Gender as Eternal Reality

But whence came this curious difference between them? He found that he could point to no single feature wherein the difference resided, yet it was impossible to ignore. One could try — Ransom has tried a hundred times — to put it into words. He has said that Malacandra was like rhythm and Perelandra like melody. He has said that Malacandra affected him like a quantitative, Perelandra like an accentual, metre.

[W]hat Ransom saw at that moment was the real meaning of gender. Everyone must sometimes have wondered why in nearly all tongues certain inanimate objects are masculine and others feminine. What is masculine about a mountain or feminine about certain trees? Ransom has cured me of believing that this is a purely morphological phenomenon, depending on the form of the word. Still less is gender an imaginative extension of sex. Our ancestors did not make mountains masculine because they projected male characteristics into them. The real process is the reverse. Gender is a reality, and a more fundamental reality than sex.

Lewis, Perelandra, pp. 171-72

This portion of C.S. Lewis’ space trilogy is quoted in a helpful new article by Colin Smothers on Desiring God, “Was C.S. Lewis an Egalitarian?” Like Smothers, I have found Lewis’ fiction to be very persuasive regarding the goodness of complementarity between men and women – that the equal value of men and women is in fact more beautifully displayed in harmonious difference rather than in flat uniformity. And that this good eternal contrast should be displayed in society, the family, and the church. As I think back to what has made me a convictional complementarian, after God’s word, Lewis’ fiction would be one of my top influences. If you’ve never read his space trilogy, The Great Divorce, or Narnia books with this lens, it’s well worth the effort. The key here is that Lewis is not a man imprisoned by the blindspots of his particular time. But as a self-proclaimed “dinosaur” immersed in ancient mythology and languages, he is one of those gifted to see through his culture and to see things more permanent.

Why would fiction, of all genres, be so convincing? Sometimes that which offends our personal culture-shaped logic still resonates deep down when we see it in narrative. Pay attention to which themes keep showing up in our favorite films and stories. These are the things we really know to be true, regardless of what our editorials and think pieces say. The sacrifice of one hero saves the many. Humanity really is worth saving, in spite of our deep brokenness. Troubled characters can make a fateful choice which irredeemably confirms their nature to be evil, and thus their death is just and cause for celebration. Sin must be atoned for. Men and women are deeply different from one another.

It’s hard to argue logically – or biblically – for complementarity in a way that resonates as beautiful in our current Western cultural moment. But stories and narrative can still very much show it to be beautiful in a way that speaks to our consciences and to the eternity in our hearts. Storytellers are therefore a crucial part of the culture wars, one aspect that we conservatives tend to neglect. This is likely one reason why Lewis and Tolkien are everywhere right now. Though long dead, they are some of our few really effective storytellers.

The point which Lewis communicates through his stories that has lodged so deeply in me is summarized by the line, “Our ancestors did not make mountains masculine because they projected male characteristics into them. The real process is the reverse. Gender is a reality, and a more fundamental one than sex.” In my own words, gender is an eternal reality that must exist in the nature of God himself, because it is displayed throughout all creation. Yes, it shows up – downstream as it were – in human sex and gender, but like Lewis says, it appears in countless languages also – both in their very structure and as they attempt to describe reality.

This point resonated so deeply with me when I came across it in Lewis because we also find this to be true as we survey human cultures throughout history and around the world. The reality of masculinity and femininity are universally recognized by the thousands of diverse human cultures that have colored this planet. There has never been a neuter society. Even allowing for great diversity in its expression, the principle of fundamental difference between manhood and womanhood – and the dance of cooperation and competition between them – is always there. Once again, the book of human culture is telling us something about the nature of the universe and about God himself. The reality of binary gender is bleeding through the pages of human culture absolutely everywhere we look.

This is one reason many of the arguments for egalitarianism feel so shallow to me. They present as overly-dependent on critiquing stereotypes from 1950s America. Forget the 1950s. Why would we need to ground complementarianism in such a narrow slice of time and culture? If it is indeed true, then our questions must go much deeper and broader. Why have the tribal and religious institutions of Melanesia and Central Asia been male-led from time immemorial? Why did the ancient Persians recognize the man as the leader of his home? Why have indigenous societies overwhelmingly structured themselves so that the woman’s primary sphere is the the home and the man’s primary sphere is outside the home? Why did the myth of the Amazons exist for the ancient Greeks, serving as a legendary inverse society? Why do so many writers throughout history find the difference in roles between men and women to be honorable, and we find them so distasteful? Have we honestly wrestled with why are we the global and historical oddballs when it comes to how we feel about this topic, and why we are so proud of that?

In spite of the egalitarian air that we breathe in the West, we shouldn’t settle for simple responses that chalk it up to The Patriarchy or the results of the fall. Differences in role and manhood and womanhood are clearly visible before the fall in Genesis 1 and 2, as they should be if they are indeed reflecting deeper eternal realities of gender. The New Testament continues to affirm the differences in roles even as it deepens our understanding of our spiritual equality. Yes, male domineering leadership over women is very real and very universal since sin and the curse perverted these differences and twisted the dance into a cold war (with periodic open combat). But the answer is not to attempt to be the first neuter society in the history of humanity. Nor to remake the church or the home into the image of a fictional universe where masculinity and femininity are temporary, fading things imposed by culture.

Instead, we need to lean in and listen to writers like Lewis who seek to understand the eternal beauty of masculinity and femininity. This will help us place the biblical commands for male and female roles in their proper context. We need some bigger backdrops for this discussion – the breadth of human history and culture, the universe, even the nature of God himself.

