Giants Like Bob: Everyone needs a mentor

Candy

Seattle, WA – Circa October 1998

Some experiences evade the threat of failing memory through sheer sureality.

The first time I visited a Muslim household was to celebrate the holiday called Eid al-Fitr, which concludes the fasting month of Ramadan. By custom, the children of the family offered me candy from a bowl, as if I had come to the door trick-or-treating. Sitting in the living room of their modest apartment, my head swam as the men of the house spoke to each other in Kurdish.

A Ham At A Bar-Mitzvah

I felt incredibly out of place, but that wasn’t the bizarre moment that I remember so well. It was in the car on the way to visit the next Kurdish home that I suddenly wondered how my life had brought me to this moment.

My new friend was driving. Bob was a giant of a man. I’m not extremely tall, but most men aren’t a full head taller than me. The little car he drove made him look even bigger after he squeezed himself in behind the steering wheel.

He navigated the roads of Seatac and belted out hymns from memory in a deep singing voice that could have won him a role in an opera.

That was the moment I remember. Had I really chosen this situation?

The Key People We Meet In Our Lives

Someone introduced me to Bob while I lived on Vashon Island. I told him of my plans to move to Lebanon, and asked him how I should prepare to live there.

“How many Muslims friends do you have?” He asked.

“Uh. None,” I confessed.

“Come with me and I’ll introduce you to some.”

He had helped to resettle Kurds into refugee camps from the mountains in northern Iraq after the first Gulf War. Many in the Kurdish community in Seattle had followed him there after Sadamm Hussein regained control.

Bob mentored me without my realizing or fully appreciating it at the time – and I wasn’t alone. I met others in his home, where he and his wife Jan gathered and fed us. The encouragement I found around that table gave me the courage to step into unusual, uncomfortable moments. He challenged me be courageous when I didn’t know what to expect.

Seeking Out People To Influence Us

When was the last time you experienced something bizarre enough to be memorable?

Sometimes it only takes talking about our dreams with people who have already lived them out, and saying, “okay,” when they offer a suggestion. Otherwise, it seems too hard to get started on your own, and you wind up having to live with the itch, like a burr in your saddle, or a raspberry seed stuck in-between your teeth.

There you have it – in a nutshell. Everyone should be mentored by giants like Bob.

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Early Disciples Called God “Allah” – Or Am I Reading Scripture Wrong?

Allah

Okay, Whoa! Slow down. I’m glad the provocative title for this post brought you here. Breathe. Yeah, I can show you where I read it, but first it might be helpful to take a second and let you calm your emotions as I give you some background on why I’m writing about this topic.

I read an article this morning by my friend, Martin Accad, the director of the Institute of Middle East Studies at the Arab Baptist Theological Seminary in Beirut. He entitled his blog My Allah is More Authentic Than Your Allah! It’s a thoughtful treatment of the news of Malaysian lawmakers’ recent decision to disallow the Christian use of the Malay word that Muslims use for God.

The Patron God of Drug Dealers

Let me give you a real life scenario that seems similar to me, and see if it makes sense to you. Years ago I visited prisoners in the county jail and shared what I knew about Jesus with them. One day a guy told me that he felt fulfilled because God had made him the best drug dealer that he could be.

What do you say to that?

I could have told him that if he believed that God approved of dealing drugs then we weren’t talking about the same god. I could have further demanded that he not use my word to refer to his deity and refuse to talk to him unless he switched to some different name.

Hmmm. Isn’t the point of having words to fill them with meaning? Dictionaries and discussion help us to negotiate what they mean, and we talk about words to help us solve how we understand them.

So, really, we have two issues here. The first question is whether or not it’s appropriate to use the same word; the second is about the meaning we give that word.

Early Christians Worshipped Allah

Let’s start by proposing that followers of Jesus can feel comfortable using the word Allah to talk about God. Keep calm; the Bible itself says its okay. You can trust this. If you like, you can check what I’m going to say by turning to the second chapter of the book of Acts in the New Testament.

