The Transformation of JJ the Bully: An Addendum

So my mom fact-checked my story about JJ the bully. And rather than just editing a few places in the article for historical accuracy, I thought I’d write a separate post about the differences between my memory and my mom’s in order to explore the nature of memory and memoir a bit, as well as to include an ending to the story that I had forgotten about, but which even further emphasizes the effect that unexpected kindness had on him.

First, my mom informed me that the details of the second scene of my story weren’t quite right. This was the part where I wrote that she took us to 7-Eleven in order to buy a slurpee for JJ, and that we had chosen to buy him a blueberry one. In fact, she told me that we first drove to JJ’s house, where my mom told him that we were going to Rita’s Water Ice, and asked him if he’d like to come along. Rita’s is a warm-weather staple of the area northeast of Philadelphia, now branded Rita’s Italian Ice, but back then in the regional dialect it was known as Rita’s Wooder Ice. Italian ice is sort of like a snow cone, but with much finer ice, and it has a denser consistency than a smoothie or slurpee. However, JJ couldn’t come with us, so we asked him what flavor we could bring back for him. He chose lemon.

Rita’s, and not 7-Eleven. Lemon, and not blueberry. An initial visit to his house and return, rather than one surprising visit. Assuming that mom’s recollections are the correct ones – which is a good assumption since she was thirty seven and I was seven – it’s worth asking how and why my mind remembered things the way that it did.

I only remembered standing at JJ’s door once, and not the initial time that we had stopped by. Why might that be? Well, our brains do tend to remember situations in piecemeal fashion, “deleting” the vast majority of our memories that don’t seem significant, while holding onto the parts that had some kind of emotional significance. Fear, for example, is one of the strongest “cementers” of memory. If you have ever been unexpectedly put on the spot by a teacher, and that situation made your nervous system kick into high gear, then you will likely remember that scene for the rest of your life. Therefore, it’s likely that my mind deleted the first visit, categorizing it as not that significant, whereas it remembered the second time we were at JJ’s door. Why? Because of the emotion on JJ’s face. Human minds mirror one another’s emotions, so when I saw JJ’s expression I also felt his emotion. And this was significant enough that it was categorized under scenes to be archived for future reflection.

Why then did my mind swap 7-Eleven for Rita’s, and blueberry for lemon? Here we probably have a case of the mind naturally filling in the gaps in a memory from other similar memories of that same season (Perhaps I chose blueberry for myself at Rita’s that day). This freedom the mind feels to cut and paste certain details of stories, to mix memories together, and to remember things that didn’t really happen is what makes an individual’s memory alone less than rock-solid evidence of the actual history.

While there is always a certain kind of validity to the details of one’s memories – your mind remembers things in a certain way for a reason, meaning there is a true story being told about you even in memories that are not quite factual – human memory is not exactly a copy/paste of the historical situation. This is why having multiple witnesses is so important for a legal case. It’s also why it can be so helpful to compare our memories with others who were there. Even in situations where everyone recalls things accurately (as with the supernaturally-enabled writers of the gospels), each human brain involved is remembering only partial details of that scene, meaning that the combination of true stories leads to a fuller story overall. Alas, only the mind of God is perfectly and comprehensively aligned with the historical record for any given event.

All this means we should read or write memoir with a grain of salt, knowing that even the recollections of an honest author will come with some inevitable gaps, additions, or personal interpretations mixed in. But the fact that all natural memoir is like this means that once this is understood as a given, then we can engage in the genre with freedom, enjoyment, and humility. We try our best, and neither author nor reader need get bent out of shape when it comes out that certain details were a little off. It’s simply the nature of the genre, the nature of memory. As with biblical hermeneutics, knowing what genre we are in is key for proper interpretation and response, even for proper enjoyment. Memoir is the genre of significant true experiences that are remembered by the brain in a mostly-true, limited-perspective kind of way. And these very limitations of memoir are what make it so much fun.

No matter how good the story, the reader knows that there’s always more detail that might be unveiled, things that even the author missed. Sometimes the discovery of an omission makes the story even better. All of our favorite true stories conceal fascinating details that we have yet to learn – even the biblical ones. I would not be surprised if significant time is spent in eternity filling in these gaps. “Okay, Matthew, I invited you over for chai because I’ve simply got to know a little bit more about those dead saints who got out of their graves and wandered around Jerusalem after the crucifixion. What exactly was going on there?”

