Wednesday, July 22, 2009

To the desert

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The story is told of a third-century Christian monk, Abba Agathon, who lived alone in the Egyptian desert:

One day Agathon was going to town. On the roadside, he met a man with paralyzed legs who asked him where he was going.

“To town, to sell some things,” Agathon answered.

The crippled man replied, “Do me the favor of carrying me there.”
So Agathon carried him to town. When they arrived, the man said, “Put me down where you sell your wares.” After Agathon sold something, the man asked, “For how much did you sell it?” Agathon told him. The man said, “Buy me some food.” Agathon did.

When Agathon had sold all his wares and was preparing to leave, the man asked, “Will you do me the favor of carrying me back to the place where you found me?” Agathon picked him up and carried him back to that place.

As the monk prepared to leave him, the man said, “Agathon, you are filled with divine blessings, in heaven and on earth.”

Raising his eyes, Agathon saw not a crippled man, but an angel of the Lord.

Tall tale? Perhaps. The story comes from Sayings of the Desert Fathers, a compilation of maxims and legends attributed to some of the earliest Christian hermits and mystics. They went to the deserts of Sinai, Palestine and other places in the Holy Land, partly to escape the corruption of the cities — but mostly to seek God and do battle with the temptation in their own hearts.

Some of them became unhinged after years alone in the desert. Some were fools. But they were holy fools. Another story about Agathon:

Several monks came to find him in his solitary cell, having heard of his great discernment. Wanting to see if he would lose his temper, they asked, “Aren’t you that Agathon who is said to be a sinner and a proud man?”

“Yes, it is very true,” he answered.

“Aren’t you that Agathon who is always talking nonsense?” they asked.

“I am.”

Again they said, “Aren’t you Agathon the heretic?”

“I am not a heretic,” he instantly shot back.

“Tell us why you accepted everything we cast at you, but repudiated this last insult,” they asked.

He replied, “The first accusations I take to myself, for that is good for my soul. But heresy is separation from God. I have no wish to be separated from God.” They were astonished at his discernment and returned home, edified.

That’s about as complicated as the theology of the early desert monks gets. They didn’t talk much.

“A monk ought not to inquire how this one acts or how that one lives,” advises another saying. “Questions like this take us away from prayer and draw us on to backbiting and chatter. There is nothing better than to keep silent.”

Here is a complete sermon from Abba Paul (died circa 415 A.D.): “Keep close to Jesus.”

What significance do the voices of a few ancient hermits have for our frenetic lives? The answer to that question may lie in another question: If they felt compelled to seek holiness in the wilderness, long ages before the countless distractions of modern life, what about us? We, too, need to seek God in the desert — the desert within our hearts. That’s where most spiritual battles are fought.

The Apostle Paul’s admonition to “fight the good fight of the faith” (1Timothy 6:12) has “nothing external about it at all,” writes Andree Seu. “You will never see someone ‘fight the good fight of the faith.’ It all happened when you weren’t there, alone on a long country walk, just between him and the Lord. That’s where the blood and sweat and dying occurred. By the time you spotted the fellow out in public — in the visible battlefield … pushing away some lucrative job offer or not leaving his wife — the heavy lifting was already done.”

The same applies to the battles that decide whether whole nations and peoples will hear the Gospel. The big, history-changing spiritual struggles begin in prayer. The strongholds of darkness are defeated by people on their knees. Will a gifted young person pursue a prestigious career or serve in a place most folks have never heard of? Will a potentially great church commit itself to reaching the lost or continue playing it safe?

And always, silent skirmishes rage within each soul. Will you serve Christ today, or will you serve your own desires? “If there is no constant battle, there is probably no authentic life,” Seu contends. “The battle can be joyful, but it is a battle.”

The desert monks understood that.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Imam on the move

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Yusuf* was a young man in a hurry when I met him in London nearly two years ago.

