Lately I have begun to notice how my holy envy of friends in other traditions moves around the circle back to me. An observant Jewish friend tells me that he envies my ability to eat anything with anyone. He is committed to eating kosher, but sometimes it gets in his way. He watches the omnivorous Christians at the interfaith banquet and wonders what that must be like. A Buddhist says that she envies the devotion Christians show for Mary and her child. There are a few stories that feature the Buddha as a child, she says, but since his mother died a week after he was born there is nothing to compare with the tender relationship between Mary and her baby.
On my next visit to the Vedanta Center of Atlanta, the Hindu swami welcomes the students by offering an impromptu homily on the Collect for Purity—a jewel in the crown of the Episcopal prayer book. I have no idea how he came to know it by heart, but his talk includes quotes from the prophet Isaiah and the Sermon on the Mount as well. Listening to him speak so reverently of my sacred scriptures, I realize that I cannot recite a single verse of his. By the time he has finished, I am more aware than ever of the perfect love made manifest in Jesus—and all thanks to my friend the swami.
On another occasion, I join two Christian friends and their Muslim colleague for lunch at the school where they all teach religion. When the Muslim woman does not order lunch, I offer her some of mine. She reminds me that it is Ramadan and says she will catch up after the sun goes down. Then we get into a conversation about the trouble in Israel/Palestine.
“At this point I think it is up to you,” she says, looking around the table.
“Us?” I say.
“You Christians,” she says. “You are the peacemakers, are you not? Perhaps you can see a way through where others cannot.” Clearly she does not know the same Christians I do. Or maybe it is a full-blown case of holy envy from her side, in which the neighbor’s yard looks greener than her own. Either way, her view of my tradition is so much more positive than mine that I sit up straighter.
Later, listening to a famous atheist being interviewed on National Public Radio, I am intrigued when the host asks him about atheist humanitarian movements. In hot spots all around the world, the host says, Christians show up with medical supplies, doctors, bottled water, food, and tents, often at great risk to themselves. Muslims do too. Are there any atheist efforts to compare with that, he asks his guest? The atheist cannot think of any at the moment. All of a sudden I see my crowd differently—even the ones who irk me by handing out Bibles with their aid. They are there, and I am not, which tells you everything you need to know about who is irking God the most.
In these and other ways I learn positive things about my tradition from people who do not belong to it, which triples the value of their praise. Without knowing it, they have joined the throng of my Melchizedeks—the perfect strangers who arrive with blessings on my tribe and go back to their own rejoicing. When I consider their gifts to me, I decide that part of being born again is looking for ways to return the favor, like the imam who sent my students away with the express wish that they be the best Christians, the best Jews, the best human beings they could be. Once you have given up knowing who is right, it is easy to see neighbors everywhere you look.
– from “Holy Envy: Finding God in the Faith of Others” by Barbara Brown Taylor – HarperOne