When I talked to my mom this week, she told me that I had ended the story of JJ the bully prematurely. As it went down, sometime later my mom was jogging in their neighborhood when she came across JJ again. She asked him if he had enjoyed his lemon water ice. JJ’s response?

“I didn’t drink it. I put it in my freezer because I wanted to keep it… I’ve never had anyone do something that nice for me before.”

Maybe someday I’ll meet JJ again. Because now I want to know – Did he ever drink it? How long did it stay in the freezer? Did his mom eventually throw it away? Does he still have it in his freezer? How does it end?!

At this point, only God knows, the author of all authors, storyteller of all storytellers. Good thing we’ll get to spend eternity with him. I can’t wait to hear more of his stories.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Golden Chains Gladly Accepted

In 312, after his victory in the battle of the Milvian Bridge, Emperor Constantine I (ruled 312 – 337) declared himself a Christian; in the following year he proclaimed the Edict of Milan, which guaranteed religious freedom. Since the emperor pronounced the Christian god as his god, this god was elevated, eo ipso, to the god of the empire. With Emperor Theodosius I (ruled 379-395), the process of the Christianization of the Roman state, begun with Emperor Constantine, led to a nationalization of the Church when, in 381, he forbade the conversion from Christianity to another religion and then, ten years later, put an end to all pagan worship within the empire and had the pagan temples destroyed or turned into churches. However, Constantine’s successors had already banned pagan sacrifices in 341, and in 346 had decreed the closing of pagan temples, although in 361 Emperor Julian the Apostate (ruled 361 – 363) undertook the last, unsuccessful, attempt to create a Christian-pagan synthesis and had the closed temples reopened.

It is hardly surprising that the Christian Church first expressed thanks for its sudden recognition as the state religion with a certain submissiveness and gladly accepted ‘golden chains’ in the form of financial support from the state.

Baumer, The Church of the East, p. 38

Notice how after only a few short decades of religious freedom, the Church in the Roman empire found itself no longer in the frying pan of persecution, but now in the fire of being the official religion of state power – and financially-dependent on that state.

Photo by Chris Czermak on Unsplash

The Transformation of JJ the Bully

This Sunday our pastor preached on loving our enemies, from Matthew chapter 5. As he challenged us to consider if our lives will contain any stories of radical love for our enemies, I remembered observing just such a story in my elementary school days. It’s a story of how my mom modeled returning good for evil – and thereby helped her younger sons to experience the power of actually following Jesus in this regard.

My second grade year was the roughest so far since we had returned to the US in the middle of my pre-K year, when my dad had died on the field. We had moved to a different town in the Philadelphia area, and that meant a new public elementary school. Overall, I didn’t have it as bad as my older brothers. My classroom experience was merely downgraded from wonderful to okay. Though I do remember the frustration of having to leave class movie time every Thursday in order to attend a speech therapy class. Those American R’s are tricky. But I had good friends in my class and a decent, if somewhat reserved, teacher. No, it was the bus ride where things were downright bad.

My fourth-grade brother and I managed to become the target of a crew of fifth grade bullies, led by a ringleader named JJ. Sometimes this had to do with our insistence on trying to sit in the back row of the bus, even though these boys claimed this as their exclusive territory. I remember being wrestled out of the back row, flipped over seat backs, and thrown up against metal window frames. We were much smaller than these older boys, so I’m not sure what caused us to keep on trying to assert our rights to the back seats. Perhaps it was the principle of it. Or perhaps there was something we had absorbed from the Melanesian highlands where we had grown up, where the locals were always ready for a fight.

Other fights involved teasing over the conspicuous size of our family’s ears and how the morning sunlight would shine through them, creating quite the pinkish-orange glow on the sides of our heads. Or the cross necklaces that we wore, one of which JJ tore off during a fight. While it was mostly angry boyish wrestling, there were some times that punches were thrown, though I think this was mostly directed at my older brother. I have a distinct memory of him getting punched in the stomach.

These conflicts on the school bus, as well as the difficulty my older brothers were having in their other school relationships, began to bleed into our relationships at home. My brothers and I began to fight with one another more often, a development which concerned my mom. With the exception of occasional squabbles, we three boys had always been pretty close to one another and related not only as brothers, but also as good friends. These growing conflicts would ultimately cause my mom to pull us out of public school in order to homeschool us for a year and a half. But first she had a bully to transform.