Photo by Peter Conlan on Unsplash

A Proverb on Dishonest Gain

Money dishonestly gained will either go to the physician or be lost in the end.

Local Oral Tradition

This local proverb speaks of the end result of money gained unjustly. It claims that such money will ultimately be spent on doctor’s bills – implying cursed health – or that it will simply be lost. Either way, it amounts to nothing, or to worse than nothing – to a net loss. The logic is simple: stolen treasure may appeal in the short-term, but in the long-run it is a curse. Don’t go down that road.

In this way this local wisdom tradition echoes Solomon in Proverbs 1:19, “Such are the ways of everyone who is greedy for unjust gain; it takes away the life of its possessors.”

A recent situation in our city saw a trusted local believer deceive his mentors, convincing them to give him money to flee the country because his family was forcing him to marry a Muslim girl. Instead, he pocketed the cash, willingly married the girl, and told the group he wouldn’t be coming around anymore. If this brother doesn’t truly repent (if he is indeed a brother), then he will sooner or later find out the truth of these proverbs. The several thousand dollars he swindled will end up costing him dearly, much more than he could have ever predicted.

Photo by Jp Valery on Unsplash

Divinity, Prophethood, Judgement, Cheesecake

“So what would you say are the main differences between Islam and Christianity?” asked Hamid*, taking a bite of the cheesecake we were sharing. One welcome development over the past decade has been a tremendous increase in the availability and quality of cheesecake in our Central Asian city.

Hamid, Darius*, and I had gathered at a nice local cafe in order to field Hamid’s many questions. A new teacher of history and comparative religion at an elite local high school, Hamid often found himself at a loss when students asked detailed questions about Christianity. His personal studies on the internet yielded some clarity – as well as a lot more questions.

Darius and Hamid were good friends, and Darius had shared the gospel with him several times. Though neither of us were sure to what extent Hamid’s questions were for his students or actually to satisfy his own curiosity. But we didn’t find it necessary to press. In an honor-shame culture, this sort of “I have a friend who” framing of a conversation allows seekers to explore hard questions as they weigh the risk of admitting that they themselves are having potentially explosive doubts. If the questions were for Hamid himself, then that’s great. And if they’re only for his students? Still great. At the very least, the truth shared now might serve to create in Hamid’s mind what locals call a “brain-worm” that could lead to more searching down the road.

“I mean, other than what you have already described about salvation by faith instead of by good deeds,” Hamid went on to clarify. “I think I understand that point.”

I sipped my hot drink and mulled on how to respond. We had already discussed the key difference Hamid had mentioned, Islam and Christianity’s mutually-exclusive answers to how a person can be saved. I decided to proceed in a slightly different way than I normally would.

“Well, let’s frame the differences in light of three central tenets of Islam’s worldview: the oneness of God (tawhid), prophethood, and the last day.”

Darius and Hamid leaned in. The three aspects of Islamic teaching that I mentioned are so central to Muslims’ worldviews that they are what a certain historical American document might call self-evident – so obvious to locals that they feel that no logical and honest person can ever deny them.

“When we speak of tawhid, or the oneness of God, Islam teaches a simple unity. There is only one God and he exists eternally as one person. However, the Bible teaches something that contradicts this understanding of God’s nature. It teaches that God is actually a complex unity. Yes, there is only one God, but he exists eternally as three persons – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. These three persons, or three distinct consciousnesses, are equally divine, and completely one in their nature, essence, and will – yet they have distinct roles and they have real relationships of love and communication and glory with one another. In this way, the God of the Bible is totally different from the God of the Qur’an. You would agree that a disagreement about the very nature of God is about as big a disagreement as you can have, right?”

Here Hamid and Darius nodded their heads. Hamid and I had previously spoken of the Trinity while on a picnic together, where he had asked a great question, one which I had never heard before, “Do the members of the Trinity ever compete with one another?” “In only one respect that I can think of,” I had responded after a while, “In giving one another glory.”

“OK, so the Trinity is a big difference,” Hamid continued, “But why do you say there’s a difference in prophethood? Aren’t prophets just men sent by God with a book, preaching God’s message to their people?”

Here I decided to be a little more blunt than usual.

“Well, the writer of the Qur’an, for his own purposes, took Mohammad’s story and did a copy-paste over the story of all the other prophets. So, yes, in Islam all the prophets seem to follow the same script. They are spoken of as basically-sinless holy men who are sent by God to their own people with the message of God’s oneness and the coming judgment of the last day. The message is often communicated to the prophet directly via an angel or some kind of verbal revelation. Many of the prophet’s people reject their message and go on to suffer the consequences. The formula is very simple and is repeated over and over, whether the Qur’an is talking about Moses, Lot, or others. God is claimed to have sent countless prophets to their own peoples in this same formula until sending Mohammad as the final ‘seal’ of the prophets, with a message for all humanity and an incorruptable book. This is why Muslims think that the Injil is one book, given to Jesus, later corrupted, and why most are unaware that there are actually four Injils (gospels), none written by Jesus himself, and unaware that they are only one part of the twenty seven books of the New Testament.

