What of the Miracles Attesting to Islam?

This past week we hosted a Q&A time for the local believing men. For a couple hours, we sat in our living room and engaged difficult questions that they have wrestled with. Together, we attempted to first answer these questions from God’s word and then from other experience and logic.

We didn’t make it through very many questions, spending the time primarily engaging several apologetics issues that local Muslims regularly challenge the local believers with. One very common question is what we make of all the alleged miracles that support Islam’s claims.

Islam leans very heavily on claims of the miraculous in order to prove that it is indeed God’s final authoritative religion. The perfection of the Qur’an’s language – written by an illiterate prophet – is one alleged miracle most Muslims would agree to. It’s also very popular to go into detail about how mysterious Arabic phrases in the Qur’an were in fact prophecies of scientific realities only demonstrated in recent centuries (See the book, “Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus” for an in-depth discussion of this kind of Islamic apologetics). Islam is divided over whether Mohammad himself did many miracles. His official biography, written in the 700’s by Ibn Is’haq, describes dozens of miracles he performed. But many conservative Muslims debate this, since the Qur’an seems to suggest that the prophet of Islam did no other miracles other than the recitation of the Qur’an.

However, on a folk level, many Muslims maintain that Mohammad did in fact perform many miracles, such as splitting the moon in half at one point, and that Allah continues to give testifying signs that confirm the truth of Islam. Not unlike a Catholic finding a portrait of the virgin Mary in a piece of burnt toast, I’ve heard serious claims that “Allahu Akbar” has been written in the clouds or in the markings of a watermelon skin. Just last night I saw a post claiming that a Muslim scholar drank rat poison after eating some special dates and was unharmed. This was allegedly a fulfillment of a promise regarding said dates from either the Qur’an or the Hadith.

So, the local believers wanted to know, how should we respond when our friends or relatives we are sharing the gospel with make these claims?

“I always ask them, ‘What, where, when, how?'” said Darius*. “It’s all baseless.”

“But what Bible passages can we turn to to help answer this question,” I asked.

The group sat and mulled silently for a second.

“How about Matthew 7:15-20?” one of the other men suggested. “This talks about how we’ll know false prophets by their fruit. The fruit of Mohammad’s life was bad, so we know that we can’t trust his miracles.”

We read the passage together that begins with, “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruit.”

“Good, and keep reading,” I suggested, “Until verse 23. Notice how it says that many will have prophesied and cast out demons in Jesus’ name, but they don’t actually know Jesus. So there must be another power enabling them to do these signs.”

“The power of Satan?” the group asked. Several of us nodded.

“We have to admit that according to the Bible, it’s possible for people to do real miracles, but with evil power, not with God’s power. Remember Pharaoh’s magicians in Exodus chapter 7, how they copied Aaron’s miracle and their staffs also became snakes?”

“Yes! But then Aaron’s snake swallowed the other snakes,” added Henry*.

“So, miracles done through an evil power really are possible, but we can say they will somehow fall short of God’s true miracles,” I suggested. “The magicians of Egypt are soon unable to duplicate the signs of Moses and Aaron.”

“Here’s a followup question, then. Are miracles even enough to validate the truth of a message?”

The group chewed on the question for a moment before affirming that no, miracles alone are insufficient proof.

“So what else is needed? How about agreement with the message of all God’s revelation that has come before?”

“That sounds like 1st John 4,” said one of my colleagues who was also part of the discussion.

“Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the spirit of God; every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Christ is not from God.” (1st John 4:1-3)

Here we spent a little time talking about the false teaching in the passage that denied Jesus’ humanity, and comparing it with Islam, which denies Jesus’ divinity. Even though opposite ends of the heresy spectrum, both are denying key tenets about the person and work of Christ, denying the core of the gospel message.

“So even if false prophets come with powerful signs, if their message denies the gospel taught from Genesis to Revelation, then they are false prophets. Signs must be accompanied by the same message,” we concluded.

