A Song on the House of God

Sojourn Music has done it again. This is a song that celebrates what has been called The Great Reversal, how the kingdom of God lifts up those the world despises and brings them full and eternal restoration in God’s presence and house. These things are coming true, imperfectly though truly in this age, but wonderful and complete in the age to come.

Blessed are the ones who will eat the feast in the kingdom of God
Blessed are the blind that will finally see in the kingdom of God
Blessed are the poor, oppressed, and abused
Blessed are the weak, distressed, and accused
When you strike up the band...

“Your House” by Sojourn Music

I Have Become A Prayer Walker

Beware what you make fun of. You may someday find yourself having to eat your own words and attitudes – much to the amusement of your observant spouse. There are many things in Christendom I used to judge, things that I ironically now find wise and helpful for my current season of life and ministry. Prayer walking is one of these things.

I don’t know exactly when it became popular to prayer walk in evangelical circles. It first came onto my radar when I was a college student in the late 2000’s. Like many things that have become vogue in missions circles, I felt like I had missed the important initial conversations where everyone hashed things out and demonstrated that this was something biblical, healthy, and strategic. Instead, I started hearing all of the sudden about prayer walking as if it were a long-established Christian tradition that everyone knew how to do. I learned of prayer walking opportunities locally and even short term teams that traveled to other countries mainly to prayer walk the streets. I was a bit skeptical.

Are those people actually praying as they walk? Isn’t that a lot of money being spent on airline tickets for prayer trips when the beauty of prayer is that you don’t have to be geographically present for prayer to be effective? Does prayer walking become an excuse for not sharing the gospel?

Some of these questions still remain. And I still haven’t had that Introduction to Prayer Walking class that everyone else seems to have had. But I have myself stumbled into becoming a prayer walker over this past year. And I have found it remarkably helpful for my spiritual life.

The first step was coming across a one hour prayer plan on The Cripplegate blog. I was intrigued by this practical prayer plan from the 1970’s that I had never heard of. One hour divided up into twelve portions of five minutes, each a different kind of biblical prayer. I knew my prayer life was in need of some fresh structure and vision, so I filed the plan away in hopes of returning to it in the near future.

It was some months before I came back to this plan and decided it was time to actually try it out. As I experimented with it, I tweaked a few of the categories, cutting out some areas that felt like reduplication and adding in some new categories, such as lament. Here are my twelve.

  1. Praise and Worship + honest assessment of my soul.
  2. Waiting on the Lord in silence
  3. Confession of guilt, sin, and shame
  4. Praying Scripture
  5. Lament, Burdens, and Brokenness
  6. Intercession
  7. Petitions
  8. Thanksgiving
  9. Song/Poem
  10. Contemplation/Meditation
  11. Listening/Watching
  12. Praise for what’s true + renouncing lies and unbelief

My former prayer life was heavily weighted in favor of petition, intercession, confession, and thanksgiving. This more holistic prayer structure breathed fresh life into my prayer rhythms and gave me a place to put biblical practices that weren’t really taking place elsewhere – things like lament and silence. Sometimes a new structure is all that’s needed to spur encouraging growth.

This prayer hour worked decently well for me when I was trying to do it alone at home, but eventually I had a hard time staying focused. I was also needing to incorporate more physical activity into my day – and learning that I had a woefully underdeveloped theology of the body. Truth be told, for many years I lived as if I was a disembodied spirit, not an embodied creation with a good, but limited physical body. I pushed hard for the sake of ministry, not really believing it was that important to take care of my physical health. Because of realizing all of this, I was chewing on whether or not there were ways to better glorify God with my body, and not merely with my mind and my relationships.

I had other questions. Why is walking with God the language the scriptures uses to describe Adam and Enoch’s spiritual disciplines? And is this only meant to be a metaphor? What effect would moving feet have upon focus and meditation? And what loss would come by not being able to easily write things down? What about the brutal Central Asian summer heat?

Sometime after returning to our region this past autumn, I decided to pull the trigger and try an hour prayer walk. Armed with my recently purchased Fitbit, I set the countdown for five minutes and walked out my front gate of my Central Asian row home.

The first day saw my soul deeply encouraged, and my body more tired than I had expected. My ability to focus with my eyes open and my feet moving was much better than I had expected. This was extra noticeable in the meditation on scripture portion – a fun surprise. Who knew that some degree of physical movement would be highly compatible with gleaning insights from a Bible verse? To be honest, I find I’m better at meditating on a passage when walking than I am when sitting down.

