What Growing up in a Muslim Country Taught us About Christianity


By Robynn Bliss & Marilyn Gardner

For Muslims around the world, the holy month of Ramadan ended on Monday night. Here in Kurdistan the excitement as the month ended was palpable. Loud chanting at 4:30 in the morning from the mosque next door marked the end of the fast and the beginning of the feast. The piece below was written seven years ago, but in an age where fear rules and friendship is held back for fear of the one who is other, it feels important to republish it.


As Christians raised in Pakistan our memories of Ramadan days are as strong as our memories of the Call to Prayer waking us at dawn.

As we think about the end of Ramadan and the Eid celebrations that have been going on around the world, our minds and hearts remember what we have learned about our own faith from our Muslim friends.

  • At an early age we learned that God is not North American. He spans nation and ocean, culture and ethnicity. To bind him to one nation is idolatry. To attach Him to one country elevates our own perceptions of that country. Secretly believing that God is North American justifies our private beliefs that we are superior. It’s not true.
  • We learned that Christians are not the only ones with deep faith. Indeed the Muslims that we were surrounded by were zealous of keeping to the tenants of their faith. They were sincere. They were devoted.
  • We learned that worship has little to do with pews or worship bands; versions of scripture or language. Worship has everything to do with the heart.
  • We learned that as women with white skin we had arrogant tendencies, as though we had  birthrights. When our behavior reflected that it was ugly.
  • We learned that caring for women and children, the poor and the broken was never to be separated from the love of God and his call to holiness. We learned that the invitation of the Father that extends to the those in the “highways and byways” included the beggar woman, the street children, the dismembered, the leper.
  • We learned that the mud huts and dusty streets of Pakistan were far closer to the streets walked by Jesus than the clean suburbs and white steeples that we encountered every four years in the United States. Our Jesus was brown and slightly sweaty with dusty calloused feet; he wasn’t pink and pressed and clean. Blue eyes he did not have.
  • We learned that Christian community comes in all denominations and many interpretations, that sprinkling and dunking could be argued with equal passion but would ultimately not change our need for a Saviour. We learned that the strong cultural value of individualism in the west could make it harder to selflessly love. When Jesus reiterated that the greatest commandment was loving God and the second greatest was loving each other he meant it. Love is the language of the community. Any other dialect is suspect.
  • We learned that the word “Allah” is the Arabic word for God and, while one can argue character qualities of God, to be afraid of that word was not wise. Fear rarely motivates faith and holy conversation.
  • We learned that people are not the enemy. And costumes, like book covers, are not to be judged.
  • We learned that bridge-building often means drinking 25 cups of tea and serving 100. Hospitality fleshes out acceptance and leads to friendship and deep loyalty. Those are strong bridges built of steel and concrete.
  • We learned that Muslims make the best of friends; that to share our hearts with them grew our understanding and faith. We were shown kindness, generosity and acceptance. We grew to understand their love for a good joke;their loyalty, their devotion.  We learned that once you have a Muslim friend, you always have a friend.  They will grieve your losses as if they were their own. They will enter your celebrations with abandon!
  • We learned that being invited to break the fast was a gift, not something to refuse because of difference in belief, but something to enter with joy and prayer – prayer for our friends and prayer for their land. A land we called home.

And as we close this post we offer you a taste of the Eid celebrations we enjoyed for so many years.  It is the journey of going from the simplicity of daily life and the discipline of fasting to the joyous contrast of color, noise and taste of celebrations! It is deep-fried sweet sticky gulab jamun. It is color-infused sweet rice with chunks of fresh coconut and plump raisins; plain rice suddenly dressed up with fatty morsels of meat and sticks of cinnamon; bread normally made on a flat dry pan now fried in oil and served with sweet oily cream of wheat cereal. Muslims knew how to celebrate and invited us into their celebrations. May we do the same during our joyous feasts on Easter and Christmas.

Through the richness of our lives and watching life unfold at weddings, at Eid celebrations, and at the breaking of the fast, we learned more of the creative mystery of the God we continue to love and serve. 

This post was first published by Robynn Bliss and Marilyn Gardner on Communicating Across Boundaries.

On Harassment: Freedom from the Silence of Shame

silence of shame

Long ago on a spring day in Cairo, I was walking across a small footbridge to the area of the city where I lived. I had crossed the footbridge hundreds of times, usually with one or three children hanging on to my skirt and in my arms. This time I was alone, lost in my thoughts and enjoying the walk.

I had single-parented four kids for ten days, and I was pregnant with our fifth child. I was tired, lonely, and hormone-infused.

There was minimal traffic on the foot bridge at this time of day, but as I began heading down toward the street, a man started walking up the other side. I thought nothing of it, until out of the corner of my eye I saw him walking directly toward me. Before I could react, he had reached out and grabbed my breasts. I began screaming like a mad-woman. I shouted in Arabic at the top of my lungs “Shame! For shame! You are a Muslim? You are not a good Muslim!”  He had picked a lonely, hormone-infused pregnant woman to harass, and my anger knew no bounds. Hearing the commotion, some men on the street began walking towards me. They were clearly concerned. “What happened?” “How can we help?”