“But so many of the miracles claimed by Islam are actually hogwash!” others chimed in.

“Yes, and you can have that discussion if you need to,” I responded. “But you can also just go to these verses (or others like Matthew 24:24 and Galatians 1:8) and show that miracles and signs alone simply aren’t proof of a correct message or religion. And then you can talk about the gospel message.”

The discussion moved on from there to responding to claims that the Bible has been changed and claims that Islam is the final “seal” religion. We ended the night by focusing on the need for God’s word to break down hard hearts, since consistent and clean logic is never enough in these kinds of apologetics conversations.

“Let’s make sure we are responding with God’s word. God promises to use his word in powerful ways, and it is the chosen vehicle of the Holy Spirit, like spiritual explosives. There’s simply no promise that he will use my logic or arguments or experience in the same way.”

*names changed for security

Photo by Alistair MacRobert on Unsplash

Please Pass the Meat

The sermon was a rough one. The visiting American pastor never had us turn to a specific text. Instead, his half hour encouragement was a creative string of allusions to bible stories, anecdotes, and illustrations. Everyone in the gathering who had gotten out their bibles eventually put them away.

I sighed and looked around the room. Once again, half a dozen locals were attending the international church service. It was bad enough that the expat community was being served the equivalent of spiritual yogurt water (in case you’re not familiar with yogurt water, it’s not very much by way of sustenance). But locals tend to view Western pastors with a kind of awe, and often accept any content or form of teaching as faithful and worthy of emulation – simply because of the category of person who is delivering it.

I grimaced, seeing that a couple of our church-plant’s English-speaking local guys were in attendance, Darius* and Alan*. They seemed to be focusing intently on the sermon.

My wife and I shifted in our seats uncomfortably and I reminded myself that the mission field is merely a reflection of the state of evangelicalism in the sending countries. It’s not realistic to believe that our corner of Central Asia will somehow be isolated from some of the West’s more unfortunate Christian-ish exports. Joyce Meyer has already been translated into the local language, anti-Trinitarian cults have made their appearance (and are allegedly financing one of our former leaders-in-training), and the satellite TV channels are full of Benny Hinn-styled preachers. At least this sermonette’s main point was to encourage us to not be discouraged in sharing the gospel. Not a bad aim at all. But alas, the method and modeling were definitely lamentable.

After the service was finished, Darius made his way over to me.

“So, what did you think of the sermon?” he asked.

I bit my lip and half-smiled/half-grimaced, not sure what I should say. Darius has not always been the strongest when it comes to discernment, and tends to be quite drawn to the novel and the exciting. But he leaned in.

“That guy didn’t even have a text!” Darius whispered loudly, gesturing wildly with both his arms in the expressive body language of our locals (I have often maintained that our people group’s intonation and hand gestures make them the Italians of Central Asia). “He just told a bunch of stories… and he even added some details that aren’t there!”

My eyebrows rose in welcome surprise. Darius was not taken in by the creative delivery. Instead, his new – but apparently growing – convictions of ministry alarm bells had been going off.

“Darius,” I told him, “I’m very encouraged that you were concerned about that sermon. You’re right. He didn’t have a text he was explaining. He never asked us to open our Bibles. He did mess up some of the details of the Bible stories he told. Take note, when we have an opportunity to feed the people of God, we should attempt to prepare a feast, not merely pass out some snacks.”

Darius smiled and threw up his hands again. “What can I do? I learned from you guys about preaching.” Then he made his way over to the table where the sunflower seeds and chai were set out.

This final comment was particularly encouraging and humbling. My teammate and I who serve as temporary elders of our church plant are not eloquent preachers in the local language. Perhaps we will be five or ten years down the road, but right now we make it our aim to simply be clear, and to model basic expositional preaching in a second language – that is, preaching that makes the main points of the text the main points of the sermon and which seeks to faithfully explain the intent of the author. I’m still too tied to my manuscript. My colleague has more freedom in this way, but faces his own unique challenges while preaching in the local tongue from an English outline to our small group of believers. We often make comical language mistakes.

