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?

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.

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?

Two Effective Mentoring Techniques

MentorConsider the verb: to mentor.

The word mentor is being used more often as we realize that leadership is best passed on through apprenticeship. But does everybody agree on what mentoring is?

At a national conference, I learned that perhaps we don’t all agree after a conversation with a twenty-something-aged friend. He had just returned from a large group discussion with leaders of national organizations over dinner. It hadn’t gone well from his perspective.

Unfulfilled Expectations

“So how did your emerging leadership session go?” I asked.

Bryan rolled his eyes, “Can you believe it? While the rest of you were eating roast beef they served us pizza – like we’re some high school youth group or something.”

“Ha! That’s hilarious. But what did they want to talk to you about?”

“It’s always the same thing. They ask what we want from them to help equip us for future leadership.”

“What did you all say to them?”

“We say the same thing every time: ‘We want mentoring.’ But they never follow through and mentor us.”

He walked away discouraged.

The Disconnect

I’ll bet that the leaders who hosted the session were equally discouraged. Here’s what I imagine they were saying to each other as they debriefed the meeting: “We ask them what they want from us, and they say the same thing every time. Mentoring. But that’s all we ever do is mentor them, and they’re never satisfied.”

The core of the problem is that each generation has a different perception of what mentoring means.

Clarified Definitions

The mentoring that the over 40 crowd are offering sounds like, “Those of us who are seasoned veterans go out to Starbucks with the brightest young people we can find, and tell them stories about what we used to do when we were younger. We’ll probably also have some accountability discussions.”

The mentor that the under 30 crowd are hoping for could be described as, “Someone who’s actively innovating who invites me to come alongside and join them in their work – with the expectation that they’re going to help launch me far beyond what they can accomplish.”

The mentoring that’s needed will be practical and relevant. Stories about what worked ten years ago aren’t going to cut it.

How To Mentor Well

If we want to mentor emerging leaders we must continue to engage in trends, keep our own stories fresh, and not do anything without taking someone younger with us. The problem is that there’s a limit to the number of new leaders that we can realistically impact this way because of  limitations in time and energy.

A more reproducible solution is to introduce emerging leaders to each other and catalyze them into cohorts that can peer mentor themselves in community. Today’s social media has revitalized interest in real life, face-to-face community. We should not underestimate the power of small groups of like-minded innovators who sharpen their skills together and become loyal companions.

The saying used to be, “Those who can’t, teach.” We should revise that to, “Those who can’t, network.” In my own experience, I’ve found that being a part of such a peer-mentoring community results in my gaining much more than I have to offer them.

Do you have a different insight into the modern understanding of mentoring that I’ve missed? How would you prefer to get wisdom?

Little Mohammed and The Toothache

StreetTyre, Lebanon – circa 2001

His greed grieved me. How could this little beggar boy have the nerve to ask me for more?

We called him Little Mohammed. Dressed in grubby clothes, he patrolled our neighborhood on a regular basis. He might have been ten years old, but nobody had bothered to keep track.

That morning, I noticed he was in pain and asked him about it. He pointed to his mouth – a toothache. I wasn’t in a hurry that day, so I decided to get him fixed up. I told him to follow me, we entered a nearby building and ascended a flight of stairs.

Random Act of Kindness

Little Mohammed and I sat down on the couch in the the dentist office waiting room. the receptionist was busy doing double duty as the hygienist. When she came out and saw us, she smiled at me and then scolded Little Mohammed for having followed me in. She thought he was being overly aggressive in his alms taking.

I interrupted her and explained that I wanted to pay to have the doctor treat him. It took some convincing. I had to repeat myself. She was sure she hadn’t understood what I’d said. She reflexively wrinkled her nose. Little Mohammed squirmed and wanted to leave, but I held my ground – determined to do a good deed.

Ingratitude Kills Compassion

The dentist examined the boy, who surely had never before sat in a dentist’s chair. Little Mohammed continued to look anxious even after the checkup was over. The dentist prescribed some antibiotics for an infection and Tylenol for the pain – along with stern advice to brush his teeth.

