Conversation with John

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This is John. He is eating a Bowen Mango, an almost ritualised summer time gift for visitors to Queensland. John is the Associate Professor of World Christianity and Islam at Columbia Theological Seminary.

Currently he lives in Atlanta, but he is originally from Ghana. He grew up in a Muslim family. He became a Christian through a dear friend of his, an older boy at his school who protected him from bullying. After his conversion he was told to leave the house by his mother, as his mother believed it was unsafe for him to stay. He fled to a nearby country where he was exploited and suffered. He journeyed with five other boys and as the only literate member he was encouraged to read to the others at night. John only possessed one book, a Gideon’s New Testament. It was here in the jungle that he was first referred to as “Pastor”. How prophetic. After hearing that his mother had passed away he returned to Ghana. After a difficult conversation with his father, he was accepted back into his family. His uncle paid for John to go to seminary and so John became a true pastor. He’s now an academic and international speaker.

When he was in Australia for CMS he stayed with us and I had the opportunity to talk to him about the Heart in Islam and Christianity. The interesting thing for me to note was John’s own reaction when I told him about this website. He was a little surprised. Surprised that someone like me, in the West, might take an interest in the Heart. I can’t say that I was surprised at his surprise. We in the West appear to have forsaken the Heart for the sake of the mind. Rather than keeping the Heart in our minds, we have let the Heart slip from it.

This mistake, is not exclusive to the West, or to Christendom. John commented that “because some (Islamic) people have a concern for theocracy, it has failed to get people to fall in love and be transformed”. He noted that “Islam is about the journey from the outside in, that’s why Shariah is important”.

I thought about this comment for some time. An old counseling text book that I read 20 odd years ago called “Inside Out” by Larry Crabb haunted me a little in a soothing way. I considered John to be onto something significant. What does that mean, ‘the inside out’?

I believe this means that the hidden parts of us, such as the spirit and the Heart, are where the process of change begins. Coming “out” from these areas are the more obvious parts of human functioning – the mind (observed by the person who owns the Heart and Spirit), and then behaviour (observed by all others).

The Christian journey starts with love, God’s love. This love washes through our minds and manifests in our behaviour. For many moral and religious codes the process is the reverse. It starts with behaviour. The behaviour is thought to help us change our mind, and through this we hope to get love for the system or code that we submit to. Adherents to this process believe behaviour to be efficacious in producing love. But it is not. If that were the case everyone who went to an austere and puritanical school, everyone who had rigid rule based upbringings in their families would be in love with what they had been brought up with.

What transforms us most appears to be love. Consider the words of George Eliot in Middlemarch “There are natures in which, if they love us, we are conscious of having a sort of baptism and consecration: they bind us over to rectitude and purity by their pure belief about us; and our sins become that worst kind of sacrilege which tears down the invisible altar of trust”

Here we see the steps through the Heart: From connection to direction. From love to morality. This process, from the inside out, appears to be what is distinctive about Christianity. It seeks to establish God’s extravagant love in our Hearts and let this take its natural course. We become bound by the purity of it. We become a new creation, unwilling to transgress the love shown to us on the cross. John reiterated this biblical theme to me, and just how different it is than other systems when he said “This is the great contrast between Christianity and Islam.” He continued, “In Christianity you are a new creation”. The purity of God’s love is the starting point for the transformational process, but it is also so transformational that we are made new by it.

It is appropriate I think, that having someone like John in the house led me to be bound to doing the right thing by him. Being a loving person who is so respectful of others compelled me to be a better host. I guess that is what love entails. In a small way he mimicked the larger story of God’s transformational process.

Thank you John, for the elegance of your sophisticated mind, the clarity of your reason, and most of all – just being a “fair dinkum” good bloke.

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