“We are insane,” instead of “We are not complete yet,” and “What should you do if you have a heart attack when you want want to give an offering?” instead of “What if you have a divided heart…?” have been a couple of our more recent bloopers. May God bless the long-suffering ears of these local believers who sit under our teaching week after week.

We have deeply invested in the simple method of steady, weekly, regular proclamation and explanation of God’s word. No flash, no bling. We sit in a circle of chairs and the preacher sits with another chair in front of him to serve as his pulpit. We took a couple years to get through Matthew and are currently taking a couple years to get through John, interspersed now and then by pressing topics or a recent series on the characteristics of a healthy church.

At times we are tempted to feel as if this steady sowing of God’s word is not accomplishing much. Much contemporary missiology calls into question the act of preaching altogether, alleging that it is a Western form import from the Reformation and not as effective as things such as DBS – Discovery Bible Studies. We don’t really buy those arguments though. Most of them betray a woeful ignorance of global church history (historically, preachers always, always emerge when new peoples are reached or awakenings take place), not to mention an under-baked understanding of the centrality of proclamation throughout the Scriptures.

The hardest doubts to handle have to do simply with how slowly people grow and change. After five years of this kind of unpacking of God’s word, how is it that more has seemingly not sunk in? How is it that character is not maturing more quickly and knowledge taking deeper root? Are we doing something wrong?

In faith, we believe that an unrelenting teaching and preaching ministry will eventually result in faithfulness and fruitfulness. But it sure is encouraging when we get to see a glimmer of that future. Darius noticed some very important things during that English church service. That noticing was evidence of growth in spiritual discernment. And spiritual discernment – that comes from soaking in the Word of God.

Preachers and teachers, keep on preaching and teaching, in season and out. And if by chance you ever get to preach on the mission field, please, for our sake, preach the Word. Don’t dumb it down either for the missionaries or for the locals.

Pass on serving mere yogurt water. Instead, serve them up a feast of some good solid meat.

*names changed for security

Photo by DJ Johnson on Unsplash

A Proverb on Complicated Matters

This dough takes a lot of water.

Local Oral Tradition

Yes, it’s true. I took an unplanned break from posting for a number of months. I do apologize for going dark there for a while. I have truly missed writing though, so I hope that I am now making a return to regular posting again in earnest. However, the upside of this time away is that I now have a fresh crop of Central Asian proverbs! I know, you can barely contain your excitement.

I heard this particular proverb dropped during a question which touched on a complicated Bible passage. The speaker used it to indicate that the discussion required to unpack that topic would take a good deal of time – more than we had at that moment. Turns out this proverb on extra-absorbent dough can be used for all sorts of situations that involve lengthy discussion of complicated matters – or the intention to avoid such a discussion. It seems to function similarly to how English speakers use “it’s complicated.”

Tonight we are hosting the believing local men at our house for a Q&A session. “Bring your hardest and deepest questions,” we told them, “and we’ll work together to try to answer them from God’s word.” I do anticipate some tough and unexpected questions coming our way tonight. And just for fun, I will definitely try to sneak in this proverb if I get the chance.

Photo by Vaibhav Jadhav on Unsplash

From Rage to Repentance

Hamid* unexpectedly walked in just as the service was beginning. At once I felt anxious chills in the back of my head and neck, my body’s way of telling me that it feels threatened. The last time I had seen this man had been five years previous – and he had been screaming at me in the middle of the street, raging, spitting insults. A friend I had begun to trust had turned into a wild beast. Weeks of horrible text messages had followed. Now, years later, he had walked in on a day when it was my turn to preach, a day when I already felt exhausted and anxious. I silently prayed that the panic symptoms that sometimes overtake me in times like this would be held at bay. Hamid, for his part, seemed relaxed and perhaps even a little self-conscious, a posture which helped to put me somewhat at ease. We extended brief polite greetings to one another, and the small service mercifully progressed without any drama.

