Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Stories from Afghanistan: When God Ran--Jesus, the Prodigal Son, and Unexpected Common Ground in a Kabul Classroom

This is part two of my "Stories from Afghanistan" series. For the context and background, I invite you to read the first post in the series, A Journey of Faith and Friendship.

On my next to last day in a Kabul classroom, something extraordinary happened--God ran!

It was day 14 of a 15-day seminar. The Afghan-Turk Educational NGO, a Muslim non-profit based out of Turkey, had flown me to Afghanistan to offer an intensive ESL course for veteran primary and secondary teachers. In all, I worked with about 30 teachers, roughly 80% of whom were Turks with the remainder being Afghans. The Turkish teachers had moved their families from the relative ease and comfort of Turkey to a riskier and more challenging environment in Afghanistan, all because they desire to honor God and help the children of Afghanistan.

Building Rapport and Friendship

Over the two weeks I had been with the teachers, we had established quite a good rapport, and we had talked openly about matters of the heart. I had a number of opportunities to dialogue with the teachers about my work with Peace Catalyst International. I explained that we are trying to fully embrace the ways and teachings of Jesus, and that we are compelled by Jesus to love and serve others without any strings attached. My new friends liked what I described of our work, and they shared with me their own perspectives on loving God and humanity.

So, in this context of serious English instruction and ongoing spiritual dialogue rooted in mutual respect, the teachers and I found unexpected common ground around one of Jesus' parables. On our 14th day together, after I had finished leading the teachers in a review in preparation for their final exam, I turned to my computer, where I keep a cache of video and audio clips for use in all sorts of teaching situations. Some of the clips are funny and relatively pointless, while others instantly serve up lively discussions and teachable moments centered around a number of topics.

A Fuzzy, Offensive Music Video?

In this particular moment on day 14 in a Kabul classroom, my eyes fixated on the file name of a blurry, homemade music video. I do not recall where I found the video or when. I am guessing that it has been in my video folder for years and has been transferred through the hard drives of the various computers I have owned. In any case, the clip was not one I ever recall using in a teaching setting, but there it was looking up at me. And God's Spirit nudged me, as if to say, "Just trust ME. Despite your concerns, show this clip. Throw caution to the wind, and I'll meet you in this Kabul classroom!"

Indeed, I did have concerns, as the video hit on some theological concepts that I judged would be at least strange and perhaps even offensive to my Muslim teacher friends. Nonetheless, believing that God had spoken, I cued up and played this video on the big screen for a classroom full of Turkish and Afghan teachers:

As a teacher should, I followed the video with good questions. What's the story that this song tells? How do you feel about it? What do you like in the song and story? What do you not like?

One outspoken Turkish biology teacher spoke up. (As a cultural sign of respect, the Turkish and Afghan teachers addressed me as "teacher" despite my protestations that "Thomas" would do very nicely.) "Teacher," he said, "this is a wonderful story and I like it very much!"

The Parable of the Prodigal Son

Feeling my oats after several more positive comments, I decided I should share with the class the Parable of the Prodigal Son, the story told by Jesus the Messiah as recorded in Luke 15:11-32. Clearly, this parable served as the inspiration for "When God Ran," and in my own words I recounted the story of the boy who went his own way, squandered his family's resources, and became homeless and destitute. In desperation, he devised a plan to return to his father and beg to be hired on as a laborer, because the family's employees had more than ample food and shelter.

As the wayward son approached the estate, the father saw him in the distance (perhaps because he was in the habit of looking toward the horizon in hopes of seeing his lost son coming home) and ran to meet him, showering him with hugs, kisses, and compassion. The boy tried to spit out his rehearsed speech, "Dad, I've messed up in a terrible way. I don't deserve to be called your 'son.' But please would you hire me . . .."

The father would have none of this "employee" business. Instead, compelled by compassion and mercy, he threw a major party to celebrate the boy's homecoming and addressed him as "my son." These two words were probably the most beautiful the prodigal had ever heard, and I'm quite sure he was never the same (in a very good sense) after hearing them. (I am reminded here of Romans 2:4, which says that God's mercy triggers in us repentant hearts.)

The Bible--A Middle Eastern Book Through Middle Eastern Eyes

After recounting the parable, I remembered that Middle Eastern Muslim friends had offered me rich cultural insight into this passage years ago. (We Western Christians tend to forget that the Bible is a Middle Eastern book and that it tells the stories of Middle Eastern people, including Jesus.) My Arab friends explained that it is very significant that the father RAN to meet the wayward son.

Apparently, Middle Eastern men in the 1st century did not run publicly as a matter of honor, and yet in Jesus' story it appears that the father brought public shame upon himself (by running) in order to shield his son from the humiliating taunts and rejection of others in the village. (Check out The Prodigal's Father Shouldn't Have Run for a brief yet excellent explanation of this theory.)

Offending a Respected Turkish Teacher?

As I recounted the parable, I kept noticing one of the teachers, who seemed not to be paying attention. He was probably the eldest person in the room--in his late forties if I had to guess. Over the course of the prior two weeks, he had been one of the most attentive participants in the class. He was not gregarious, but nonetheless was warm and kind and always respectful. I told myself that he was likely the most respected teacher among the lot.

Thus, it troubled me when it seemed that this particular teacher was not tracking with me. During my telling of the Prodigal Son story and the subsequent class discussion, he was focused on his tablet computer. I thought to myself that I had pushed the Jesus talk a bit too far for him and that I had offended him. While I was encouraged by the positive responses and interaction with some of the other teachers, I was disheartened that I had apparently lost this gentleman, as I had so much respect for him and genuinely liked him.

