Istanbul is one of those places that has always been a big bazaar. Looking out from Topkapi Palace at the ships moving through the crossroads of Asia, it is easy to see why it has always been a good place to shop. Gwen and I are not great shoppers, so the Grand Bazaar was sort of lost on us. And we did not consistently do well with being asked to buy something every few steps along our way through the historic old city.
So when Zeki came up to us at the Blue Mosque we were a bit wary. He assured us he “worked for the mosque” and was not going to ask us for any money. He just wanted to give us a tour. We knew there were strings attached someplace, but we decided to go with it, since I didn’t mind taking him at his word and not giving him any money. The fact is, he gave us a great tour! The mosque would have been much less interesting and much harder to navigate without him. At one point he asked Gwen for her camera (which is a pretty nice camera) and went into the “restricted” area where women and infidels cannot go so he could get some pictures she would not get. They are good pictures. But he was gone so long that we thought we were never going to see the camera again; I thought I would have to charge into the restricted area and see what happened. He reappeared, so we did not have to wonder, “Why did we give Zeki our camera?”
By the end of the tour we were quite good friends with Zeki, so he told us all he asked was that we come visit his family’s shop. It was not too far away on a second floor. We realized that Zeki was a recruiter for the shop and it was undoubtedly the camera that made us look like possible rug buyers. We went with it because he told us the shop was air conditioned. It was cool and we got apple tea. (If you stick around in a shop you’ll get something to keep you there even longer. One day we had a three-apple-tea day!). The poor rug thrower flipped out all sorts of Kurdish rugs that were very beautiful and which we had no intention of buying.
Is God really like Zeki?
Fervent Christians often feel like they are Zekis. Their idea is: If someone really loves God, they will be out recruiting people to come to the store where the pastor will give them the pitch and they will buy Jesus, whether they want him or not. In some ways that has been an effective model. But it is not like God.
In my new favorite book, The Tangible Kingdom, Hugh Halter talks about this.
We think God tells us to serve in order to get people to respect us or like us so that they’ll accept our God. The real essence of biblical blessing is that it’s done with no strings attached. Hopes, desires, fervent prayer, yes – but no strings at all attached…Learning to receive God’s free, no-strings attached offer and then graciously living a life to extend blessing to others without charge and without expectation is different [than being a recruiter]. When we become comfortable with unconditional love, I think we will find that it does witness correctly to who God is. And it’s a power that naturally draws people in. (p. 143)
Zeki blessed me, but he had strings attached. Apart from his striking Kurdish blue eyes, I will remember him for his clever hoodwinking.
In our present-day spiritual environment in the megalopolis, which is very skeptical about Christians and their myriad claims to truth, being a blessing makes more missional sense than ever. If you are stuck being a recruiter for the church or for your cell and are frustrated that no one is “buying,” maybe it is time to change your mind about how God works. Be a blessing as you have been blessed. For the people you hope will connect with God, meeting up with an incarnation is a lot more alluring than buying an abstraction; being loved right now is better than the promise of good things that could happen if they come to your meeting or join your cause.