Just back from a much-needed holiday, the 20-something imam (prayer leader) of one of London’s Muslim mosques was playing catch-up: juggling meetings, e-mails and text messages when he wasn’t leading prayers. The busy round of activities for the holy month of Ramadan was gearing up.

But Yusuf took a short break to talk about his life and work. And his hobbies: soccer, tennis and a punching bag he pounds at home.

“I love theme parks, too,” he added enthusiastically. “I love the extreme fear rides” — the faster the better.

The recreation gave him a brief respite from his many responsibilities, which included teaching Islam, overseeing the mosque’s school, counseling and office management. He wanted to spend more time introducing what he called the “right message” of Islam to the community — and countering the media-fueled image of Islamic radicals in London. He referred to the radicals as “so-called Muslims who give Islam a bad name.”

But the mosque council — Yusuf’s deacon board, you might say — wanted him to handle even more of what he called “stupid, like, administration stuff” around the mosque.

“You don’t need an imam to do that,” he complained, shaking his full-bearded head and adjusting his skullcap. “The true way of the Prophet (Muhammad) we try to emulate is that he went out and got people and brought them in. But the committee members I am under, their mentality is you need to be here. I have so much stuff to do here that I don’t actually get out and do the stuff I really want to do.”

Yusuf’s family came from abroad, but he’s a Brit — born and bred in England. He attended school with other children but also memorized the entire Quran, Islam’s holy book, in Arabic. Then came time to choose a course in business, law or continuing Islamic studies.

“I prayed and asked God for guidance, and I asked my family members and teachers, ‘What way should I go?’” he recounted. “I went to sleep and I got a sign that following and understanding the Quran and the saints and the prophets in detail is the way for me to go.”

So, at 18, he began an intensive, eight-year course at an Islamic school. Even after that, not all Muslim scholars become imams. “As an imam, you have to be a counselor to people because you are a leader of a community,” he explained. “People come to you with their problems and you’ve got to be able to help them.”

People come to him with plenty of problems — especially family issues. Many Muslim marriages are in crisis. Couples enter his office asking for divorces; he tries to help them reconcile. Immigrant parents come to him deeply worried about their children, who get into drugs, drinking and other kinds of trouble in secular London.

After describing his busy life, Yusuf looked at a text message on his cell phone. He apologized for cutting short our visit and got up to rush to the next appointment.

I’ve wondered in the months since how Yusuf’s life is unfolding.

Does he spend more time in the community, as he wanted, or is he still swamped with “stupid, like, administration stuff”? Many a pastor can sympathize with his frustration about conflicting demands.

I mention Yusuf because Ramadan is approaching once again. The annual season when Muslims fast and seek God begins Aug. 22 this year. For some, it’s little more than a family ritual. For sincere spiritual seekers, however, it’s a time of deep repentance and prayer. That’s why followers of Christ pray for the world’s more than 1 billion Muslims throughout Ramadan.

Imams influence millions of Muslims. Who influences imams? If frequent reports from around the world are true, Christ Himself. As with so many other Muslims who begin to seek Christ, the encounter often begins in dreams.

In Southeast Asia, an influential imam became a believer after repeated dreams about a white-clothed man who told him to study the Bible. He reportedly has led some 3,000 other Muslims to faith in Jesus. He asks them if they have had similar dreams of a man clothed in white robes. If so, he tells them, “That is Jesus. He wants to speak with You, because He wants you to follow Him.”

In North Africa, an ex-imam was jailed years ago after becoming a follower of Christ. He led many fellow Muslim inmates to faith, however. The “Christian imam” has been transferred from one prison to another. The same thing happens each time: He starts churches in the prisons.

In another region, an evangelistic team arrived in a Muslim village to show the JESUS film. The largest wall in the village was the wall of the mosque, so team members asked the local imam for permission to project the film onto it. He granted their request. That night, after the film was shown, he was the first to respond to the call of Christ. Hundreds followed.

Perhaps Yusuf, the busy young imam in London, will respond to Christ one day. Pray for him — and for all the imams of the world.

*(Name changed)