Giants Like Bob: Everyone needs a mentor


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.


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


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?


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?

Fresh Chicken – A Cultural Education in Arab Food Preparation

FreshChickenMany unsettling questions go unanswered when preparing to move to the Middle East. Will my hair dryer work with 220 power? Will I be able to use my debit card in ATM machines? How will I get Microsoft Updates with a dial-up Internet connection? But perhaps the most haunting questions are about food. How will my dietary habits have to change?

I’m thinking particularly of a vegetarian friend of mine who is heading to Turkey soon.  A great way to understand how people on the other side of the world think is to get a peek at the routine of their daily lives and how it differs from ours. Here’s the story of my first meat buying excursion after moving to Lebanon in 1999.

A Trip To The Souk in Tyre

Denis and I went to the open-air market and approached the blue-painted walls of his favorite butcher. He picked out a chicken in the same way that someone in a fancy restaurant might choose a lobster. She looked at us and blinked as she was extracted from the cage by the vendor. We had time to name her if we wanted. How about Hilda?

It all happened very quickly and with no warning to either Hilda or me. With practiced precision the knife flashed at Hilda’s throat and she was thrown head first into a hole in the counter. After three minutes, the chicken stopped thrashing around inside the cabinet.

Another worker came and submerged the bird in scalding water to loosen the feathers and then threw it into a cylindrical machine, shaped like a clothes washer. Plastic quills inside, sticking out from the walls, neatly removed the feathers as the chicken spun around like it was in a blender.

The butcher then deftly sectioned it and removed all the innards. Was it my imagination, or was its heart still beating?

The meat was placed into a small black plastic bag – its handles tied to produce a loop for easy carrying on a finger. The bag went into the scale and Denis paid by the kilo.

By the time we got back to my friend’s house and presented his wife with the fruit of our manly hunt, the bag was still warm.

“Meet Hilda.”

That’s what I call fresh chicken!

Too Gruesome?

In my youth, I cleaned the meat market at Vashon Thriftway. The chicken scraps I scraped off the counters at the end of the day represented the chicken’s last stages of processing from coop to table. But the meat arrived at the store in boxes, not cages. After all, meat is supposed to be presented how God intended – refrigerated and encased in Styrofoam.

Maybe removing the visibility of the butchering process has allowed westerners to become overly carnivorous. It could be that you’d like to know more about the source of your food. How do you think your dietary habits would change if you had to look your dinner in the eye before eating? Would you eat more or less meat?

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?