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A visionary for Christian mission in the Middle East.

I was sad when we heard of Mark's illness and subsequent death, but also full of joy and gratitude for the life he lived and the gifts he shared. He had an abundant and infectious faith in the goodness of God, in the wideness of God's mercy and love. I first met Markin 1981 and was eager to share the vision that I, and others from the Lutheran Church in America (LCA), had framed as the foundation of our work in the Middle East. We saw our mission as threefold: to work ecumenically, to encourage the work of existing Christian institutions so as not to establish new ones, and to build trust with local people. Through collaboration, confidence-building, and patience, we would be able to erect bridges across which the good news of the gospel could be shared.

Early LCA work in the Middle East

Working ecumenically was not part of my upbringing in Iowa, where the only diversity was between Reformed and Christian Reformed churches. Fortunately, when I left home and went off to college and then seminary at New Brunswick Theological Seminary, New Jersey, my horizons broadened and love for ecumenism developed. Before going overseas in 1963, we spent five months in training at Stony Point, N.Y., a thoroughly ecumenical venture. Once overseas in the Arabian Gulf, Catholics, Orthodox, many kinds of Protestants, Sunni and Shi'i Muslims entered my radar screen. I had no choice but to breathe the ecumenical and interfaith air all around us. This suited me perfectly for my new "Lutheran" assignment, which began in 1972. (1)

We had been told by David Vikner, Fred Neudoerffer, (2) and others that we were not to establish any new Lutheran program or institution in the Middle East. "The days for doing that are over," they said. They wanted us, first and foremost, to observe who was there, to meet the people and learn what they were doing, to study the how and why of "their" ministries, and if they had any needs they were willing to share with us. Most importantly, we were to look for signs of God at work in and through their lives and activities as they related to Muslims. Then and only then, were we to determine if there was a place or way for us to be of service, or rather to be with them in serving their communities.

Therefore, we set out visiting as many Christian and Muslim communities as we could, drinking lots of tea, and listening to many stories. Whenever possible we brought people together and encouraged them to share and listen to each other. Eventually our team, living in the occupied West Bank and in Egypt, found our way into positions of teaching in local schools and universities, engaging in archeological work, serving as nurse practitioners, pastors of expatriate churches, administrators of ministries, and refugee work. I personally taught for fifteen years in the Evangelical Theological Seminary of the Presbyterian Synod of the Nile.

When Neudoerffer cautioned his colleagues at the LCA offices that this venture into sustained Christian-Muslim engagement in the Middle East would require patience, persistence, endurance, and even travail, he knew well their need for measurable markers to keep the venture alive and funded by American congregations. (3) This call to be persistent and patient while engaging Muslims was not seen by all in the LCA as a worthy venture at the time. Many were willing to support ongoing work in India, Indonesia, and parts of Africa but were skeptical about the Middle East. Historically Germans and Scandinavians had church connections there, and a few Missouri Synod personnel were in Lebanon, but none from the LCA. (4) This general reluctance was encouraged, if not brought on, by Christian Zionists, who loudly proclaimed their support for the state of Israel as a precursor for the second coming of Christ. It was easy for many western Christians, including some Lutherans, to fall into that mindset. The stunning victory of Israel over the Arab states in 1967 seemed to have set the stage not just for greater sympathy for Jews but antipathy towards Arab Muslims. Many thought it was not the time for patient love towards such people.

Undaunted, Neudoerffer arranged for teams of twelve to fifteen, mostly Lutherans, living in majority Muslim countries to come to Cairo for month-long seminars. For several years in the 1970s we hosted church leaders from Africa and Asia, as far away as the Philippines and Indonesia. With the help of Coptic scholars the seminars focused on Egypt and the Bible for two weeks, and then on Islam and Christian-Muslim relations for two weeks. For several of these events, Dr. Wilhem Bijlefeld from the Duncan Black Macdonald Center for the Study of Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations at Hartford Seminary joined us. These were wonderful occasions where church leaders from different countries met, lived, studied, and worshiped together. They each shared stories from their own contexts. Good seeds were sown during these seminars, seeds that eventually bore fruit for the kingdom.

