The room was packed with covered women, shoeless men, and wide-eyed youth. I was sitting on a mat against a wall observing and listening to a bearded man at the front of the Alevi worship center who was droning a sad song about the death of Husayn. Every few seconds, someone from the large group with whom I was seated would shout out, “Husayn!” A man behind me held his face in his hands, “Husayn! Husayn!” he said, weeping. Others began to cry as the song went on. Some people were moaning and swaying to the hypnotic dirge.
I felt as if I must be at a funeral for some recently deceased fellow named Husayn. Not having been to an Alevi service before, I had no idea who Husayn was. I did a quick Wikipedia search on my phone and learned that the Husayn they were crying about was Husayn ibn Ali, the grandson of Mohammed, who was beheaded in about 680 A.D.
Suddenly I felt sick to my stomach. I felt so sorry for all these folks crying for this guy who had been dead nearly 1,500 years.
A fine-looking boy of about 15, whom they were obviously grooming for leadership, walked around with a special red bandana tied around his head and another around his waist. He was helping lead some of the program, and every now and again he would shout out, “Husayn!” I felt so sad about this young man and all the poor people there whose religious reality was anchored in a violent and sordid history with not an ember of present salvation.
As I sat there respectfully for another hour, I tried to put it all into context. I thought, “Does anyone weep over John the Baptist, or Paul? Both were beheaded, and both were loved. No, not even the best Christian sheds a tear for those guys. Why were these people so emotional about Husayn?”
As I sat watching the outpouring of sentiment, I began to reflect on my trip a month earlier. I had driven 15 hours east to baptize six Iranians who had been studying the scriptures with Adventist friends. Upon arriving at my destination, I asked my Iranian host, “What do you think I should preach about tomorrow?”
He said, “These people have questions about the last words of Jesus. Please preach on that.”
Interesting, I thought. It was a great topic, so I dove into the Bible to make a specially tailored Gospel message for these new believers in Jesus.
The next day the living room was crowded with fourteen of us. They were hope-filled people who had fled their own country and found their way out of a tangled maze of history, culture, mysticism, legend, and even lies, to discover Jesus. Poor in this world’s things, they had only four Farsi Bibles among them. Having known this ahead of time, I had prepared a gift for one of them—a full Farsi Bible I had printed on a photocopier. It was the best I could do on short notice in this Muslim country. They were very happy for it.
We began our worship time. They knew no songs, so we prayed and then opened the Bibles. Sitting on the edge of their plastic chairs, they listened with rapt attention as I described the capture, trial and torture of Jesus. We read about the scourging, the crown of thorns and the nails in Jesus’ hands. The way they added details to my talk, it was obvious they had all walked down the Via Dolorosa in their imaginations. As I talked of Calvary, tears filled the ladies’ eyes, and the men shook their heads in sorrow and pity.
Then we focused on the words of Jesus on the cross: “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” Jesus, you’re amazing! Here was a Man worth crying over, and they did. The room seemed to be graced by angels. Jesus’ love and patience in the midst of scorn and rebuke made us all recognize our own impatience and failings.
Then Jesus said, “I assure you today, you will be with me in paradise.” The whole of the Gospel in a single sentence! As we began to unpack the significance of this sentence, the tears continued to flow. But they seemed to me to be different tears. The first had been tears of empathy with Christ’s suffering. Now these were tears of overwhelming gratitude.
I was fully engrossed in the precious memory of my fellowship with my Iranian brothers and sisters when suddenly I was jolted back to the present by the woeful shout of a man sitting beside me: “Husayn!”
As I left the Alevi house of worship, I was struck with a renewed sense of the missionary task. I thought, Here are people who are so absorbed in a story that has been repeated by their parents and grandparents for centuries that they still weep. They dress their children up like we might do for a nativity play. They have pictures of Ali on the walls just as an Adventist church might have pictures of Christ and stained glass windows. I thought about their tears for Husayn, and I thought about my Iranian friends’ tears for Jesus. What’s the difference? Then a dark question came to my mind: “Is it possible that I have likewise become captive to an empty story with a different central figure?” Mentally, I began to recount the evidences for my faith in Jesus:
- Jesus precisely fulfills hundreds of ancient messianic prophecies. Who else has had a heavenly voice declare them the Lamb of God at their baptism, and then died on a feast of sacrifice?
- Jesus’ unusual birth, including an angelic announcement.
- Jesus’ remarkable insight, humility, courage, and loving, forgiving heart.
- Jesus performed amazing miracles, yet did not prevent His death, but embraced it as His main purpose.
- Jesus foresaw His own death and resurrection.
- Jesus’ death was marked by phenomena, including an earthquake, darkness and the resurrection of many saints.
- Jesus’ tomb is empty. After His resurrection, He was seen alive by hundreds.
- Jesus has performed many miracles in my own life, for which I am eternally grateful.
- Jesus has done amazing things for others, of which I have stood amazed to witness.
Yes, Jesus was and is different from anyone else in history. The biggest difference is that Husayn and all others like him bring only tears of sorrow to their followers, while Jesus alone can make a grown man shed tears of gratitude.