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A letter from Marta Bennett on Interpretation Assignment in the US

December 11, 2011

Joyous Christmas greetings to one and all!   The kids and I are opening our advent calendar windows each morning, in the countdown of anticipation of Christmas Day.  This morning in church, we enjoyed a wonderful Christmas celebration through music and drama, which moved our spirits and renewed the awe and hope of the incarnation, of Emmanuel, God with us. It is the reminder (one that never grows old) that for the people of Israel, there was a long season of waiting for the Messiah.  For Mary and Joseph, there was a time of waiting for the birth of the promised baby. Unbeknownst to much of the world, it was all leading up to the time when the Creator of the universe would enter the world as a tiny infant, vulnerable, dependent and powerless, born to be King of Kings, and Lord of all. 

Advent:  A time of expectant waiting and preparation.  The tinsel and lights are already up, but Christmas is not yet here.  The hopes, the dreams, the expectations… all in a time of holding still, like holding one’s breath, waiting, expectant.  Pregnant with expectation, busy, traveling, uncertain of details, eager, hopeful, restless,… and waiting.

It’s not only the season of advent that is a time of anticipation and waiting.  This year at OMSC feels a bit like a time of advent for me as well – a time of being in the already, but not yet.  A pause from ministry, a time away from the immersion in Kenyan needs and demands, and a time of waiting on God – plenty busy, but a time apart.  The Savior is already here, already come, but this year for me (and perhaps the kids as well) is like a year of waiting, of expectancy, for what the Lord will reveal, and what new beginning will emerge, even as we anticipate returning to the very place we left. The same world, but hopefully with new insight, perspectives, and realities.

Besides speaking in churches in the area, I have had the privilege of attending a number of public lectures and week-long seminars offered at the Overseas Ministries Study Center (OMSC) so far in the past four months.  It has been enriching and stimulating, in the midst of a wonderful and diverse community.  Let me share a few of gleanings from one of the seminars this fall, which seem pertinent as we draw near to the celebration of Christ’s birth:

From November 28th to December 2nd, I participated in the seminar on “The Gospel of Peace Engaging the Muslim Ummah (Community)”, led by Dr. David W. Shenk. Dr. Shenk, a Mennonite, was born and raised in Tanzania, then later lived and served in Somalia for many years with Serving in Mission (SIM).  When forced to leave Somalia due to political realities, he joined the faculty of Kenyatta University in Nairobi, Kenya for a number of years, and is the author of Journeys of the Muslim Nation and the Christian Church and co-author with Badru D. Kateregga of  A Muslim and a Christian in Dialogue. As quoted on the back of the latter book, “There are few books one can give to both a Christian and a Muslim that compare their faiths accurately, sensitively, and clearly…. It models dialogue at its best” (a statement by J. Dudley Woodberry, Dean Emeritus, Fuller School of World Mission, and echoed by Imam A. M. Khattah, Director, Islamic Center of Greater Toledo). 

These comments reflect the spirit with which Dr. Shenk led our seminar as well.  Though most if not all participants in the seminar were Christian, we came from diverse contexts, including Myanmar, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, India, Korea, Kenya, Cambodia, the US, and beyond.  Dr. Shenk’s approach as he engages in dialogue with Muslims in countries all around the world is to deeply respect and appreciate each and every person of faith, and at the same time bear witness to his own deep and committed faith in Jesus Christ, grounded in Scripture and lived out in and through the community of the Church.

As participants in the seminar, we pursued the comment by Kenneth Cragg in his book, The Call of the Minaret: “Within every apparent convergence, there is divergence.”  We spent one week together exploring the apparent convergence of Islam and Christianity, while at the same time observing the divergence when we dug deeper to understand how each group perceives the meanings of Qur’anic or biblical Scriptures, which often say a similar thing, but which in substance point to quite different doctrinal understandings. 

We talked of how in Islam, God is revealed to be merciful, so he sends instructions to us, e.g. through the Qur’an.  In the Gospel, God is revealed to us as the loving God, who comes down to seek us, find us, to interact with us – to reveal himself to us as the God who is with us.

Dr. Shenk, in his many conversations with Muslims around the globe challenges them and us with the encouragement to “let God surprise us”.  In one summary of the Christian Gospels, he described “the God who loves us so much, that he entered our world, and even washed the feet of his followers, and on the cross asked that those who were putting him to death, would be forgiven and reconciled. In doing so, the God of the universe stretched wide his arms on the cross – inviting us into his peace and reconciliation.”

I could say so much more, but most of all I want to extend Christmas greetings to you all. The kids and I will be visiting family and friends on the West Coast over the holidays (Vancouver B.C., Seattle, and San Francisco), before we return to New Haven, CT in January.

Wherever you may be, we wish each of you a Christmas season filled with the wonder of God and the awe of the shepherds as they drew near to the Christ-child, Emmanuel, – God with us.    May we too fall down and worship before him, echoing the song of the angels: “Gloria in Excelsis Deo.”

With Joy,
Marta Bennett

The 2012 Presbyterian Mission Yearbook for Prayer & Study, p. 99
to Marta Bennett
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