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?

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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?

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.

Reputation In A Community Oriented Culture

mKhaledTyre, Lebanon – circa August 2000

“You owe me $60.” My landlady stopped me on the street, less than a block away from the apartment I rented from her.

“Excuse me? I don’t understand,” I said. “I paid you yesterday.”

She’d come to the flat with her son, while I was there with my friend, Hassan. We all stood inside the front door as I counted out $900 USD in twenty-dollar bills – three months’ rent. She’d smiled and placed the money back in the envelope without counting it herself before going on her way.

This morning she wasn’t smiling. She explained, “This morning when I went to the bank to deposit the money, there was only $840 in the envelope you gave me.”

I looked around. She was speaking passionately, and we were attracting the attention of the neighbors. I lowered the volume of my own voice. “I counted the money out in front of you. You saw it was all there.”

“Then where’s the other sixty dollars?” She persisted. When I told her I shouldn’t have to pay, she started shouting. I was relieved when her son calmed her down and we postponed the confrontation.

What Will People Think?

As a Jesus-following American living in mostly Muslim Tyre I had to work at overcoming a lot of misconceptions about westerners. Now it appeared my reputation was in jeopardy over a misunderstanding. This woman’s normal neighborly conversations would brand me as a thief if I didn’t respond carefully.

Since I was worried about the perspective of the community, I decided to involve the community in solving the dilemma. I dropped in on my jeweler friend, Khaled, who had originally arranged the rental agreement. My landlady was a cousin of his.

Deferring the Responsibility of Saving Face to a Respected Third Party

Rather than being annoyed by my troubles, he was honored by being asked to mediate. He listened patiently over a glass of tea in his shop.

“I know I paid the full amount, and I have two witnesses that saw me count the money. But now it doesn’t seem that I can win in this situation. If I pay her, I lose sixty dollars, and that’s not right. If I refuse to pay her, then she will talk about me behind my back in the neighborhood. She’ll say that I cheated her.”

I paused to take a sip of tea and then continued. “It’s already hard for me to fit in around here as a foreigner, and I don’t want my reputation to be ruined.  Will you talk to her? If you say I should pay her, I will. I’ll do whatever you say is right.

“Don’t worry about this, Hadi,” he said, using my Arabic nickname. “I’ll talk to her.”

The very next day, he called me back into his shop as I was passing by. He assured me that I didn’t need to pay her anything more, and she promised not to say anything bad about me to anyone.

Wow. Just like that [sound of fingers snapping], the problem was eliminated.

Which Cultural Perspective is Better? Who is Right?

In western countries, using an intermediary to resolve disputes seems cowardly and evasive. It’s honorable to be direct in confrontation. Is that truly the better way to be?

I wonder if our communities would be stronger if we cared more about preserving honor and reputation, both for others and ourselves.

What do you think? Does the thought of deferring to the judgment of the community offend your sense of independence? Are you already fed up with worrying about what other people think?

Relational Reciprocity

AbuAhmeed“I need to borrow fifty dollars,” Abu Ahmeed explained.

He described how expensive schoolbooks for his kids were. He could buy the books used, but he had to pay all at once for his three children.

I had rehearsed how I would say, “No,” to such requests, but hesitated.

I squirmed in the plastic chair in his tiny storefront tailor shop. My Lebanese neighbors believed that all Americans were rich. It was hard to convince them that I was the only exception to that rule. Requests from them for financial help were numerous.

Abu Ahmeed went back to hemming the cuffs of a pair of suit pants that a neighboring clothing merchant had just dropped off. He was promised a dollar or two for the work, but they only paid once in awhile at their own convenience.

Some days at lunchtime, he’d open the cash drawer in his sewing machine table and hand over his entire earnings for the morning so his kids could eat a sandwich. Abu Ahmeed inspired me with his trust that God would take care of his family, though their survival was day to day.

I knew this because I was a daily visitor, trying to learn Arabic. Abu Ahmeed had agreed to let me practice the vocabulary I was learning with him.  My pathetic language learning abilities demanded herculean patience. Frankly, if the roles had been reversed, I couldn’t have tolerated the tedium the way he did.

Abu Ahmeed never thought to ask me to pay him for his language tutoring. We were friends and he wanted to help me. That’s what brothers do for each other in community. After months of gleaning a word at a time, I was finally able to carry on a basic conversation.

“I’ll go to the bank and get the money this afternoon,” I said. “And if you want to pay me back, you can.” I didn’t want an outstanding loan to mess up our friendship, and I also didn’t want to damage his self-respect. Abu Ahmeed’s request was isolated, and I felt privileged by his trust in me to not embarrass him by gossiping about his situation in the neighborhood.

How Can We Be Friends?

I have this theory that you can’t have a real friendship if each friend isn’t prepared to both give and receive from the other in roughly equal proportions. This is especially true in cultures that are based on an honor/shame paradigm.

My Muslim friends always welcomed me with the Arabic greeting, “Ahlan wa sahlan.” The literal translation of this phrase is a testament to the desire for equality. It means, “You’re part of the family, and their are no hills between us.” Where the ground is flat, we have equal footing.

Giving Too Much

It’s good to be generous. But if one gives too much, there comes a point where the inability to reciprocate becomes unsavory for the one receiving. Never having an opportunity to give back creates shame instead of gratitude in the heart of the receiver.

Receiving Too Much

Nobody wants to be friends with a leach. On the other hand, refusing to receive anything from friends makes them feel devalued.

I think the theory of relational reciprocity applies to interactions between cultures as well as to individuals. Do you think it also has implications for the level of intimacy that can be acheived with our creator?