While some people share stories of their language skills improving when they share the gospel message, mine always tended to improve when I was angry. My Arabic was perfect as I screamed and cried my distress. The men could not have been kinder. “We’ll find him! We’ll get him! This is not Islam, he is not a good Muslim!” they assured me. I remember their kindness and concern in vivid detail.

Shaking and crying, I continued on my way. The walk was ruined, the bright spring day dark with shame and anger. As I turned down the street to my house I saw my friend Jenny on a bicycle. Jenny knew something was wrong, and rode quickly over to me. I began to weep. “I try so hard!” I said. “I try to be respectful, to keep my body covered, to appear as a God-fearing woman. I try so hard, but it’s never enough. I still get touched. I still get harassed. I still bear the humiliation of being ogled.”

On that busy street corner in Cairo, Jenny held me in her arms, comforting me. She took me to her house and made me tea. And then we talked. We talked about shame and touch, we talked about loving a country so much, but hating that we accepted this harassment as a normal part of life. We cried together and talked about how tentacles of shame too easily crept in to our thoughts, distorting our vision and theology and convincing us that it was our fault that men ogled and touched. We talked about the code of silence that surrounded harassment for women in our world. Silence that spelled unhealthy views of our bodies and our self-worth; silence that spoke loudly of humiliation.

We were both raising daughters, beautiful, innocent daughters who loved Egypt as their home. We didn’t want them to get the message that their bodies were anything but good and healthy, created by a loving God to bear his stamp – his image.

It’s been a long time since that incident. But the intensity of it stays with me. It was a few years later that I discovered an article written by a friend of mine called “Raising Radiant Daughters in Dark Places.” I devoured the article like a starving person devours a feast. Here was truth. Here was a woman who grew up as I did, and had broken the code of silence and given me a context for expression and articulating what it was to be harassed; what it looked like to break the silence.

“This is the album that stays at the bottom of the drawer and is never shown to anyone. It’s the album of shame of what it can feel like to be white and Western and young and vulnerable and female in an Islamic context. It’s the album which stores the  photos that didn’t turn out quite right- a photo for every stare, every rude gesture or comment, the touches, the pinches, the jostles and jeers.                 Photos distorted and smudged with lies about what it means to be a woman.  A woman who, in truth, is so wonderfully God’s image­bearer…the delight of His eyes…the joy of His heart.”

I will not try to summarize the article here, because it is too important and I want it to be widely read in its entirety. But I will summarize some of what has helped me through the years as I work through shame.

As one made in the image of God, my body is good. The first thing I need to do is connect my head and my heart about what it is to be made in the image of God. It’s so easy to know the words, without really understanding them at a heart level. As his image-bearer, all of me is good. “God saw what he created and called it ‘good.’” Man can distort that, twist it, repackage it – but the truth will never die. God saw what he created and he called it good. The beauty of those words are a healing balm. Every wrinkle, every laughter line, every stretch mark, every mole – my body is made in his image to be used for His Glory.

The pain and shame around these stories should never be dismissed. I remember talking to a woman who was struggling almost daily with harassment. When she would try and talk to her husband, he kept on saying “It’s no big deal! Just don’t focus on it.” And then he came home one day livid, because someone had spit on him. She looked him in the eye and said “It’s no big deal! Just don’t focus on it.” BAM! He never dismissed the harassment again; instead he began to protect when he was present, and listen and comfort when he wasn’t.

There is a time for righteous anger. I was angry and I screamed. It wasn’t just fear that made me scream, it was deep anger that I had been violated. This anger was warranted. We should not be told to “shush” or to not make a scene. I’m glad I made a scene. Initially in making a scene, I was comforted by Muslim men who did not dismiss my anger, but echoed it.  I needed that. I needed to see that they too were angry, that they were not brushing me off and laughing at me. This was a huge part of the story. We have a right to be angry when violated. Anger can move us to action, to speaking out against lies and speaking up for truth.

Incarnational living does not mean accepting everything about the cultures where we find ourselves. I was in a conversation one day when a man began talking about living in one of the poorest areas of Cairo. He proudly talked about the pink eye and lice his kids had; about the dirt and the filth they lived in, to a group of wide-eyed students. This was what it meant, he said, to live among the poor. I remember being incensed. I ranted all the way home, at one point dramatically stating, “There is nothing God hates more than pink eye!” A friend wisely, and gently, replied that there may be other things he also hates (a lying tongue, a deceitful heart, etc.) but that she appreciated my point. And my point is that everything in our adopted countries is not good, just as everything in our countries of origin is not good. There is beauty and worth in all cultures, but all cultures are broken and marred by sin. It is our job as believers to live wisely, recognizing the good and the beauty, while praying that the broken would be redeemed. It is also our job to know when to engage and when to protect. We must protect girls and women from sexual harassment.

