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?