The beginning of ELCA mission in the Middle East

It was against this background that my first meeting with Mark Thomsen took place in 1981. I remember feeling a little anxious. After all, the LCA and the American Lutheran Church (ALC) were moving toward merger, and eventually he might be the person in charge of Global Mission. I had no idea how much he knew of our LCA venture, warmed to it, or whether he would fully support it. While specifics of our meeting are vague, the images that linger convey warmth and camaraderie. What I remember clearly was his reference to Nikos Kazantzakis novel, The Last Temptation of Christ, and the image of Jesus being hung out to die in "the dust and the wind." For him this was not a sign of whether God loves us, but rather how far God's amazing love will go to save a lost and broken world. Mark was passionate that the church not wrap itself in the robes of piety, power, and self-preservation all to avoid the costly path of love to which Christ calls us. It was this passionate love for Christ, and the way of the cross as a path to be walked, that stood out so clearly that day. Looking back, the fear and trepidation I initially felt was soon found to be unwarranted.

I then learned that Mark had become involved in Christian-Muslim relationships while serving with the ALC at The Theological College of Northern Nigeria from 1957-1966. He was fortunate to be present in Africa when the first creative initiatives were being made to transform Christian-Muslim struggles into genuine engagements of friendship and cooperation. Nigeria became the early center of that initiative in 1960 when the Islam in Africa project was located there. Dr. Wilhem Bijlefeld was called as the first Director of this center. Soon after Mark was called as the Executive Director of the division for World Mission of the ALC in 1981. He made Christian-Muslim relations a priority of the division's work. Because of their African connections, he invited Dr. Bijlefeld to lead a theological discussion dealing with Christian-Muslim dialogue. (5) Clearly, I had found in Mark a kindred spirit. Under Mark's leadership, the vision for mission in the Middle East that had been carefully nurtured within the LCA was affirmed, strengthened, and made more inclusive. Mark provided a fresh burst of energy to Lutheran engagement with Muslims and, in addition to administrative skills, brought several special gifts.

First, Mark brought with him the disciplines of theology and missiology, two areas of expertise sorely needed to engage the Muslim community. Anyone involved in Muslim-Christian dialogue knows how often questions of theological import rise to the surface. With Mark's help, we became much more adept and sensitive to the gravity of such struggles. His presence, maturity, and creativity in interpreting the Christian tradition definitely helped to illumine the landscape, to deepen our level of discourse, and give rise to bonds of friendship and trust that continue to inspire.

Second, while Mark had deep appreciation for the history, depth, and richness of church tradition, he never seemed fettered by it. Keen to preserve the best of our heritage, he resisted letting the past completely dominate and control us. He came to believe that the best and most effective way to master the dynamics of continuity while sailing on stormy seas of change, was not to make sure everything was done just according to "tradition," but to search for and to do the right thing for our time. He had a wonderful way of taking the core of our Christian beliefs and values and pouring them into new wineskins that are more pliable.

We saw this in the way he read and interpreted scripture. He learned to not only love and care for family and friends, the disabled and differently abled, but to embrace and affirm what some were, at that time, calling risky and aberrant currents of thought. He publicly affirmed the inclusion of women into all stations of ministry, the protection for women to control their own reproductive rights, and the inclusion of all regardless of race or sexual orientation. In all these issues, he showed himself a gifted theologian completely committed to God's mission in the world. He was a strong defender of the weak, and an ardent proponent for freedom, justice, and human dignity for all. Mark demonstrated his commitment to the least among us, especially by championing the rights of the Palestinians. He demonstrated courage by speaking his mind on this issue. (6) Following his retirement at the ELCA, we were team teaching a course at LSTC on "Palestine-Israel: Towards Understanding the Conflict." In preparing for our third year of teaching this course, we were approached by several Jewish community leaders, who in the presence of LSTC's president said that we should be careful about the resource people we used, as some were not acceptable to the Jewish community. We assured them that in presenting the Israeli side we would be open to any suggestions they had, but as for the Palestinians we would make our own choices as to whom we deemed appropriate. To his credit, our president sided with us, saying that academic freedom was foundational to seminary instruction.

A courageous proponent of dialogue

If Mark never shied from allowing current events to challenge, sharpen, and even reshape his theological thinking, it was in missiology and interfaith relations that he was tireless in seeking new and creative ways to discern and welcome the gifts that people of all faiths bring to the table. In the '60s and '70s, there was lively debate about the wisdom of the term "dialogue" when speaking about mission. Conversion not Conversation was the preferred term. Discontinuity not Continuity was considered by many the correct way to respond to new converts. There was a fear that any continuity with bygone practices, such as the way one dressed, the food one ate, the names one used, etc., could weaken one's newfound faith. Gradually, however, the understanding of dialogue deepened to mean not just the opposite of monologue, but rather dialogue, where two or more people engage in significant conversation as they think through [dia] issues, and in this process share a Word [logos] precious to them. When the focus shifted as to how the concrete principles and commitments of that word actually shaped one's life and thinking, the emphasis on conversion lessened. Not that conversions stopped. They did not and must not. However, the pressure was lifted to produce converts as a sign of success.