It’s now been nine months or so that I’ve been seeking to do this almost daily. And I continue to find it good for both soul and body. My current practice is to walk and pray in the bazaar, mixing up the empty streets with the more crowded. Because of the time of year, I try to stay on the shaded sidewalks as much as possible. An hour walk in 110s degrees Fahrenheit (44 degrees Celcius) sun is no joke.

A few practical notes on what each of the twelve sections tends to look like:

  1. Praise and Worship + honest assessment of my soul – This usually starts off sounding like, “I praise you because you are fully alive and the source of life itself… and I do not feel fully alive today.”
  2. Waiting on the Lord in silence – Focusing my mind on the presence of God and on one simple true thought, such as “God is with me” or “I am in Christ.”
  3. Confession of guilt, sin, and shame – Not just sin and guilt, but where am I struggling with shame as well? That also needs to be brought to the cross.
  4. Praying Scripture – This is one of the trickier parts of the prayer walk. Using a Bible app on my phone has been key for this working. But sometimes I will find a spot to sit down so that I can better read scripture and pray it as I do so.
  5. Lament, Burdens, and Brokenness – One of my favorite new additions to my prayer life. It’s a daily chance to bring the things to God that are just hard for me personally (or have been in the past), as well as things like societal sins and tragedies. Five minutes a day of this has been remarkably life-giving.
  6. Intercession – Praying for others.
  7. Petitions – Praying for daily bread and things impossible.
  8. Thanksgiving – Remembering to rejoice in God’s specific and faithful provision.
  9. Song/Poem – A chance to engage my affections with truth put to music or verse, either by singing something myself or by listening to a favorite song.
  10. Contemplation/Meditation – Chewing methodically on a small passage of scripture to see what insights emerge, usually a couple verses at a time as I work through a book.
  11. Listening/Watching – More silence, listening to the sounds of God’s creation and anything else he might impress on soul or mind. Not demanding a certain type of clarity or word. Paying attention to the visible beauty of creation.
  12. Praise for what’s true + renouncing lies and unbelief – A daily chance to recognize the particular lies I’m wrestling with that day, and to apply God’s truth against them. “Lie: I feel like God is disappointed in me. Truth: He delights in me today and for all eternity.”

I decided not to write about this prayer walk rhythm until I had actually done it long enough to know I would stick with it and could vouch for it. Coming up on nine months of this now, I’m happy to commend this prayer structure as one good method among many for carrying out biblical prayers in all their diversity. It’s no silver bullet. You may find prayer walking through a structured hour like this not that helpful for you. But this method has been life-giving for me, so I share it here in hopes that it will be helpful for others also.

Photo by Balkouras Nicos on Unsplash

It’s Been a Bazaar – the Donkey Kind

I confess that after a year or so of blogging almost daily, I’ve gone dark for the last month or two. What happened? Well, we found out we needed to move again, and that I would be taking on a new leadership role, while still doing my previous role in the interim. This has meant countless trips three hours each way to our previous city over the course of the summer, seeking to be meaningfully involved in two cities and their respective church planting teams. We’ve also had many groups of visitors, sometimes overlapping. Plus fixing up the 75 year old stone house that we now live in. Throw in record temperatures, regular teaching responsibilities, some very hard unexpected things and some very good ones, a puppy and small children.

It has been a bit of a madhouse. Or, as locals say, “It’s become a donkey bazaar.”

Now, sadly we no longer have actual donkey bazaars. This would be a part of the main bazaar where one would go to buy or sell said stubborn beasts of burden. But it’s not very hard to envision the noise, the smell, the absurdity of a whole street or courtyard full of these furry creatures, braying and jostling all together, prospective customers slapping their rumps and inspecting their gums. It’s a local language idiom I was glad to learn, and one that has already proved very useful in daily conversation. One could use it to describe a crazy season, as I am here – or perhaps to describe the current state of Christian Twitter.

However, in spite of the pace and the challenges, we have seen God’s kind provision for us and his active help toward us over the summer. Key lessons have been soaking in. The importance of self-aware humility and the danger of self-deception. The frightening truth that “we become what we tolerate.” The consequences of drinking unfiltered Central Asian well water in the summer. The importance of never again letting battery acid spill all over the interior of my car. The glory of God displayed in coffee and bacon smuggled in from the West. You know, the basics.

