John Philip Newell is a poet, scholar, teacher, and Church of Scotland minister recognized for his work in Celtic spirituality. He is passionate about seeking peace in the world and harmony between its great spiritual traditions, which he calls for in his forthcoming book, Praying with the Earth: A Prayerbook for Peace. Here he advocates for a renewed understanding of Jesus from perhaps unlikely sources — Muslim and Jewish members of the Abrahamic faith.
Is there something more important to do than to pray for peace, and in particular to pray for peace within the family of Abraham and Sarah and Hagar? The shadow side of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam is at the heart of some of the most conflicted places of hatred and violence in our world today. Without peace in the family of Abraham there will not be peace among the nations.
Praying with the Earth (Eerdmans, March 2011), along with its companion CD of meditative chants Chanting for Peace (Material Media, January 2011), is an urgent peace offering from within the Christian household. Every morning and evening in the new prayer book sentences from the Quran, the Hebrew Scriptures, and the teachings of Jesus are used to pray for peace. And the same is true in the new collection of chants, allowing words from other parts of the family to draw us back to the true roots of our inheritance, the oneness of the human soul and the essential unity of the Earth.
The inspiration for this project grew out of my teaching relationship in the high desert of New Mexico with Nahum Ward-Lev and Rahmah Lutz, a rabbi from Santa Fe and a Sufi Muslim teacher from Abiquiu. Every summer at Ghost Ranch Conference Center my wife and I teach with Nahum and Rahmah on themes of peace within the Abrahamic community. Our daily pattern is to teach in turns. Whoever teaches offers words of scripture from his or her respective tradition for the participants to take into silence.
On one occasion during our first summer of collaborative teaching, I offered our class words from Saint Matthew’s gospel. As people meditatively walked in the desert landscape or sat prayerfully in the coolness of the adobe chapel, I noticed that Rahmah’s face was radiant. Her countenance always shines, but on this occasion she looked like Moses coming down from Mount Sinai. I wondered what was happening in her heart. When we gathered, she was the first to speak. She said, “I so love Jesus, peace be upon him. He is so compassionate. He is so truthful. He is so merciful. I so love Jesus, peace be upon him.” Most of us in the circle were from the Christian household. And many of us sat with tears in our eyes. As I looked at Rahmah, I thought, “You are teaching us how to speak about Jesus.”
If Jesus’ wisdom is again to be recovered within the Christian household in ways that will enable us to lead the world in peace rather than divide the world in hatred, I believe its rebirth will come largely from outside Christianity. Other parts of the Abrahamic family have not forgotten the essence of Jesus — his compassion, his truth, his mercy. It is from them that we will remember who Jesus is. It is from them that we will remember who we are to be.
We need one another. Our traditions are not given to compete with each other. They are given to complete each other. This is my hope in Praying with the Earth. This is my intention in Chanting for Peace. In listening to the true heart of Islam and Judaism, we will not be led away from the true heart of Christianity. We will be led to a recovery of our distinct treasure, the wisdom of Jesus, who taught us to pray for peace, and who showed us how to live love.