How Arab Culture Reminded Me to be More Like Jesus

In between my stays in Jordan and Athens, I have decided to make a three day stop in Rome to rest and write (and work with African refugees one day). When I was sitting in my favorite Sicilian restaurant, Melo, near the Roman Forum, I was drinking some fine Italian wine and reading Wendell Berry’s essay, “Word and Flesh,” in his magnificent collection, What are People For?

Whether I read his poetry or his essays, Wendell Berry’s work convicts and challenges me. He calls into question the life I have chosen to live, the one saturated in North Dallas and southern evangelicalism, and he does so as a follower of Jesus. While much of this particular essay made me feel uncomfortable – in a good way – I want to share with you one selection: 

“We must achieve the character and acquire the skills to live much poorer than we do. We must waste less. We must do more for ourselves and each other. It is either that or continues merely to think and talk about changes that we are inviting catastrophe to make.

“The great obstacle is simply this: the conviction that we cannot change because we are dependent on what is wrong. But that is the addicts excuse, and we know that it will not do.”

If you didn’t know, Muslims around the world are currently observing Ramadan – a sunup to sundown fast where one abstains from food and drink, including water and cigarettes (the hardest part for many!), for 30 days. Around 7:50pm or so, when the Mosques call the faithful to prayer, the fast is broken, and you are able to eat, drink, and smoke.

During my time in Jordan, I probably visited 8 or so Muslim families while the sun, to them, seemed suspended in the air. As soon as we would take a seat, there would be a cup of Syrian coffee or tea in front of us. Many times, they would ask us if we wanted some before bringing it out, but even if we pled with them to not give us anything out of respect for the fast, they would ignore us.

So, not only were they prioritizing hospitality over temptation, they were also extending themselves in ways we cannot even imagine. A little context for you –

Syrian refugees in Jordan aren’t allowed to work legally in the country, and therefore, they have no ability to receive an income through the proper channels. Many of them choose to work under the table, but to work illegally could get them sent to a refugee camp, or even worse, deported back to Syria. Because of their lack of funds, many jump from apartment to apartment as landlords evict them after a few months of not being able to pay rent. On top of that, legal refugees only receive 14 JOD/month ($20 USD) from the government, yet housing costs, at a minimum, $120 JOD/month.

Yet here they were, providing western Christians with coffee and tea (and sometimes snacks) even though they had no money, energy, or hope.

Not only did they provide us the simple gesture of coffee and tea, but each and every family (this is no exaggeration), after consuming multiple servings of their gifts over a span of two hours, invited us to iftar (arabic for breakfast) – the meal which breaks the fast in the evening. Iftar is no basic meal. It is an elaborate, expensive celebration. An arabic feast! So, with no money to their name save what they brought with them from Syria, they prioritized the virtue of hospitality over the potential monetary loss or suffering our presence may bring, and they would have it no other way.

Extreme hospitality is normative in Arab culture and is not strictly confined to Muslims in the region. Over the past year or so, I have been convicted by the likes of Wendell Berry, Restoration Anglican Church, the gospels, my experience at the Glen Workshop, etc. that to live hospitably is very much a characteristic of living like Jesus. But, I have been reluctant to take heed to the promptings of the Spirit; I have made excuses – I am an introvert! I can’t handle hosting people after dealing with middle school students all day! My apartment is messing and smelly. I am a single male – no one wants to eat food I prepare! While I think there are shreds of truth in all of these excuses, none of them are indicative of trusting a loving God to sustain me while I complete the work he has called me to do.

In other words, as Wendell Berry said, I have bought into the addicts excuse — I can’t change. So, I write this to say, you all are invited to my apartment – to eat a meal, to drink coffee, to play Fifa, or to just sit and enjoy each others company. I mean that in all sincerity.

I just had to go to the middle east to actually listen to Jesus.

See you all soon.

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