A great story …

In response to the recent announcement about my upcoming book, Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road (September 11, 2012, Jericho), a reader in Australia shares this beautiful story about what he learned about Jesus, hell, life, and joy from a Muslim teacher. Thanks, Doug!

Mr Aziz was an iman (religious teacher) at our favourite mosque. He was a jovial forty something and slightly heavier than the average Asian man. In this community, where absolutely everyone knows you really can judge a book by its cover, Aziz was easily recognised as a godly man because of his distinctly Arab clothes and turban. However, his spirituality was far deeper than his attire. Unlike nearly all other local men, he was not ashamed to have marry a handicapped woman. Aziz’s wife was blind. Most men would find this embarrassing, but Aziz spoke of her with pride and joy. And this was not the only counter-cultural anomaly in his life. In this culture there is a saying, “The nail that sticks out will be hammered back down”. It takes real character to live according to your conscience if your convictions should result in you, ‘sticking out’ from those around you. Aziz happily stuck out in the most wonderful way.
About once a month I would have coffee with Aziz at the training centre that had grown up around his mosque. On my first visit six months earlier, I had not been sure what to expect upon entering the heart of “them” country. To be honest, it was disturbing to see how similar (and friendly) the mosque was to my old Bible college. But the most striking thing about this community was their compassion for the disabled. Their kindness toward these social outcasts went beyond anything I had seen in my Christian experience. Forty percent of their large staff were physically handicapped.
This particular day I sat waiting in the Centre’s coffee shop for Aziz to arrive. On all the previous occasions when we got together he presented himself very smoothly – kind and unusually wise, a spiritual sage at peace within himself. I was however suspicious of this image Aziz projected. To me it seemed like a professional persona, polished and well practiced. He reminded me of an insecure pastor I knew back home who always tried to present a ‘victorious Christian’ image that never matched his reality. Today however, I would challenge Aziz and see what his heart was really made of. Our relationship was now strong enough for me to put before him the claims of the Gospel and see how he responded. Today I meant business.
Then I saw Aziz, still some distance away, in an alley between two buildings. He was not aware I could see him and the only other people around were two garbage men collecting bins. I suppose because he was late he walked briskly, but when he reached the two men he stopped. He greeted both with a smile, shook their hands and bowed slightly, a gesture of respect. I was shocked. In this country everyone is keenly aware of their place in society’s pecking order. These men were far beneath his high and lofty station. The average poor slum dweller would look down their nose at those who collect the garbage. God knows I wouldn’t bother to stop and greet them. Yet Aziz, a highly respected iman in perhaps the most famous mosque in the biggest Muslim country in the world just bowed to them, apparently with God his only audience. It is hard for a Westerner to appreciate how radical this is. I had lived in the East long enough to be both shocked and impressed. I had no idea the best was yet to come.
Minutes later he arrived. We ordered drinks and after I felt the conversation had sufficiently warmed, I steered the topic toward my mission with the question, “Aziz, if you died today do you think you would go to Heaven?” Aziz looked me in the eye and smiled graciously. “That is a very Western question” he replied. “You want me to give you a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer. So I will say ‘yes’, because that’s what you want. But, you don’t realise you’re asking me the wrong question.”

(more after the jump)

With this last comment Aziz turned in his chair and swept his arm around, pointing out the various buildings and places of ministry around us. One of those places was a kind of mini-mart that employed handicapped people. Inside there was a guy packing shelves. He had no legs and manoeuvred himself around on something like a skate board – actually a piece of floor board with steel ball bearings for wheels. Normally this guy’s life would be Hell on earth – reduced to begging around the slums. The prevailing community attitude towards such people is, “Who sinned that he should be born this way, him or his father?” But today he wore a spotless white shirt, neatly pressed, and a matching big white smile. Aziz and his Muslim brothers had not only given ‘the least of these’ a job, they also gave him dignity. Aziz continued, “To me, serving Allah here is Heaven.”
As Aziz turned back to me I couldn’t help but think of Jesus words about God’s Kingdom and felt a twinge of guilt arise from somewhere in the deep. I had memorised those Kingdom verses but Aziz and his friends were living them. Hmmm. My evangelical plan, so polished and well practiced, began to feel like a clever answer to the wrong question. And yet… the cross… the sinner’s prayer… These thoughts soon vanished as Aziz made eye contact again and continued. “If Allah should choose to put me in Hell, and if I can serve Him better there, I’ll be happy with that”.
At that moment I knew I had lost the moral high ground. I was clearly facing my spiritual superior. Never mind the sinner’s prayer, the four spiritual laws or ‘seeing the light’ – here was a Muslim man, more Christ-like than this Baptist missionary on the other side of the coffee table. I thought to myself, “When I grow up I wanna be like Aziz”. I arrived that day full of answers. I left humbled, and filled with questions. I also suspected if I were to deal with these questions honestly it would require a serious realigning of my protestant compass.
Looking back now several years later, I am thankful to my teacher Aziz. I have learned that answers are over rated. There is more Life, more God if you will, to be found in the honesty of a difficult question, than in the surest, air-tight set of answers. For the next two years Aziz’s words haunted my conscience and provoked me to only read the words of Jesus. I was surprised how difficult it was to find my tidy protestant package among the words in red. So what was Christ really on about? It seems Aziz ‘got it’ before I did. I’d spent the last 27 years of my life trying to save people from a future Hell. Meanwhile, Aziz spent his years trying to bring Heaven to broken people here and now. Despite my failed attempts to convert Aziz to Western Christianity, I can see now I need not have been so anxious. The message Jesus taught had already made itself a home within his fertile heart. I guess Christ was right all along. Perhaps He really does have, “other sheep who are not of this flock.”