Before you read my story
For a long time I hesitated to write my story down and make it publicly available. To be sure, I first shared my story in many churches and wrote it in my seminary papers. But I’ve never made it available to potentially a large number of people because of my discomfort with the ambiguity of stories and my obsession with high-end literature and language that has made me almost unbearably self-aware of my own writing.
Stories are ambiguous. On one hand they empower, connect, encourage, and motivate us. We share, bond, grieve, and persuade through stories. A well-crafted story is a work of art with insights that can linger in our mind until we die. A great story can move generations in any given direction. Shall I remind you of Jesus’ story? Or the propaganda stories during WWII or the grand narratives of the Soviet Union?
But stories can also be chains that bind us to a particular identity or past or language or a myriad of other things. Not many people want to live in chains even if the chains are the stories of their lives. Stories define us. Even when you re-write an old story, the new one will always turn out to be a palimpsest. Moreover, a story always tells more than its author intends because through images, allusions, and language, we give away who we are and what we do. Thus, stories, especially those that flow from our hearts, expose some part of the soul to the reader.
This potential empowerment and vulnerability that our stories give us is the ambiguity that makes me self-conscious about my own writing.
Some readers may take this ambiguity of narratives graciously. Others may take it as an opportunity for whatever ends they may perceive the story to be useful for.
I pray that you will take my story with a graceful attitude and with the knowledge that all stories reveal one thing and by their nature hide another.
As to writing my story, I live in an ambiguous world, and I’ve learned how to revel in the uncertainties of reality. So I believe now it is time to overcome my hesitation and write down my story.
I’ve arranged the text into episodes instead of building it around a tight plot; what I wrote is what I remember, and what I remember is as selective as any remembering. So be patient, dear reader, and see Christ rather than me in this story.
Episode #1: In the beginning
My first memory of touching a tangible thing that represented a faith took place when I was a newly-minted teenager.
I was rummaging in the drawer in our guest room when I found a few yellow and crumpled pages wrapped in transparent cellophane. An alphabet I hadn’t seen before. It was all curly lines dancing with dots sprinkled all over the pages.
These old and fragile pages piqued my curiosity, so I tried to open the cellophane and actually touch these papers.
But I couldn’t.
My mom entered the room, and no later than she saw me, she rushed forward and snatched the papers out of my hand. She put them back in the drawer and locked it with her key. Then Mom warned me to never ever say anything to anyone about the pages. But her words only made me more curious.
I asked her what those pages were. She said they were the pages of the Qur’an, the holy book. Her voice was stern; her answer, curt. I realized that further questions would not be answered. But her single-sentence explanation that followed pacified my curiosity. According to her, Dad could lose his job if what we hid in our home became known.
I didn’t question her any further because even as a teenager I was aware of my dad’s respected position in the local branch of the Communist Party and our neighbors’ high esteem towards us. I somehow intuitively understood what she meant.
There wasn’t anything left to say after Mom’s explanation. Her answer was enforced by the city, the people, and the time. The large mosaic of Lenin in downtown, the diorama in our school that depicted Lenin’s years of hiding from the Tsar, the photos of Marx and Engels on the walls of the classrooms lent almost a tangible power to my mom’s one-liner.
The time was the late ‘80s.
The nation was the Soviet Union.
The place was Ilich, a town named after Lenin, close to the borders of Iran and Turkey.
Episode #2: Job’s Angst
The second time faith entered my life turned out to be a disastrous event for my whole family.
The Soviets began to fall, the Communist Party my dad had worked for was gone, and the war with the neighboring Soviet Republic whistled to us with the sounds of artillery shells flying over our heads. The fall stretched our family across nations; my dad left for Turkey to find a job and was absent from home for months. Mom continued to teach in school. My younger brother and I attended the school Mom taught at, and my youngest brother was in the care of the nursery.
One day when I was home alone, there was a knock at the door. I rushed to open it, unbeknownst to me that by opening that metal door I would let into our nest a wave of life-changing events.
When I opened the door, in front of me stood the nurse who was supposed to be taking care of my baby brother. Her face radiated with fear. Beside her stood my brother with a swollen, closed, and bulging eye.