My mom has always been a woman not just of word, but of deed. She not only moved with her young family to the mission field, but later moved back to the field as a single mom. In the US as well as in Melanesia, she was not only personally involved in ministering to others, but active in trying to find ways for her boys to do so also. This often went well, though I do remember one time when after a snowstorm our family tried to serve a neighbor by brushing the snow off his car. We very quickly found out that in America, you don’t touch other people’s cars.

All the fights with JJ must have had my mom’s sanctified imagination chewing on what could be done. One day she told us that we were going to 7-Eleven, an American convenience store common in the northeast (common, but in Philly not as beloved as Wawa, where you can get a hoagie and Yoohoo to enjoy with your Poppop). When we arrived at 7-Eleven, she asked my brother and I to pick out a slurpee for JJ. A slurpee is a blended ice drink also known as a slushie, icee, etc., a kind of gas station drink full of sugar that sends kids into acrobat mode and bright food dye that stains their tongues. We chose a large blueberry slurpee and our mom drove us to JJ’s house.

The next scene I remember we are standing at JJ’s door. JJ’s mom, a pleasant enough-seeming woman, had answered the door. JJ was standing beside and a little behind her, looking not a little shocked and seeming very small. My mom explained that we had wanted to bring something for JJ, and she handed him the slurpee. JJ’s eyes were wide, but he seemed genuinely thankful. And since this was the 1990’s, his mom didn’t seem weird about it either, but let her kid keep the drink, and made him verbalize his thanks. I’m sure my mom and JJ’s mom said lots of other grownup things, but that’s all faded from my memory.

What hasn’t faded is the transformation that was visible on JJ’s the bully’s face and in his demeanor. He had been downright cruel to us for months, a classic bully, but this act of unexpected, undeserved kindness seemed to deeply disturb him in the right kinds of ways. He was never the same after that. JJ the bully actually became kind to us, consistently, from that point on. That was one powerful blueberry slurpee.

The last memory I have of JJ must have been toward the very end of that school year, because the weather was warm and it felt like summer. He had invited us over to his neighborhood to join in a big game of capture the flag.

Years and years later I would find myself in an intense text fight with one of my Central Asian friends. The abusive texts kept coming long after I had, exasperated, stopped responding. Then I remembered JJ, and the power of a blueberry slurpee, the power of loving your enemies, and turning the other cheek when struck. My young wife and I grabbed some cupcakes from somewhere and we headed off to Walmart, unannounced, where my friend worked. The mean texts kept coming in as we drove. But when we found him at the back of the store, smiled, and handed him the cupcakes, a look came over him that I recognized. The hardness melted away, replaced by a kind of sheepish kindness, as if something powerful had suddenly been heaped upon his head. Just like JJ, actually obeying Jesus by doing something kind to someone cruel had made all the difference – had even proved transformative.

I had learned how to do this from my mom, who of course, had learned how to do this from Jesus.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles” (Matthew 5:38–41).

Addendum: After writing this post I found out from my mom that I had unintentionally changed or omitted a few important details from this story. I have written about these corrections here.

Photo by Thomas Park on Unsplash

Did the Jews Really Borrow Certain Doctrines From the Zoroastrians?

“You know the Jews only got their belief in a fiery hell from the Zoroastrians in Babylon, right?”

This argument from my atheistic aunt was a new one for me. We had traveled to the Philly area to celebrate my engagement, when one morning my aunt opened up an apologetics conversation by asking me if I believed there would be free will in heaven. Somehow the conversation had veered into the territory of Zoroastrianism, which my aunt was putting forward as a point to undermine the authority of the Scriptures. After all, if central ideas like the nature of life after death had been borrowed from other religions, this would cast serious doubt on the Bible’s authority as God’s true revelation.

I chewed on her claim and considered how to respond.

“Well, I don’t know a lot about Zoroastrianism. But I don’t think you should say that there was no concept of a fiery judgment until after the exile. The ending of Isaiah (66:24) speaks of the wicked being judged by a fire that will never be quenched. And he predated the exile by a generation or so.”

That conversation may have been the first time I heard the argument that Judaism (and Christianity through it) borrowed heavily from Zoroastrianism. But it certainly wasn’t the last. This position is held as fact by many scholars, and even shows up in some pretty good Christian textbooks and resources. In addition, Zoroastrianism is enjoying a quiet revival in Central Asia and also has some good PR in the West with claims of being “The first monotheistic religion” and the first to teach a final judgment and resurrection.