After the service, I took a deep breath and went over to welcome Hamid more fully.

“Remember the last time we saw each other?” Hamid asked with a smile.

I noticed that it was not a cynical smile, but a kind one.

“Yes, I do. That was a difficult night.”

“It was 2 a.m.,” Hamid continued, “We had been walking up and down the cafe strip of Peace Street, arguing for hours!”

I remembered it well. What an awful night. Hamid had been one of the first local believers to gather with our fledgling church plant. Though discipled by someone else, he had had no church in the local language to attend, so began joining our efforts. Things began well, until my colleague tried to emphasize the exclusivity of Christ in conversation with him. Hamid completely lost it, blowing up at my teammate and insisting that Jesus would never send honest and good Muslims like his parents to hell. My colleague of course maintained the truth of John 14:6 – no one comes to the Father except through Jesus. Hamid continued to rage, and then followed up this conversation by showering my colleague with scores of abusive text messages.

My personality tends to calm people down, and sometimes this can be of strategic use in ministry. So my colleague and I agreed that it would be good for me to have the followup meeting with Hamid, in hopes of talking some sense into him. This attempt completely failed. As I tried that night to gently press Hamid on his beliefs about the exclusivity of Christ he got more and more agitated, eventually spewing all kinds of heresy and hatred. I began to lose my cool as well, bluntly pressing him to question the genuineness of his faith in light of his current beliefs and his conduct. Everything I said was true, but I was beginning to give into my anger as well. Hamid only got worse and worse, more and more given over to rage and anger. We left on a cold note, both of us utterly fed up with the other. While grateful that Hamid’s inclusivism and character were exposed, it was also a deeply disheartening experience, one of many small betrayals we experienced in those years from local believers that we had such high hopes for.

Hamid continued to send angry text messages for a season. We responded with scripture. This elicited more hatred. Then we stopped responding altogether. I prayed for his repentance regularly for several years to follow, then eventually stopped using the prayer list where his repentance was requested. Eventually, after moving to another city, I heard that he had made some kind of apology to my teammate and had asked about my welfare. I received the news cynically.

Now here we were, casually revisiting the last time we had seen one another, a night that I would have preferred to forget.

“You were very upset with me,” Hamid said, laughing.

“Yes, I’m sorry for any words that I said that night in anger,” I responded.

“You know that I apologized last year to your colleague, right? And I had wanted to talk to you also. But I think you changed your phone number.”

I nodded, one part of me wanting to believe Hamid, and one part deeply skeptical.

“I’m very glad that you came today,” I said, knowing that this was an honest statement even though another part of me was somewhat freaked out in Hamid’s presence. He did seem different, though, seemingly too at peace to have come back with an old axe to grind.

We practice close communion at our church plant, where unbaptized believers are asked to abstain from the Lord’s Supper until they have obeyed through baptism. This is unique in our city, and often acts as a prod for locals to desire to take this difficult step of obedience. Hamid felt this prod during this first service back and approached my colleague immediately afterward, requesting baptism.

“Really?” I asked my colleague when I found out. “You think it’s genuine?”

“Let’s have him come to men’s discipleship this week and share his testimony with us and the local guys, and see if we’re all in agreement about moving forward with it.”

I furrowed my brow. “Some measure of clear repentance for the past is going to be needed before I’d be at all comfortable with moving forward.”

“Same for me,” said my teammate, “but I’ve seen some of that. And I think we might see even more during our men’s meeting.”

Neither of us could have been prepared for the depth, humility, and preciseness of Hamid’s story of repentance that following Tuesday night.