Through it all, God has been faithful. And I have missed writing. This season of letting it slip away has cemented my desire to get back into the daily habit. Some creatures just can’t think quite as well until they’ve put things down on paper, or on a screen. Apparently I have been wired in this way. And with the complexities of my particular donkey bazaar, I am frankly not sure I can afford not to write. Or at least I will not be as fully alive without it, which again, is something I’m not sure I can afford. “The glory of God is man fully alive” goes the somewhat mistranslated ancient Irenaeus quote.

To everyone who has read my blog until now, and to those of you who even subscribed during my absence, my sincerest thanks.

A.W. Workman

Photo by Lena Bauermeister on Unsplash

Not Burning the Wet Wood With the Dry

“Wow, you have learned our language! That’s great. Those _______ people live here for decades and never learn the language. They are fathers-of-dogs! You know that word, right? Fathers-of-dogs, am I not right? Hahaha!”

The high ranking security police officer was egging me on to join him in his racist jokes. While I appreciated the goodwill built by his appreciation of our language learning, I wasn’t thrilled that the conversation had taken this turn. I didn’t engage, and thankfully, he turned to his supervising officer for affirmation, and then stamped our paperwork.

In other circumstances I’ve sometimes been bold enough to offer a proverb as a rebuke to these kinds of comments. “As your people say, Don’t burn the wet wood with the dry wood.” This day I hesitated, not sure whether to take that route with this high-ranking official, and the moment passed.

Our focus people group, like all people groups in the world, struggles with the sin of racism. In years past, they were the oppressed, and hated their oppressors en masse. Now, the tables have turned in our region, and they still hate with a vengeance that very same people group – who have now become the oppressed.

Our focus people group’s racism has roots in legitimate grievances. Genocide. Betrayal. Blood feuds. War. Enslavement. Now, the formerly dominant people group also carries legitimate grievances from the injustices committed against them more recently by people like the officials we dealt with that day. They even had some legitimate grievances when they were the oppressors. Whichever position a group is currently in, the sins of the oppressed and the oppressor tend to intermingle in a tangled web of historical chicken and egg accusations.

How far back shall we go? If we stop keeping score at a certain point in history, is that not an arbitrary decision? If we stop where the records stop, is that not to naively proclaim the oppressed group at that point uniquely innocent in the history of humanity – that the absence of records proves that they alone did not do the very same things that every temporarily dominant group tends to do? Is not every people group – in the broad lens of history – simply another representative of this great democracy of the damned? For yes, all people groups have sinned grievously against others and fall short of the glory of God.

But these questions are not the main thrust of this post. Instead, I want to highlight a subtle danger faced by missionaries everywhere, and especially by those working with historically oppressed groups. The danger is that in our love for our people group, we will go beyond appropriate empathy, lament, and action – and begin to absorb some of their racist views and attitudes.

It’s very easy to do. As a cross-cultural worker you strive to love your focus people group so much that you actually become like them. You strive to put on their language, culture, and lifestyle to the extent that you are personally and biblically able. The momentum is in the direction of absorbing huge portions of the cultural cake. But here’s the problem. Racism always comes baked into that cake. And sometimes we ingest it.

In our context, we find ourselves starting with a preference for how our focus people group does things (granted that we come out of culture shock alright). Then, that preference starts to mutate into feelings of judgement when we see how the enemy people group does things. Before long we find stereotypes coming true in our own experience and realize that have to check ourselves. If our jokes and our attitudes and our side comments about those people groups begin coming out slanted, it likely means our hearts have already followed our local friends’ into dangerous places.

How can we fight this momentum such that going deep into a certain language and culture doesn’t mean taking on its unique racist tendencies? A few practical suggestions. Believe and preach what the Bible says about how the gospel overcomes racial animosity. Pursue relationships with at least a few members of that “enemy” group. And finally, aim to plant multi-ethnic churches.

The Scriptures are not silent about the power of the gospel to overcome deep-seated hatred between oppressed and oppressor people groups. The fusion of Greco-Roman and Jewish Christians into local churches in the early church is what precipitated and resulted from passages like Ephesians 2, where Paul celebrates how the gospel has torn down “the dividing wall of hostility” between the Gentiles and the Jews. In Acts, the inclusion of the Samaritans in chapter 8 and the Gentiles in chapter 10 is intentional, and would have been a shocking racial development for the mainstream cultures on both sides. And it’s not like they then self-filtered into homogeneous groups. The diverse leaders of the Antioch church in chapter 13 and the ongoing conflicts present in books like Romans tell us otherwise. Jews and Gentiles, oppressed and oppressors, became fellow church members. Believing and preaching these kinds of possibilities for current people groups that hate each other provides the knowledge and passion that can mount an effective defense against absorbed racism taking root.

