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Tuesday, December 22, 2009

How Church Stole The Christmas From Me!

Having grown up in an international city, (Abadan, in Iran) my family attended Christmas celebrations and parties thrown in honor of the Westerners working there. However, like other Muslim families, we never celebrated Christmas at home. We didn’t put up a tree, go caroling or exchange gifts. That all changed once I came to the US.

I spent my first Christmas with the family that eventually became my in-laws. Not having anywhere to go as foreign students, Kathy, my wife's, Karen, sister, who worked at the language school we attended, took a few of us to her house for Christmas. In the last forty years, except for one, I have spent every Christmas with my in-laws.

Christmas was huge with my in-laws. The McCarts and their extended family sure knew how to celebrate the day. Christmas was a month-long event filled with evenings at home watching Christmas programs on TV, wrapping gifts, having friends over for dinner, making elegant decorations, putting up the tree, shopping, and above all, loading up the living room with so many gifts that you almost couldn’t fit any people. I have never seen so many gifts being exchanged. In those early years of being in the States, I really looked forward to the Christmas season. That was, until, I became a pastor.

As long as our Iranian church was small, we were not obligated to do anything for Christmas. But, as the church grew and we became more and more Americanized, our church culture changed. Now we were obligated to celebrate Christmas the way all other American churches celebrated the season: WE HAD TO HAVE CHRISTMAS PROGRAMS.

All the churches we knew had choirs for Christmas, so we had to have one. Even a heathen American can, at least, sing a few bars of Silent Night, but not so with us Iranian Muslim-Background Believers. For example, Iranian songs are mostly in minor keys. We are simply not accustomed to singing Western songs. So, except for a few Iranian-Jewish believers who had come out of Iran as Christians, hitting the right notes in a popular Christmas song was not what the rest of the church was capable of doing. Unfortunately, almost all Christian songs we had available to us were translations of the Western songs. What I experienced in selecting singers for our world-renowned choir is something that could rob anyone of the joy of this season.

Karen has always marveled at how bold Iranians are. For starters, we have no fear of the microphone. We all believe we have something to contribute, and you'd better listen to us while we contribute it. So, the whole church wanted to be in the choir and I had to oblige, lest I hurt someone's feelings. How do you tell someone that not only can they not sing, but that his voice is downright offensive — or as we say in Farsi, "It can actually scratch the listener’s soul"? After holding out as long as I could, I finally had to be honest with a few of these individuals and ended up losing them as church members.

I will not bother you with the logistics of the choir practice — getting people to show up for rehearsals, arguing over something being "too American" or hearing people murmur, “That’s not the way Americans do it” — I don’t even want to go near the issue of trying to teach them how to sway back and forth in unison to some songs. There is no swaying with Iranians. Any hint of dancing automatically turns into full-blown belly dancing with hip gyration and breast shaking.

Alas, what’s a Christmas program without the Nativity play using those innocent and pure children? Every parent wanted their child to be Mary, Joseph, the Magi or the Angel. I lost members because their kids ended up playing the livestock or the shepherds.

But wait...There's more.

Then came the official church Christmas meal. After all, what’s a Christmas party without a delicious Persian meal? You would think assigning certain meals to certain individuals would have been the end of the issue. But, NO! “How come I have been assigned to cook this when my specialty is that?” were among many complaints. Worst were the ladies who insisted in knowing whose meal the pastor thought was better. I had WWIII on my hands if I didn’t feel that Mrs. A’s rice was not as good as Mrs. B’s rice. I lost many Mrs. from the congregation over this because they felt people didn't appreciate the way they made their rice!

I wish the way we were robbed of Christmas was only limited to my Iranian congregation. Well, it wasn’t. We were also heavily involved with an American mega-church where Karen was employed.

Weeks before Christmas, almost every evening, every staff member would work way into the night, working at different events, setting up hundreds of Poinsettia plants in the sanctuaries, decorating Christmas trees and lampposts on the street in front of the church and its parking lots, and selling tickets for the shows, which no matter what, had to be bigger and better than any other church. The Christmas programs went on for a whole week and all the staff was obligated to attend and work at least one of those boring events. For most, if not all, of the employees of that church, Christmas was nothing but stress, stress and more stress.

After years of doing Christmas like that, (where instead of following the McCart tradition of fully enjoying the season, my wife and I spent all our time away from home, trying to find time to put up our own tree, forgetting Christmas lights on the house, losing time to bake, and dragging the kids to church or just leaving them at home alone because they were too burned out) I began to resent the whole season. There was no joy in celebrating our Lord’s birthday since we piled it up with so much baggage.