So, how should Christians respond to the claim that much of our doctrine has been borrowed from the teachings of Zarathustra/Zoroaster, the ancient prophet who founded Zoroastrianism?

First, it helps to have a basic understanding of the history of this religion. Because that story alone leaves a lot to be desired in terms of statements of historical certainty. As best we can tell, Zarathustra was an influential religious teacher sometime around 1,200 BC to 500 BC who sought to reform the polytheism of ancient Persia into something approaching monotheism. But even here, we should be cautious calling calling it monotheism, since early Zoroastrianism teaches a temporary dualism, where even though there was only one God (Ahura Mazda), now there is a second, his evil enemy (Angra Mainyu), who is a god that must be battled both in creation and in the souls of humans. But later, when Zoroastrianism was codified and organized under the Sassanians in the AD 200s, its sacred text, the Avesta, presents an eternal dualism, or even an eternal tri-theism. Even Mithra, the God of war from the Persian pantheon who became so popular among the Roman legions, is thrown into the mix. The goal of the religion remains the same, to help Ahura Mazda, the god of light, overcome the darkness through good thoughts, good words, and good deeds. But the nature of Ahura Mazda as the one true God is not even settled within the history and texts of Zoroastrianism itself. And even if it were, Moses predates Zarathustra by 400 years, at least. So, the claim that Jewish monotheism was borrowed from Zoroastrianism? It doesn’t hold water.

How about the claims that the concepts of a fiery hell and resurrection were borrowed? Here there a couple of big problems, as I see it. First, the later possible dates for Zarathustra’s life could place him as a contemporary of Daniel, Ezekiel, and the other writers of the exile period. A number of scholars maintain that Zarathustra was active during the lifetime of Cyrus the great. So, when the concept of resurrection shows up in Ezekiel and Daniel (Ez 37, Dan 12), why should the assumption be that they borrowed from the Zoroastrians they encountered in Babylon and Susa, when it’s just as likely that Zarathustra borrowed from them? Don’t forget what an influential figure Daniel was for decades in both the Babylonian and the Persian empires. He was not only prime minister, political second-in-command, but also head of the wise men of Babylon – essentially the priestly class. It’s not an unreasonable theory to propose that it is Daniel who is influencing the religion of the Persian empire, and not the other way around.

Further, how do you establish what Zoroastrianism was actually teaching during the time of the exile when its sacred texts were not collected and compiled until 700 years later, during the first generation of the Sassanian empire in the 200s? This is the seriousness of the problem if Zarathustra was a contemporary of Daniel. But if he lived much earlier, say around 1,200 BC, then that makes for a period of 1,400 years between the life of Zarathustra and the compilation of his book of teachings, the Avesta. That would be like the Qur’an only being compiled today, when Muhammad lived and taught in the 600s. Given these huge periods of time, it seems like quite the stretch to read things in the Avesta and to say with confidence that these were indeed the teachings of Zarathustra, therefore they predate the biblical authors, therefore they must be the source for Jewish doctrine. Given this murkiness of the history of Zarathustra and Zoroastrianism, it seems that scholars are not really holding this ancient Persian religion to the same level of skepticism and criticism which they apply to Judaism and Christianity.

Ah, but you can’t find resurrection anywhere earlier than Ezekiel and Daniel, can you? Well, Jesus did, in the Torah, in Exodus 3:6. “And as for the resurrection of the dead, have you not read what was said to you by God: ‘I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not God of the dead, but of the living” (Matthew 22:31–33). And if we turn to Isaiah, once again we see this supposedly borrowed concept being taught a generation before the exile, “Your dead shall live; their bodies shall rise. You who dwell in the dust, awake and sing for joy! For your dew is a dew of light, and the earth will give birth to the dead” (Isaiah 26:19). For more evidence of resurrection in the Old Testament, check out this great article by Mitch Chase.

Over the years, I have heard these claims of borrowing from Zoroastrianism coming from my relatives, from Christian scholars, from online documentaries, and from Central Asian Zoroastrians trying to return to their roots. But when I dig around in the actual history of Zoroastrianism, of its founder and its beliefs, it doesn’t seem like these claims are coming from an examination of Zoroastrianism itself. Rather, it feels like some scholar made these claims once, everyone believed him, and now it’s just a big echo chamber where all accept these ideas as fact without knowing where they came from and if they were indeed sound in the first place.