“The prophets in the Bible are very different from prophets according to Islam. They are presented as sometimes very sinful men, chosen by God’s grace to display and communicate God’s message to his people. Yes, this message involves coming judgement and turning from idols to follow the one true God. But it centers around God’s covenant faithfulness toward sinners – including the sinful prophets themselves whose failures demonstrate that we need someone who is more than a prophet. Prophets also receive many different kinds of revelation, whether seemingly more ‘spiritual’ like angels, dreams, or visions, or whether seemingly more ‘natural,’ like doing historical research or writing proverbs. Some prophets write multiple books. Other prophets don’t write any books at all. For many of our books of the Bible we don’t even know who the author was!

“The difference in prophethood between Islam and Christianity is a big one. When it comes to Jesus, rather than him being the final prophet in a long line of sinless men, each with their own people and book, Jesus is the Word of God and the Son of God himself, the only sinless one after many flawed and sinful prophets, whose coming is the climax of God’s revelation to men. All the earlier prophets point to him positively through their inspired writings and faithful deeds, as well as negatively through their sin and failure – kind of like shadows or signs that point us to the real thing.”

“OK,” nodded Hamid, “That’s prophethood. So how is the understanding of the last day different?”

“Well this one connects again to how a person is saved. In Islam, a person is judged based on a scale which weighs their good or bad deeds. The heavier side determines their eternal destiny, though no one can ever know for sure since God’s mercy is presented as unpredictable and mysterious. So in Islam, the last day motivates people to obey based out of fear that their scale will condemn them, or that God may condemn them for some other reason, simply because he is God. There is no certainty about that day of judgment, and a lot of fear.”

Here Hamid nodded his head. Whatever internet Islamic scholars may say, this is very much what Central Asian Muslims on the street believe and live by. Fear is necessary because it keeps us from sinning which will (hopefully) keep us from hell. God can be won over by just enough good deeds (hopefully) – unless he plays a divine joker card and sends some of the undeserving to heaven and others to hell, simply because he’s God and he’s beyond our understanding.

“However,” I continued, “the key for the last day, according to the Bible, is that we are known by God and by Jesus. That we have a relationship with him based on faith in his promises. And that all our good deeds on that day stand as evidence that he knows us already and we know him. They’re not the basis for our acceptance, done out of fear, but the evidence of it, done out of love and gratitude. The last day for a true believer is not something with an uncertain outcome, but a time when we are promised acceptance and welcome by God, who never breaks his promises.”

Hamid sat thoughtfully, “Thank you,” he said, turning to me. “These differences are much clearer for me now.”

I sat back, grateful that some of that I had shared had been understood, maybe even accepted. Believe it or not, convincing local friends that Christianity and Islam really do fundamentally disagree with one another is one of the most stubbornly-difficult tasks we face when we seek to do evangelism. It was interesting to use the Islamic worldview of oneness-prophethood-judgment as a familiar framework for illustrating these crucial differences. Like the scale vs. sacrifice approach, it might be a way to present gospel truth in a concrete fashion Muslims are better able to understand.

We had been talking for a while by this point and I though we had probably given Hamid enough food for thought for one evening. The cheesecake was gone. Likely, he would want to switch topics to something a little lighter.

“OK, then!” Hamid said as he rubbed his hands together. “Next question. Explain to me the different branches of Christianity – and how to keep them all straight. Google was no help on this one.”

We were going to need some more cheesecake.

*names changed for security

Photo by mahyar mirghasemi on Unsplash

Grateful Reflections on 500 Posts

My WordPress dashboard tells me I have posted over 500 times over the last two and a half years, 523 times to be exact. The circumstances that got me into this – and have kept me at it – turned out to be seasons of trial that brought with them unexpected margin and need for clarity. That margin, along with some wise counsel, combined to translate desire into actual words on the page.

Like many, in early 2020 I found myself stuck at home with everything canceled because of some new global coronavirus. The lock-downs came early to our corner of Central Asia, landing us at home several weeks before they would also be introduced in the West.

Sometime in that season I had come across a couple of posts from Tim Challies that proved to be very helpful for me. The first one, Writers Write, challenged me to stop thinking of myself as a writer if I wasn’t regularly actually, well, writing. The second post, Has There Ever Been a Better Time to Start a Blog?, gave me a roadmap for how to get started. Once I had made it through a few weeks of posting, I reached out to Tim to let him know I was putting his advice into action. His encouragement then and along the way has been a vital part of maintaining the hope necessary to keep on writing. Many of you have found my writing through Tim’s blog.

There were a few other practical pieces of advice that also proved to be wise guidance. I believe I heard them on Chase Replogle’s Pastor Writer Podcast. The first was that a writer should not be so much concerned with what others find interesting, as much as with what he himself finds interesting. This makes good sense. If we find ourselves captured by a certain topic, then we are much more able to invite others in to be captured as well. For example, I find Central Asian proverbs to be both wise and witty. Will anyone else out there actually find them interesting as well? Or am I destined to rub my chin in a very real and very lonely fascination? Turns out this is the wrong question. If the desire is in me to dig into certain topic, or to tell a certain story, that most often means it is something I should write about. The sheer diversity of readers that are out there mean it will almost always resonate with someone, and perhaps even serve to pique the interest of some who have never before themselves slowed down to rub their chins at that particular topic.

