This past summer, a few months before Michelle and I left the United Arab Emirates, we had one of the most bizarre encounters of our overseas career. We were hosting a couple from the US and we were invited to the house of a sheikh–a member of the royal family.
We had been at the mall, in a place that sold tourist stuff, and I had started a conversation with the two men working there. One was from Yemen, a possible origin for the three Magi of the Bible, and I was telling them the story of how these wise men saw the star in the east and traveled with gifts to Israel to see the new king, Jesus.
The guys seemed to like the story and one of them said that, since I was an expert in these things, I must go and visit “the Sheikh” who was also an expert. He took my phone number, I never expected to hear from him again, but the next day I got a phone call from someone who said he would like to set up the meeting.
The invitation was to dinner that night, but our friends had gone out of town for one day and some of the things said in conversation made me think that this was going to be another one of those encounters where we would be forced to listen to arguments as to why Christianity is baseless. I declined the dinner for that night, but we were asked if we could come the next night instead. I declined again, the phone call was over, but after a few minutes of thought I called the guy back and accepted the offer. Who knew; maybe that was what God wanted.
The next night we got dressed up, brought a gift of flowers, and met the guy who had called me, at the gate to the Sheikh’s residence. It was 8:30 p.m.
The grounds of the palace were enormous with huge trees and green fields, something you never see in the UAE because of the paucity of water and the intense sun. We passed the palace, set back in the trees with a perfect front lawn, and went to the “summer house” where we were told the Sheikh entertained his guests.
There were many people, mostly younger men dressed in traditional Arabic white thobes, all seated on couches around the edge of the room. The sheikh rose from his chess game to greet us and offered us seating on the other side of the room behind a table covered with dozens of Qurans and copies of the Bible.
After waiting a few minutes the sheikh finished his game, sat down with us, and asked us about our work and family. He then began a very long discourse on passages of the Bible that prove that Mohammad is God’s prophet. He quoted extensively, and beautifully, from Genesis, Isaiah and the New Testament, using some weak arguments that I had heard in the past, but some new arguments that were convoluted and rather contrived.
My only fault (ha!) is that I talk too much and I had promised myself that I would keep quiet and not enter into argument, which is never productive in these kinds of situations. We were joined by a Filipino man, dressed like the others and with a long white beard, who took over the teaching and, after nearly an hour, the Sheikh excused himself to welcome others who were coming in.
Among the new arrivals was a Russian couple that didn’t seem to speak English. They were accompanied by a young Russian woman, a convert to Islam, who was dressed in Muslim garb and who functioned as their translator. They were directed to sit with us and the teaching continued until we were asked to wash up for dinner. It was after 10:30.
The dining room had a long table that sat about ten people on each side, and which had about forty silver platters offering a wide assortment of meats and vegetables. I had been quite sick over the preceding week and I forced myself to only get a bit of fish and beef, although my sickness worsened over the next two days anyway.
We were seated to the Sheikh’s right and the Russian couple was seated on his left with their translator sitting beside them. At the rest of the table were all of these young Arab men, some from Africa, others from Egypt and from other parts of the Middle East. There was more small talk as we began to eat, and then the Sheikh started into more Muslim apologetics. He was the primary speaker and he continued to display remarkable memory as he quoted Quranic and Biblical passages at length. His arguments, though, were typical and had little substance.
All of us made a few comments during the hours of argument and, finally, I forced in a whole paragraph, quickly telling the story of Jesus’s statement that, “no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.”
This statement struck the Sheikh in a bad way. He paused for several seconds and then asked, “So, then, are you born again?” Quickly, as if we were eager school children, all four of us lit up, raised a hand and called out, “Yes!” At this the Sheikh rolled his eyes in a ridiculous manner and smirked as if we were the stupidest people on earth.
“God cannot become a man!” he shouted out with some degree of anger. Then, realizing that he had put limitations on God’s abilities, he pointed to a platter of trout and corrected his statement saying, “God would not become a man! That’s like saying that God would become these fish!”
We gave only a little rebuttal as he ramped up his arguments for another 30 minutes and then abruptly ended the evening saying that there was to be a second serving of guests and we needed to vacate the room. It was 12:30 a.m. of the next day.
As we moved towards the door, the large Russian man came up, leaned in very close and whispered with a strong Russian accent, “I, too, am follower of Cheesus,” and I gave him a quick hug. I’m pretty sure he meant, Jesus.
Outside the front door, the man who had called me and who had met us at the gate, came alongside us and began to plead with us to consider the facts that we had heard. He told us about all of the Christians that had converted and referred us to YouTube videos of their testimonies; many of which he sent to me in text messages over the next week. And then he explained that this group, around the Sheikh, believed that they can secure their salvation by converting Christians to Islam. He kept us just outside the main door until almost 1:30, pleading with us. My goal, unmet, was to get into bed by 2 a.m.
Main point: I don’t really know, yet. I’ve only told this story one other time and there were so many small lessons that we picked up through the encounter. I mainly went away from the night feeling profoundly sorry for the room of people who have believed a laundry list of lies from the enemy. Their primary pursuit, even to gain their salvation, is driving them deeper and deeper into darkness and death. What can we do for them when they hold their hands over their ears whenever truth is spoken?