Keep an eye out for Zoroastrianism in your evangelistic or apologetic conversations, and even in your resources. It tends to show up more than you might expect, claiming some pretty big things without the historical warrant to do so. A basic understanding of the story of Zoroastrianism – and how much really is debatable – can help provide a surprising answer, and get the conversation back on more profitable ground.

Photo by Shino on Unsplash

A Song on the Endless Summer of Heaven

“Endless Summer” by Lovkn

One of our missionary friends passed away this past week on the field after a long battle with brain cancer. Perhaps in time I will have the chance to write more of her and her family’s story, and how they returned to the field five years ago after the cancer diagnosis, knowing that it would likely be fatal. But for now we grieve and pray for her husband and kids, and for their Central Asian church family.

This song speaks beautifully of God’s welcome of his saints into life everlasting, into the endless summer of heaven. I love how the song speaks of heaven as “The Great Adventure.” Here is what the writer says of the lyrics:

Dedicated to Kimmy, this track was inspired by a life that left the Earth far too soon. The lyrics of this song are taken directly from Kimmy’s last blog post before she passed. It is a beautiful picture into the welcoming arms of the Father as we pass into eternity.

Ivy League Education vs. Middle Eastern Racism

Melissa* sat in a metal chair next to the overgrown pool, clearly distressed. She turned from Farhad* to try to catch her parents’ eyes, looking for reassurance. As a graduate student at an Ivy League school, she didn’t know what to do with what Farhad was telling her. His forceful accented words were not fitting within her worldview, within her moral framework of highly-educated liberal New England.

I was manning the grill nearby and could see the dynamics. By this time I knew Farhad and could have guessed what he was going on about just by his body language. As a member of a minority people group who had suffered genocide when he was a teenager, Farhad harbored a deeply-rooted hatred of the majority Middle Eastern people group who had slaughtered his own. And a deeply-rooted hatred of Islam, the faith they used to justify their atrocities. Farhad was not a Christian, but he was definitely post-Islamic, and had been willing to study the Bible with me and Reza* and even to attend church with us.

Tall, in his forties, with slicked-back shoulder-length black hair and a narrow angular face, Farhad liked to wear a suit to church with a Hawaiian shirt underneath, generously unbuttoned at the top, 1970’s style. He had kind dark eyes and a genuine smile, though he was missing one of his front upper teeth – the result of a mugging incident soon after he had arrived in the US as a refugee.

“I get kidnapped by Al Qaeda. I almost die. But I keep all my teeth. I come to America. I lose my tooth! Why?!” he was known to ask when telling the story of how he got mugged in the apartment complex where he was placed by his resettlement program.

Now, he was unloading on Melissa, who had simply come down to the Louisville area to visit her parents during a school break. Her parents, both professors at Ivy League schools, would come down periodically to the area to stay in their second home, where my mom was a long-term house sitter at the time. Because they lived in the same house as my mom during these visits, our two families had gotten to know one another well and become friends, even though our worldviews were drastically different. We were a family of evangelical missionaries, studying at the Calvinistic Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. They were a family of staunchly liberal Harvard-educated progressives. But there was an openness to conversation, even friendship, with others who were different from them that set them apart from the more radical progressivism that is in vogue today.

This professor couple believed that as much as possible, nature should be allowed to take over the property, hence the overgrown pool from the 1960s, now full of lily pads, algae, frogs, and a snapping turtle. When the weather was warm, we liked to have cookouts on the cement patio next to this pool, and I would often invite my international friends. My mom’s creative cooking was a real treat for them, as well as for me, a college student at the time living on my own. We’d eat by the fire pit, swapping stories from all around the world until long after the lightning bugs had come out. A map on the wall contained pins from all of the different countries where my mom’s many guests had come from.