Normally, unbelieving locals never apologize or ask for forgiveness. Local believers have come a long way when they are willing to apologize publicly even in general terms. “If I have sinned against you” comes out much more than we’d like it to. Indirect apologies are still the norm among most believers, even years into their discipleship. Such are the realities of working for reconciliation in an honor/shame culture.

But there was nothing indirect or general about Hamid’s repentance. After detailing how he had initially come to faith, and explaining the gospel in wonderfully biblical terms, he then went on to detail our conflict.

“At that season of my life, my father was hospitalized with a deadly disease. My mind was really messed up because of this. So when these good brothers here, (here he motioned to me and my colleague) spoke to me of Jesus being the only way, I couldn’t accept it. I got so angry with them and I said terrible things. But everything they said to me was right and true. I knew it at the time, and I know it now. Jesus is the only way to be saved. But I got so angry and then I sinned by leaving the church.

“I was still caring for my dad though and so I kept desperately praying for him. One day I learned that the hospital wanted to amputate his leg, but that they had little hope that he would recover at all. For all this they would still charge us an exorbitant sum of money. I despaired, and I begged God to somehow heal my father. That same night I got a call from a friend in another city. He told me of another hospital with a new treatment. If we asked, they might accept my father. We asked, and to my surprise they not only accepted my father as a patient, but they successfully treated him – for free! He completely recovered. I knew that God had graciously answered my prayer, even though I had been so stubborn and angry and sinful. And he just kept on answering my prayers in that season. Even though I didn’t deserve it, he was so merciful to me. It was this mercy that softened my heart and convinced me that I needed to come back to the church and repent. I have apologized in the past, but I want to now repent publicly and in front of these men ask for your forgiveness. Will you forgive me? I was so wrong for what I said and how I left. And you men were faithful to speak truth to me in spite of it all.”

My colleague and I had stopped cracking our pile of sunflower seeds – a snack ever present at men’s discipleship – and were staring wide-eyed at Hamid. We had seldom heard a local repent in such explicit terms. We had certainly never seen it done publicly like this.

I felt any opposition I had to Hamid’s baptism fall away as I extended forgiveness to him. The local brothers followed up with some good questions, including “What took you so long to come back?” A couple weeks later Hamid was baptized in a lake on a scorching summer day – the very last weekend of the picnic season until the heat breaks in September.

I watched Hamid’s baptism from the rocky shore as my colleague and a local brother read him the questions and put him under the water. Years of prayers for his repentance had not been in vain, in spite of my doubts. His faith had been genuine, since the Spirit hadn’t let him go, in spite of his anger and in spite of his rebellion. In spite of me giving up on him.

Now I no longer get nervous when I see Hamid come through the door with his big smile and thick spectacles. Instead, I feel joy. The joy of knowing a brother truly repentant. The joy of true reconciliation.

*names changed for security

Photo by engin akyurt on Unsplash

Pangur Ban My Cat and I

One scribe will complain of the backbreaking work of book-copying, another of a sloppy fellow scribe: “It is easy to spot Gabrial’s work here” is written in a beautiful hand at the margin of an undistinguished page. A third will grind his teeth about the difficulty of the tortured ancient Greek that he is copying: “There’s an end to that – and seven curses with it!”

But for the most part they enjoy their work and find themselves engrossed in the stories they are copying. Beneath a description of the death of Hector on the Plain of Troy, one scribe, completely absorbed in the words he is copying, has written most sincerely: “I am greatly grieved at the above-mentioned death.” Another, measuring the endurance of his beloved art against his own brief life span, concludes: “Sad it is, little parti-colored white book, for a day will surely come when someone will say over your page: ‘The hand that wrote this is no more.'”

Perhaps the clearest picture we possess of what it was like to be a scribal scholar is contained in a four-stanza Irish poem slipped into a ninth-century manuscript, which otherwise contains such learned material as a Latin commentary on Virgil and a list of Greek paradigms:

I and Pangur Ban my cat,

‘Tis a like task we are at:

Hunting mice is his delight,

Hunting words I sit all night.