May I offer you a suggestion? Don’t make the mistake I made. Don’t confuse Christmas with another church program. I am not banning Christmas celebrations from church. I’m all for celebrating. Party till the cows come home. The question you should ask yourself is, “At what price?” No church activity is worth robbing anyone of his God given contentment.

Isn’t it interesting that some of us evangelicals, accuse the world of commercializing Christmas, yet we’re not willing to recognize what we have done to suck the life out of a season that is synonymous with JOY? I don’t know about you, but any more, I’d rather have a commercialized Christmas than a joyless one.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Grateful To Be An American

The year was 2006. I had just been detained by Egyptian authorities at the Cairo airport. After several hours of interrogation, I was stuck in what is equivalent to an immigration holding-tank with the rest of the people who were not allowed to enter the country. I would later learn that some of my Christian activities the previous year had landed my name on Egypt’s secret police blacklist.

As I was sitting in the detainment area, waiting to be processed, the officer-in-charge walked up to me and asked, “Where are you from?”

“I am an American,” I replied.

The man’s face quickly contorted, as if someone had just pushed his face into fresh horse manure. He then snatched my passport out of my hand and mumbled what sounded like, “You are NOT an American!” as he walked away.

What angered him was the fact that an Iranian-born man was referring to himself as an American. I knew that. In fact, he might have treated me a bit differently if I had told him that I was an Iranian, but I refused to do so. Iran is where, of no choice of my own, I was born. However, by choice, I am now a naturalized American citizen, and I was not about to allow an Egyptian officer take that privilege away from me.

America is my country and I am grateful to be an American. Here’s why:

I am grateful to be an American because this is the nation where, exactly 40 years ago, I was welcomed with open arms and taught that all men are created equal in God’s eyes. It was in this country that I learned the meaning of freedom. It was in America that I received my higher education that provided a decent living for my family and me. But even more important, it was here where I met my soul mate and greatest love of my life, Karen, whom I’ve been with for 36 years. Furthermore, it was in the United States of America where our two children (a son who is proudly serving in the Air Force and a daughter who is working on her doctorate) were born. But above all else, it was this great land that introduced me to my Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, and freed me from the bondage of Islam.

So, to my dear friends, who, just like me, migrated to this great nation, let me say: Be grateful for living here. Otherwise, may I suggest to you what I suggested to my Iranian church members the Sunday after 9/11:

Did anyone put a gun to your head and force you to come to the United States? Those Americans who were born here have no choice. This is their country and they have to put up with things they don’t like about their nation. However, for those of us who willingly migrated here, we have our country of origin. If you can’t be grateful for what this nation has to offer, or you don’t like this country for your personal reasons, then I will be glad to buy you a one-way ticket and personally put you on the first plane back to Iran. Why? Because ungrateful people will never be happy, no matter where they live.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Conversion And Cultural Understanding

Imagine for a moment an Iranian Muslim student in the 1970s who, after having been in the United States for just a few months, heard the Gospel for the first time.

Unlike my American friends, I was raised in a shame-based society rather than a guilt-based one. I knew the greatest sin I could commit was anything that might bring shame to my family; I sought instead to bring them honor.

I was introduced to Christianity for the first time at a Bible study with a few other foreign students. As a hungry and penniless student, I appreciated the offer of an American friend to come and enjoy free food at this meeting. As we ate, a gentleman opened a book and began to talk to the group; I didn’t understand a thing the man said. It wasn’t until the other Muslim students and I left the house that I realized I wasn’t the only one confused. Language was not the only problem, however. Everything the man talked about posed a problem for what I was raised to believe.

The stranger talked about God. The only gods I knew were Khoda, the dualistic god of the Zoroastrians, and Allah, a Semitic god to the
Arabs. But the God referred to that night appeared as a man, Jesus, to the Jews 2,000 years ago and called himself the Son of God. To me, that was blasphemy. In fact, as a Muslim, the greatest sin I could commit was the sin of shirk—making an equal with God.

As a little boy, I was told that according to the Quran, the Muslim holy book, God was neither begotten nor begets. I was brought up to respect Jesus as one of the many prophets God sent to warn mankind. While he performed some miracles and raised the dead, Jesus was simply a man whom the Jews appeared to have crucified. Like many Shia Muslims, I believed that in the last minute before Jesus was arrested, God changed the appearance of Judas to make him look like Jesus, and that it was actually Judas who was nailed to the cross.

I was always taught that in the last day, everyone will be judged according to his or her own actions on earth; no one could take your place for punishment. For the strange man in the living room to assert that I was a sinner and that Jesus died to forgive my sins was, frankly, offensive. I could not believe this man, who knew nothing about me, would dishonor me in this way.