Secondly, I was greatly helped by the idea that writing is an act of faith. I often wonder when I will run out of things to write about, when the stories will dry up, or when I will reach for some principle to explore, only to find the metaphorical shelves bare. The truth is that I really don’t have any promise saying that there will always be something I will be able to write about. But again and again, when I sit down to write I find there are at least one or two things I can write about in that moment. What can I write about today has proved a much more faithful guide than what should I write about. Writing is full of surprises. Some posts that I thought were quite mediocre fare turned out to get the most engagement from readers. This idea that writing is an act of faith helps me to keep on going, knowing that writing, like any gifting, is not something ultimately originating in myself, but in the boundless generosity of a good father. Amazed as I am that he keeps giving, he tends to keep on doing so – a generosity flowing out of his very nature.

The encouragement of you, my readers, has also been a crucial piece of keeping this blog going. Though it has caught me by surprise, it has been a true delight to know that posts focusing on missions, wisdom, history, and resurrection have encouraged you, have made you laugh, and have even proved to be edifying. Your comments and emails have strengthened my commitment to keep on going, even when I had to step away from the blog for seasons of increased busyness. I am truly grateful for your generosity toward me in this two-and-a-half year experiment.

Finally, I am grateful to God for his kind and mysterious providence, for the seasons of trial he has given that enabled this blog to start and to keep going. I began writing during the Covid-19 lock-downs. A medical leave in the US for my daughter’s new-onset diabetes provided the margin needed to keep on writing during that first year. The various implosions and misadventures of ministry in Central Asia provided fertile material to work with. Now, a second medical leave is once again giving the same gift of margin as we seek to heal as a family. These seasons of perplexity and uncertainty in life and ministry have proved to be some of the most productive times for writing. And writing has itself been part of what God has used to help carry me through the fog. I may not know what our life as spiritual nomads will look like in six months, but today I can write something. And that small act of re-creation has proved to be surprisingly grounding and life-giving.

500 posts down, by the grace of God. May he give grace for 500 more.

Photo by Andrew Seaman on Unsplash

Eleven Factors For Helpful Short-Term Trips

As one who grew up as a TCK and who has also served as a missions pastor and as a missionary, I have seen my fair share of short-term trips. Most of them were a blessing. A few went off the rails. All of them were costly, both to those who invested their time and money to go, and to the missionary teams that received them. Over time, our own set of best or preferred practices for short-term trips has emerged. The following is a list for your consideration the next time you are involved in this kind of trip.

