(Italicized below are the lyrics to Leon Bridges’s song, “Lisa Sawyer.” As I went to a coffee shop in Europe to write this, the Ft. Worth native was gently singing about Lisa’s life and eventual encounter with Jesus. I couldn’t help but connect the lyrics, ever so loosley, to Asad’s story.)
She was born in New Orleans
New Orleans, Louisiana
Branded with the name Lisa Sawyer
Grandmother was Indian
Her mother’s name was Eartha
Swift as the wind
Fierce as fire
Her father’s name was Victor
Worked two jobs to provide for his flock
Asad was born in the Middle East to a strict, religious, Muslim family; his grandfather and father were both Imans. To provide for his flock of congregants and his family, his father taught his communities “jihad.” For many Muslims, jihad is an internal struggle against yourself. To be in jihad means you are actively trying reconcile yourself to God – through good works, prayer, acts of charity, etc. But his father was different. The nourishment he fed his flocks was the jihad of extremists. The struggle was not against the self but was against the infidels – those who didn’t believe in the authority of Mohammed and the Quran. The way you submit to God (Islam means submission) and receive eternal life is by giving your life up in order to kill the infidels. In particular, the Christians.
She was the youngest of seven
She grew up on Louisa Street
Chaos around, but inside, cozy
Small, but a mansion in her eyes
Eyes, eyes, mansion
This was the life Asad was born into. As you can imagine, growing up, his father and mother were fierce and chaotic. Muslims are required to pray five times a day, and if he missed one of the calls to prayer, his mother wouldn’t feed him the next day. Submission to God was ingrained into his very being through these manipulative means..
During his youth he memorized and studied the Quran and won many competitions for his ability to recite and teach the holy books of Islam. He followed in the footsteps of his family’s patriarchs and became an Iman. As an Iman, his father sent him to Europe to convert Christians to Islam.
Never had much money
But was filthy rich
With the wealth you couldn’t get from a dark casino
Or a lottery ticket
They had love
Rich in love
She had the complexion of
The complexion of a sweet praline
Hair long as the sea
Heart warm like Louisiana sun
Voice like a symphony
Of the most beautiful instruments
His voice was beautiful. Intoxicating, even. His flock heeded every word; every word flowed from his interpretation of the Quran – an interpretation taught to him by his father. He was rich in language, knowledge, and power. While abroad, and as he sought to build his mosque, he worked at a small tourist shop selling clothes and trinkets. His boss was a non-practicing Christian – a person he could convert. While conversion was a possibility for her, hate filled his heart, and he knew she could experience an alternative fate at his hands…
Yet, as they continued to work together, she began to recognize his rhythms of prayer and worship. When it was time to pray, she would let him leave work to go to the mosque. Many days, in the hustle and bustle of the job, she would remind him that it was time to leave for prayers. As he would scamper at the door, she would ask him to pray for her. This simple gesture of respect overwhelmed him with a foreign love – a love he wished would spur him to actually pray for her family and business. Instead, it frustrated him because all he could do is recite the Quran for his own sake as he lay face down toward Mecca.
Years earlier, as he was heading to the Mosque to pray in his home country during Ramadan, he came across a poor street cleaner. A duty during Ramadan is to provide charity to those in need, so he gave a few dollars to the man. The man, knowing full well who Asad was and what he did, asked if he could pray for him. Asad, with a half-smile and self-righteous pity, allowed him to pray.
“Thank you, God, for the generosity of Asad. Please let him find peace in your Light. In Isa’s name, Amen.”
At the age of sixteen
She found Christ at an altar
All along he was calling her name
The gospel spoken from an old wrinkly man
While abroad, news came to him about a Christian woman who was thrown into prison in his home town. She drank water in a place where she was not allowed to drink water – the Jim Crow of the Middle East. The government wanted to hang her in order to send a message to those who wouldn’t submit to Islam and the religious tax of their nation. She hired a civil rights attorney to fight for herh case, but his services didn’t last long. The attorney was assassinated, and seven years later, she is still incarcerated.
Asad, after experiencing the love of his boss, and with vague memories of the street worker from years earlier, became infuriated. He scoured the Quran to make sense of this unjust imprisonment. What does Mohammed say about this? Should she be taken away from her two daughters over a glass of water? While she didn’t pay the Islamic tax because she was a Christian, was her incarceration and death really justified?
His knowledge of the Quran was put to the test. Based on his hermeneutical lens, he couldn’t reconcile his feelings, his compassion, with the words he read. And he began to wonder, “Can I believe in the God of the Quran?”
As he laid in bed that night, eyes flittering and body restless from a set of questions challenging his presuppositions, he fell asleep and had a dream.
Asad was walking in a market and noticed a shop full of jewels. A light emanated from the center of the shop, drawing Asad like a siren’s song to the heart of the store. Inside, he found a man, sitting on a chair, surrounded by piles of rubies, diamonds, and gold. The man called with the sweet, cool light of his voice:
“Asad, this is all for you. Please, receive and take it home with you.”
Dumbfounded, Asad responded, “I am a poor man. I can’t afford any of this. How can it all be mine?”
“It is my free gift for you. You cannot pay for this because I have already spent everything – my life – for it. That is why I can give it to you. Please, take it. The jewels are yours.”
Asad was filled with joy, and ran home with the gifts he received from this beautiful man. Startled with the richness he received, Asad woke up. At this point, he knew there was something, someone, out there drawing him in to receive the gift of life.
The next day, he went to his boss and asked her if he could go to her church. He apologized to her for never praying for her, and how in his heart, he hoped she would convert or die. The woman stepped toward him and gave him a hug. With a smile on her face and joy in her heart, she told him that she loved him, and that he is her brother. “And yes, you can go to church with me!”
The following Sunday, he worshipped with his boss. In the middle of the service, he had another vision. The same man from the jewel shop was sitting on a throne in the church with arms spread wide, calling for Asad to come: “You are freely forgiven. All your failed efforts to measure up are worthless. You are loved for who you are. ‘For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.’”
Asad, a radical, Muslim extremist, realized his boss’ God, the one proclaimed as the savior of the world during the service, is Isa – Jesus the Christ. From that moment, his life was never the same.
Since his conversion, Asad has given his life to proclaiming the freedom of Christ. Because of this, he has been beaten to near death two times – arms and legs broken, skull cracked, and stabbed three times. He has been ripped out of his car by a hit man, AK-47 pressed against his face, praying as St. Stephen prayed as the stones hurled toward him, only for the gun to jam allowing for him to escape. He has fled his country – he is now barred from seeing his son and wife – and has been ostracized by his family and community. Instead, through the grace of Jesus, he has submitted to the God who forgives and loves unconditionally, who provides gifts of jewels (hope in this life) and eternal life for no cost.
All along, Christ was calling him home. The people in his life were not a wrinkly old man or a famous pastor or a zealous friend. Instead, it was a poor street worker and a wayward Catholic woman. People who loved and welcomed him even though his thoughts, words, and deeds wanted them dead.
It was the power of Christ in them, working through them, to transform hatred into love, brokenness into wholeness, darkness into life, and death into life.
A Prayer Attributed to St. Francis
Lord, make us instruments of your peace. Where there is hatred, let us sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is discord, union; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy. Grant that we may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love. For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Amen