On the Day of Pentecost, there were Jews gathered in Jerusalem from all over the known world, because it was one of the annual feast days where God required his people to offer a sacrifice at the temple. In verses 9 through 11, we get a list of all the nations represented in the crowd. Notice the last one?

Arabs.

The narrative relays how the disciples attracted a bunch of attention. The Holy Spirit enabled them to speak in the languages of the people present, but that they themselves did not know. When the Arabs heard them proclaiming the wonders of God in Arabic, what word do you suppose it came out as?

Allah. It’s the Arabic word for God.

How many people spelled God “g-o-d” on the Day of Pentecost?

High Percentage of Early Adopters Among Arabs

The passage goes on to say that 3,000 people believed that day and joined those in their previous number – effectively becoming the first 3,120 spirit-filled followers of Jesus on the planet.

Let’s do a little math, shall we? Just for the sake of simplicity, let’s say that there were equal numbers of people in the crowd from each of the fifteen listed nations. That means there were around 200 Arabs. Check my calculations (200/3,120 = 0.064).

I think this suggests that about 6% of the initial members of the first believers referred to Yahweh as Allah – over 300 years before Mohammed arrived on the scene.

The problem is not who owns the word. When Arab Muslims and Arab Christians each use the word Allah today, the real issue is that they disagree over the character of the one whom the name describes.

Does this idea impact how you’d relate to a Muslim coworker? How would you go about negotiating meaning in respectful dialog?

From Joppa to Caesarea: The Conversion of Simon Peter

Caesarea88 miles south of Tyre, Lebanon, circa 35 AD

Peter relaxed on the rooftop and offered a prayer of thanks. He had let a servant know that he was hungry and looked out over the surrounding buildings along the sea as the meal was being prepared.

This Jewish town of Joppa buzzed with the news of how he’d raised the woman Tabitha from the dead. So many Jews had become disciples of Jesus in the wake of his travels – first Jerusalem, then Lydda, now Joppa. Peter felt sure that Jesus would be pleased with the feeding of his sheep.

He still felt the sting of shame from how he had denied knowing Jesus. Despite his unfaithfulness, he’d been forgiven and even empowered. He planned to make the most of this second chance.

The sky was blocked from view by a descending sheet, and Peter grew dimly aware that he was experiencing a supernatural vision. The bulging center of the sheet landed first, followed by the corners, to reveal an assortment of animals, reptiles, and birds.

A voice in his ear told him to kill and eat, but he thought it was a test. All the animals were forbidden for Jews to eat in the Mosaic Law. He said, “no way!” three times, despite the voice telling him not to question God’s ability to purify anything, before the offending menagerie was finally taken back up into heaven.

What a strange vision. What could it mean? Peter was just beginning to ponder deeply when he heard a knock at the door to the house below.

No one answered the door to the three Roman Gentiles out there. Jews didn’t mix with the enemy occupier of their land. Undeterred, the visitors called out, asking if the man known as Simon Peter was staying there.

At that moment, Peter heard the Spirit tell him, “I sent the three men who are looking for you. Go with them.”

Do you think the number three was significant to Peter?

I think Peter heard the number three in the Spirit’s voice and broke into a cold sweat. Three men. Three invitations to eat forbidden meat. Three times Jesus asked if Peter loved him. Three charges to feed Jesus’ sheep. And most memorable of all – the predicted three times he denied knowing Jesus before the rooster crowed.

Were all those threes setting him up for this key moment in which so much rode on Peter’s obedience? Would he go with the men?

The visitors told of the request of his presence in the home of a centurion, the military commander of a hundred soldiers. No stranger to a jail cell, this must have smelled like a trap to Peter. But he was determined not to deny his Lord again. He invited them in to the house to stay the night.

Ten men embarked the next day, for a two-day, forty mile journey to Caesarea.