She explained that one of the children had hit him in the eye — it was an emergency. Then she left. I picked up the phone, struggling to control my trembling hands, and called my mom to come home from school. She came, took my brother to the hospital, and I was alone at home again.
I sat down and cried.
As I cried, I recalled one of my grandma’s prayers and mumbled it just to find something to escape the flood of emotions that swept assumptions of my sheltered life away, leaving me full of angst in the middle of the world.
Then a strange thing happened. As I mumbled out of desperation a half-prayer to a god whose existence I was not sure of, a spark of hope ignited inside my heart. Some kind of weightlessness filled me; I felt light, almost empty of anything, any trouble, any concern, any anxiety. This experience of lightness calmed me down and gave me a hope that my brother would regain his vision and his eye would heal.
Well, I’m here to say that it did not come to pass. My brother lost one of his eyes but more on that later. Nevertheless, that experience of lightness, the cry which with every teardrop took away from me some anxiety was engraved in my soul. That experience sparked my interest in the folk ways of my grandma, whose faith I had never taken seriously.
Episode #3: Taking Sides
The third time I encountered faith, it took the shape of a book — but not the one I had ever heard of. At that time, I was in high school getting ready to apply for my university admissions exams.
A student at school spoke to me about a book that he found surprising. He didn’t know what to make of its teachings. I asked him about it, and he showed me a thick tome of the Bhagavad-Gita with excellent illustrations.
The next day I bought it and started to read.
The Bhagavad-Gita brought a whole new world into my life. With its strange, vastly different way of looking at the world, the book made me more aware of who I was: a secularized person with an Islamic background whose worldview was limited to what he had learned in school and heard from the older generation. The things it taught made me question what the truth was and how to even know if there was any truth in all the things the book was presenting.
Reading the Bhagavad-Gita, I saw a different kind of faith, no less complex and no less beautiful than the other faiths that I would come to know later.
The Bhagavad-Gita implanted in my mind more questions, but it also pushed me into a mindset where I had to take stance on something. Although at the time I was still far from being a religious man, far from taking any faith seriously, I accepted that if I would ever believe in God, it would be a one and only kind of God. Not Brahman, not many gods, not gunas, not avatars, not battling Pandawas and Arjunas, but the one and only God. I realized that I was culturally Muslim.
Episode #4 The promise
Fast forward to the late-nineties. I had already graduated from the university with a degree in law and was working in the Constitutional court in addition to lecturing at the university. By now my country was transitioning from the Soviet ways of thinking, doing, and being into the new yet undefined and unclear way of thinking, doing, and being independent.
My interest in the religions of the world continued to grow, so I was actively reading whatever I could find. By that time, I had read enough books to know Islam, my parents’ religious background, but I still didn’t practice it.
Then I got pneumonia. I don’t know how severe it was, but I had to lie in bed for a week, visit the hospital, and hear a mistaken diagnosis that it was only tuberculosis. In short, it was unpleasant. I had never seen my parents so anxious.
One day I promised to whoever existed out there in the heavens that if he healed me, I would devote my life to that which is out there. It didn’t matter if it was Allah or Krishna or Jesus or Brahman, he or she or none at all. Despair ate away at me as I struggled with my illness. I think that the unknown creator heard my prayer and healed my fragile body.
Shortly after that, I began to fulfill my promise, and the faith of my elders entered my life. I became a practicing Muslim who went to mosque on Fridays, occasionally decorated his lectures in the university with sermonettes, and memorized verses from the Qur’an. This time I met faith as not something from afar and alien but something within me — in my mind and muscles. Unlike my previous encounters with faith, this time I had the chance to learn about it openly and see its slow growth in society.
Now when I look back, it seems to me the illness turned out to be the last straw in my ambiguity towards faith in general and an important step towards the faith of Christ in particular. I just needed some kind of nudge to apply what I had learned along the way, and my sickness had pushed me into the life of a practicing Muslim.
Episode #5 Disillusionment
I intensely practiced Islam for approximately two years. By practice I don’t mean just believing. I mean everything; going to mosque every Friday, doing daily prayers five times every day or as much as my busy schedule allowed, reading books on Islamic theology and history, keeping up with the religious holidays, trying to evangelize whenever I had opportunities, and struggling to follow what Islamic law prescribed for my daily behavior.