Mark was a strong proponent of such forms of dialogue. He wanted others to understand that this kind of engagement with Muslims, Buddhists, and others should not be seen as something ancillary to the Christian faith, an interesting tactic, or venture when funds are plentiful but expendable when funds run low. To be in heartfelt conversation with others about faith issues, allowing one's own faith to challenge and test that of others, and to be challenged and tested by others, was a deeply fulfilling form of Christian witness. It was, he believed, a style of Christian living rooted in the biblical story itself. (7)

I saw Mark's dedication to dialogue illustrated by the fact that the annual Global Mission and missionary training events usually included sessions on Christian-Muslim relations. For many of these presentations Muslims were invited as full participants. It was my good fortune to take part in over twenty such events through the years, often with the help of Dr. Ghulam Haider Aasi, a trusted friend and colleague. One year Mark invited Dr. Rif'at Hassan, a well-known Pakistani feminist leader and scholar to make several presentations. The interaction was challenging and creative. This desire to do things in concert with Muslims carried over into his courses on Islam and interfaith dialogue at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago (LSTC). At the seminary, Mark joined us in insisting that adherents of each faith, be it Judaism, Buddhism, or Islam, be present as presenters of their own tradition. Looking back, I cannot imagine a better way. While some may question the broad embrace of Mark's love and his theological and scriptural positions to support it, none can question the depth of his sincerity, his passion, and his commitment to follow the path of Christ, to walk in the way of the cross.

The radical path of forgiveness

Mark firmly believed that to walk in the way of Jesus is to walk a non-violent path. He did not believe that Jesus would ever ask his disciples to use violence or raw force. Mark said that to suggest that Jesus was a Zealot, as Reza Aslan does in his book Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, is pure nonsense. He liked to say that after Jesus' resurrection, he never once suggested his disciples should now seek vengeance against those who had rejected and crucified him. In a private conversation Mark said, "In this Jesus way of compassion, all humanity, even our enemies, are embraced by the love and forgiveness of God." Dr. Ghulam Haider Aasi always reminds me that this universal graciousness of God is a theme that can be found in the Qur'an. He points to Surah 6.12 and 54 and to Surah 7.156, [where the Qur'an says, that "God has written upon Godself to be merciful," a mercy that extends to all things].

Mark often referred to an incident that happened to my first wife, Neva, and me one day in the Nile Delta. Here is the way I described it years ago:

It happened, when we were living in Egypt, that a student of my wife invited us to visit his home in the Nile Delta. We gladly accepted this gracious invitation. Once there, he showed us his amazing potato field. He then welcomed us into his modest home. In one corner of a room, were some rolled up papers and when asked what they were he said, "Some drawings. Just a few sketches I've made." When asked if we could see, he picked up one to unroll. It was the picture of a young man. He was dressed in a galabiyya, kufiyya and aqqal, like a typical Saudi Arab. In one hand, stretching foreword was a dove. In the other, raised high above, was a long sword. It was barely visible, but there it was. Stereotypical images of duplicity, of swords and violence came to mind. When asked what he intended to convey by the picture he said, "As Muslims we must always offer peace first, but if that's rejected, we need the sword to defend ourselves." I thought to myself. "That sounds almost American."

We then asked Muhammad whether he could paint the picture without a sword, but rather with the dove in both hands. He thought for a moment, and then replied, "I could, but in that case it would have to be a picture of Jesus the Son of Mary. Do you know why?" he queried. "Well if you or I tried it, very soon someone would steal the dove. Then they would take everything we have and finally, [gesturing with his hand to his neck] they would take our lives. We would lose everything here." "However," he continued, "we would gain everything up there." He pointed toward heaven. "On the other hand," he said, "if we held the sword in both hands now, we might gain everything here, but would lose everything up there." Again, he gestured towards heaven. "So, it's better," he assured us, "to hold the dove in one hand and the sword in the other, that way we would have the best of both worlds."

It was an interesting solution to the vexing question of how to balance peace and justice with power. He had high respect for the person and teachings of Jesus, but also real skepticism as to whether those teachings were practical in our kind of world. Yes, Jesus could do it, but not us!