Peter went despite his abhorrence for Romans and Gentiles. The prospect of traveling with them carried the same aversion as eating roasted lizard meat. He took six Jews with him – three times the number required to testify in a Jewish trial.

What will people think?

Imagine the reaction of Peter’s fans as they strode along in broad daylight. What on earth is Peter doing with those guys? I thought he was a holy man?! The Romans must have felt the disapproving glares and may have wondered if they were going to get out of the situation alive.

What do you suppose they talked about as they walked? Did the Jews ask about Cornelius – how he had come to fear God? Maybe Peter was in the act of explaining that Cornelius’ good works weren’t enough to be accepted into the faith before he remembered his vision about purification.

Somewhere around the middle of their journey they crossed over into Gentile territory and the hateful stares shifted toward the Jews in the party.  Cornelius met them at his house, together with a crowd of his family, friends, and neighbors.

The pregnant moment of decision

As Peter described his change of heart toward them, and explained the good news of Jesus, they were overcome by the Holy Spirit in a way that the Jews believed should have been impossible.

Who was converted? Certainly Cornelius’ faith was ratified by the Holy Spirit, but it could have happened without Peter being there, right?

I think the point of the story is the heavenly effort put into getting Peter to Caesarea to experience the event. Somewhere on the road, it was Peter who was converted to God’s kingdom plan to include all nations – not just Israel.

The power of a stroll and a conversation?

Remember, Peter wasn’t told by the Spirit to convert Cornelius. He was told to go on a journey with three men, to start a conversation.

What if the Spirit told you to you take a walk with a Muslim? Would you do it? What might happen as you talk on your journey together?

Jihad and The Green Cabinet: Perfectionism vs. Community

PerfectionistTyre, Lebanon – circa March 2000

My Sunni Muslims landlord, Jihad, was frowning when I stepped into his candy shop for a visit. He regularly helped me practice my new Arabic vocabulary, if I came before the daily rush of kids on their way home from school. That particular day, the green bathroom cabinet sitting in front of him on the sales counter distracted him.

“What’s wrong, Jihad?” I asked, after the customary exchange of greetings.

He pointed with his open right hand at the piece of furniture, and gave it a sidelong glance. “I just picked this up from the painter down the street.”

“What’s the problem? It looks like he did a good job to me.”

“But I told him to paint it white!” Jihad exploded. “When I complained, he told me that he thought it looked better green and tried to convince me to agree with him.”

I joined Jihad’s outrage. “You didn’t pay him, did you?”

“What else could I do?”

The Need of The Many Outweigh The Preferences of The Few

The painter was likely a relative of his. His business probably suffered in the bad economy, and he may have only had green paint on hand, without money to buy white. Jihad had resigned himself to accept the wrong color in order to recover his property from its overdue captivity in the paint shop. A green cabinet was better than no cabinet at all.

I couldn’t imagine this situation ending in any way other than a lawsuit back home in the States (maybe a fistfight and then a lawsuit).

It wasn’t that Jihad didn’t have personal preferences. His outburst demonstrated that clearly. But community-centered values allowed him to give up the right to have things the way he wanted them.

The Struggle Within

I think Jihad was aptly named. Most westerners learn from the news that the word Jihad means “holy war.” Of course, it can mean that, but the simple meaning is “to exert influence.” My friend had indeed won out in his internal struggle to keep the peace.

For myself, I probably wouldn’t have minded making enemies if it wasn’t quite the right shade of white that I had expected.

Some people would call that perfectionism. I’m a perfectionist. It sounds like a positive trait, as if I’m always working toward the betterment of things. Truly, perfectionism is a term spoiled brats like me use to make ourselves feel better about our selfishness.

Things in my life are the way I want them to be, most of the time. I wonder what quality of community I could be enjoying if I preferred other people’s preferences more often.

What about you? Do you choose lonely perfection or compromised community by the actions you take in everyday life? Are there other options?

