And now, here is another story of Carl, this time from Basra, in Iraq.
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I was staying with friends at a hotel in Basra, Iraq, in the spring of 2003. While there, we managed to attract the curiosity of the hotel staff. They were curious about this team of international people staying at their hotel. Since a war was well under way, they were all the more intrigued because we weren’t wearing camouflage and toting M4 carbines. During the day, out in the streets, we had given out all of our texts—Arabic translations of the gospel of Luke. We were checking in for another day and as we stood in the lobby near the front desk, the hospitality manager leaned across the counter and looked at me.
“Why have you come here?” he asked in English. “Are you with the American army?”
“No,” I said, “we followed Jesus to Basra, so we are trying to find out what He is doing here.” He took in his breath with a hiss. “Isa?” he asked, using the Muslims’ name for Jesus. “Isa is in Basra?” “We think so,” my friend Samir said, “and He wants us to help out in any way we can.” The manager made something like a gasping sound and snatched the phone off the cradle. He rattled off a quick sentence in Arabic, hung up, and came around in front of the desk. “If you please,” he said, “stay right here. I know you must be very busy, but I had to call my brother. He loves to hear about Isa.” Samir and I looked at each other. Isa was in Basra after all.
Within a few seconds, three other men joined us, all in their twenties and thirties, wearing the dark blue uniform suit of the hotel staff. For a moment I wondered if they were going to ask us to leave. Then, one of the men, with black hair and a thickening moustache, rushed forward and shook my hand. He moved on down the line, shaking hands vigorously, his eyes lit up like candles. “You know about Isa?” he asked, returning to me. “Yes,” I said, in Arabic. “We followed Him here.” “Oh my.” His hands shot to his face. “Let me tell you something,” he went on. “When I was a young boy, a man came through our city, and he was telling stories about Isa to the people.” The rest of the group and the hotel staff moved closer, listening intently. “When this man left, he gave my father a cassette tape with recordings of the stories of Isa, the miracles and teachings of Isa, the people He talked to, and how He lived.”
“Wow,” I said. “Every night, for ten years, my father would play the tape for me and my brothers and sisters. He played it until the tape did not work anymore.” He stopped for a second, caught his breath. “I love these stories of Isa, and I miss them.” “Well,” I said, “we—” He cut me off, excited. “I have heard, from my father and the old men of the city, they say that there are books, sacred books, ancient books that tell the stories of Isa, as they happened, by the friends of Isa. Is this true?”
“Yes,” I said, “and as a matter of fact, we have been giving them out all day.” He almost fainted. I could see his face color, then pale, then color again. He was vibrating with excitement. “Oh please,” he said as he gripped my hand, “you must find one for me, you must give me one. I have to have one.” “All right,” I said, and turned toward the elevator, “I’ll see if I’ve got one left.”
As I rode the elevator up to my room, I realized I was nearly shaking from the same excitement. I almost never see someone who cares about the stories of Jesus like this man did. It’s rare. Back in the States, sermons and teachings often revolve around doctrine, theology, and how to live a more fulfilling life. We seem to have forgotten the power and the humility and the sheer genius of Jesus, His vibrancy and His compassion. To the man in the hotel, Jesus was the ultimate folk hero, a person of mystery and influence, and he was ecstatic about finding the stories of Jesus again. He was thirsty. When I speak in the States, so often the dialogue deteriorates to discussions about church planting, having a purposeful life, or the doctrinal differences between denominations. Sometimes it even goes so low as tithing and worship problems, or water immersion versus other methods of baptism. Almost never does anyone want to talk about Jesus, His stories, teachings, miracles, and compassion for sinners. Jesus isn’t a folk hero in America; He’s a lost relic, an artifact from another age. The elevator dinged and startled me out of my reverie. I needed to find this man a gospel, or he was going to pull his hair out. Or maybe the hotel rates would rise, who knows. Anyway, he needed the stories of Jesus like he needed water and air, and I wanted him to have one almost as bad as he needed one. I tore my room apart. I ripped open my suitcases and threw my clothes all over the room. A shirt hung from the bathroom doorknob, a pair of socks stuck in the lamp. Finally, after scrabbling around in my luggage like a miner digging for ore, I found one. A gospel of Luke. In Arabic,the title was something like “the gospel of Luke, a follower of Jesus.” I snatched it, raced out of the room, and rushed for the lobby.
I will never forget his face when I handed it to him. With tears on his cheeks he held it reverently, lifted it to his forehead, and closed his eyes. He lowered it to his lips, gave it a kiss, and then slowly opened it to look at the print. He lovingly ran his fingers over the pages, and then bolted for the lobby desk. He picked up the phone, dialed rapidly, and spoke even faster. When he hung up, he looked at me and said, “I had to call my father; he will know if these are the same stories of Isa as I heard before.”
We waited for a few minutes, and after some time an aging Iraqi man showed up—gray beard and all. He looked at us a little suspiciously at first and made his way over to his son, who was literally popping up and down with excitement. “Papa,” he said, “these men have come here because they are followers of Isa. I told them about the stories of Isa on the tape, and asked them if they had heard of the writings of the stories, and they gave me one of them.” The old man came closer, picked up the gospel, and lifted it to his face. He read the title, thumbed through the pages, pausing to read here and there, and then he stopped, lifted the book to his lips and kissed it, tears in the corners of his eyes. “Yes,” he said, “this is it. These are the stories of Isa.” He wrung our hands, hugging us to his body, so grateful that he shook.
Medearis, Carl, Speaking of Jesus: The Art of Not-Evangelism (p. 132-136), David C. Cook. Kindle Edition.