Two years later, I faced expulsion from school due to bad grades. I couldn’t face being such a failure to my family who made many sacrifices to send their oldest son and brother to the United States to become an engineer. This extreme shame led me to contemplate suicide.

But things got even worse. The house I was living in burned down and I lost all my belongings. Shortly thereafter, as I was sitting on a street curb on campus thinking about my future, a young lady walked up to me and asked how I was doing. She was apparently concerned about the way I looked. I was surprised to see someone actually care about my wellbeing, especially someone I did not know. I have never forgotten that simple act of kindness, which included her giving me a sweater, and have made a point of practicing it every chance I get.

The young lady, Ellen, belonged to a group of former Hippies who had become followers of Christ, or as they were called, “Jesus Freaks.” Through her I got to know the whole group, where in the midst of them, I felt the sense of peace that I had been longing for. At one point I asked what gave them such peace, to which they simply replied, “Jesus.” Once again, I was offended. I didn’t understand how a second-class prophet could provide such peace when Islam, the revelation to end all revelations, was not able to offer me the same.

That Thanksgiving, Ellen invited me to her house for dinner. As we sat around the dining table, her father said a blessing over the food. I had never heard anyone pray over a meal. As Muslims, if we ever said a prayer, it was after we had finished the meal and were full. For whatever reason, that prayer was what brought me to the following.
That evening, as I rode my motorcycle to school, I began to have a conversation with the only god I was familiar with, Khoda. I said, “I’m a Muslim. I believe in Mohammad, Ali and the other 11 Imams, but I want to kill myself.” Then I added, “Jesus, if you really are who these people tell me you are, I’ll accept you if you give me good grades at school.”

At the time, I did not believe Jesus was the Son of God, that he was divine, or that he had died on the cross. I was concerned not about my sins, but my honor. I wanted someone to restore my honor by changing my grades. Interestingly enough, as little as I knew about this man named Jesus, I did believe that he cared about restoring my honor just as much as my Christian friends believed in his power to forgive their sins. That is why I prayed the way I did, and though I prayed to Khoda, it was Jesus who came to my rescue.

On that day, I took my first step toward the cross. Islam was my religion, identity, tradition, and attached to my family’s honor; renouncing it was one of the hardest things I have ever had to face.
It has taken me many years to understand who Jesus is. In fact, I learn more about him every day, but I never forget the reality that Jesus accepted me as I was and did not wait until my theology was perfected.

Over 30 years later, I do not believe I switched gods to follow Jesus any more than the apostle Paul did on his way to Damascus, but rather I came to a more complete revelation of the Creator through my Savior and Lord, Jesus Christ—the one who saved me from my sins, fears and shame—the son of God and God himself.

I know now that according to Jesus, the second greatest commandment is to love your neighbor as yourself. That act of love can start with a simple smile followed by the heartfelt question, “How are you?”

Thursday, September 10, 2009

From Mohammad to Jesus

I am putting together my itinerary for 2010. I would like you to watch this clip and share it with your pastor or group leader asking them to consider me as a guest speaker. The flier bellow gives more information as to how they can contact me.

Thursday, July 30, 2009


Did you see the confrontation between California Senator Barbara Boxer and Harry Alford, CEO, of the Black Chamber of Commerce? If not, watch the following video.

It doesn’t matter in which camp you reside, but apparently, according to Mr. Alford, Mrs. Boxer assumed that all blacks in America should do or think the same. In other words, she pigeonholed the gentleman, which offended him greatly. As a naturalized American citizen, I have experienced this type of misconception from both Christians and non-Christians.

Recently, an old student of mine who had read my blog wrote me saying, “Don’t tell me you believe in Rob Bell’s crap.” She was referring to the Author of “Velvet Elvis” who is an emergent church pastor. Although I own the book and had read parts of it, I had forgotten whom Rob Bell was. Later, when I remembered who he was, I realized why my student had made the comment. She was assuming that because some of my ideas were like those of Rob’s, I must be an emergent teacher forgetting that, because of my background, I have had those thoughts long before Rob wrote his book.

Right after 9/11, I began traveling all around the country and abroad with my American flag bandanna. At that time, for security reasons, the airlines started the policy of randomly checking three passengers’ carry-ons. The computer provided the names of the passengers. On one of my flights, proudly brandishing my bandanna, I sat next to a young white lady from San Diego.

As we began to talk, she said, “In the past week I have been to 5 different cities and in every city, when boarding the plane, my name has come up for inspection. I am so happy they are doing it that way.”
“Why?” I asked
“Well, for your sake!”
“What do you mean?”
“This way you and people from your background don’t feel like they are being singled out.”

Again, just because of the way I look, she assumed I might somehow be offended or annoyed if the airlines had decided to only go through the luggage of those who resembled the Arab terrorists. I think my reply shocked the heck out of her.