Filtering Truth in The New World of Publishing

ShirkyWhen people learn that I have Muslim friends, it tends to elicit questions that are based on anger and fear. I am struck by the anxiety that is produced in normally thoughtful people by sensationalism in the media. “But I read that…”

No doubt you’ve heard it said: “Don’t believe everything you see in print. Just because it’s written down, doesn’t make it true.” That message was hammered home to me recently, while I was reading Here Comes Everybody by Clay Shirky.

Shirky wrote about our need to think differently. “We have historically relied on the publisher’s judgment to help ensure minimum standards of quality. Where publishing [was] hard and expensive, every instance of the written word [came] with an implicit promise: someone besides the writer thought this was worth reading.”

The world of publishing has undergone radical changes in the last ten years. Unfortunately, those of us who remember the way it used to be, have done little to revise the old-fashioned way we treat the information that we consume.

Freedom to Publish Requires Readers to Filter

A few months ago, I signed up for an account on WordPress online and selected a free blogging theme. I didn’t have to ask a real person’s permission – I just filled out and submitted a form. The message that you’re now reading cost me next to nothing to present to you, and it was very simple for me to put together. I haven’t consulted anybody else’s opinion (except my wife’s, of course. She’s an excellent editor) before pushing the “publish” button.

I do hope you will engage your own sense of discernment before you act on the truth that I offer you. Likewise, most of what you read these days has to be considered carefully and sifted through your own common sense sniffer.

Shirky describes the new way we must engage information. “Filter-then-publish, whatever its advantages, rested on a scarcity of media that is a thing of the past. The expansion of social media means that the only working system is publish-then-filter.”

Personalized Search

Unfortunately, the very tools we think we’re using to filter are working against our individual abilities to discern.

Did you know that Google provides you with different search results than someone else is likely to get? No. Really. Google is trained to follow your own biases, based on the things you’ve chosen from past searches.

When you’re logged into your Google account on your computer, Google Web History is recording the links you click on that result from a search. The next time you perform a Google search, advanced mathematical algorithms “help you” by providing a customized set of results that are likely to reflect your previous personalized choices.

So whatever prejudices you have, they’re likely to get stronger. Google will feed you a solid diet of what you chose in the past without letting you know there are other opinions.

Do you think this may have repercussions on society? Ayup.

So the next time you read something that stirs up anger and fear, take a deep breath and ask yourself how trustworthy you know your source to be. How does it relate to your personal experience or lack thereof? Do you know someone you can ask who is more reliable?

If you want a different perspective on what it’s like to befriend Muslims, read my book Coffee & Orange Blossoms: 7 Years & 15 Days in Tyre, Lebanon. Trust me. It’s good. Even though I published it entrepreneurially. Come on, it has to be good if you can get it on Amazon!

…oh, and turn off personalized search if you want to think for yourself.

The Night I Experienced Shiite Street Justice

StreetJustice

South Lebanon, 2001

I was returning home to Tyre after an evening of visiting friends in another town called Nabatieh, which is not known for its friendly feelings toward the West. I drove my early nineties model Honda Accord hatchback.

I crested a hill, winding through streets hemmed in tightly by concrete structures. Suddenly, another car shot out from a narrow alley on the left that had been concealed from my view by the darkness. I stomped on my brakes and veered to the right, but our front ends met and the two cars abruptly came to rest in the middle of the street.

Almost instantly there was a crowd of men where a moment before there had been no one. In the darkness an assembly convened. Five young Shia men got out of the other car and at least seven more emerged from nearby homes to participate in the impending tribunal. I fearfully tried to prepare myself for the beating that my imagination told me was coming next.

Vigilante Justice

Nobody was hurt, but the other driver was understandably upset about the damage to his car. “Why didn’t you swerve more? You could have kept from hitting me!” He shouted amidst hand motions demonstrating the path I should have taken.

I got out and looked at the damage. I had a small dent and part of my rubber bumper out of place slightly; purely cosmetic. The other car’s radiator had been crushed into a 45 degree angle and had already emptied its contents into the street in a puddle. It wouldn’t be moving from that spot under its own power.