However, as I practiced Islam and studied hadith, another face of this faith became visible, and it disillusioned me with Islam. There were several reasons for my alienation. I felt constrained with the daily rules and rituals related to prayer known as salaat; certain events in the life of the prophet Muhammad made me, the lawyer coming from a secular family, cringe; vivid and repeated descriptions of hell in the Qur’an increased the distance between me and the God the Qur’an presented. The deeper I went in my practice of learning the rules and details, reading hadiths about applying these rules, the more difficult it became for me to practice Islam.
At the end of this process, I became a person who still believed what Islam taught but did not practice it anymore. I wanted to take the faith seriously — or rather this particular form of it — but I just couldn’t buy into all the details and rules and commitments. They felt forced and too minute.
Episode #6 Another faith appears on the horizon
Around that time, an acquaintance of mine who studied in the US introduced me to a professor from that nation. According to my acquaintance, the professor needed a research assistant in my country for his work. My acquaintance asked if I’d be willing to help. I agreed. Through emails, the professor and I planned the details of his research, and several months later he arrived in Azerbaijan. As we emailed back and forth, I discovered that he was a Christian from an Islamic background who had originated from Turkey, the nation whose language and culture came the closest to mine.
When he came, he brought a gift. The gift was a Bible in Turkish, a language I could understand. Before that, I had never read the Bible. All my knowledge of Christianity was based on books published in Russian during the Soviet regime, and they had presented the Christian faith as a discredited belief.
The Bible he gave me was a thick book with thin yellow pages and a blue cover. When he presented it, I refused to touch it because my hands were not ritually clean; I was in a state of ritual impurity. Being ritually impure in Islam means that you cannot touch the Qur’an or an Arabic version of it because the book is holy. Since I thought the Bible was the Christians’ holy book, I thought I couldn’t touch it in a ritually impure state.
But his response shocked me. He said, “Don’t worry about that. We don’t go through whole rituals to access God’s word.” The fact that I could take the Bible just like that without doing an ablution ritual impressed me. It made me realize that access to a tangible piece of faith need not be an unwieldy thing.
Episode #7 Reading the Riddles
Thus, my journey into another faith began. At the time, I had no clue that this would be a second beginning for me through which I would find God who honors humans as his temple, becomes one of them, dwells among them, and redeems their lives.
Since I was a man interested in the faiths of the world, I immediately dived in to read this holy book. But I had egotistical reasons for reading the sacred text. I just wanted to read it and be able to boast that I had read the religious texts of several religions. In a sense, I wanted to check one more book off my list. And why not? If I read the Bhagavad-Gita and the Qur’an, why not add the Bible to the list? Surely, it was worth my time. Little did I know that with the Bible, a whole new faith would come into my life.
With my professor friend, we visited refugees during the day, did interviews, and at night we talked about matters of education, religion, and belief. At home I read the Bible.
My friend left Azerbaijan after few months. I could not finish the Bible by the time he left, so I had to continue on my own without his explanations. The Bible turned out to be a riddle with many diverse voices, plenty of perspectives, and a cornucopia of answers all revolving around a God that actually had a unique name and personality like humans yet was also vastly different from us in every way. Some books I breezed through with the stories they told while others made me labor slowly through the lists of names or the detailed descriptions of seemingly irrelevant building instructions.
Episode #8 Voices of Revelation
As I read the scripture of Christians, many things captured my imagination. Here I will share a few of those.
I found the Ten Commandments appealing and surprising because they did not resemble the Christianity I saw in American movies. On screen, Christians were like all the other characters in Hollywood movies; participating in crime, greedy, and doing a whole bunch of other wrongs. In the Ten Commandments, I saw principles and values very close to my own. Resting on the Sabbath day was unusual, but prohibiting false testimony was not. Loving God was peripheral in Islam, but having respect for your parents was not. And not coveting was drummed into my head from early childhood.