  1. Actually take a trip to serve your missionaries. Short-term trips are an important way to partner with and care for the missionaries your church has sent out or closely supports. Visits from friends and pastors can mean a lot to those on the field and provide timely encouragement and support, and modern air travel makes this surprisingly accessible. It’s not a bad goal to plan at least one trip per term. This will help the church to pray in a more informed way and deepen the rope-holding relationship, as well as provide insight into what kind of distance pastoral care is needed. If you have a missionary serving somewhere, your church or pastors should be willing to visit them. Some single women or families with small children serve in dangerous places overseas, but the church leadership isn’t sure it’s wise to visit them due to safety concerns. This is disheartening to those on the field. If we send them to dangerous places where they live daily with risk, we must be willing to visit them and share with them in that potential suffering.
  2. Know what kind of trip it is. There are different kinds of short-term trips. A team could be involved in visiting new areas to help missionaries gain access, building relationships with locals that residential workers could later build upon. Or they could be doing projects that strengthen the work identity of the missionaries. These could be things like English camps, medical trainings, or service projects. There are short-term teams that focus primarily on sharing the gospel and those that focus on doing trainings for local believers or leaders. Some short-term teams focus primarily on caring for TCKs or investing pastorally in the missionaries. Others are vision trips, where a potential partner church comes mainly to build the new relationship and better understand how to partner, or where missionary candidates come to see if God is calling them that particular place or team. The key is to know beforehand what kind of a trip it is and therefore what the appropriate goals are – and for this to be agreed upon ahead of time by both the short-term team leadership and the missionaries on the ground.
  3. Send qualified people on the team. Send the kind of people who add value to the team according to what kind of trip it is. Even though it can be hard to recruit for trips, it is far better to have a smaller team than one full of people who shouldn’t be there. I remember one trip in my middle school years that included teenagers from a youth group who were struggling with their faith and with drug use. Maybe the logic was that the trip would be a shot in the arm for them spiritually, but the level of immaturity of the team members caused quite the headache for the missionaries on the ground. While a short-term trip is a great opportunity to disciple those on the trip, aim to primarily send team members who fit with the nature of the trip and will be a blessing to those they are visiting.
  4. Ask about what you can bring over. It can be surprising what is and is not available in the markets of foreign countries. There are almost always baking items that are hard to come by, or just favorite foods that aren’t available locally. We have often had teams bring over good coffee, pre-cooked bacon, our daughter’s diabetic devices, homeschool curriculum, and a good book or two for me also. The key is to offer ahead of time to bring things over in your luggage and to not assume you know what they need. After carrying over antibiotics for friends in China, I took some with me on a visit to friends in Central Asia, only to find out that they were easily accessible in the local pharmacies there. You can also very helpfully carry things back to the home country for your missionaries, such as kids artwork to send to the grandparents.
  5. Learn about your destination’s culture, norms, and security beforehand. Request a summary orientation beforehand so that your team knows the basics of how to dress, how to conduct themselves with locals, and how to talk about the nature of the trip. For trips to our part of Central Asia, it’s important that women and men dress smartly and modestly, and that they know to avoid physical contact with the opposite gender. They should also have a STS (short truthful statement) about the trip if asked by security officials or other locals. We also need to prep teams about which vocabulary they need to avoid, such as the name of our organization, or terms like missionary or evangelism. While you’ll likely receive some kind of orientation on the ground, you’ll want to know some of the most important things before you ever get on the plane.
  6. Bring enough cash or credit to cover everything. This is one simple way to bless those you’re visiting and to acknowledge the costs they are incurring by hosting the team. When I was a missions pastor I was given a generous budget and orders from our elders to not let our missionaries pay for anything when our team was on the ground. While I wasn’t always able to outmaneuver them, most of the time we covered all our expenses and the expenses of the family or team hosting us. From being on the receiving end of teams now for seven years, I know how helpful this kind of a posture can be. Planning is needed, however, if it’s a cash-only economy or if Western credit cards don’t work or aren’t accepted at local merchants. But in general, bring more cash than you think you’ll need. You may discover a significant financial need while on the ground and be able to cover it on the spot.
  7. Go hard while on the trip. Short-term trips are not a marathon, they are a sprint, so go hard while on the trip. Stay up late having pastoral conversations. Take that extra trip to visit isolated believers. Take part in potentially uncomfortable cultural experiences and cuisine (and bring your stomach meds). Preach last-minute if invited to. Short-term trips are not set up to be spiritual retreats or vacations, so gird up your loins, ready to work hard without grumbling. On the other hand, if the missionaries plan a slower pace for the week than you were hoping for, then use that time in prayer and exploring the local area.
  8. Invest spiritually in the missionaries and the TCKs. Missionaries are often in roles where they are constantly pouring out spiritually, whether sharing the gospel, discipling, teaching and preaching, or training leaders. They are in need of others to pour into them. Don’t underestimate how life-giving it can be to have friends open the word with you in your own language and pray for you. Don’t worry about needing to have missions-specific content to encourage them with. Simply point them to the gospel and to the character of God and this will be for them like drinking water in the desert. Speaking of water in the desert, offer to watch the kids so that parents can go on a rare date night and have the chance to connect deeply with one another also. And when spending time with the TCKs, really invest in them. Teach them new skills, learn their stories, and delight in them.
  9. Invest in the local believers. I have often been surprised at the lack of initiative short-term teams and visitors have taken when we are spending time with local believers who speak English. If you have the privilege of spending time with local believers on your trip, by all means, seek to make the most of the opportunity. Ask them their testimony. Tell them yours. Share what God has been teaching you and ask them what they have been learning. These conversations can be more impactful than you’d expect and can lend some welcome backup to the missionaries who are investing in these relationships. In the age of social media, you may also end up with a new long-term friend on the other side of the world.
  10. Invest in the short-term team itself. I remember hearing David Platt once speak about the tremendous discipleship opportunity provided with the team members on a short-term trip. It makes sense. Similar to a pilgrimage, a short term trip to another country can be a time of unique spiritual focus and intentionality. God can use these trips to implant a love of the nations, to spur on toward greater faithfulness, and to provide needed renewal in spiritual passion. So don’t neglect the members of the team itself and what God may be doing in their lives.
  11. Watch out for the trip home. Finally, be aware of the adrenaline drop that happens once the team gets on the plane to head home. After a week of pouring out and serving others, at this point its easy to feel entitled to some “me time” and to get short with the other members of the team. Even the thought of getting back to life as usual can bring some sadness and grumpiness. This final leg is not a throw-away part of the trip, but an important time, especially for the trip leaders, to care for the team and help them finish well.

Photo by Ross Parmly on Unsplash

The Traditional Bathhouse

My first friend in Central Asia, Hama*, was an eclectic fellow. He was a jaded wedding keyboardist who had lived for a number of years in the UK. This made him relatively progressive in relation to his culture. However, he still retained a deep appreciation for some of the most traditional places and experiences in the bazaar, things that most of his peers were distancing themselves from in their quest to be more modern.

For example, Hama was always ready to take me to eat a traditional dish eaten in the middle of the night, called “Head and Foot,” which could in some ways be compared to the Scottish dish called haggis. The base of Head and Foot is spiced rice sewn up in a sheep’s stomach, boiled in a broth made from the sheep’s head and feet. Sides include tongue, brain, and marrow. I usually just stuck with just the stomach rice and the broth. Paired with fresh flatbread this was a little greasy, but not bad. One intern who decided to eat all the sides as well, and record it for social media, ended up in the hospital. To be fair to the local cuisine, it was the middle of the night and it was his first time and he had also insisted on smoking a Cuban cigar immediately after eating brain and marrow. It may have been this peculiar combination of factors that did him in. As for the locals, the younger generation are starting to turn up their nose at Head and Foot, though the more traditional types still love the stuff. One incident several years ago involved a group of disappointed customers shooting up a Head and Foot restaurant with AK-47s because by 2 am they had already sold out.

But Hama was raised in one of the oldest bazaar neighborhoods, and something about things like Head and Foot spoke to his sense of where he came from. Perhaps it was his years living in Europe that awakened this appreciation in him. Or, like me, he was simply an old soul who found himself strangely drawn to the old ways, as if searching there for a hidden joy and wisdom that is almost out of our reach.

After finishing Head and Foot, the proper order of experience was to have a cup or two of sugary black chai, then to head to the traditional bathhouse. As far as I can tell, these bathhouses have their roots in old Roman culture, which eventually led to them spreading across North Africa, the Middle East, and Central Asia, remaining well-used there even when bathing became unpopular in medieval Europe. The most well-known of these distant Roman descendants would be the Turkish bath, but similar types of bathhouses are spread all over the region. In previous generations they served a very important public function: providing an accessible place where locals could get unlimited hot water and get deeply clean.