‘Tis a merry thing to see

At our tasks how glad are we,

When at home we sit and find

Entertainment to our mind.

‘Gainst the wall he sets his eye,

Full and fierce and sharp and sly;

‘Gainst the wall of knowledge I

All my little wisdom try.

So in peace our task we ply,

Pangur Ban my cat and I:

In our arts we find our bliss,

I have mine and he has his

Cahill, How The Irish Saved Civilization, pp. 161-162

In honor of this anonymous ancient Irish scribe, if I ever have a cat I just may name him Pangur Ban.

Photo by Hannah Troupe on Unsplash

A Song For Those Believing While Suffering

I’ve been listening to this song by Strahan for quite some time now, but I haven’t been able to find a postable video of it until today. Turns out that video has the lyrics in Spanish, so bonus there for you Spanish speakers. For the rest of us I’ve got the original lyrics posted below as well. I resonate with the desperate and honest faith in this song. I hope it encourages you as you wait in the midst of suffering as it has encouraged me.

Your heart is sweet
My heart is stone
Your voice is quiet
My journey long

But I'm holding on to your endless love
Through all the foggy days
Through all the tears I've prayed
And I'm breaking through for one touch from you
And I am not afraid
I am not afraid

Your arms are wide
My hands are fold
Your table long
My chair is short

You love the poor
And I'm destitute
But my hope is strong
When my joy is you

And I'm holding on to the corner of your robe
Cause there a power there
Before the Gardener's throne
And when your mercy breaks through all reckless tears
And all depressions cease
I am not afraid

No I'm not afraid
I'm not afraid
I am not afraid
I am not afraid

There's a beauty in our pain
Every night has a breaking day
We are coloured jars of clay
So carry on

There's a beauty in our pain
Every night has a breaking day
We are coloured jars of clay
So carry on

Carry on
Carry on

“Holding On” by Strahan

A Path for Marrying and Burying

“If you let them give me an Islamic funeral, I’ll come back and haunt all of you!”

The room burst out in laughter as *Frank made his point with characteristic humor. The laughs came easily because of the heaviness of the gathering and the topic.

A core group of the local believers had gathered to take counsel with *Darius. A young relative had just committed suicide after her parents had refused the marriage proposal from the young man that she loved. Sadly, this type of suicide following an engagement denied is not uncommon in this culture. Darius was reeling, racked with sadness and guilt, wondering if he had somehow contributed to the death of his young cousin.

A little bit at a time, the kind questions of the believers drew the information out of Darius, and the group was able to provide comfort and reassurance for him. In spite of the feelings of guilt, nothing in God’s word suggested that Darius bore any responsibility in the situation. He had conducted himself faithfully. Was mourning appropriate? Yes. False guilt? No.

At some point Frank asked if he could present a related question toward us foreigners, specifically the two of us functioning as temporary elders for the church plant.

“If, God forbid, I die tomorrow, what will you do?”

We looked at the floor, knowing the complexity of the question being asked. Religion and ethnicity are baked into all aspects of culture and law here. To be born to a Muslim father means to be born a Muslim, to have a Muslim ID card, to have an Islamic wedding, to eventually have an Islamic funeral, and to be buried in the Islamic fashion, on a plot of land surrounded by other deceased Muslims.

There is no legal mechanism by which a local Muslim can break out of this track and join another. Minorities can officially become Muslims, but not the other way around. The government and the family insist on Islamic rites of passage for all who were born Muslims, even if that person has become an atheist – or a believer in Jesus. While there are rights of passage and cemeteries for other religious minorities, to qualify for them a person must have been born into that community.

We chewed on how to answer, and Frank followed up his question with his quip about coming back to haunt us. As the laughter died down, I ventured a response.

“The only thing we have the power to do right now is to give you a separate Christian funeral service in the church.”

Disappointed looks came from around the room.

