A Friend of MuslimsAuthor Carl Medearis has earned a voice among Islamic leaders. Servant magazine interviewed him about Islam, religion and his new book Muslims, Christians and Jesus.
Carl Medearis has spent the last 25 years loving Muslims, living 12 of those years in Beirut, Lebanon. Through his unique and strategic approach he has taught Muslim university students, business professionals and political leaders to live their lives by the principles of Jesus. Today Carl spends much of his time working with leaders both in the West and in the Arab world with the goal of seeing a total transformation of the Arab Middle East through the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. But how did he earn a voice among Islamic leaders? Carl talked with Servant about Islam, religion, and his new book Muslims, Christians, and Jesus.
Phil Callaway (PC) for Servant Magazine: Thanks for an inspiring book.
Carl Medearis (CM): You’re welcome. Anybody who’s in missions knows about Prairie Bible College. I’ve met your alumni all along the way. You have a great history.
PC: Most books on Islam make me paranoid. Your book gave me hope.
CM: Many of them breed more fear than anything else. There’s enough fear going around these days: finances, terrorism, Obama. I didn’t think we need another book about Islam and the coming Jihad. But they sell pretty well. They do. That’s why I’m surprised at how well this book is selling. People love sensationalism and what makes news are negative stories, not “Muslims are nicer than you think.” But I think it’s the message the church needs to hear. I believe it reflects the heart of Jesus.
PC: You’ve spent all this time in the Middle East. Why?
CM: God very clearly called us to Beirut. We sold everything, took our kids and moved. We didn’t know anyone, didn’t speak Arabic, we just wanted to lead people to Jesus. I started teaching English and Western History after the civil war had ended. The country was still bombed out and a mess. We talked to people about Jesus, built relationships, had meals with Lebanese, learned Arabic, and got used to the culture. We spent more time with our Lebanese Muslim friends than with anyone else. Our kids were the only Americans in their school; their best friends were Lebanese. When they were asked about religion, they simply said that they followed Jesus.
PC: What do Muslims think of when they hear the word “Christian”?
CM: They might think of freedom, capitalism, liberty, democracy. But they also confuse it with Hollywood movies, pornography, and divorce. We export dysfunctional families, books and websites that spread filth around the world, and sadly, when Muslims look at that they think of Christians. In Beirut there was an actual line drawn between what was called Muslim West Beirut and Christian East Beirut. If you wanted to gamble or do drugs, guess where you went? To the “Christian” side. Of course, we know this doesn’t reflect Christ, but Muslims can’t figure out the real nuance of difference between the word Christian and a real Christian.
PC: What does a Muslim think of when he hears the word “Jesus”?
CM: There’s immediate respect. They may not believe as we do that he is the Son of God, but in the Qur’an Jesus is mentioned some 90 times, all of them positive. He’s called the Word of God, the Messiah—although they don’t really understand what that means. He did miracles, he lived a pure and sinless back at the end to judge the living and the dead. If a Muslim says to me, “I believe in Jesus; he’s a great prophet,” instead of saying, “Yeah, but…” I say, “That’s fantastic. Let’s talk about him.”
PC: Are people coming to Christ in the Middle East?
CM: In places like Sudan, Iran, Iraq, God is doing amazing things. Hundreds of thousands of Iranian Shiite Muslims have come to faith in Christ in the last 15 to 20 years. I have many first hand reports of Iraqi Muslims coming to Christ.
PC: How is this happening?
CM: A recent study showed that the overwhelming majority came to Christ because of personal spiritual revelation and through miracles. Very few embraced Jesus due to the use of apologetics or doctrinal debate. At least three times Muslims told me that they had a dream about Jesus the night before and then I “happened” to stumble across their path and they’re very open to receive what I have to say. In a hotel in Basra, Iraq, one of the staff told me that 20 years before someone told his father that Jesus has a book out and he should do whatever it takes to get one. He asked, “Does Jesus have a book?” I said, “Yes. And I have one.” When I presented it to him, he held it to his forehead, kissed it, broke down in tears and ran out of the hotel. Later he came running back to tell us that his father said it was the real book of Jesus. “Do you have any more?” he asked. “We want to give it to our relatives.”
PC: Is Islam a religion of peace?