But swapping stories with refugees can get intense very quickly. The barbecue chicken wasn’t even done grilling when Farhad was dropping stories on Melissa of genocide and passionately espousing his seemingly-racist and Islamophobic opinions. She didn’t know what to do with it. Melissa was a sharp woman, and getting a world class education. But when your education and worldview is framed to believe that racism and oppression can only really be perpetrated by white Christians, by the oppressor class, what do you do with a Middle Eastern society where various people groups have hated and killed each other for thousands of years? What do you do with a brown-skinned Muslim who is eager to convince you of the evils of his own religion, and has first-hand accounts of genocide to back it up? Victims are supposed to be inherently virtuous, the oppressed are not supposed to be able to be racist. But Farhad was calling members of the dominant people group names like “dogs” and “filth.” He clearly hated them. All of them. Islam is supposed to be the misunderstood and maligned religion of peace, but Farhad was pointing to examples from recent history of massacres literally named after chapters of the Qur’an. Of Muslims with power slaughtering Muslims and other minority groups with less power.

Melissa caught her mom’s attention and tried to appeal to her. “But… but… mom… this can’t be right, can it?”

“No, honey, you’re right, it can’t be right, it’s, well, it’s…”

They were grasping, intellectually brilliant though they were. Their moral lenses had taught them that the world was full of people who were basically good, and evil only really exists in the oppressor class, or in those who just haven’t had enough education. But Farhad was a fly in that ointment, a big angry fly, prominently missing a tooth. His logic was strong. There was clear victimhood and suffering in his story. There was also clear darkness in his heart.

I turned the barbecue chicken legs over on the grill and thought about the scene before me. I thought about how adept Middle Eastern and Central Asian refugees are at messing with the categories of popular Western morality. I am amazed at how Iraqis, Iranians, and Afghans can say all kinds of politically-incorrect things and get away with it. What progressive Westerner is going to be so bold as to call them out and risk exposing themselves to accusations of racism or Islamophobia? Some still might, but many, like our friends, will find that they have instead stumbled upon some kind of loophole, some kind of short in the moral circuitry.

I also thought about how grateful I was to be able to live in the real world, the world I had learned from the Bible. In that world evil and darkness are not limited to the few, to the oppressor class. They exist in every human heart. We are all evil, we are all on the spectrum of darkness. So we are not surprised when it shows up in the poor and marginalized, just as it does among the wealthy and privileged. While God’s word is clear about the evils of true oppression, the Bible calls both both the oppressor and the oppressed to repent of their hatred (murder) in their hearts toward one another, and to become part of a new redeemed humanity together.

The Bible has a category for people like Farhad. It shocks him by calling him to love his enemies (Matt 5:44). And when he finds that impossible to do in his own strength, to repent and to cast himself on God’s mercy in Christ. And if he does this, then he will be given the Holy Spirit who will empower him for the first time to do the impossible – to love those who committed genocide against his people. He’ll be able to do this because God’s justice is coming, and because he will know that he was forgiven when he had committed even worse against God himself.

An Ivy league education is no match for the realities of Middle Eastern racism. But the Bible can handle it – yes, more than handle it. It can transform it.

*Names changed for security

Photo by Zhanhui Li on Unsplash

What to Do When Your Mind is Aflame With Ideas

Knowing what to do with a mind aflame with ideas is important for everyone. But for creative, visionary, idea-oriented, dreamer types, it just may save your life – or at least your relationships.

What do I mean by a mind aflame with ideas? Well this situation may be something you’ve seldom experienced, but imagine what happens in your mind when a new opportunity unexpectedly opens up before you. Suddenly you have trouble focusing on daily life because there’s so much noise in your mind from all of the half-baked thoughts and ideas now rushing around up there connected to this new development. Or, if you’re like me, a little bit of caffeine or even some good music can kick your ideas into overdrive on an almost daily basis. The problem is not just that you should be focusing on your shower, your work, your current conversation, etc., but also that in the moment these thoughts feel very compelling. Your mind feels like it is aflame with very good, breakthrough-type ideas. Perhaps even a bunch of them. When in reality, the vast majority of them are really not that great, or at least not great yet.

Over time I’ve learned that wisdom is needed to channel this rush of ideas in some healthy way. A rush of ideas, a mind aflame, is essentially a rush of creativity. So, while it can be dangerous, it is good, a gift even. God is a creator, and we are made in his image as little re-creators. In the mysteries of human ability, we first “create” in our mind, before creating in the physical world around us. These acts of mini re-creation point to God as the one true creator, the only one able to make something out of nothing, and the one working everything toward a coming age of perfect new creation. Unlike God, we always make something out of something else. This is true in a mind aflame as well. Things we have learned, remembered, intuited, seen, heard, or spoken before suddenly start lighting up in a storm of brand new connections in our brain, due to some kind of stimuli. Again, these flames are good flames, but they need to be managed wisely so that other good things don’t get burnt.