I loved the Book of Lamentations. By American standards it’s a pessimistic book, and it is. But the persistent, against-all-odds kind of hope that soaked Lamentations made me question my own hopes. The striking combination of complaint and hope actually reminded me about the mediaeval poetry of my own society that I was so fondly learning. In many ghazals of mediaeval Azerbaijan, a lover complains about unfulfilled desires but also hopes for a union with his beloved. For the uninitiated, these ghazals are simply about love, but those who dig deep into the mysteries of Sufism know that they blend in philosophico-theological questions. The Book of Lamentations with its many contrasts reminded me about that yearning for deeper meaning and love; for me it flung open the poetry of the human condition.
The book of Job is another book that I’m fond of. The whole book had a personal appeal to me, not just on philosophical grounds.
The voice of Job brought to the surface the painful memories of my brother’s tragedy. Unlike other books, the Book of Job puts the question of evil right at the center of discussion and leaves it unanswered. All you have is a variety of answers. What redeems the Book of Job from being some shallow, stereotypical, kitschy mumbo-jumbo is its deep respect for the mystery itself. When God appears at the end of the book, you hope you will finally find some answers. Instead you receive the repudiation of all the other perspectives presented in the book and no answer from the All-Knower. The book simply appeals to the limited-ness of humans such that even if God reveals the answer, humans are still not going to get it.
I found this response that postpones the answer and hides the question of evil in God’s mystery deeply satisfying. Implicitly, the answer demands trust, the trust in God that invites us to live in the shadows of unknowing. It didn’t answer my question of why my brother had to lose one of his eyes for no reason. Job simply showed me the abyss by directing me to think about what the question implied about humanity, human-God relations, and God’s nature. The Book of Job opened my wound and asked me to gaze into it, something I had avoided doing in the past. Instead, in the past I developed a deep, buried, and brooding resentment against the nurse and unknown child who left my brother with one eye. The Book of Job called me to question my reaction to our family’s wound.
Episode #9 Visions from Revelation
Then came the New Testament. I was taken aback by the Jesus the gospels were describing — to say the least. Christ’s teaching appealed to me but also surprised me because this was not the Christ I had seen in the Qur’an. He did not speak much about the oneness of God, did not insist on himself being nothing but a creature of the Creator. Instead Jesus healed, forgave, rebuked, and reconciled. Jesus resurrected the dead. He talked with authority about His closeness to God His Father that on the lips of anyone else would be a sign of a lunatic. By the end of the gospel of Luke, I was lost in the unusual and disturbing teachings of the Light of the World that implied a different way of being in the world.
Then the verse came, my favorite one. I remember that moment very well. It was a crisp and sunny autumn day, and the neighbors’ children were playing under the window outside. I had been lying on the sofa, reading about the crucifixion of Christ, when I hit “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.” The prayer pierced my heart. In a sudden flash of understanding, I intuited how Christ’s unapologetic, unnatural, by-worldly-standards-absurd prayer questioned my assumptions. His prayer shed light on my resentment towards those who had hurt my brother. The prayer stripped me of my taken-for-granted assumptions about life and left my soul naked in God’s light. The wave of images and emotions triggered by the prayer overtook me, and my eyes welled up with tears.
I could not hide behind my false ego because the faith, this faith, this disarming and overwhelming love I saw in that prayer did not give me a chance.
I could not read anymore. I put the Bible aside, went to another room in order to hide my tears from my family, and looked outside. I stood in front of the window, comparing the Christ that Luke had presented with the Christ I had read about in the Qur’an. In its traditional interpretation, the Qur’an teaches that Jesus did not die on the cross and did not claim divinity, so the Gospel’s teachings on these matters are corruptions. But here the same man, presented by one of his followers, was praying for his enemies while suffering by their hands.
I thought about what kind of power, what kind of love one must have to accomplish that? Did it ever happen? Is it ever possible? As I wiped the last teardrop from my eye, I thought, God if this really happened, if this is as true as this book teaches, he really is a man to learn from.
Jesus’ prayer for his enemies revealed to me the vicious cycle of resentment and hatred I had developed towards the people involved in my brother’s case. The prayer shed light on what Job poked at with his questions and offered an unexpected balm. Christ’s words, his actions, his life reminded me that hatred breeds hatred; resentment creates more resentment. With a single stroke, the Incarnate God taught me that the only way humanity can overcome this vicious cycle is to love back those who hate us and to do good to those who refuse us — an unbearable and often impossible-to-accomplish truth.