I said, “With all due respect madam, this is one of the most illogical statements I’ve ever heard. Why should the authorities go through your stuff, a white blond woman, while I, a Middle Easterner, can freely waltz onto the plane? For what? So my feelings might not get hurt? I wonder if you ask the men and women who lost their loved ones in that cowardly attack what they would have rather seen: 12 Arabs having their feelings hurt or their loved ones being slaughtered? After all, the men who slammed the planes into the Twin Towers were not a bunch of white men from Sweden.”

In my last blog I talked about Postmodernity, which, automatically, made one of my readers assume that I must believe in Process Theology. I wasn’t aware that there was such a connection between the two, but, apparently, the reader had a need to pigeonhole me. By the way, no, I don’t believe in Process Theology.

I’ll never forget the first time I met with a New York Times best-selling author of a book that is brilliant and yet not very complimentary toward evangelicals. This was our first meeting and she knew nothing about me. In the course of our conversation, I don’t know what I said, when, with a surprised look on her face, she exclaimed, “So, you’re a Republican?” She had assumed because I’m a minority who liked her book, I must be a liberal Democrat.

Please don’t assume since I’m a naturalized American citizen from Iran that I automatically desire all illegal aliens in the US to be given amnesty. I believe the same rule of law that applied to me must be applied to all. On the other hand, just because I have a great passion for Christian gay men and women who struggle with their sexual identities and their place in the Body of Christ, one should not pigeonhole me as gay man (my wife will convince you otherwise) or some misguided liberal Christian. Would you label Jesus a whore and a criminal because He had compassion for and spent time with all those hookers and thieves? I doubt it.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Modernity, Postmodernity, Metanarrative and the Prayer of Jay-booz

Recently, I started corresponding with a young man who has been reading my blogs. From reading his email, it is clear that he is bright, quite articulate and painfully honest. When I first asked Tom (not his real name) to tell me about himself, this is what he wrote:

I'm a 28-year old white man. My parents are pastors in a suburb of Seattle. They founded the church they currently pastor when I was two weeks old.

I attended a private Christian elementary and junior high (but a public high school), then marched straight to a Bible college, my dad's alma mater - it seemed like the logical "next step". I never seriously considered any other colleges.

It's an old, familiar story: fell in love, tried to have the perfect Christian wife and marriage...and was divorced 5 years later. I think that the breakdown of my marriage was just one, however significant, step down the road I've been on for years: if my faith, obedience, dedication and spirituality were not enough to keep my marriage together, what else could all the "Christian experts" have been withholding from me?

It was Tom’s last question that gripped my heart the most. A question that I never asked till I was well in my late 40’s, over 30 years after becoming a follower of Christ. A question that today Christians younger than my own children are asking me over and over again. How did we, evangelical Christians, come to the conclusion that our faith, obedience and spirituality should guarantee us of a life void of pain and failure? Of course, the preacher from the pulpit and the televangelist on TV are quick to point to the Bible. But I believe the answer lies in understanding the word metanarrative. However, to understand the phrase, one needs to understand two other phrases: modernity and postmodernity. I hope I don’t bore you to death!

First introduced in 1627, this term describes the knowledge, power, and social practices which emerged in Europe around that time. Modernity was not associated solely with ‘newness’, but also with beliefs in rationality and ‘progress’, and came to be seen as a central attribute of Europe, which the rest of the world were expected (or compelled) to adopt. (
Said to exist after modernity. Some schools of thought hold that modernity ended in the late 20th century, replaced by post-modernity, while others would extend modernity to cover the developments denoted by Postmodernity and into the present. (
A metanarrative can include any grand, all-encompassing story, classic text, or archetypal (original pattern or model) account of the historical record. They can also provide a framework upon which an individual's own experiences and thoughts may be ordered. These grand, all-encompassing stories are typically characterized by some form of 'transcendent and universal truth' in addition to an evolutionary tale of human existence (a story with a beginning, middle and an end).
According to Jean-François Lyotard, a defining condition of postmodernity is a widespread skepticism or "incredulity" toward metanarratives. (Wikipedia)
Examples of metanarratives
1. The Enlightenment theorists believed that rational thought, allied to scientific reasoning, would lead inevitably toward moral, social and ethical progress.
2. Marxists believe that human existence is alienated from its species being, although capable of realizing its full potential through collective, democratic organization.
3. Freudian theory holds that human history is a narrative of the repression of libidinal desires.
4. An uncritical belief in the free market is a belief that through humanity's acquisition of wealth all who work hard and are afforded the right opportunities will succeed materially.
5. Categorical and definitive periodizations of history, such as the Fall of the Roman Empire, are rejected by postmodernism. Other periodization schemes include the Dark Ages and Renaissance.