I was once in a taxi with a group of friends from an international church. When I spoke to the taxi driver in the local language, he went down the typical road of complementing me and proceeding to throw millions from his enemy people group under the bus as idiots who don’t learn the language. “Yet I’m one of them,” a voice piped up from inside the taxi, speaking in the local language. I suddenly remembered that one of the passengers in the car with us was a believer from the enemy people group. I’m not sure what I was about to say in response, but I remember feeling very certain that it would not have been as respectful as it should have been for a member of that group to be in the car with us. This was a bit jarring, realizing that my friendship with this man (and his presence) caused me to alter my response so much for that taxi driver. But it was also very healthy check. Knowing this young man meant I was able to better humanize his people group in that encounter. Knowing him as a brother in the faith meant the family honor was on the line. This is exactly why we need to pursue relationships with the enemies of our focus communities. Their faces and their names will serve as vital safeguards against absorbing our adopted group’s racism.

Finally, the danger of putting on the sinful racial attitudes of our focus people group calls for the long-term goal of planting multi-ethnic churches, where former enemies can worship side by side. Planting language-specific churches is very appropriate. A common language means biblical church order can actually take place. And as a language learner myself, I testify that no one should be forced to worship God in another’s language. Doing so should only be embraced by free choice, as we have done. For groups that have experienced suppression of their language, a language-specific church is even more vital. But if enemy people groups or individuals share significant linguistic overlap, then working toward local churches that display the broken wall of hostility should be our aim. Just like the New Testament church, if we live in a context of diverse groups at enmity with one another, we should strive to be able to verbally and visually proclaim that “Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all” (Colossians 3:11).

We don’t have to absorb the prejudice and racism of our adopted people groups. We shouldn’t strive to become like them in that way. Yes, the temptation is real – and subtle. Fear of man, love for our people group, and our own natural tendencies all push us into an unhealthy worldview where other groups are viewed as less human than the one we are called to. But this can, and should be fought. After all, the dividing wall of hostility has been destroyed. And so we are free. Free to love the oppressors. Free to love the oppressed. Free to guard against burning the wet wood with the dry.

Photo by Timon Wanner on Unsplash

A Proverb Against Rushing

Satan rushed and both his eyes were blinded.

Local Oral Tradition

This proverb speaks to the damaging effects of rushing upon our ability to make wise decisions. I was able to use it to illustrate a message this past week on John 7:40-52. In that passage we see the hasty and smug Old Testament exegesis of the crowd and the religious teachers, “Has not the scripture said that the Christ comes from the offspring of David, and comes from Bethlehem, the village where David was? …Are you from Galilee too? Search and see that no prophet arises from Galilee.”

Um, guys, what about Isaiah 9:1-7? You know, “Galilee of the nations. The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light… for to us a child is born…” These religious teachers were “blinded” by their hasty focusing upon one Old Testament prophecy – the Christ comes from Bethlehem (Micah 5:2) – to the exclusion of others that presented an apparent contradiction.

But as wise men have said before, apparent contradictions in the scriptures are actually theological goldmines. How can the Christ come from Bethlehem and from Galilee at the same time? How can God be both one and three? How can God choose who believes and still hold us responsible for believing?

Don’t rush, lest ye be blinded and miss out on theological gold. Take the whole counsel of the Word into account when seeking to rightly interpret apparent contradictions.

The First Church Discipline in 1,000 Years

Locals have a very aggressive way of pruning their fruit trees. At the very end of fall, the old men with their sickle sticks make their rounds again – and leave the trees naked for the winter. We were not in our current house this past winter, but we saw the effects of the lack of pruning on our loquat tree. Yes, this late spring it had several weeks of the yellow/orange fruit. It was fun while it lasted. One morning I triumphantly plucked my breakfast straight from the tree. But the neighbors’ trees had four times as much fruit for twice as long! Next winter, I’m getting an old man to come prune my trees. I will endure the sad loss of branches and leaves for the hope of the coming harvest.