“Things can change if we pray and work for other solutions… maybe in ten or twenty years. But today you can’t even get your government ID card changed. Let alone there being a plot of land for the burial of believers who used to be Muslims.”

“Ten or twenty years!” one believer protested. “Why can’t you change things sooner?”

I sighed. If only we could. Local believers often assume that we, as Westerners, have the ability to influence government policy toward them. The fact is we possess no such power, at least not those of us on the ground laboring to learn language and culture and plant healthy local churches. We are not well-connected, we don’t have the ear of the powerful, and we don’t have the kind of lobbying structures necessary to advocate for the passing of more just laws regarding religious liberty. There’s even a case to be made that the freedom we do possess to do our spiritual work comes from staying off the radar of the political elite.

Yet the long-term rites of passage and persecution issues of our local believing friends regularly reappear, calling for long-term structural change that we can’t help but long for. Freedom for local believers to have engagement and marriage ceremonies that are exclusively Christian, and don’t involve an Islamic mullah. Freedom to not have to put religion on the ID card of a newborn. Freedom for believers to be open about their faith without losing their jobs and their housing. Freedom to run when necessary and know that the government will support freedom of conscience against violent relatives. Freedom to not have to swear on the Qur’an in a court case. Freedom to have a funeral and burial according to the contextualized practices of the believing community.

We are deeply invested in a bottom-up model of change for these issues. Plant healthy churches, and thereby seed the society with change agents who will eventually influence reform. But there are times we wrestle with the deep costs borne by the first generations of believers. Should we also be working for top-down change? Is this kind of change a temptation or an opportunity? If we somehow did influence the government, would it end up being positive thing for the Church, like a Wilberforce? Or a negative thing, like a Constantine? Would we end up compromising our witness and access, or strengthening it? These are not simple issues in a region where our church planting work is technically illegal and only partially tolerated.

That evening we turned to prayer together, both for Darius and for the challenges facing all our local believing friends. Sometimes it is very tempting to go all American-problem-solver on these challenges that keep on rearing their heads. It feels as if someone will have to do some hard long-term work in order for the church to have enough societal oxygen to not suffocate and disappear when the missionaries inevitably leave. Yet we don’t know what God’s chosen solutions are to these stubborn obstacles, nor his timeline, nor his chosen change agents. So we turn to prayer, and we continue making disciples.

Yet the clock is ticking. Local believers will need to marry and bury one another before too long. We hope and pray and trust that when the time comes there will be a path – even if difficult – of clarity and faithfulness.

Photo by Stephen Leonardi on Unsplash

Providence Showing Off

Most of my prayer walks in the bazaar are an exercise in being alone with God while being surrounded by other people. Strange as it may sound, I enjoy praying quietly to myself while flanked by other pedestrians on a bustling Central Asian sidewalk. I’ve not intentionally sought out opportunities to share the gospel while out praying and walking – that discipline is able to happen elsewhere. But neither am I opposed to hitting an evangelistic softball if one is thrown my way during the course of a walk.

An opportunity like this came along last week, and completely out of nowhere. It was a sunny mid-morning I was walking down a street full of small bakeries, fish stalls, chai houses, and watch repairers, when I decided on a whim to take a left down past the old post office. I had no particular reason for choosing this route, but at the moment of decision it simply felt like this would be a good way to go.

Two-thirds of the way down the post office street I spotted a man standing in front of me and looking at me oddly. Our eyes met.

“You are an English teacher, right?” he asked me.

“Well, I was for some years, yes.” I said as I wondered how he had pegged me so accurately.

“I am a legal translator. And I am stuck. I have been translating registration documents for a Christian organization.”

Internally, I quickly transitioned out of prayer/meditation mode and sought to focus on what was happening in front of me. The ingredients of this situation were not exactly common. I wondered if this might be a divinely-appointed interaction.

