A few months ago, my writing coach told me about a call for papers at The Other Journal, which publishes pieces on themes at the intersection of theology and culture.
“It might be a good fit for one of your chapters,” he wrote.
Flattered and grateful, I took a look at the prompt.
“...[W]e seek theologically infused contributions on the theme of reimagination...What aspects of traditional church life and practice need to be reimagined (and how?) in order to properly engage the challenges and nuances of our contemporary moment?...As always, we are particularly interested in...contributions that open our ears to the peacefully contrarian Christ by way of their distinctive style, ideas, and progressive consideration of the other.”
I was intrigued and immediately began polishing a chapter from my memoir-in-progress. The chapter I submitted is called Cultural Infusion. A basic summary: A young evangelical mother is set on converting the Iranian Muslim woman from her kids’ playgroup, but after she has a chance to learn from mothers of other faiths, she learns how to stay true to her hopes while actively loving her new friend for who she is. Basically, the point of the piece is to reimagine how to engage in conversation with people who are different from me, especially when it is inconvenient or uncomfortable, and how the church could push people outside their comfort zones to make that happen.
After I finished editing, I emailed it off and held my breath. I had done it at least. I had submitted a piece for publication for the first time.
Two days later, I was surprised and elated to receive a positive response from an editor. He told me that my piece looked “promising” and asked me to provide a little “front matter” to include with it before he sent it to another editor for a second look.
Sure! I cheered at my computer. I began completing the little worksheet but balked when they wanted to know my Twitter handle. Oh no, I thought. I might have to join Twitter.
Long story short, I joined Twitter (@evenincambridge), and now I wonder if my lack of tweets and followers is the reason why I never heard back from them again. Maybe I should have just left that space blank and not tried to look hip.
From a Christian perspective, the story is a humbling reminder of the power of God and the daily failings of every one of us who claims to live for him. I had hoped that I had an amazing story to tell in my piece Cultural Infusion about my one-time Iranian friend who for one half-beat seemed curious about the church, but the way Nayeri captures his mother’s conversion reminds me of a story Tim Keller tells in The Prodigal God regarding a woman overcome to tears by new belief in the Gospel. As he tells it:
“I asked her what was so scary about unmerited free grace? She replied something like this: "If I was saved by my good works -- then there would be a limit to what God could ask of me or put me through. I would be like a taxpayer with rights. I would have done my duty and now I would deserve a certain quality of life. But if it is really true that I am a sinner saved by sheer grace -- at God's infinite cost -- then there's nothing he cannot ask of me.”
Daniel Nayeri’s mother Sima reminds me of this woman. Sima knew there was nothing God couldn’t ask of her, and she gave up everything to follow him. The following is an excerpt of Sima’s conversion story. Spoiler alert here. But I think you will still find the book amazing if you read this first:
“My mom was a sayyed from the bloodline of the Prophet… In Iran, if you convert from Islam to Christianity or Judaism, it’s a capital crime. / That means if they find you guilty in religious court, they kill you…. / [After his six-year-old sister announced she had decided to be a Christian], Sima, my mom, read about [Jesus] and became a Christian too. Not just a regular one, who keeps it in their pocket. She fell in love. She wanted everybody to have what she had, to be free, to realize that in other religions you have rules and codes and obligations to follow to earn good things, but all you had to do with Jesus was believe he was the one who died for you. / And she believed.
“When I tell the story in Oklahoma, this is the part where the grown-ups always interrupt me. They say, “Okay, but why did she convert?” / Cause up to that point, I’ve told them about the house with the birds on the walls, all the villages my grandfather owned, all the gold, my mom’s medical practice -- all the amazing things she had that we don’t have anymore because she became a Christian. / All the money she gave up, so we’re poor now. / But I don’t have an answer for them.
“How can you explain why you believe anything? So I just say what my mom says when people ask her. She looks them in the eye with the begging hope that they’ll hear her and she says, “Because it’s true.” / Why else would she believe it? / It’s true and it’s more valuable than seven million dollars in gold coins, and thousands of acres of Persian countryside, and ten years of education to get a medical degree, and all your family, and a home, and the best cream puffs of Jolfa, and even maybe your life. / My mom wouldn’t have made the trade otherwise. / If you believe it’s true, that there is a God and He wants you to believe in Him and He sent His Son to die for you -- then it has to take over your life. It has to be worth more than everything else, because heaven’s waiting on the other side. /
“That or Sima is insane. / There’s no middle. You can’t say it’s a quirky thing she thinks sometimes, cause she went all the way with it. / If it’s not true, she made a giant mistake. / But she doesn’t think so. / She had all that wealth, the love of all those people she helped in her clinic. They treated her like a queen. She was a sayyed. / And she’s poor now. / People spit on her on buses. She’s a refugee in places people hate refugees, with a husband who hits harder than a second-degree black belt because he’s a third-degree black belt. And she’ll tell you-- it’s worth it. Jesus is better. / It’s true. / We can keep talking about it, keep grinding our teeth on why Sima converted, since it turned the fate of everybody in the story. It’s why we’re here hiding in Oklahoma. / We can wonder and question and disagree. You can be certain she’s dead wrong. / But you can’t make Sima agree with you. / It’s true. / Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again. / This whole story hinges on it. / Sima -- who was such a fierce Muslim that she marched for the Revolution, who studied the Quran the way very few people do -- read the Bible and knew in her heart that it was true.” (195-7)
I dare you to find a conversion story more powerful. Really, I’d like to read it. Still, this isn’t the end of Nayeri’s story.
Once Sima and her children escaped Iran, they stalled in Italy, where they waited for a country to accept them. Nayeri describes the suffering refugees endured from feeling unwelcome, where their Italian hosts would feed the refugees hot dogs so that they wouldn’t get used to the pasta and stay in Italy. As Nayeri’s friend in camp puts it, “They spend extra money just to tell us we’re not welcome.” (287)
We all know the feeling of being unwanted -- from unrequited love or, as in my daughter’s case recently, from not being allowed back in a school building for 353 days -- but how do you suffer rejection when you can’t otherwise move forward with your life, when you are trapped in an eternal no man’s land? Yet, Nayeri’s mother found a way. At each roadblock, she found a way, and her son makes it repeatedly clear that she is the hero of his story. The Christian families who helped them, with schooling or with American sponsorship, played a role, and yet, while Nayeri makes it clear that he appreciated their help, their offerings come across as pretty pitiful.
When we think of asylum seekers, do we understand where they are coming from? How much do we as comfortable American Christians underestimate what they are willing to sacrifice for their beliefs?
“I don’t know how my mom was so unstoppable despite all that stuff [meaning the physical abuse she suffers in her new American marriage] happening. I dunno. Maybe it’s anticipation. / Hope. / The anticipation that the God who listens in love will one day speak justice. / The hope that some final fantasy will come to pass that will make everything sad untrue.” (346)
And yet, it’s not a fantasy, right? It’s written in Revelation that,
“He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away. / He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” (Revelation 21:4-5)
Do we believe that? And until then, in this life, what would we not give? What do we not owe him? What can he not ask of us?
Read Nayeri’s book. Be humbled. Then ask what you can do for Him.
Here you will find a catalog of my writing and reflections.