Do we, Christians, have our own metanarratives, or as I like to put it, “one size fits all stories”? Do we insist that all the stories in the Bible are universal and if something was promised or worked for Abraham, Jabez or David should work for all Christians? Let me give you a couple of examples.

A year ago, two weeks after I had had my second operation in less than three months, a dear pastor friend of mine asked if I would fill in for a speaker who could not fulfill her commitments at his church. I readily accepted his offer for two reasons: friendship and needing to make some money. My friend’s church was about two hours west of where I live and because I was in too much pain, I asked another dear friend to drive us to the church.

The meeting went well and many people stayed afterwards to talk to me. As I was saying goodbye to my friend and his wife, because of the pain, I was leaning against the wall and kind of hunched over. It was then that he asked, “Why did you have a second operation after your cancer operation?”

“My cancer operation unmasked a hernia which needed to be taken care of.” “A hernia is nothing like cancer,” he replied.
“True, but the operation hurts more,” I answered.
And, that’s when he said something that completely threw me for a loop: “Joseph had many trials, but he never complained.”

According to my friend, since Joseph suffered much in his life and yet, never complained, I should have also acted accordingly and not reveled that I was in pain. If the Bible gives us that story, it is because God wants us all to behave as such—a biblical metanarrative. Actually, I wouldn’t have minded keeping my mouth shut and had never said anything about my pain, if my friend could have guaranteed the second part of that formula: Enduring the pain would eventually have made me the ruler of Egypt.

Do you remember Bruce Wilkinson, the author of the best selling book, The Prayer of Jabez, a 93-page, $10 tract published in 2000? The book, which sold over 22 million copies, is based on a passage in the book of Chronicles, in which a man named Jabez prays, “Oh, that You would bless me indeed, and enlarge my territory, and that Your hand would be with me, and that You would keep me from evil, that I may not cause pain.” And the Lord granted his wish. According to Mr. Wilkinson, the lesson is that God wants believers to ask for blessings. Those who ask—by reciting Jabez’s 33-word prayer—unleash miracles. Those who don’t ask don’t receive. Squabbling couples should ask for happy marriages, he writes. Business executives should ask for more customers—another biblical “one size fits all”.

Having heard the voice of God, in 2002, Wilkinson, whose self-help prayer book had made him a rich man, moved to Africa and announced his intention to save one million children left orphaned by the AIDS epidemic.

However, in October 2005, Mr. Wilkinson resigned from the African charity he founded. He abandoned his plan to house 10,000 children in a facility that was to be an orphanage, bed-and-breakfast, game reserve, bible college, industrial park and Disney-esque tourist destination in the tiny kingdom of Swaziland, came back to the US and went into an early retirement.

According to everything I have read, Bruce’s failure was mostly due to his lack of intercultural understanding and refusal to listen to the advise of the western aid-workers who had lived in Swaziland for many years. But, to me, his greatest mistake was to fall victim to his own myth. According to the Wall Street Journal, “Mr. Wilkinson says that he blames neither God nor man. He says he weeps when he thinks of his disappointed acolytes, and is trying to come to grips with a miracle that didn’t materialize despite his unceasing recitation of the Jabez prayer…”

To say that because God granted Jabez’s wish, He desires the same for everyone who prays the prayer, is as diluted and misguided as saying, “…rational thought, allied to scientific reasoning, would lead inevitably toward moral, social and ethical progress.” To believe that is simplistic, naïve and denies the complexity and mysteriousness of the God we serve. But even more heart-wrenching is not realizing how much damage Christian metanarratives have done to the faith of Christians like my young friend, Tom, a man who was taught that his faith, obedience, dedication and spirituality should be enough to keep his marriage together. And, of course, the reason his marriage failed was because he wasn’t faithful, obedient or spiritual enough.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

I Need A Friend

The year was 1971, which was probably the worst year of my life. I was in my second year of college and due to terrible grades, I was facing expulsion. My most soothing thought at the time was suicide. I couldn’t face being such a failure to my family who had made many sacrifices to send their oldest son and brother to the United States to become an engineer.

I lived on campus at the time. One day walking to the bookstore, deep in thoughts with my head down, I passed a student who was just coming out of the bookstore, whom I didn’t notice at first.

“How are you?” he asked
Not expecting any reaction, I said, “Not well!”

To my utter astonishment, he did something that I will never forget for the rest of my life.

He stopped dead in his track, turned around, caught up with me and looking straight into my eyes, he asked, “Is there anything I can do?”

I was surprised to see someone actually caring about how I was doing, especially someone I only knew by face (I wish I knew his name so I could look him up and thank him). Later, when I became a follower of Christ, I found out that he was also a believer and a part of an acting group called “His Players”.