“There’s some religious language that I’m not familiar with,” he continued. “Some unique Christian terms that I haven’t heard before. I don’t know what to do…”

“Would you like me to come to your office and see if I can help?” I quickly offered.

“If it’s no trouble, my office is just across the street here,” he motioned to a nearby corner.

We walked over to his small translation shop and stepped inside. The legal translator motioned for me to take a seat, handing me the customary small bottle of cold water. Then he pulled out the documents he had been working on.

“Can you tell me what gospel identity means? And what about reconciliation?” the translator started off, furrowing his brow. “Look at this sentence where they use those terms. I can’t make any sense out of it. I’m a legal translator, not someone familiar with translating religious language.”

He handed me the registration documents and I perused them, smiling internally. The words the translator was the most stuck on were some of the best gospel bridges in the document.

As I read the document, one part of me rejoiced at the spiritual terms present, and another part of me shook my head at the unnecessarily complex language we Westerners tend to write in – and saddle our translators with. “The goal of good writing is to be clear, not impressive.” I don’t know how many times I have said this line while helping a local friend struggling to translate Christian material out of English and into our local language. The translatability of our writing is a virtue not spoken of often enough.

The legal translator and I went back and forth over a number of tough Christian words and phrases, a process which gave me several good opportunities to dive into biblical truth. I shared with him the basic definition of gospel – good news – and then described that good news as “God is holy, we are sinful, Christ is the sacrifice for our sins, and we must respond by repenting and believing in him.” We review this God, Man, Christ, Response outline as a church every time we gather for a service and I was grateful for the gospel fluency this longstanding practice has created, both for the local believers and for us.

We made some good progress on the document, but I could tell that the translation needs would require more time than I had to give that morning. Gospel comprehension would also require more time.

“I have an idea for you,” I shared after a while. “If you download the YouVersion Bible app, you can search for a Christian term and see how it is used in the Bible and see how it’s been translated by scholars into your own language. There’s this great parallel language function that I use all the time.”

“Really? That would be great!”

I showed him how to download the Bible app, search for a term, and compare languages side by side. I also gave him the number of a bilingual local believer in case he got stuck and needed some more assistance.

“You know, you remind me of someone I used to know,” the translator said. “A close friend named Joshua.”

“Joshua?” I smiled. I knew who he was talking about, a believing friend from college who had done a stint in this city of more than a million people a decade ago. I knew that Joshua would have shared the gospel with this man. And yet the lack of easy comprehension on the part of the translator showed that it had never really sunk in, even in terms of intellectual understanding. Or it had long since faded, suppressed by time and an unbelieving mind. Maybe Joshua was still praying for this man. Maybe that’s why we had run into each other on the sidewalk that day.

I took note of the translation office’s location, a spot I walk past most days. This shop would be one to come back to.

We said goodbye and I stepped out into the sunshine. I walked home, continuing to pray and encouraged by this unexpected chance to share the gospel. Even on a meandering prayer walk, there are no unplanned steps, no random encounters. I don’t always pick up on the providential designs beneath my daily encounters. But some days they’re simply on full display. Almost as if providence is showing off.

Photo by Ali Kokab on Unsplash

Tolkien and Lloyd Jones on Spiritual Homesickness

We all long for [Eden], and we are constantly glimpsing it: our whole nature at its best and least corrupted, its gentlest and most humane, is still soaked with the sense of ‘exile’. If you come to think of it, your (very just) horror at the stupid murder of the hawk, and your obstinate memory of this ‘home’ of yours in an idyllic hour (when often there is an illusion of the stay of time and decay and a sense of gentle peace) are derived from Eden.

J.R.R. Tolkien, The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, 110.

“it is difficult to define hiraeth, but to me it means the consciousness of man being out of his home area and that which is dear to him. That is why it can be felt even among a host of peoples amidst nature’s beauty; like a Christian yearning for heaven.”

D. Martyn Lloyd Jones

Photo by Derek Mack on Unsplash