Two months ago we gathered for the last time as members with the international church in our previous city. As we prepared to move, leaving this dear body of believers was one of the hardest parts. Seldom have I heard of another international church like this one. It is both serious about becoming a healthy biblical church and at the same time practical and devoted to serving cross-cultural missionaries like us in planting language-specific churches. Many international churches do not embrace a robust church planting vision for the local population in their host countries. Or, in the name of serving the broader expat community, many others settle for lowest common denominator doctrine and ecclesiology. But not all. There is a small but encouraging movement afoot, begun in the UAE twenty years or so ago, that is dotting this region of the world with a different breed of international churches. In my opinion as a cross-cultural missionary, this is one important part of a broader strategy to reach regions like ours with the gospel.

When we were new members at this church, we got to be a part of their first church discipline vote. Now, this is not at face value a very encouraging thing. Though commanded in scripture in passages like Matthew 18, church discipline is hard, messy, and costly. As such, it is largely absent from the evangelical missions world – despite being practiced by William Carey, Adoniram Judson, and others of our forerunners.

How exactly church discipline should get worked out in church planting situations is complicated, and there is a great need for research and thinking to be done about how to actually do this. As with many areas of ecclesiology, it’s gets muddy when you are seeking to plant the first healthy church ever among a certain people group – in situations that we call “zero to one.” How do you do church discipline when you haven’t been able to raise up local pastors/elders, and the church plant is led by temporary-apostolic-planter-pastor types like us? How do you discipline when you haven’t had a chance yet to teach on church membership and roll out a size and culture-appropriate expression of the inside-outside principle for biblical congregations? Yet the complications don’t erase the biblical commands nor the realities on the ground. For a tree to be healthy and fruitful, it must be pruned. The same is true of the local church – and church plants. After all, Paul’s letters were written to situations not too different from ours, to first generation believers who worshiped in church planting contexts.

In our first term we got burned by these very complexities. A local leader-in-training turned out to be a very divisive and deceitful man, who was bribing and dangerously misleading new believers. When our team wanted to move against him in order to protect the church plant, we were undermined by our conservative evangelical partners who didn’t feel that church discipline would “work” in this culture. Turns out the line of those who will actually do church discipline and who won’t is another crucial one which, in terms of practice, divides Bible-believing evangelicals. When it comes down to it, many biblical innerantists on the mission field won’t actually obey the Bible on this front. When you are dealing with a wolf, this is deadly.

Even among those of us who felt that we were dealing with a Titus 3 “divisive man,” we were very unsure of how to proceed in a new church plant that was not yet quite a church. We were caught flat-footed, and this skilled manipulator had lots of room to run circles around us, at great cost. Just the other day I was exploring the bazaar and happened to find the tailor shop of a new believer who fell away in that season, one of the first victims of that whole debacle. I don’t know if he’s open to relationship with us again, but now that we know where his shop is we can try to rekindle that connection.

All of this context is why were were both grieved and encouraged that the international church was moving forward to discipline one of their few local members. This young man had stopped coming to the church gathering for about a year and was unrepentant in the face of earnest counsel to return to his spiritual family. Hiking was more important than his church, and it appeared that his faith had been like the seed sown on shallow soil. He was simply over Jesus, and he was OK with that. We prayed for him to repent and waited patiently, but when the members meeting arrived we sought to be faithful to Jesus by declaring this man an unbeliever and no longer a member of our body.

As we reflected on what happened that day, we realized that this local man may have been the first person in our focus people group to be church disciplined for a thousand years. Or perhaps ever. There was a significant presence of ancient Christians in this area, and they did practice excommunication at times, so I can’t positively say he was the first. But likely the first for a millennium. A tragic distinction for him. But a courageous step for the international church. It would have been so easy to excuse away patterned unrepentant sin because as a local he was coming from an unchurched background, because locals are more resistant to the gospel, because their culture means they don’t understand church discipline, etc. But instead of going these routes, the church leadership and body stepped out in faith, obeyed the Scriptures, and pruned the tree.

The aim of healthy church discipline is always restoration – that those disciplined would wake up and respond in true repentance and faith. We pray that this young man would do this. But we also know that healthy church planting here will involve many more situations like this one. Every time will be a challenge. Will we believe and obey the Scriptures when both our culture and our adopted culture find it unpalatable? When local believers and other evangelicals tell us not to? We must. This is simply what faithfulness in church planting looks like. Holding fast to the commands of Christ, come what may.

