Embarking from LAX, I found a seat on the Emirates airbus, only to find myself sandwiched by two rather intriguing international gentlemen. One, a broad-shouldered man from Nigeria, had me scrunched in the middle. During the sixteen-hour flight, he passed on all meals preferring shots of liquor instead. Not surprisingly, he slept most of the way. The other on my left was a Middle-Eastern looking man. Later, I learned his name was Mahir, a Muslim from Lebanon. Returning from visiting friends States-side, he came across to me as sensitive, educated, and under bearing.
But at the beginning of the flight, we spoke sparingly. I could not anticipate what would occur conversation-wise with either seatmate. And was in no rush to find out. Having made this trek twice before, I knew that this aerial leg was brutally long. So like a proper vetting period for a new relationship, I remained un-engagingly passive. Thinking back, I intuit the laid back posture helped what unfolded. Just as being overly assertive might have hindered the messaging. From the non-verbal cues, my sober-minded friend had already picked up something about me. I was an easy-going person who felt un-aggressively “safe,” at least impressionistically. We didn’t speak for a long time.
Nine hours en route, a natural moment occurred where we exchanged introductory pleasantries. Providentially, by that time, both of us welcomed a chance to talk. Hearing how he was from Lebanon, my mind’s newsreel began racing as I asked inquisitive questions thinking: Wow, isn’t that one of the more volatile places on the planet? (Sure enough, before my return strife related bomb-blasts had killed forty-two). He spoke somewhat modestly about his home country. I proceeded to inquire more specifically, trying to understand his culture, its religious climate, and to gain insights on my new friend. I learned that Lebanon divides evenly between orthodox Christians and Muslims. Also, that there was a significant French influence from the early colonial days, leaving behind language and culture residuals. Eventually, in the exchange, I probed directly about his faith.
Not surprising, he was Muslim. Assuredly not surprising to him, I offered back my Christian identity. We talked about his family, and Ramadan, as it was nearing its yearly end. I sought to move the conversation toward a common ground beginning point, like Paul identifying himself with the Athenians, “I see you are very religious.” So, I mentioned how we believe many of the same things, in that we are theistic in our worldview. As I took this initial line, there was a resonating connection—more akin to unity than division. Touching on our commonly held beliefs in God as the Creator, we discussed how all three theistic faiths: Judaism, Christianity and Islam, agreed with the big picture stamp of our world. How different, we were, than those of pantheistic origins, who believe God and the universe are one; like the Hindus sitting directly across from us. The content covered as this juncture was not that significant, but setting the right tone was!
Of course, as he already knew, there were also major differences, especially when it came to who we perceived Jesus to be. But it was way too early to go there. We kept on a more agreeable line, mixing thoughts of culture, both the Middle East and America, for a while.
Eventually, I began to feel my way into a deeper dialogue. I inquired about his family’s faith connection, knowing how strong that mooring is for a Muslim. Seeking to draw his thoughts, I acknowledged that someone coming from a devout family has ties that are difficult to break. Even, if someone wanted to believe something different, or came to the place of believing something other was true —it would take a lot of courage to do so. I put this out there early on, knowing how much it can be the crux of the issue.
Building forward, I talked about the fact that something as important as the tenets of our faith should be something we can discuss openly with others. He agreed, absolutely. He had had some rich conversations with people of diverging beliefs himself, and had also witnessed those who were just not able to talk openly. He even mentioned that they needed to: “Think for themselves.” Yes! I seized on it. That is what he needed to do!
Layer by layer we moved from commonality of beliefs into a deeper, heart level conversation on why he should consider Jesus. Here is how this happened. Making sure to honor his devotion where I could, at one point, he offered the Muslim viewpoint on how Jesus did not really die on the cross. Of course, as side commentary, that seems to miss the whole point—doesn’t it? If Jesus is merely another prophet, then what ‘s the big deal or difference? It guts the entire meaning of Christianity. Obviously, I acknowledged how we differ, but then proceeded to share precisely why I thought differently.