There are many lies that permeate the world of women, and one of those lies is shame and perception that our bodies are at fault for inappropriate touch. In dismissing these events in our own lives and the lives of other women, we begin living by a lie instead of by the truth of God. Truth that tells us we are made in the image of God and our bodies are to be loved, protected, and cherished.

Long ago in the dusty streets of Palestine, Jesus met a woman whose life was shrouded with shame. She had been bleeding for many years and was cast off from community and society. But she had heard of this man, Jesus. She heard that he healed the sick, caused the lame to walk, and the blind to see. He was coming her way, and she thought maybe, just maybe there was a chance that she could be healed. On a busy street, she reached out and touched this man – Jesus. And immediately she knew she was healed. But Jesus knew she needed more. He knew that she needed to know that she was deeply loved, that she would no longer live under the shroud. So he relentlessly pursued her. “Who touched me?” He said. When she finally came forward, he spoke words of truth: “Daughter, your faith has healed you! Go in peace and be free from your suffering.” Do we hear those words? Do we understand their depth? Do we get that she could go forward and live in freedom from the shroud of shame? That is the real beauty of that story.*

The same story is true for us. As we reach for him, Jesus takes away our shame and restores our worth, reminding us of the God whose image we bear.

How have you broken free from the silent, shroud of shame? Please feel free to comment anonymously if you are not comfortable with sharing your name. Safety is paramount with this topic.

*Adapted from “Relentless Pursuit” Essay by Marilyn R. Gardner in What a Woman is Worth © March 2014 Civitas Press 

Raising Radiant Daughters (Part 1)

Raising Radiant Daughters (Part 2)

The Hard Questions


It was late afternoon and the sun was slowly setting across the solid blue, desert sky. The call to prayer echoed across the city of a thousand minarets. My blonde-haired 7-year-old looked at me, her deep blue eyes serious. “Is Faiza going to Heaven?”

We were living in Cairo, Egypt and Faiza was our baby sitter extraordinaire. But she was so much more.

She was our informal language teacher, our cultural broker, our friend. And she would iron our clothes just to be kind so that we looked like we stepped out of a dry cleaner’s shop. We had been in Cairo for 3 years and Faiza was an essential part of our lives.

We loved Faiza.

Faiza was a devout Muslim and our children knew this. She prayed five times a day and faithfully fasted during Ramadan. She gave to the poor and cared for those in need. She had even gone on the Hajj to Mecca – something every Muslim is encouraged to do in their lifetime if possible, but for a woman who was a widow and had only the money she made from babysitting this was a huge sacrifice.

Faiza would arrive at our house clad in a long, plain galabeya(traditional Egyptian dress) with her hair completely covered by a white hijab, always carrying with her pita bread and crumbly white cheese known as ‘gibna beda.’ This was her lunch but my kids grew to think of it as their snack. She lived her faith out loud, praying in our living room as soon as she heard the call to prayer from the mosque down the street. She was ever patient and cared for my kids the way she would her own grandchildren.

“Is Faiza going to Heaven?” I knew my response was critically important to this little girl – and to myself. I sighed internally and shot up an arrow prayer to the One who’s always listening.

“I don’t know” I said finally. “I know that Faiza loves God very much. I don’t know if Faiza knows Jesus.”

The blue eyes continued to search mine. “But she loves God – isn’t that the same thing as loving Jesus?”

Now hear this: I believe with all my heart the words of John 14:6. They are memorized, branded on my heart. “I am the way, the truth, the life…

I believe there is one way to the Father.

But I have learned that there are many ways to the Son. God is infinitely creative in the way he draws people to his heart. Our God is not defined by nation or nation building; he holds citizenship nowhere but Heaven and extends his grace throughout the world. And so I have seen people find Jesus, find ‘the way’, through white steepled Baptist churches and through gold-trimmed icons in Orthodox churches; through Bible studies and small groups and through reading of Jesus in the Koran; through the irritating street evangelist on a busy city corner and through reading Mere Christianity. Those nail-scarred hands stretch out to us in unlikely spaces and places and we marvel at the mystery of Grace.

The way to Jesus must not be dictated by a North American construct for it is like trying to fit the ocean into a bathtub – it is far too limited.

So my words “I don’t know” were truth and honesty.

But I prayed then and I pray now for the Faiza’s of the world — those zealous for God, searching for truth. And I prayed then and I pray now for the children asking these questions, questions of eternal significance.

In talking with my mom, a long-time missionary to the Muslim world, she said this: “I remember hearing the late William Miller speak about his many years of work in Iran.  One statement stood out, and although this may not be an accurate quote, it is how I remember it:  ‘We will be amazed on the Day of Resurrection to see how many will rise from the Muslim cemeteries of the world.’

The mystery of grace will continue to confound and comfort until the day when all is made clear. Until that day I will continue to pray as I grapple with the hard questions even as I continue to proclaim the name of Jesus wherever and however I can.

So I ask you now: How do you answer the hard questions? The questions of eternal significance?



Enhanced by Zemanta