Mark and I often pondered how to form a meaningful response to such a challenge. We knew that many Muslims shared in this admiration. We wondered why Muhammad thought only Jesus could live without the sword. How much of the Jesus story did he really know, and was he aware that Jesus himself faced persecution, was crucified, died, and was buried? What were his thoughts on Jesus' resurrection? Or, did he say what he did because he had never seen or heard of anyone other than Jesus who walked Jesus' path? In other words, the incident opened up a whole range of issues that begged for exploration. Mark and I agreed that to bear a faithful witness to Muslim friends, Christians would have to demonstrate by their lives that Muhammad was both right and wrong. Yes, only Jesus could walk the way of the cross perfectly; but as his followers, we are called to walk it with him. With divine help, great patience, abounding love, and a life that is truly Christ centered, it can and has been done.

A ministry of reconciliation

Mark and I shared many precious times together in different places, often conversing on themes relating to Christian, Muslim, and Jewish relationships. Mark loved to meet in mosques, large and small, often in little dusty, dingy rooms sitting on rugs on the floor with imams and sheikhs. Mark was a longtime friend and true colleague. I will always be grateful that, when the Reformed Church ended a nearly forty-year relationship, Mark encouraged the ELCA to stand with me, and to continue their support. I know that my marriage to Pisamai, a Muslima from Bangkok, did not make this decision easy. Nevertheless, he insisted. As a result, the ELCA remained steadfast in their commitment. I now believe that God blessed that decision and as a result many good things happened.

One of those many good things was the establishment at LSTC of a Center of Christian-Muslim Engagement for Peace and Justice, and a Chair in Christian-Muslim Studies and Interfaith Dialogue. Both of these are fully funded through endowments. (8) Through its programs of education and engagement, and because of the dedicated people who serve the Center, a Christian witness remains strong. The Center offers a unique opportunity for the seminary to have an interfaith component as an integral part of its curriculum. It has become an ideal place for people of all faiths to develop bonds of mutual friendship, understanding, trust, cooperation, and appreciation. (9)

The early dream of Neudoerffer, Vikner and others continues to live on. It bears fruit; much needed fruit, one might add, seeing how bleak the landscape appears today. The scene in the Middle East and in much of the Muslim world is as grim today as it was in 1972. If patience was needed then, more patience is needed now. At the time of this writing, war rages in Gaza and is again ravaging the lives of mostly women and children.

The good news is that many Christians with whom we have worked in the Middle East remain where they are, steadfast and firm in their faith and their commitment to the ministry of reconciliation. As one of them said, our task is to turn "enemies" into friends, not friends into enemies. These Christians always have been, and remain, the true emissaries of Christ to Arab Muslims and Israeli Jews. Our challenge and privilege was and is to work among them, with them, and for them. For the One who lifts people up, offering new life, is graciously present in their lives. To be sure, the times are grim, but seen through the eyes of faith and faithfulness, full of hope.

Sad at Mark's passing? Yes. Nevertheless, glad, grateful, and inspired by the remembrance of his life, ministry, vision, and patience. He gave and continues to give in full measure.

(1.) For further information on Vogelaar's life and ministry, see Jan Boden, "Following Jesus: Harold Vogelaar's Faithful Journey," LTSCEpistle 36:1 (Winter 2006), 9-11.

(2.) David Vikner served as the LCA's Director of the Division for World Mission and Ecumenism from 1974-1982. Fred Neudoerffer served as the Middle East and South Asia Area Program director of the LCA from 1969-1984.

(3.) One of the most difficult "travails" was the murder of Dr. Al Clock by an unknown assailant near his home on the West Bank in 1992.

(4.) The LCMS began a radio ministry in Beirut in 1950. They developed a sustained presence with the arrival of the Rev. Dennis and Ellen Hilgendorf in 1962 and the Rev. John and Kathryn Stelling in 1963.

(5.) The result of this initiative was God and Jesus: Theological reflections for Christian-Muslim Dialog (Minneapolis: Division for World Mission and Inter-Church Cooperation, American Lutheran Church, 1986).

(6.) See "A Word of Truth on Behalf of the Palestinian Marginalized and Dispossessed: Root Causes of the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict," (ChristianZionism.org, 2006), http://www.christianzionism.org/Article/Thomsen01.pdf [accessed 1 September 2014].

(7.) See his, "Expanding the Scope of God's Grace: Christian Perspectives and Values for Interfaith Relations," Currents in Theology and Mission 40, no 2 (April 2013), 85-94.

(8.) Supported by donations from Jerry and Karen Kolschowsky.

(9.) See http://centers.lstc.edu/ccme/.

Harold Vogelaar

Professor Emeritus of World Religions and Interfaith Dialogue The Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago
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Author:Vogelaar, Harold
Publication:Currents in Theology and Mission
Geographic Code:70MID
Date:Feb 1, 2015
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