It’s only been in the last twenty years or so that hot running water at home became common for most of my peers in our corner of Central Asia. Before that, locals relied on visiting the gender-segregated bathhouses to bathe once or a couple times a week. Those as young as their mid-thirties grew up singing a song in grade school that went, “Today is Thursday; How wonderful; We go to the bathhouse!; Grab the soap; It’s on the window sill like someone sticking out his tongue at us.”

Even now the bathhouse provides a more reliable source of piping hot water than most homes, given the unreliability of government electricity. After Hama introduced me to the bathhouse in the fall of 2007, I found myself a frequent customer there that winter, the coldest the city had seen in forty years. With next to no electricity, frozen pipes, and ice-cold cement walls at home, the bathhouse was one of the only places in the city I could actually get warm – and take as long a shower as I liked. The mostly older locals eyed this skinny nineteen-year-old American peculiarly, but eventually got used to me, nodding in understanding at our mutual appreciation for endless hot water in the dead of winter.

The bathhouses of our area are typically made up of three rooms. First, you enter the reception area where the proprietor’s desk is, in a room with cement or plaster bench seating lining the walls. On top of this bench would be carpeting, and up on the wall lockers and hooks. Lots of natural light streams into this first room from upper windows. This room is a pleasant temperature and is designed for rest, drinking chai, and changing. To enter the second room, you need to be changed into your towel and to be wearing the provided toilet shoes. This second tiled room is warmer and contains some showers and an open floor area where an employee gives somewhat violent back massages for a small fee. The third room is the hottest. This room is heated by fire constantly burning underneath the floor, the hottest point being a raised octagonal platform in the center. Lining the walls are small sink areas built into the floor, each with a tap for hot and cold, a metal bowl for pouring the water over your head and body, and a small cement stool to sit on.

Those in the third room can sit at one of the sink areas to wash, stretch out on a part of the hot tile floor, or pace or exercise to work up a healthy sweat. The violent massage man will also aggressively scrub your back here, again for a small fee. Traditionally, most would be completely naked in this room, but undergarment-wearing patrons are now also very common. Most bathhouses also include some private shower rooms in addition to the open bigger room.

In addition to the blessedly hot rooms and water in the dead of winter, I always enjoyed the bathhouse for the reset of sorts I felt physically from the inundation of hot steam and water, contrasted when needed with bowls of cold. I also have fond memories of sitting with Hama in the rest room afterward, contentedly sipping chai and having good conversation. As other workers in Central Asia have found, the traditional bathhouse can be a place very conducive to friendship and spiritual conversation.

The bathhouse also gave me a picture that will forever be etched into my mind’s eye. I’ve never seen anyone scrub as long or as intensely as those older Central Asian men in the third room. At times it seemed as if they were trying to rub their skin off completely – as if they were even trying to get deep down and scrub their soul. Methodically, intensely, even desperately, they would scrub and rinse and scrub and rinse, using copious amounts of the old olive oil soap bars, over and over and over again. As I came to learn more about the nature of Islam, the image of these old men, ceaselessly scrubbing and yet never satisfied, came to serve as a metaphor for the desperation of those trapped in a works righteousness system. Lacking a way to wash the soul, Islam and other man-made religions rely on external cleansing. And yet the consciences of adherents have moments – or places – where the superficiality of this external “purity” takes over, and like Eustace the dragon, they claw at themselves, physically or emotionally, trying in futility to get another layer of scales off.

Those old men would likely have witnessed war, genocide, honor killings, wife-beatings, sexual and physical abuse, betrayal, slander, greed, and hypocrisy. They may have been victims, or they may have taken part in many of these acts of darkness, leading to an ever-lingering odor of guilt and shame. No wonder they scrubbed the way they did, almost trance-like, trying, consciously or unconsciously, to maybe this time find some way to clean the heart. All in vain. No bathhouse can ever bring the cleansing the mosque has also failed to provide.

There’s only one who is pure enough to clean the soul. He starts from the inside out, sovereignly reaching into our souls with his purity and miraculously making the unclean clean. We also use water, yes, even an immersion in it, but not as a means to become clean, but as a sign that he has already made us so. There is only one source of true cleansing for these old Central Asian men, for all of us. They must hear of Christ.

It is an amazing thing to step out of the dark Central Asian winter into the warmth and endless hot water of the traditional bathhouse. It is even more amazing to step out of the dark freezing hell of this present age and into the warmth, cleansing, and salvation provided by faith in Christ. There we will also find the water endless – even eternal.

*names changed for security

Photo by engin akyurt on Unsplash

Ancient Indian Christians

A stone cross in Kerala from the 600s bearing a Middle Persian inscription

No evidence exists for an apostolic mission to Kerala [S India]. However, considerable evidence shows that diplomatic relations, as well as a flourishing maritime trade, existed between the Roman Empire and the west coast of India. Thanks to knowledge of the monsoon winds, ships could cross the Indian Ocean between Egypt and Cranganore, called Muziris by the Romans, in less than two months. Pliny the Elder referred to Muziris as ‘primium emporium Indiae’ – the first port of India – and Strabo (63 BCE – 21 CE) reported that, every year, 120 ships linked the two continents together. The discovery of 2300 Roman coins from the period from 123 BCE to 117 CE testifies to the significance of this trading relationship.