There were reasons for him to think afresh. The first being—the crucifixion event was predicted by prophets hundreds to thousands of years beforehand. I could tell how this grabbed his interest. I embellished further, David in Psalm 22, refers to crucifixion four hundred years before it was ever employed for capital punishment. Isaiah, seven hundred years prior to Jesus’s birth, gives a vivid, living color account of Christ’s suffering on the cross.
Asking if he had seen the movie, Schindler’s List, I told him of the inspiration behind it. Director Steven Spielberg wanted to counter the notion that the Holocaust was a myth. As shocking as it sounds to us, there were people at that time who were saying that this horrific well-documented event never happened. I then said, “How would you feel if people started saying that Mohammed was not a real person? That all the events in his story never even occurred? I sensitively inquired, “You would be offended, wouldn’t you?” He nodded affirmatively.
I continued, “In the New Testament, we have four detailed accounts of Christ’s life. In each account, there is a realistic description of Jesus’ public death on a cross. The accounts are amazingly accurate depictions of death through asphyxiation, which involves heart failure. Modern medicine informs that when the heart eventually fails under this duress, the lungs fill with a water-like periodic fluid. One historical account notes that when the Roman soldier speared Christ to insure he was dead that water and blood poured out. This accurate detail is made even before they had the medical knowledge to explain it.” He sat listening intently. Extra biblical writings affirm that Christ was crucified and buried as well. Softly now, I said, “The Muslim position takes established history, reinterprets it, essentially tossing the whole record aside.”
Leaning closer, and looking into his eyes, I wanted to get to a more personal place, “If Jesus is truly God, then his death was for you. He died for your sins. We all have sins, don’t we?” He seemed to personally own this fact. I added, “This was the way to deal with that and give you eternal life.” I paused, momentarily, to let that sink in. I asked if he had ever looked at the accounts of Christ’s death himself. “No,” he replied. (Note how he simply believes what others have told him). I encouraged him to do what he had advocated for others—to think for himself. At that point, rather off the cuff, I insinuated that perhaps I should give him my Bible. I noticed, how he perked up to this hinting.
It began me contemplating actually giving him my cherished Bible with my many meaningful notes for teaching. Because I needed it, I had to weigh the decision. Following up with him later, I asked if it would easy for him to get a Bible. Again, I saw how that was an obstacle. Not only would he have to locate one, but in the Middle East, the action could be observed and questioned by others. It became a no-brainer. Here was the chance for him to read the Bible for himself. I gave it!
Doing so, I showed him some of the noted prophecies, and explained the rationale behind my devotional markings. Muslims don’t like that we write in our Bibles. We see Jesus as the gift of God (For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son. . . ); they see the Quran as God’s gift. They virtually worship it like it’s a piece of divine art! You wouldn’t scribble on a masterpiece, would you? So I explained my way of ingesting God’s Word.
Though it made me feel vulnerable, I left him my name and address, phone number, just like a real friend—in the chance that he would want to call. It was an amazing conversation, and I didn’t want to fall short in extending to him a connecting opportunity. You never know! Especially, since I sensed the Spirit moving. There was a connection. His heart was opened. He truly listened. I prayed for God to do his miraculous work in this man’s mind and heart, and that God would take it forward and do whatever was needed to reach him. Sitting there, I wondered if I would see him one day in heaven.
Reflecting on what had transpired, I thought of how awesome it was for God to show up so swiftly! Stepping to serve internationally, only hours off the tarmac, I had a conversation that felt every bit the equivalent of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch. There I was beside a man traveling back to his home country, and God had positioned me in the airborne chariot to talk about Jesus in the truest of ways. Like Philip, I had succeeded to connect some dots that were not previously connected. He needed to reconcile who Jesus really was, and God sovereignly orchestrated such a moment. As the lights came down, some slept, and others absorbed their movie choices, we had talked for a good hour. At the end, his openness to consider who Jesus was, to think for himself, and to read the New Testament accounts, filled my soul with joy!
“Swing low, sweet chariot—comin’ for to carry me home.
If I get there before you do, I’ll cut a hole and pull you through.”