The irony of Christ’s truth about humanity’s blindness and need for forgiveness is very much on display in his own end. He loved, he healed, he forgave, he called for justice, he stood up against the evils of this world, and all he got turned out to be one of the most painful punishments of ancient Rome. This multi-layered nature of the story and Christ’s responses drew me closer to the prophet and to God.
What God sowed in my soul with the prayer of Christ sprouted as a new hope when I read John’s first letter. For me that letter binds together the love for creation with the knowledge and love of God. That love as it is embodied, reinterpreted, and blended with grace in Christ called me to respond. In the Logos, a self-imposed resentment and hatred for others was not an option. Christ broke the remorseless cycles, and it was our turn to respond.
Episode #10 Wrestling with the Word of God and yielding to the Spirit.
Reading the Bible did not make me Christian. But it did open up the path towards God and made me realize that my knowledge of Christianity that I had gotten from atheistic and Islamic sources did not tell the truth of this faith. On one hand, the sacred text held up a spiritual mirror in which I saw my own brokenness and resentments. On the other hand, it presented me with the healing of the words and life of God-man. The realistic mirror showed me the horrors of humanity laid bare by humanity’s treatment of its Savior. But it also invited me to find hope because those horrors were reversed by the resurrection of the Savior.
At the time I hesitated to become a Christian; so many reasons discouraged me from taking that step. I was not sure because the Qur’an had taught me otherwise about Jesus Christ. I fluctuated because I had to somehow confront the culture, my family members, and things I was called to leave behind.
My wrestling with the Word of God became an incessant thinking about God. I thought Christ promised a real existential hope, but the implications of leaving my cultural assumptions, identities, and a secure future that my job provided held me back from embracing this new faith that I had met on my path to God. The new ancient faith was and is beautiful; the mystery of hope borne out of a tragedy and a miracle of God who had walked among us drew me in ever so slowly.
Yet somehow as I thought more, read more, and found deeper meanings in Christ, I believed. And it worked because the healer of souls helped my unbelief.
So I can’t really point out one single moment that brought me to Christ decisively although I think that reading the scene of Christ’s crucifixion and his prayer jolted my world. I have yet to read another compelling story like Christ’s crucifixion. To me, my journey into the faith of Christ is a zigzag that took me from a secular indifference to Islam and from Islam to the faith of Christ. My Heavenly Father’s gift of faith to me dawned upon me gradually.
Sometime in January of 2005, I was baptized. It was a cold, snowy day in Michigan. I thought I was Christian, but a part of me was still resisting the new faith. I didn’t want this faith to turn out to be like the others that I had seen on my path to God. While the pastor was baptizing me, I was still thinking whether I was doing right thing by taking this call so seriously. I was wrestling with the Word right at the moment when the Church baptized my soul for salvation and a justice-oriented life.
Episode #11 Choosing and Calling
Nowadays, when I look back on the way God brought me to Christ, I smile at my own naiveté. At the time I thought it was my choice. I choose to believe in God in Christ. But unbeknownst to me, Christ’s Spirit worked in my heart, preparing me for his path. I don’t want to make it sound like human beings are puppets in God’s hands because that’s not true; that’s not what the Scripture teaches. But it is true that it is God who takes the initiative and leads one to Christ because no one can recognize who Christ is unless the Spirit reveals it.
My faith in God as I came to embrace Christ has not been without its ups and downs. But through it all, the Lord has sustained me in His mercy. I have no clue why he gives me a thorn in the flesh that changes its shape from the occasional lack of confidence to a strong desire for worldly things to sinning here and there. When the dark night descends upon my soul, my impatience drives me to frustration with the Patient One.
But in the end, I’m thankful to God. For all the things the Lord showed me, gave me, upheld me, I’m very much thankful to Christ. His death on the cross encourages me to bear my own cross and move forward wherever God calls me to serve him.
I hope what I wrote will be some encouragement to you and will nourish your soul for however short a time it may be. If it encourages you to move towards God, then thanks be to the Lord. If not, persist in your faith; don’t let either my words or others’ writings discourage you from living in His presence.
That’s all I can say. May Christ deepen your faith and broaden your vision.