The first historical witness to an autonomous Christian community in Kerala may be Pantaenus, who, according to Eusebius and Jerome, was sent by his bishop between 180 and 190 from Alexandria to India, where he encountered Christians. A century later Bishop David of Basra, mentioned above, traveled to India around 295/300, establishing the first official contact between the Thomas Christians of South India and the Church of the East. Then, around 345, one Bishop Joseph of Edessa – who, at the council of Nicaea, had signed as ‘bishop of all the churches of Persia and of greater India’ – visited Kerala.

Baumer, The Church of the East, p.26

Photo by Wikimedia Commons

Mercenary Dan

“I’m gonna invite you guys over for burgers, like I said. I make a mean American burger. But uh… well, you know how kids are always finding stuff?”

“Sure, they do find all kinds of things,” I responded into the phone, not sure what my friend was getting at.

“Well, I lost a hand grenade somewhere in my apartment. Don’t worry though. I duct-taped the pin so it’s not dangerous. But all the same, I’d hate for your kids to find it under the couch or something, you know?”

“Yeah, uh, that makes sense,” I responded, trying to sound normal.

How do you lose a hand grenade? Then again, I reminded myself that my friend Dan* was a mercenary. Everyone misplaces items from the office every now and then. Apparently mercenaries misplace hand grenades.

There are really only a few types of Westerners you run into in our corner of Central Asia. There are the missionaries, like us. The kids, collared shirts, and kind manners are usually dead giveaways here – as well as any proficiency in local language. Then there are some foreigners who are there only for business or adventure, but these tend to be a pretty questionable crew who can’t help but stick out by their awkward and sometimes scandalous conduct in the local culture. There are also the security contractors, the mercenaries. These former military types have their own dead giveaways. Cargo pants, scruffy facial hair, sunglasses, large muscles, and a kind of gnarled weathered look that comes from spending a lot of lot of time in the sun and in the dust.

The cumulative picture of this small foreign community is a bizarre one. Foreigners in Central Asia tend to eye one another warily from a distance, not sure whether they should interact, suspicious by default of what the other is doing in this desert on the other side of the world. One writer compared these expat dynamics to the desert moon of Tatooine in the Star Wars galaxy. Sure, there are some good guys scattered here and there. But most outsiders who end up in our corner of Central Asia are running from something, or are some kind of bounty hunter.

Dan and I met while I was out on a date with my wife at a local mall. He and his wife were at the same mall, spotted us as fellow foreigners, and asked us about the very restaurant that we were going to. Unlike most other expats, Dan didn’t seem standoffish at all. Instead, he was rather forward, even asking if they could join us for dinner. A split-second pivot from my wife and me had our date night quickly turn into an evangelistic opportunity with these new friends who seemed desperate for connection. Pro tip: date nights are hard to come by on the mission field, so only attempt this kind of move if you are absolutely sure you’ll be able to make up for it soon.

We sat down to dinner and began learning about their story. Originally from Portugal, Dan had been a gun-for-hire all over the world and had seen some truly terrible things. A serious injury landed him in Scandinavia, where his future wife nursed him back to health. They had been in our city for less than a year. Dan was working for a leader of one of the local militias, and his wife had gotten a job at an international school.

“I am the only person in the country with a license to open-carry a RPG!” Dan quickly let me know, proudly showing me the license itself. I was legitimately impressed.

As we talked, I learned that Dan swore like a sailor, was very proud of his Catholic military heritage, but really only believed in the power of weapons and the goodness of animals. He hated most people. But for some reason he liked me, and we began a unique friendship. Dan would tell me horrific stories of battle on behalf of corporations in African jungles. I would spiral the conversation in toward the gospel. Dan would eventually catch on, “How did you get me to talk about this again?” he would ask, squinting his eyes at me as if I were enacting some sneaky plan.

Dan would try to convince me that I would only be safe if I was packing adequate firepower. “I get it. You’re a Christian, you don’t want to kill people. How about a good shotgun? You wouldn’t have to kill them, just maim them with bird-shot! I can get you a real nice one at a great price.” I would shake my head and try to convince him that knowing the local language and culture and relying on local friends could get me safely into places Dan could never get into with his weapons. And that ultimately I was in Central Asia under God’s protection.

We got to share the gospel several times with Dan and his wife, including the time we facilitated a small wedding for them in the living room of the international church pastor. Turns out Scandinavian common law marriage is not recognized in Islamic societies that demand a certificate from an approved religious official. They were going to have to live separately, so we threw together a small ceremony for them and used it as another chance to point them to Jesus.

This meant a lot to Dan. And during the next security crisis he was sure to call me up to assure me that he had various options for armored convoys at a great price should our friends in another city need to evacuate. Then later on in the same crisis, he called me from the front lines, telling me that the news media was lying. Open warfare was taking place a couple hours from us, bodies were in the streets, in spite of the international media claims that it was just a “coordinated training exercise.” Now it was my turn to be grateful to Dan for alerting us to what was really happening when our own government and media were lying and trying to cover things up.

“Dan,” I asked him at one point. “There’s a little airstrip outside of town. If things got really bad and the airport were shut down, could you manage to hire some kind of Russian cargo plane to come in and evacuate us?”

“No,” Dan said. “I couldn’t do that… couldn’t do Russian, that is. I could get you an Emirati one though. But that’ll cost you. No friendship discounts there, ha!”