CM: I don’t like to say it’s a religion of peace or a religion of violence because some people who call themselves Muslims are peaceful and a few are violent. Some who have called themselves Christians have been violent but most have been people of peace. Of the 1.4 billion Muslims obviously there are some who are evil people who commit acts of terrorism, but the vast majority simply want to raise their family and they are very embarrassed and horrified by the fact that people kill innocent civilians in the name of their religion. Many know about Islam only from what we see on CN or hear in the coffee shop. They equate it with terrorism. I have lived and loved and shared and grieved with Muslims for over 25 years. In the few acts of violence I have encountered, I have never once seen a radical terrorist living in accordance with any higher standard of values: Muslim, Christian, or otherwise. The great majority of Muslims want a safe and peaceful life with their family and friends.
PC: What do you say when asked if you are religious?
CM: I say, “Absolutely not!” I used to be. There’s a lot of great stuff that comes out of religion, like boundaries, rules to live by. People who are religious are often good-living people. But what matters is this: Have you seen Jesus for who he really is? Has he filled your heart and mind? Does he make you walk and talk and act differently? When I first start talking about Jesus people say, “Oh, you must be religious.” And I’ll say, “You probably haven’t really read much about Jesus. We should read about Jesus together and you can tell me whether you think he’s religious or not.”
PC: You say Christians need to learn to have fun.
CM: I’ve found that laughter and hanging out over food and friends anywhere in the world opens the hearts of people. If you don’t know how to party, get help from someone who does. At the same time, know and understand your boundaries and cultural norms so you don’t offend more people than you win. If you’re celebrating with Muslims it will be a clean party. There’s a lot of talk, friendship, lots of laughs.
PC: Some say they can’t find any bridge-building opportunities within Islam.
CM: The Qur’an is packed full of stuff about Jesus. So when I begin a conversation with a Muslim I start with Jesus. I start in the Gospels and then I go right and left. I would spend the first chunk of time in Matthew, Mark, Luke and John and when they need more explanation, for instance, why in God’s sovereignty the crucifixion had to happen, I go to the Old Testament. Then the writings of Paul—actually the rest of the whole Bible explains the life, death, resurrection and ministry of Jesus. There’s no book that doesn’t explain some part of the story of Christ. But I don’t start there. I start with Jesus and Muslims don’t just put up with it, they love it. They celebrate every year a huge festival where they slaughter a sheep for the atonement of their sins because Abraham was asked to sacrifice his son. What’s the message? God provided a lamb that takes away the sins of the world. Does that sound like a bridge or what?
PC: What is the greatest apologetic when talking to Muslims?
CM: It starts with a ‘J’ and rhymes with Jesus. I stick relentlessly to Jesus. And when I do the conversation begins. You and I know that he is Lord and Savior, that he is God in the flesh, but if someone we’re talking to doesn’t know that, it is presumptuous to begin there. I start with what we agree on. We agree that Jesus of Nazareth lived. So let’s talk about his life and decide who he was. I don’t want to be following the wrong Jesus. There may be things I don’t know about him and hopefully you can point this out to me and we’ll grow closer to him together. I have yet to find someone anywhere who’s not ready to do that. I’m not encouraging Christians to be wishywashy, but I don’t argue with my Muslim friends. I try to nudge the discussion back to the person, works, and words of Jesus. We are not here to convert people to Christianity, but to turn people’s hearts toward the Creator.
PC: Many have not experienced the success at leading people to Jesus that you have. What is your secret?
CM: I think that many missionaries have the wrong message: Christianity is a better religion than Islam and you should switch. It doesn’t work. Too many in ministry are beaten up and overworked and overtired because they are planting churches, they are missionaries, they are taking Jesus places and they are getting very tired doing the work that God is supposed to do. I just hang out with people, try to make friends, and talk about Jesus all the time. I don’t build friendships in order to share the Gospel. I just build friendships because I love people and I share Jesus because he’s the most important thing in my life. I’ve said to Muslims, “You talk about Jesus and he’s in the Qur’an but I don’t see much action. What if we together really thought about following him?” I’ve said this in Saudi Arabia in public places. I’ve said it to Saudi royal family members and they never say, “No, you can’t do that.” Muslims are not offended by this message. When I meet someone I don’t start with differences, I honor the culture and try to fit in. When we talk about faith, we tend to get very quickly into things that we disagree on. Jesus didn’t do that and neither did Paul. I think the success we’ve had in the Muslim world shows how well that works.
PC: How would you like to be remembered?
CM: As a man who loved Jesus. That’s all.
Phil Callaway is the author of It's Always Darkest Before the Fridge Door Opens (Bethany House). Visit him at www.philcallaway.com.Phil Callaway is the editor of Servant magazine, author of a dozen books and a popular speaker. His web site is: www.philcallaway.com.
Originally published in Servant Magazine, Issue 81, 2009.
Used with permission. Copyright © 2009 Christianity.ca.