Unexpected Common Ground

But just as I was doubting him, God, and myself, the elder teacher's hand shot up. He said, "Teacher, please forgive me, but I was searching diligently for a particular passage from the Sayings of the Prophet (traditional extra-Qur'anic Islamic teachings). Would it be okay if I share this with you and the class?" "Of course," I said. With that, he read aloud,

"If you turn toward God, He will walk toward you.
If you walk toward God, He will run toward you.
And if you run toward God, He will be the strength in your legs to propel you forward."

Then he added, "Teacher, this song and this story you have shared with us are perfect, and our own tradition affirms it."

With tears in my eyes, I thanked the teacher for sharing this traditional teaching with me. And our class enjoyed further spiritual dialogue around these concepts and around the Parable of the Prodigal Son.

Friendship, Common Ground, and Discussing Differences

Later, I thanked God for helping me share some heart-level exchange with my new friends and for helping us discover this unexpected common ground. Certainly, at the end of the day we still have some important differences, but I am learning that it is far more fruitful to discuss differences in the context of genuine, authentic friendship--the kind of friendship that develops as we share our hearts and lives with one another and as we celebrate the significant common ground that we share as humans created by God.

For more in the Stories from Afghanistan series:

Part 1: A Journey of Faith and Friendship

Part 2: When God Ran--Jesus, the Prodigal Son, and Unexpected Common Ground
Part 3: Fear, Love, Friendship and a Snowball Fight
Part 4: Shaved Heads and Sacrificial Love
Part 5: An American Evangelical, a Warm-Hearted Jihadist, and a Communist Muslim?
Part 6: Children Reject the Hatred of Their Fathers

Friday, March 1, 2013

Stories from Afghanistan: A Journey of Faith and Friendship

This is the first post in the "Stories from Afghanistan" series.

Earlier this year, I had the privilege of visiting Kabul, Afghanistan as a guest of a Muslim non-profit focused on education projects. I was inspired and encouraged by both my new Muslim friends there and by the way I experienced God in Afghanistan!

In the coming weeks, I intend to unload some of my stories and impressions here on Incomparable Treasure. The order promises to be random in a stream-of-consciousness sort of way, and it is my hope that as I put fingers to keyboard that my “Stories from Afghanistan” series will offer you a window into the hopes and dreams of the people who live and serve there and ultimately into the broader story of God and His vast, relentless love for all people.

To get started, I will offer you a bit of background and foundation for the stories that will follow.

The Backdrop: A Journey of Faith and Friendship

For me, this recent visit to Afghanistan was the latest high point in an amazing, life-changing, three-year journey of faith and friendship. It began with an assignment in New Delhi as Interim Director of an English language institute. In that context, I met a young Afghan man—a Muslim who quickly became like a brother to this evangelical, Bible-believing Jesus-follower from America. As our friendship grew, we each invited the other deeper into our respective worlds. I introduced him to my Peace Catalyst colleagues and our Jesus-centered work, and he invited me ever deeper into his global Muslim network known as the Gülen Movement.

My smart, spirited, compassionate Afghan friend and I have laughed together and cried together. We have studied the holy books with one another and have spent countless hours talking about God and His Kingdom and how one lives in right relationship with Him and others. We also dreamed often about working together for the common good, acknowledging that both Christians and Muslims have too often embraced peace-breaking attitudes and actions. My friend and I surmised that we need each other, because I can challenge Christians in ways that he could not and likewise he can admonish Muslims in ways that I could not.

The Invitation: Muslims Invite an Evangelical to Serve

Against this backdrop, my friend persuaded the leadership of the Afghan-Turk Educational NGO to bring me to Kabul to offer a 15-day language seminar for their teachers and to see their work up close so that we could explore more and bigger partnership for the future. The invitation came in late November. A month later, I was en route to Kabul on a journey fully funded by generous-spirited Muslims who invited me to serve alongside them, apparently undeterred by my passion for Jesus and his ways, words, works, and worth.

The Context: The Afghan-Turk Educational NGO

My generous hosts in Kabul comprise the Afghan-Turk Educational Non-Government Organization (NGO), a Muslim non-profit based out of Turkey. The NGO is an affiliate of the Gülen Movement, an international network of Muslims working in 180 countries with a focus on practical service to the less fortunate and on building bridges of friendship between Muslims, Christians, and others.

In Afghanistan, the NGO runs over 30 schools across the country, offering over 5000 Afghan children rare access to high quality education with solid emphasis on the foundational values of human rights, human dignity, and respect for all people. I was seriously honored to serve alongside these kind-hearted educators, many of whom are foreigners (mostly Turks but also Indians and Egyptians) making significant sacrifice to serve in a challenging environment.

Next in the Stories from Afghanistan Series—When God Ran

Both God and my Afghan and Turkish hosts gave me some encouraging and sometimes surprising gifts during my journey. In the coming weeks, I want to share some of those gifts with you—stories about 

  • the strength of diversity as the love of children overcomes the hatred of adults
  • the sacrificial love of Turks and Afghans in the face of enormous risk
  • bald heads and snowball fights
  • jihadists and communists laying down their arms and ideologies
  • friendship, honor, and fake airplane tickets
  • finding common ground and discussing differences in the context of real friendship.

One major gift was the spiritual conversations along the way with new Muslim friends. In the next "Stories from Afghanistan" post, I will share the story of "When God Ran: Jesus, the Prodigal Son, and Unexpected Common Ground in a Kabul Classroom!"