I have never forgotten that simple act of kindness and have made a point of practicing that every chance I get.

Let’s fast forward to 1999 during my last year at Fuller Seminary. Once a year, the school had a “Muslim day of prayer” when students from what was then called, “School of World Mission” would gather together to pray for the Muslim world. I was asked to say a few words to encourage the students prior to Brother Andrew, who was the main speaker that day.

I started my talk by first thanking the students who had invited me and made a few comments about the great work that Bother Andrew’s ministry, The Open Door, was doing and then made the following statements:

I have been attending Fuller for the past 10 years —Yes, I am so smart that I managed to cram 2 years of graduate school into 10 years. The sidewalks on our campus are no more than 5 feet wide. I know! I’ve measured them! When you pass someone, your shoulders almost touch each other. However, there has hardly ever been a day when anyone of you passing me has squarely looked me in the eyes and greeted me. How can you care and pray for my Muslim mother whom you have never seen when you don’t even bother to greet her son whom you can see?

Needless to say, I was never invited back.

I wish I could say that young students at Fuller were the only group of Christians who acted this way. Years ago, attending a Christian convention in Atlanta, I walked up to a group of men on the street and said:

“Gentlemen, you must all be pastors.”

“How did you know?” one of them asked.

“Because I noticed you all kept to yourselves and never acknowledged a passerby with a simple greeting or a smile.”

Yes, I know I am harsh, but I believe, sometimes, that’s what it takes to wake the Christians up to the reality that, according to Jesus, the second greatest commandment is to love your neighbor as yourself and that that act of love can start with a simple smile followed by the heartfelt question, “How are you?”

I offer this to all passersby every morning as I sit at the base of the foothills across the street from our house while playing with Cocoa, my dog, knowing that my sincere smile and question can change the life of someone who might be thinking of killing themselves that day.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

I Went to a Hybrid Open-Source Conference!

I love jazz. No, not because it doesn’t resolve (Blue Like Jazz fans know what I’m talking about) but because, to me, it’s the quintessential iconic example of how the church is supposed to function.

The next time you go to a Jazz concert, pay close attention to the way the musicians interact with each other. It is usually clear who the leader is, but he/she doesn’t hog the show. A tune is played and repeated over and over, so that each musician has a chance to present his or her interpretation of melody. The result is many different angles on the same basic idea, because that basic idea means very different things to each musician. The end result is a combination of the experience and personalities of each artist, and the communication between them. For me, this is what Paul’s talking about when he says:

"He who descended is the very one who ascended higher than all the heavens, in order to fill the whole universe. It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God's people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up." Ephesians 4:10-12

To be a follower of Christ is like being in a jazz band. We all have a part—an instrument, if you will—to play and we should all be allowed to participate by playing our solo parts. It should not be only by “the few, the proud: the pastors” who play every instrument from the pulpit on Sundays.

But what does jazz have to do with a hybrid open-source conference? Well, let me start from the beginning. A dear friend, Charles Lee, was the brain behind this combination of a conference/unconference gathering called the Idea Camp, which from the start had taken a different approach to doing a conference. Charles used every paperless means of communication from word of mouth and conventional landlines to cell phones, email, texting, blogging, Facebook and Twitter (I’m sure I’m missing a few more means) to promote the conference, and boy, was he successful. If I remember correctly, about 500 people attended this two-day conference and over 1200 watched it on their computers via live streaming and it was all for free.

The goal of each workshop in this gathering was to allow for more conversation rather than another classroom approach to a conference. All the speakers like myself acted as facilitators and not talking-heads. We all had 10 minutes to talk about who we were, introduce the class to some challenges facing the church today, and then let the class respond to those challenges for about 45 minutes. If you’ve ever heard me teach, you know this is my style and my cup of tea when it comes to challenging a room full of young and old believers—asking questions and letting everyone play his/her instrument.

With this being my first time involved in such a gathering, I came away with mixed feelings. As I said, I loved the way every modern means of communication was used to promote the conference. It was truly a “green” conference. Even the conference schedule was emailed to everyone’s cell phones and laptops so it didn’t have to be printed on paper, of course, except for the very few that were posted on bulletin boards. But after experiencing this magnificent way of communication, I came away wondering if, with all our latest tools in communication, we’re developing better relationships?

I noticed throughout the various “question and answer” sessions that many people were busy reading and answering email off their laptops, web-surfing, text messaging or twittering—something that I had to learn before attending the conference. I even saw one guy watching the event that was taking place right in front of him on his laptop. Even worse, there were people who would do that as they were trying to have a face-to-face conversation with one another. By the way, no one did that to me—I guess they knew better— but I heard several of my friends complain about it.

