I had the privilege of meeting John Coleman on several occasions. He served as a missionary doctor in Iran for many years prior to the 1979 revolution. During the revolution he and his wife were held captive for almost a year. John and Audrey are no longer with us but their youngest son, who grew up in Shiraz, lives in the same town as me. Andrew and I met and discussed our forthcoming trip. I told him that we wanted to start in Shiraz, in the South West, working our way to Masshad in the North East. Andrew then told me that his Father had been given the ‘Freedom of the City of Shiraz’ by the mayor, in recognition of the service he had given to the people of the area. Here was an amazing connection, an open door right on my doorstep.
Our third gatekeeper was a young Iranian asylum seeker, a poetry student. I cannot write here many details about him, except that he was enthusiastic about us visiting the home of Iran’s most loved poet, Hafez.
If you begin to study anything about Iran you will quickly discover that their poets are their cultural heroes. Their poetry is more widely known, quoted and revered than the Quran. There is an uneasy relationship between the hard-line Shia clerics who rule the country and the beloved mystic poets. The subject matter is often un-islamic and subversive, but it has to be accommodated. It’s too close to the hearts of the people to touch.
Shiraz was the home of Hafez, who lived approximately between 1325 and 1389. His tomb is the main attraction in the city. When we visited it, it was Friday prayer time and there were far more people visiting the tomb than attending the nearby mosques, especially the young. That was a surprising thing about the Islamic Republic of Iran – how unenthusiastic the young people (which is more than half the population) are about religion. Egypt, by contrast, was completely different.
Iran and Vatican City are the only two states in the world that are ruled by clerics, where the king is a priest in other words, where the two roles have merged. Never a good idea in this age. In the 1980’s, senior ayatollahs wrote Khomeini a letter setting out certain concerns they had. If he did not back down a bit and allow some democratic reforms, he was risking putting young people off religion. In fact, he risked causing Islam to lose an entire generation. He refused to listen, and that, in fact is what is happening in Iran. No other Muslim country has such a high rate of conversion to Christianity. The Islamic Republic, although it persecutes the church and executes pastors and converts, seems to have served the gospel well. It knows it has a problem, and strangely, it is in the Holy Shia shrine cities of Qom and Masshad that they are noticing it most.
Khomeini needed the war with Iraq to consolidate his grip on power. Winning or losing, it was the martyrs he needed. An Islamic Republic now losing popularity with a generation of young people probably needs another war, to win or to lose, but it needs more martyrs. I believe this lies behind the intransigence over their nuclear reactor.
In the main domestic airport in Tehran is an interesting, but chilling shrine. There is a scale model of the nuclear reactor they are building, in a glass case. Above it hang the ever-present twin portraits of Ayatollah Khomeini and the present Supreme Leader, Khamenei. Arrayed around are hundreds of portraits of martyrs of the Iran-Iraq war, decorated with foliage and flowers. The blood of the martyrs is the foundation for everything. The twelve days or so we spent in that land carried quite a strong burden to pray that there would not be war, that there would be no more Iranian blood spilled, that world leaders would be able to find a way of dealing with Iran other than the point of the spear.
For us then, to live out our prayers, this was stepping over the border, a step into the territory of what has been regarded ‘the enemy’, believing that in Iran we would not find an enemy, but would find love, friendship and welcome there. In Jungian terms, embracing our shadow. It was to pass through the knife edge of hostility as people in whose hearts east and west are reconciled. In our vulnerability it did at times seem to be a land that could easily capture us, a land of exile, but we took seriously the legacy of Cyrus the Great, the king who responded to the times and seasons of the Lord for his people, releasing from exile and facilitating resettling and rebuilding. I was 49. It was my 50th year, my jubilee year, and it felt appropriate to be going to a land of ‘captivity’, with an expectation of release and freedom and inheritance.
Another strange but alluring irony is that this land which seems so hostile from the point of view of a Westerner is also the land of ‘The Garden’. Some have claimed the garden in the east was near Tabriz. I don’t suppose we will ever know, but it’s a connection that attracted me. There is a word in old Farsi that means ‘Garden’, in particular the four-walled garden that is a feature of a traditional Iranian home, a private and sacrosanct family sanctuary where no government official or religious cleric is allowed to pry or enter except by invitation. The word is ‘Paradise’.
In the past my intercessory journeys have been quite task oriented, like I was on assignment for God. Iran sealed a change. It started to become a challenging exploration of my own soul; the journey went underground and it stuck with me for months after I came back. Perhaps it was the influence of the Persian poets, or what the land itself was requiring. The most redemptive thing we can do for a piece of land is to live on it the way it was made to be lived on. If you find a blocked well, dig it out and drink from it. It wants to be drunk again.
There’s a poem by another Persian poet, Rumi, called ‘That Journey’s are Good’. Poetry never translates well, but a few lines of this are:
You could travel from your manhood into the inner man,
Or from your womanhood into the inner woman,
By a journey of that sort,
Earth became a place where you find gold.
So to go in search of ‘the garden’ was to seek my origins. Not for things to be the way they were, but to discover that where I came from is real, so that its reality can make my present and future more certain. It was a discovery of who I really am.
If there is a garden to be found, it seems it is inaccessible as it was, but the Tree of Life has now come to us outside that original garden, the Tree is Jesus and we may eat of Him as often as we want. The Tree is at the centre of us and we have become the garden.
So these were the beginnings of the gift and treasure of the land of Iran – it’s a costly land to embrace, but let’s stop calling it an enemy and let’s not give the Islamic regime (or any for that matter) another blood transfusion.