 “How can this be?” John 3:9 “Where should we worship?” John 4:20

Jesus left space for both Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman to feel uncertainty, and then ambiguity which gave birth to realization of new ways of thinking/being. There was space to think, space to be heard and space for the Holy Spirit to work. This space gave rise to the opportunity for change which was transformative. We see this in the woman running back to the village, calling out to and bringing in those who may have, hitherto, excluded her to share the good news she had heard. Nicodemus, in visiting the crucified Jesus at the tomb. John 19:39 identifies himself as a secret follower of the Way. 

The woman’s testimony: “He told me everything I ever did.” witnesses to the joy of discovering herself to be known. Having had the opportunity to be heard, she had been able to revisit what she thought she knew, lay down things which were not now needed, let go and step into the new. She sees threads of her own story entwined in His and begins to sense that she has a place in His grand narrative. In her running back to the village she enacts the Great Invitation, which is at the heart of God’s hospitality, and in so doing owns the story as hers.

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(c) When Women Speak… August 2020 

Miriam Williams has settled in the UK but has a long experience of cross-cultural living and interaction in a range of contexts. Knowledge gained from these experiences have been brought to bear on her current work and interest in enabling faith conversations between Muslim and Christian women at grass-roots level. She is passionate about seeking to ensure inclusion and accessibility to the things that matter so that transformative spaces are open to all; and sees links here to the way we do discipling.

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