We must model for the local believers how to prune the church as they model for us how to prune our fruit trees. To be faithful gardeners, we must endure the sadness of the pruning for the hope of the abundant fruit that will result.

Next spring I hope for many more loquats. And next decade? Many more brothers and sisters in the faith.

Photo by Paul Hanaoka on Unsplash

A Song on Gloryland

We’ll need no sun in gloryland

The moon and stars won’t shine

For Christ himself is light up there

He reigns on love divine

Then weep not friends

I’m going home

Up there we’ll die no more

No coffins will be made up there

No graves on that bright shore

“Gloryland” by Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys

I like the haunting beauty of this A Cappella bluegrass song. Bluegrass harmony is itself a lovely thing, but notice also the earthiness of the suffering mentioned in this song and how the theology of heaven provides strength to face death. Was there in previous ages of evangelicalism an underdeveloped understanding of salvation? Sure. Forgiveness of sin and eternal life in heaven were emphasized to the exclusion of the Spirit’s power for true life in this age and the ultimate hope of the new heavens and new earth. But I think we often underestimate how practical this focus on victory over death was for a humanity that simply faced death on a more constant basis.

My grandmother’s line were all Scotch-Irish stock who spent their lives in the mountains and coal mines of West Virginia. All the men were miners. And all died early of black lung. Infant mortality would have been exponentially higher than it is now. I suspect that if we feel any smug superiority to the bluegrass theology of the coal miners, that might also say something about how hard we in the West have tried to isolate ourselves from pain and death.

The Ark of the Covenant in its Egyptian Context

Here is a fascinating article from the Biblical Archaeology Society about the Ark of the Covenant and the possible meanings of its design. The Hebrews weren’t operating from a blank cultural slate. They had been living in Egypt for 400 years and adopting from that culture certain meaning-form understandings. For example, the pharaoh could go into battle while seated on a winged throne. That throne would be held aloft by shoulder poles – just like the Ark of the Covenant. In other words, it’s highly likely that the poles the Levites used to carry the ark, and the wings of the cherubim, and the mercy seat itself were all designed to carry a particular visual meaning – YHWH is divine king. I find the concluding paragraph of the article helpful in summarizing many of the elements of Old Testament religion.

“Therefore, even though Yahweh is not bound to human limits, he condescended to mankind deferring to human expectations of divinity. The cherubim had wings that stretched out over the Mercy Seat, and the shekinah glory met with man from between the wings of the cherubim above the ark. God did not try to change the beliefs of the people before engaging them, but instead respected human frailty and human notions of the divine, inverting or modifying those beliefs to teach humanity new ideas about himself.”

Photos by Igor Rodrigues on Unsplash and Wikimedia Commons

The Border Bridge

“You have to leave tomorrow. There’s a chance the other faction of the government will take control of the border and your exit visa will no longer be valid.”

The land border was the only exit we had left. During a political crisis the airports had been shut down. Other borders were shut or went through territory too dangerous to traverse as Westerners. We had been stuck in-country for a while, hunkered down as we watched political powers slowly tighten the grip on the region we were living in.

One colleague wisely counseled us in that season, “There’s a unique stress to being stuck out of country, and there’s a unique stress to being stuck in. Which one can your family better handle right now?” It was time to risk the stress of being stuck out.

We handed off our responsibilities to local believers and partners and consulted maps together. The tense uncertainty of our ability to return meant it was a sweet goodbye with the little core of our local church plant. Early the next morning, we set off.

The journey to the one border crossing left meant a six hour drive through the mountains, then leaving our vehicle with some friends. From there we would take a taxi one hour to the border, go through the border processes, and then drive another two hours to an airport city in the least unstable country of our region. We looked forward to a two-night rest in a hotel once we got there. We would need it to be ready for the long flights back to the US with two small children.

The drive through the mountains went well. It was spring and the bright green carpet of grass was already creeping over the mountains. We drove by ancient cities and villages I still hope to visit someday. Everything was strangely quiet for the six hour drive. The vehicle drop-off went well. The designated taxi was waiting and we made the trip. So far so good. Now for the border – the most unpredictable part.

Had the other faction taken control and would they block our exit or fine us? Would the border even be open? Would there bathrooms – or chai?! I had crossed this land border once before, but that was ten years previous. We were at the mercy of our taxi driver, who thankfully was very adept at shuffling us and our documents from one window bureaucrat to another. He also had TV screens for the kids in the back seat, which played several Tom and Jerry episodes in a loop. This would prove to be remarkably helpful as we jumped back in the car and drove to join a massive line of vehicles. After managing to pull into line, we sat. And then proceeded to sit for seven hours.

