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Jeff's Afghan Diary: A Conversation About Prayer
March 4 , 2007

      So much has transpired since I’ve last had time to write!  I’ve been on two convoys, one as machine gunner and another as radio operator, and I taught one of our interpreters how to play chess.  I’ve still been busy with comms (communications) and helping with the routine stuff, and I’m still waiting to leave to go on to our next location and mission.

      It’s hard to describe riding in the gun turret on a HUMMWV - it’s exhilarating, scary, nerve-wracking and fun, all at the same time.  In the back of your mind is the realization that if the vehicle is attacked, YOU are the primary target, but then, too, YOU are the deadliest force within that vehicle.  One part of your brain scans everything for anything suspicious, the other part of your brain tells you not to forget to wave at the children.  Sometimes, with the wind whipping in your face, you feel like you’re riding a motorcycle or something - you forget about the danger and the cold, and you feel good, enjoying the scenic mountain views and the sunset.  After that moment, you go back to scanning everything you can see for any signs of potential danger to you and your crewmates.

      Radio operators don’t feel the same exhilaration as gunners, but in its own way, the radio is as important as the machine gun to the crew’s survival.  We were on a night op (operation), meeting another US convoy in the middle of nowhere just of what the Afghans call a road.  The other convoy radio operator said he thought he saw us, and flashed his flashlight to signal his position.  It struck me how simple sight signals help identify friend from foe, and help keep us from killing each other by mistake.  Weapons fired without positive target identification can be tragic, and good comms help prevent it.

      In every imaginable way, I feel much closer to the fire than I thought I would be when I was mobilized!  I did not think I would be involved in combat operations, but this will likely be an almost daily reality for me before too long.  The good news, though, is that every day I feel more confident about what I know and how I think I will do if a situation comes up where I come in actual contact with enemy forces.  Obviously, it’s not something I look for or want, but it’s a likelihood for every American Soldier over here - this is still a dangerous place, and will continue to be as long as al Qaeda and the Taliban continue to fight.

      In another vein, Fridays here are our “down-tempo” day, because it is the Sabbath day for the ANA (Muslims go to their mosques to worship on Friday).  This past Friday, I spent some time in the morning teaching one of our interpreters how to play chess (I had given him a chess set I bought - it was too big for me to lug around Afghanistan, and I thought he might like it, which he did).  While we played, we talked about our religious faiths.  He is a devout Muslim, who prays five times a day and follows the Quran.  He talked about the pillars of Islamic faith, and some historic figures of the past.  I came to feel that most Muslims know more of their history than most Christians know of their Christian heritage.

      Since I do not want to divulge names without permission, I will not name the interpreter.  But he and I discussed what he felt most Muslims believe, and I answered some questions he had about the Christian faith.  He told me how he had asked his local mullah (Muslim religious leader) about marrying a Christian woman, and he told me that while the Quran does not prohibit this, his mullah felt it was not a good idea.  He told me about how Muslims are prompted to pray, to live uprightly, to give to the poor (2.5% of what a Muslim makes in a year is ordered in the Quran), to fast during Ramadan, and to make a pilgrimage to Mecca as often as possible - at least once, and every year one is able.

      He explained how Islam in his view was democratic - leaders after Mohammed were elected by the believers for a few generations, and this is still the general practice of Sunni Muslims today.  He agreed with me that the Quran teaches only to use military force in self-defense, as Mohammed initially said.  I shared the story I had heard of St Francis of Assisi, and his visit to the Muslim ruler of Jerusalem during the Crusades, and how the legend has it that the Muslim ruler told St Francis, “If all Christians were as you, we would have no wars.”  (Like many other events in St Francis’ life, it is difficult to determine the veracity of this story, but it is historically true that he visited the Muslim ruler of Jerusalem, and was welcomed).  We both agreed that if Muslims and Christians today followed the true teachings of each of our religions, we would not have the conflict we see today.

      At one point in our conversation, I asked him about a string of beads he had in his hands.  He explained it was his prayer beads - there are over 50 beads on it, with a small tail to denote the beginning and end of the loop.  It resembled a rosary, and I explained how Catholics have a similar practice of prayer, something he did not realize.

      I asked what the prayer was, and if it was the same prayer each time.  He answered it was an Arabic prayer, which was repeated each time.  Loosely translated, the prayer went something like, In the name of Allah, the Beneficent, Who is above all, I ask you to forgive my sins and be merciful to me, and help me to follow the right way, for the glory of Allah, Amen.  I told him this was a prayer that most Christians would agree is a good prayer, and that this is what most faithful Christians desire as well (I will make a side note here - the word Allah in Arabic is the same as the English word God; it is not a specific name, like the Hebrew word Yahweh, “I AM”, it is more general, like our term).

      I feel it is important to communicate with our interpreters - they have more interaction with the ANA Soldiers than we do, largely because they speak their language.  So if I can help educate the interpreters about who we are and what we hope to accomplish with the ANA, and help build cross-cultural bridges, I feel I will be more successful in developing a true alliance, one of shared goals and purpose.

      It was both a positive outcome and an enjoyable time spent with our interpreter.  I am sure he will remember our conversation and me when he plays chess for many times to come.  I hope the memory will always be a positive one.  I know it will be for me.

-- Jeff Courter

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Charles Henderson

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The Rev. Charles P. Henderson is a Presbyterian minister and Executive Director of
He is the author of God and Science (John Knox Press, 1986).  
A revised and expanded version of the book is appearing here.
God and Science (Hypertext Edition, 2005).
He is also editor of a new book, featuring articles by world class scientists and theologians, and illustrating the leading views on the relationship between science and religion:
Faith, Science and the Future (CrossCurrents Press, 2007).

Charles also tracks the boundry between the virtual and the real at his blog: Next World Design, focusing on the mediation of art, science and spirituality in the metaverse.  

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