I find this type of behavior to be quite dishonoring and self-absorbed. If it is more important to answer an email that can wait till you are out of the conference or retweet a #tweet to another friend who is sitting only a chair away from you because it’s so cool that it can’t wait till the meeting is over, then maybe you should step outside to do your emailing, surfing and retweeting instead of so blatantly ignoring and disrespecting those around you who are trying to tackle the challenges facing them. And please know that I’m not questioning anyone’s ability to multitask.

Today, many of you have several hundred friends on your Facebook and just as many followers on Twitter. I wonder how many of these friends will show up to help you when your car breaks down on the 405 freeway in the middle of rush-hour traffic. Just like our theology, have our relationships become millions of miles wide and a tenth of an inch deep? You know…Shallow? You tell me.

Friday, February 20, 2009

We Are All A Bunch Of Retards*

* Please do not be offended by me using the word retard. I only use it to make my point.

Last Sunday my daughter, Megan, and I went snowboarding. After the third run, I started to tell her about a funeral I had attended a couple of weeks earlier.

About two months ago I was speaking at church when I ran into an old friend I had not seen for many years. Fred and I go way back. Before departing, we promised each other we would get together soon.

Early in January I received a call from the pastor at whose church I had met Fred.

“Shahrokh jan, do you remember the man who had come to see you when you spoke at our church?”

“You mean Fred? Of course! Why?”

“Well, on New Year’s Eve day his wife took him to the emergency room because he had been having a headache and as they were sitting in the waiting room he passed out and the doctors were not able to revive him. He died of a brain aneurysm.”

Soon after, I received a call from a staff pastor of one of the largest megachurches in Southern California where Fred had been attending for the last eight years. The family had asked if I would share a few things about him at his memorial, which was held at his church.

The memorial was just wonderful. Fred had made a lasting impression on all the several hundred people who were present that day. After the pastor spoke for a few minutes he invited his wife and children to say a few words about their father and husband. One of his daughters said:

“I was on my way to San Francisco when I heard my dad had passed away, so I hauled ass to get here.”

There were one or two chuckles, but, for the most part, not knowing how to react, everyone kept very quite. I leaned over and told the stranger sitting next to me:

“I bet this is the first time the word ass has been mentioned from the pulpit of this church.” He didn’t even crack a smile.

After the family was done sharing, it was my turn. In the few minutes I spoke, I simply shared the following true story with the people:

As I stood in the checkout line at Sam's Club, I noticed the lady in front of me who was paying for her groceries. Her husband was patiently waiting with their cart full of items. In between them was whom I assumed to be their son. The boy had Down Syndrome. I couldn't tell how old he was. You know, it is not easy to guess the age of a person with Down Syndrome. They all look much younger than their age. Anyway, from his facial hair I assumed he was in his 20's.

The boy was about 5 feet tall. It was obvious that he was wearing a diaper, which meant he could not control his bowels. He was quite bowlegged and could only take short steps when walking. He was not able to raise his arms any higher than his shoulders and on top of all that he could not talk. He had a small device placed in his throat. The little gismo enable him to make "ooh, ooh" sounds when he needed to get his dad's attention. I spent a few minutes watching the interaction between the father and the son when it suddenly hit me like a runaway bullet train in Tokyo.

The crowd around him fascinated the boy. Drooling non-stop, every once in a while he would turn around, look at his father and say, "Ooh". The father patiently would take out his handkerchief, wipe the boy’s face, pat him on the shoulder and invite him to look at more people. The process was repeated several times. Although, for all practical purposes, the young man had nothing of any significance to offer his dad (that his dad was in need of) each time he turned to his father, yet the father patiently attended to his son’s "oohing" call for help.

As I watched them, I realized that the most talented, the most educated, the most athletic, the most accomplished, the most successful, the best looking, and even the most spiritual of us are nothing but a bunch of retards in God's eyes. And even though, for all practical purposes, we have nothing that He is in need of, every time we turn to him and say, "Ooh," He is there to receive us with open arms, wipe our drooling faces, pat us on the shoulder, and give us hope to go on with life.

And then I ended by saying,

“Fred was one of those retards, but having become one with Christ, today he is no longer drooling since his face was once and for eternity wiped with the blood of the lamb.”

Before I could finish my last sentence, I received a standing ovation, which thoroughly surprised me. But I still had one more thing to say.

“Ladies and gentlemen, wanting to be politically correct, I really struggled whether I should use the word “retard” or not, but if she—pointing to Fred’s daughter—can ‘haul ass,’ I can say retard,” which got me another ovation.

