I woke up this morning thinking about magic carpet rides and tales of a 1,001 nights...
Yep, it's going to be another weird blog so fasten your seat belts......
I wonder if you've ever had a picture to "freeze" in your mind and stay that way for years? And then suddenly you see Aunt Gracie at a reunion and realize that she's totally changed from the way you remembered her. Or Johnny is no longer pushing a trike around as he was in the photo you have but now is sporting a beard and has a deep voice - that type of thing.
When I was in my mid-twenties, I formed some snapshots in my mind of a country called Iran. Angry students climbing over our embassy wall; our people being held hostage for over a year; crowds burning effigies of our president, Jimmy Carter, and shouting, "Death to the Great Satan, Am-ri-ka!!!" I formed the impression that the Iranians were primitive, backward,hate-filled people and that photo stayed in my mind for many years.
When I taught ancient history, I knew that the Persians had an impressive empire that was very tolerant for that day and age. I knew that their poetry, their culture, their love of learning was equally impressive. I knew that they had a heritage that made us Americans look like Johnny-come-latelys, like cultural pikers.
But somehow, I totally divorced what I knew about the Persians from what I knew about Iran. Yet, it's one and the same place. Changed a lot over thousands of years, granted. But still basically the same people. People who have a long history of loving great poetry, beautiful gardens, and life in general.
My perception of Iran began to change in 2006 when the country had a presidential election and "chose" Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as their leader. Everything I read at that time said that the Iranian people didn't want this guy - and that was really news to me! News articles said that a council of 12 religious leaders ran modern-day Persia with a tight-fist and that these leaders (Mullahs) had basically narrowed down the presidential candidates until the people had a choice between Tweedle-Dee and Tweedle-Dum. In other words: no choice at all. You can vote for this religious fanatic or for this one - take your pick.... I had the opportunity to visit with someone from Iran during the election and they verified this was the case - the people didn't want Ahmadinejad but they didn't really have a choice. Over time, he's proven to be a fanatical nutcase.
At the same time, I began to hear about how the great Islamic Revolution that turned Iran upside down in 1979 and led to the taking of our embassy people and the tight-fisted grip of the Mullahs - I began to hear that this great Islamic experiment had totally backfired, failed; basically had turned hundreds of thousands of Iranians against Islam, ironically enough. Honestly, I never dreamed that would ever happen. In my mind, I was still seeing those 30-year-old snapshots of Iranian students yelling, "Death to Am-ri-ka!" and beating themselves on the backs with whips to earn Allah's favor.
It never crossed my mind that many Iranians quickly became disillusioned with the Ayatollah's government and soon after the revolution, began to search for peace in other ways. Sadly, many of them turned to drugs and today it is reported that Iran has the biggest drug problem of any nation in the world. It's probably because they have more people in emotional and spiritual pain than any place else on the planet. Thirty years of being beaten down in the name of religion has taken a huge toll on these people who have such a rich cultural heritage.
At the same time, I have heard repeatedly and have had it verified by someone again who has traveled extensively in the Middle East, that Iranians are coming to Christ by the thousands. Although we don't have a precise number, it's estimated that 700 to 800 Iranians profess faith in Jesus Christ each month. Many are willing to risk death in order to cling to Christ because He gives them peace, He gives them hope. I guess when you've lived without hope, when you finally find it - you are willing to risk everything to hang onto it.
So I'm saying the "snap shots" I formed of Iranian people back in 1979 are faded, cracked, and out-of-date. (And do the Iranian people have reason to hate the West - they are rich in oil and have a troubled past so what do you think? If I were Iranian, I probably would have been yelling "Death to Am-ri-ka" back in the 70's too!) At any rate, while these images remained static in my mind, many Iranian people were moving forward, seeking to leave the past behind in spite of a repressive government that brutally blocks their way.
Now one of their pastors is either in jail awaiting execution or has already been executed today or is in the process of getting a reprieve. I haven't checked the news this morning so I don't know what Pastor Youcef's status is right now. I do know that after he was sentenced to death for the crime of accepting Christ, he went through a series of appeals. At the last one, just days ago, the judge ruled that although Youcef never practiced Islam as an adult, still he had to repent and return to his faith. Youcef asked what he should repent of and return to? Should he go back to blasphemy? The judge told him that since his family had been Muslim, he must return to Islam. Youcef replied, "I cannot." The courage it took to do that, I cannot imagine...
Iran: once known as Persia, the land of flying carpet tales and beautiful poetry. Iran: a land that underwent a harsh revolution in 1979, believing this strict religious experiment would bring peace. Iran: a land where God is working in ways I've never seen here and where people like Pastor Youcef are taking incredibly brave steps in order to share their faith.
I'm sure God will bless you if you do.