It wasn’t that we were totally still. We probably moved about one centimeter per minute. In front of us was our country’s security checkpoint, then a bridge across a river – maybe 100 meters long – and the neighboring country’s security checkpoint on the other side. We thought we had gotten there with plenty of time, but before we knew it the afternoon was spent and the sun was setting. The only exit left was one massive bottleneck.

We sat and sat and inched forward and sat some more. We made it through our country’s security checkpoint without too much trouble. No sign anywhere of the rumored takeover. Sometime after sunset we made it onto the bridge itself. An encouraging development, to be sure – until our three year old daughter needed a bathroom. There was no way back. And we couldn’t access the bathroom on the other side of the next security checkpoint, down at the other end of the bridge. So we tried, in vain, to create a shield with the car door and to help her relieve herself there on the pavement of the bridge. What else was to be done? We had at least another two hours to go sitting on this bridge. However, the strangeness (security spotlights and all) was too much for her three year-old-system, and in spite of her full bladder, she simply couldn’t go anymore. My wife decided to see if we could get an exception for a cute kid desperately in need of a potty. She headed off toward the end of the bridge with our daughter in tow, and was able to make eye contact with a female border agent standing at a side door – who mercifully gave them illegal bathroom access. Technically that toilet existed on the territory of a country we had not yet been cleared to enter. But common grace still exists, and cute kids can secure all kinds of exceptions in Central Asia.

We had a lot of time that day to be still and notice our surroundings during the seven hours it took to cross that river. We started noticing something curious. Some people were milling around up and down the bridge by foot. As they would pass our vehicle and others, some would tap twice or three times on the metal siding of the car. It wasn’t aimless. It was some kind of pattern. We started noticing small packages being slyly passed up the line of vehicles and individuals ducking behind cars as the security spotlight hit, and running up behind the next car once it moved on. We were witnessing a robust yet seemingly common-place smuggling operation. All the taxi drivers – judging by the tapping system – seemed to be in on it. Including our own.

We had been clear with him that as Christians, we were not going to be able to take part in any cigarette smuggling that is typically expected of taxi border passengers. Taxi drivers will stuff passengers’ bags with bulk cartons of cigarettes and have the passengers claim them as their own. In this way the drivers and their associates are able to buy cigarettes cheaply on our side of the border, and sell them for a profit on the other. We simply would not participate in the part where we said they belonged to us, we had insisted with the driver. And he assured us that he was OK with this and wouldn’t try any funny business with the smokes.

Late at night we finally made it to the security checkpoint. I checked our bags as they were taken out of the trunk. No bulk cigarette packages. But I did notice some had appeared in the trunk. Fruit of the car-tappers, no doubt. We shuffled our bleary-eyed children away from their hours of Tom and Jerry on repeat and made our way to the X-ray machine. As soon as we put our bags on the belt, a young man ran up out of nowhere and placed the cartons of cigarettes alongside our bags.

“What are these?” the security agent asked us.

“These belong to them!” said the young man.

“No they don’t, I said in the sister dialect of the local language.”

“These foreigners don’t understand our language,” he said, “I assure you these belong to them.” And he smiled at me with a please play along now kind of look.

“No,” I said, “these are not ours!” I was grateful that these sentences were more or less intelligible across the dialects. A look of worry flashed on the man’s face as a couple of burly security men came and hauled him off. The security officer attending us just shrugged. I shot a look back at our driver who was scratching his head some distance from us, trying not to look disappointed that his sneaky plan had failed.

Around one in the morning we finally made it to the hotel where we were staying, after leaving our house around 5 a.m. the previous day. We slept hard.

Upon waking and heading down to the breakfast buffet, we immediately felt the stress lifting now that we were no longer in a country under political siege. I sipped my Americano and enjoyed the bright light coming into the hotel dining room. After the long season of security crises and our crazy border crossing day, we could now breathe deep for a little bit. Then it was off to the US for our first trip back since moving overseas.

My wife was staring at me. She started mouthing some words. I am positively terrible at lip reading, so after I tried and failed to understand what she was saying, she gave up and just blurted it out.

“I’m pregnant.”

“You’re what?!”

I nearly dropped my coffee. And that’s how I learned about our third-born.

Photo by Max Titov on Unsplash