As I was sharing the story with Megan, she said,

“Dad, I had never heard you tell the story of the Down Syndrome boy till a few months ago when I came to listen to you at Charles’ church. That story changed my life.”

“How so?” I asked.

“Last week as I was driving home, the image of that story flashed in my mind—and it hit me. Everything has set me up for success. I have two of the most amazing parents; I have had the best upbringing; I have been given the best opportunities in life; and I still have managed to screw it up. I have never had a doubt that God loves me, and I have been taught since childhood that, “There is nothing I could do to make God love me less.” While I believed that, I also believed that there were things that I could do to make God love me more. I had an epiphany in the car that night. Even if that boy had his life “more together” and had learned to wipe the drool off his own face, and that was one less burden that he placed on his father, his father would not love him any more. Even if I spent the entirety of my energy perfecting a flawed area of my life, and I could package my life up in a prettier fashion, God could not love me any more.

That boy had NOTHING to offer his father. He was a burden on his father; he was nothing for his father to take pride in; he was never going to be able to take care of his father; he was never going to be able to carry on their legacy; his father would most likely have to out live his son. And this is how it is with me. God is not better off having me on His team. I have nothing to offer God that He does not already have. I constantly walk in the wrong direction, and stumble back to God for Him to wipe the drool off my face and point me yet again in the right direction. But He is crazy in love with me. And there is nothing that I could do to change that.”

I am so glad the area was too noisy and my Ninja mask had my whole face covered so no one could see or hear me cry out loud on top of the mountain.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

The Issues of Matthew 18 and the Corporate Church

Immediately after parting ways with a Christian organization I had been with for many years, I sent out an email informing everyone on my mailing lists of my departure. Knowing how the organization would have dealt with it — never saying anything about it publicly in hopes that eventually all their constituents would forget about me ever working for them — I wanted my friends to hear it directly from me, without the spin. Within a few hours, I received a reply from an angry pastor wanting to know why I had informed him of my departure and if prior to my leaving I had followed the Matthew 18:15-17 process where Jesus said:

If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over. But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector.

Ever since receiving that email, I have wanted to write on this subject, but kept postponing it until recently when a dear pastor friend asked me the following question in an email:

Before I read your blog, I was assuming that you did go through this process (Matt.18) before you left. God put it on my heart to not assume, but to ask you, my brother in Jesus, a few questions: how did the process go? If you did go through this process, where did this process break down? Was the offence(s) expressed clearly? When it was not received one on one, did you bring two or three witnesses? If you DID bring two or three witnesses, you did right, brother. And if they ignored the two or three witnesses, then they will be accountable to God for refusing what Jesus said is the way to deal with offences.
What you see in the above paragraph is the heart of a man whom, like most followers of Christ, desires to do what He is expecting of us. However, in doing so, we tend to become as harmless as doves, but not as wise as serpents like Jesus wants us to become. Let me tell you what I am talking about.
A few years ago, I remember coming back from lunch with the then vice president of my old denomination. While driving back to the office, he said something that made a lot of sense to me. As we pulled into the parking lot of our headquarters, he pointed to the building and said, “Many people confuse this building with a church and expect us to behave as such. This is not a church, but a corporation.”
In the above passage, Jesus is talking to a community and not a corporation. The process involves me and my brother and not me and my corporate boss. “Isn’t your Christian boss your brother in Christ?” one might ask. In theory, yes! In reality, heck no! He is your boss first and then your brother in Christ. This is how the corporate chain of command works. He is the head-honcho and you are the peon.
For the most part, within today’s corporate church, Matthew 18 only works when it is directed from the people in charge toward those under them. It hardly ever works the other way around without any repercussion since, in confronting the peon, the boss is never in danger of losing his job, but God knows the peon is if the reverse were to happen. The first time I made the mistake of asking my boss a question regarding a decision he had made, I had his office door slammed in my face so hard that eventually a carpenter was called to dislodge the door so he could get out of his office. Oh, he also threatened to fire me.
Do you realize how difficult it is to find two or three witnesses to confront your corporate boss when your potential witnesses know they are very well in danger of losing their jobs, or at least losing favor with the boss? Of course, in a corporate setting, you are supposed to take your grievances to HR. But again, at least where I worked, for the same reasons, the HR people were just as powerless as my witnesses.
What was even more frustrating was when I took my issues to my boss’s peers who were quite aware of the situation and would even agree with me, but would not do anything to rectify it lest they lose favor with their boss. In fact, one of them simply told me, “If I were you, I would go find me another job.”
So, my dear brothers and sisters, let’s get real: Unless you are willing to lose your job, be careful in following the above mandate when it comes to confronting your corporate Christian boss. I had the guts to do it and ended up without a job. Hopefully you’ll fair better if ever in the same situation.