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?”