Then something amazing happened. A few of the gathered crowd pulled the other driver aside and calmed him down, asking his side of the story. A few others came to talk to me, the scared-eyed westerner who barely knew enough Arabic to communicate. A judicial process kicked in and members of the spontaneous community assumed roles as if they had rehearsed in advance.

After their interviews, the negotiators and witnesses met in the neutral ground, barring physical contact between the drivers while they sorted out the details. I was mesmerized by the flurry of activity.

The Verdict

They reasoned with the other driver. “Look, you have no insurance and the foreigner does. The damage to your car is a lot worse, but he won’t have to pay because it looks like it was your fault.”

I offered to call the insurance agent to make a claim, but he was in a tight spot because he was driving with no insurance, which would have gotten him in trouble if the accident was reported.

The counsellors continued “If the foreigner agrees to accept his own damages, it will go better for you.”

He didn’t like it. He argued that I should pay him for the damages. One of the bystanders asked me if I wanted him to pay to have my car fixed. When I said, “No.” he told me to get in my car and go. I got in and went.

Case dismissed.

A powerless American, acquitted by a God-fearing, Shiite justice mob.

If you like this story, you should read my book, Coffee & Orange Blossoms: 7 Years & 15 Days in Tyre, Lebanon.

Family Treachery and The Kingdom of God

WelcomeHomeMy children awoke one morning to find their daddy home after a business trip. While I was still peeling myself out of bed, one of them (whom we will name “Abel” to preserve anonymity) set to work on the alphabetical refrigerator magnets to spell out, “Welcome home Dad. I love you.”

As I came into the room, “Cain” (another pseudonym) was looking over Abel’s shoulder with a frowning face. They hadn’t seen me. As Abel bent down to look for another letter in the basket, Cain squeezed in between, scraping the letters that had already been placed on the fridge with a shoulder. Abel wailed. Cain was unrepentant; “You’re not even spelling it right.”

I didn’t feel welcomed home.

“Mind your own business, Cain,” I said sternly as I started making coffee. Abel resumed working with the critic still standing by. I was on the fourth scoop of coffee, when, out of the corner of my eye, I saw Cain use both hands to swipe the letters down to the floor. Abel was crushed and wept with frustration.

The Heartbreak of Not Being Known

There was discipline, not commendation, given for Cain’s editorial skills.

I was disappointed–mostly from being misunderstood.

Why would I demand spelling perfection from Abel after all the times that I had glowed over Cain’s own mispellings? How could my children not know that the thing I longed for most was to see them loving each other, whatever they created for me?

I’ve said again and again that my greatest desire is to have a family who cares for each other and is kind and generous. Cain has known me since birth and still didn’t know what would please me.

Applying The Parable

It dawned on me that God must constantly face the same disappointment.

I’d just heard from a longtime friend, whose situation didn’t seem too different from the conflict between Cain and Abel.

This friend has committed his life to deeply understand the Greek, Hebrew and Arabic languages. His goal is to accurately translate the Bible in a way that overcomes inherent linguistic difficulties that cause Muslims to misunderstand its meaning.

He told me of critics who had characterized his work as theologically inappropriate and attacked it in inflammatory blogs. The eyes of the world seemed stirred up against him, threatening to destroy his efforts.

Due to the intricate, technical nature of his work, it was difficult for him to express his defense adequately to those who’d already made up their minds and condemned him. I mourned with him over what soldiers would call “friendly fire.”

The Human Condition

There’s a Muslim saying that’s frequently quoted in the West: “My brother and I against our cousin. My cousin and I against the infidel.” We repeat this as proof that Muslims are hopeless warmongers, but the sentiment closely resembles our own tendency to attack each other when lacking outside persecution.

I think it would honor God much more to encourage each other’s efforts and learn to be a gracious family.

…Oh, by the way, I misspelled the word misspellings above on purpose. Did you judge me?