The next day, Professor R joined Brother Andrew and me as we drove to Nazareth to visit Elias Chacour, a Melkite priest. On the drive, the two friends talked about the current situation of Christianity in Palestine, and Brother Andrew asked the professor to set up a meeting with the Grand Mufti in Jerusalem. He was constantly learning and seeking to influence well-placed Muslim leaders with the gospel. He was never shy about presenting biblical views, yet he listened more than talked.
On the drive back to Bethlehem, the professor and I got acquainted. What do two strangers from different cultures and religions discuss? We talked about our families and careers. In the process, I discovered he was a writer, something we both shared. There was a connection. I told him about the new book I was writing with Brother Andrew. He said he had published three novels and gave me a synopsis of the stories. I would have liked to have read one of them, but they were in Arabic.
Later that week, Brother Andrew and I hosted Professor R and his wife, along with Bishara and his wife Selwa, for dinner at a Chinese restaurant in Bethlehem. In better times, this restaurant had been a lively meeting place, but we were the only customers that night. I took the opportunity to ask the professor questions about Islam. After all, he lectured on Islam in various universities. He graciously answered many questions about the tenants of the faith.
Knowing that the Haj pilgrimage to Mecca was one of the five pillars of Islam, I asked if he would explain what the pilgrimage entailed. It turned out that Professor R had led several groups on this once-in-a-lifetime journey. For the next hour, the professor turned our restaurant into a classroom. He explained all the preparations that a person needed to make before the trip to Mecca. All debts had to be settled, all broken relationships restored, and the pilgrim had to purify his heart. The Haj lasted three weeks with various rituals in three different cities.
Near the end of his lecture, the professor shared that if the pilgrim spoke even one word in anger while on this pilgrimage, then his pilgrimage was considered a failure. He should immediately return home. Brother Andrew couldn’t believe it.
“You mean with those huge crowds, millions of people, if you get upset because you are jostled and you push back and shout ‘Watch where you are going!’…”
The professor shook his head sadly. “Then the pilgrimage is over. You failed.”
That night, Brother Andrew and I talked about the amazing instruction we had received. I commented that the professor was one of the gentlest, most religious men I’d met. Andrew agreed. Two things struck us: how desperately dedicated Muslims want to please God, and how sad that they know nothing of God’s grace.
On our next trip to Israel, the professor visited us at BBC. We had prepared strong Arab coffee and some sweets for him, but he declined, saying he was fasting for Ramadan, the annual 30-day Muslim fast. But Ramadan had ended four days earlier! We were confused. The professor patiently explained: during Ramadan, each day of fasting equals 10 days of fasting during the rest of the year. If a Muslim chooses to fast six additional days, then he is credited with one year of fasting.
Brother Andrew and I were stunned. This dedication was above and beyond that required by this professor’s religion. Wouldn’t that give him assurance he would be granted entrance into Paradise? But when we asked, he shook his head.
“You can never know for sure if you’ve earned paradise. All you can do is more good works.”
My friendship with this professor gave me a new compassion for Muslims. Now I understood why Brother Andrew loved talking with them. How could you not want them to hear the good news that we are freed from the law, and that Jesus paid the price guaranteeing our place in Heaven?
For nearly 20 years Al Janssen worked closely with Brother Andrew, the founder of Open Doors. Together they traveled to Muslim countries, wrote six books, met with political leaders and spoke to ministry donors. This blog tells the story of their friendship and some of the many lessons Al learned from this beloved mission leader.
Each week, Al Janssen shares about his journey with Brother Andrew. Read all of his posts in this series here.