Eventually, though not surprisingly, Dan got kicked out of the country. Anyone with an open-carry license for a RPG is bound to get into serious trouble sooner or later. At the time of his departure Dan hadn’t yet professed faith in Christ. To my knowledge, he still hasn’t. He is one of many friends (though admittedly one of the more colorful ones) that God brought across our path for a short time and that we tried to share faithfully with. Even with our focus of reaching our Central Asian friends, we’ve never wanted to turn a blind eye to the gospel opportunities with others that may come about. Even if those opportunities are with those we never imagined we’d become friends with – like Catholic burger-cooking mercenaries.

Dan never found the grenade. We never had those burgers he promised. But given the strange way our paths crossed, I have a lot of hope that wherever he ends up God will bring him more believing friends who keep spiraling the conversation back to the gospel. And I pray that even mercenary Dan, who hates most people and has seen so much death, will one day be transformed.

*name changed for security

Photo by Sven Verweij on Unsplash

In Need of a Harvest Collective

The first neighborhood my family lived in when we moved to Central Asia had two names, the formal name and the name everyone used. I first came upon the formal name when I learned to read the street signs (which everyone ignored). It was not a word I heard anyone using, nor was it a term every local was familiar with. Eventually, I found a friend who was able to translate it for me. Even then I realized that there was no direct English equivalent. This is true of many individual words when learning a new language – you can translate them with a descriptive phrase but not with an individual equivalent word. In fact, releasing the assumption that every word must have a direct translation is an important step in the language learning process.

The name of the neighborhood translated to something like “harvest collective.” It was a village term, hence some of my city friends not knowing it. The villages in our corner of Central Asia are wise enough to know that no household can handle harvest time all on their own. Or perhaps wise enough to know that even if they can, they really shouldn’t. So, there is a rotation, a harvest collective, when on an appointed day the whole village shows up in a specific household’s field in order to provide them with the needed manpower and motivation to gather in the crops.

I liked the concept as soon as I heard of it. It reminded me of our newborn days when I realized that my young wife and I really couldn’t handle that season of postpartum and exhaustion on our own – and yet the very way society around us was structured encouraged isolation and often prevented receiving help from extended family or community. I remembered when our oldest two were toddlers and the never-ending household work my wife struggled to get to unless another mom in our community group came over to lend a hand. Or more recently, as most of my peers have become home owners, hearing about the difficulty these dads are having in fixing up their homes on their own.

While healthy churches in the West and community group structures are providing an avenue for some of this kind of collective help to happen organically (and praise God for this), my sense is that more robust structure and schedule is needed in order to push back against the overwhelming isolating tendencies of life in the individualistic West. We may have good and godly intentions to help that struggling young mom or that busy working dad, but those intentions may need an actual structure in order to translate into reality. Or to provide the kind of help that is less a one-off and actually serves for the long-term.

The idea would be for healthy church communities to borrow some cultural wisdom and implement “harvest collective” structures, where they recognize the kinds of labor a household can’t or shouldn’t do alone, and seek to regularly share that labor together. For example, a group of six men from the same church agree to become a collective together. One Saturday a month they agree to all show up at one man’s house in order to help him make some solid headway on his repair or renovation projects. That would mean twice a year each man is receiving help from five other brothers. Even if only for one day, that kind of help could go a long way. Young moms struggling with loneliness, fatigue, and the never-ending needs at home could set up a collective where they are regularly showing up to help one another, helping with not only the labor but also with the discouragement so prevalent in that season.

Westerners faced with this idea might feel an internal objection along the lines of “but we’re supposed to be able to handle this stuff on our own.” Yes, that is the overwhelming message communicated by Western culture, one which we have ingested from our youth. And it comes with a quiet side of shame for those who wrestle with why they can’t seem to figure it out – which happens to be the majority. An honest look at the loneliness, overwork, and rates of depression in Western culture just might indicate that we have some structural problems that require creative structural solutions. Non-Westerners might respond with, “But that’s the job of the extended family.” Yes, the extended family has played this role in many parts of the world. Yet the world is rapidly urbanizing, and with that comes the breakdown of the extended family’s ability to provide the same kind help it has in the past. Even more important than this is the fact that the Church is supposed to be the household of God, the new extended family for those kicked out of theirs because of their faith – or for those raised in a culture in which only a shell of the extended family remains. My Central Asian friends are the former. Many of my friends in the West are the latter. I would not be surprised if this kind of a group even lent the church an evangelistic power. “Wow, look at how those Christians take care of each other in the areas I feel so very alone in.”

The expressions may look very different than I have suggested here, but I believe the principle is sound. Like Central Asian villagers, believers would be wise to collectively serve one another in those kinds of labor which a single household can’t or shouldn’t be allowed to handle on its own. In societies that relentlessly drive towards an individualistic life, this will require intentional structures. And some humility to ask for help in ares the culture says we should be able to handle on our own.

After all, it’s not like the harvest collective in Central Asian culture has been there forever. At some point some exhausted farmer was probably sitting around drinking fermented yogurt water with his buddies and blurted out an honest confession that the harvest was simply too much for him and his kids to handle. At which point his fellow villagers must have come up with a wise plan. The kind of plan which just may be due for a revival of sorts.

Photo by Mathieu Bigard on Unsplash

A Song of Welcome

“The Welcome” by David Benjamin Blower

This is a simple but beautiful song based on two verses from Romans about believers’ love and welcome for one another.

Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.

Romans 13:8

Therefore welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.

Romans 15:7