I forced Mohammed to follow me to the pharmacist across the street and I paid for the drugs, some toothpaste and a toothbrush. We had spent the better part of an hour together when I handed him the plastic bag. That was the moment he surprised me by holding out his hand and asking for money!

“What?” I was angry. “Unbelievable. After everything I’ve just done for you, now you want money too? Shame on you! Get out of here.” I shooed him away disdainfully with my hand. He compounded my disappointment by appearing offended.

When Helping Hurts

Months later, I learned about Little Mohammed’s living conditions from a neighbor.

Reminiscent of Oliver Twist, Mini Mo was part of a community of orphaned beggars and managed by a boss whom he was responsible to check in with each hour. He had a begging quota to make, or risk being thrown out of his house. On the day of my generosity he may have been beaten for wasting time on his teeth.

I wish I could say that was the last time I misinterpreted a social situation. Have you ever been grossly misjudged? What could have been done to  avoid it?

Fear of Islam in the United States: A Faithful Approach

FearFilterThe subject line of an email informed me, “This will give you cold chills.” I read on with a pre-loaded sense of foreboding. It was the transcript of a speech by Geert Wilders, a member of the Dutch parliament. He outlined how Europe has already fallen to Islam’s global political agenda. The warning to Americans: our turn was coming soon. He wanted us to be afraid.

But fear is a poor guide.

There must be some way that we as Jesus-following people can be educated about dangers that exist in the world, but avoid the cloudy judgment that results from fear. There is no place in the Bible where we are taught to fear anyone but God himself. I think the first place to begin overcoming a fear of Islam is to practice empathy. What do Muslims think of us? How do they feel?

I remember trying to sleep the first night I spent in south Lebanon, fifteen years ago. I imagined the explosions I heard outside were sounds of terrorist violence. In the morning my host chuckled as he explained that I’d heard the fireworks at a wedding celebration. I was embarrassed. My fear had invented danger that wasn’t there.

Christianity as a Global Movement

Did you know that hundreds of thousands of Muslims are becoming disciples of Jesus all over Africa and Asia? Jerry Trousdale describes this phenomenon as people movements in his book Miraculous Movements. Muslim leaders who are aware of these statistics must fearfully wonder how to control the Christian horde that threatens to end Eastern Civilization.

Could it be that both Christians and Muslims are experiencing the results of globalization rather than nefarious attempts to subjugate each other?

Our two belief systems demonize each other by assuming that the opposition is knowingly sowing evil and chaos in an attempt to destroy. Believing the worst about each other causes the avoidance of contact. Nobody wants to get to know the person whom she believes hates her.

At the same time Muslims and Christians each see ourselves as honorably offering our enemy that which we hold most dear – true faith in God. Can you accept the idea that a Muslim who wants to convert you to Islam sees his efforts as an act of love? Could it be as difficult for a Muslim to believe the good intentions of a Christian?

The Obligation of Jesus Followers to Makes Disciples in The Nations

I read an excellent article by Ralph Winter in a course called Perspectives on The World Christian Movement. The Kingdom Strikes Back explains how the fame of Jesus spread around the world, even in historical moments when his followers forgot the task to “Go, and make disciples of all nations.”

It turns out that when Christians haven’t gone with the good news, God has brought nations without it to come to them voluntarily.

Consider the Viking invasion of Christian Europe. Geert Wilders’ barbarian ancestors were eventually won to Christ as they were assimilated by the monotheistic civilization they came to plunder.

Can you blame people for wanting the better life that exists in wealthy western nations? If you lived in Somalia, Iraq, or Pakistan, wouldn’t you want to move here too?

A Better Response Than Fear

Geert Wilders failed.

Instead of making me afraid, his warning increased my passion to obey. I’m committed to demonstrating what it means to follow Jesus in the growing Muslim communities in our US cities. I see opportunities to build a kingdom for the King, not a threat of Christendom lost.

How have you engaged with Muslim neighbors in a way that honors Jesus? Please share in the comments section with practical suggestions so we can learn from each other.