First, you need a place to contain them. Rather than acting on a rush of ideas quickly on the one hand, or trying to shut them all up on the other, have a place where they can be safely stored. Develop some kind of system, some kind of holding pen for these ideas. I like to use a task-management app, Trello, to write down new and captivating ideas. An ideas notebook or journal could serve the same kind of function. Writing them down in a “To Chew On” list accomplishes several good things.

First, in the chance that they end up being good ideas, it keeps me from forgetting them. Most of us who are living in this frenetic age know that this is a real danger. Second, it allows my mind to relax and focus on other things because I know that I’ve written down that idea for later consideration. It results in the good kind of compartmentalization, the freeing kind. Third, writing new ideas down in order to come back to them provides for a period of marination, of sifting, or refining. Some of these ideas will eventually be discarded when in the light of future perspective or experience they are shown to be unhelpful. Or when they simply lose their luster, for one reason or another. Others will prove to be good ideas, but ideas to be given away to someone else because they don’t fit my abilities or opportunities. Still others will prove to be good ideas whose season has not yet come. And this is one of my favorite categories. Because there they sit, waiting, like seeds ready to germinate and sprout at some unknown future date when circumstances, the right people, and resources line up. Every time I come back to consider certain ideas and once again find them to be compelling and sound, my confidence increases that I am indeed supposed to do something with them someday – even if that something is merely to give them away to others. Ideas that have been chewed on and refined for a decade can end up bearing very good fruit when providence finally sets them free.

Let me say this part plainly. If you are an ideas person, a creative, or a visionary, then you need some kind of system like this. Not having some method whereby ideas are recorded, sifted, and sat on can keep you from committing to the actual season and work that God has given you to do now. In the words of Master Yoda, you’ll be like young Skywalker, “Never his mind on where he was, hmm? What he was doing.” Not having a system like this can also lead to all kinds of existential angst as you struggle with the pull of the magnetic visions which march through your head in colorful succession. “How do I know I’m doing what God wants me to be doing if I constantly feel drawn to all of these other seemingly-important things?” By placing these ideas on some kind of metaphorical shelf for periodic viewing, you create space for the possibility that those desires can serve some future unforeseen season, while you free yourself for greater investment in the current calling God has placed on your life.

A lack of a way to channel a mind aflame with ideas can also wreak havoc in your relationships. This happens as you frighten or agitate those around you with yet another wild idea. So, along with a way to contain your ideas, you also need a way to wisely communicate them to those you live and work with. This, not surprisingly, is a lesson I had to learn early on in my marriage. But it’s also been something I’ve had to relearn and communicate well for every team or working relationship that I’ve been a part of. For example, a creative person often blurts out ideas that are fresh off the boat, having just that day or that moment docked in their mind, as it were. The creative knows that merely verbalizing these ideas does not mean that he is actually committing to them, or even that he is seriously considering the idea. But those around the creative don’t know this, and they are left to guess at which stage a given idea is. If they are someone who is wired to not share an idea until it is mature and fully-baked, then they can get positively alarmed at the creative’s constant barrage of big ideas.

It’s up to the visionary-type then to communicate to those around them at what stage is this most recent idea. “Hey, let me a run an interesting idea by you that I’ve never thought about before,” is very different from “This is something I’m beginning to seriously consider,” which is different from “I’ve chewed on this idea for a decade and I think that now is the time to implement it.” If you can learn to orient those around you to the various stages of an idea in your mind, you can keep them from panicking and getting holes burnt in their jackets by the embers of your mind aflame. For new ideas, they need to know that it’s just something you’re tossing around, and that they can help you know whether to pursue it further or not with some dispassionate talking about the various pros and cons. For ideas that are getting serious, they need to know that you are asking for some serious feedback and interaction, even feedback that gets more emotional. For an idea that you are ready to move on, hopefully this is not the first time you are communicating it! If it is, you’ll need to be ready to back up and slow down so that your hearer can experience some of the process your mind has already gone through in refining the idea. Even if it is the first time hearing it, letting them know how long and carefully a certain idea has been considered goes a long way in assuring them that you’re not about to upend your life (or theirs) on a whim.

For those who live or work with an idea person, please understand that God may have placed you in our life for the important job of keeping us from financial ruin, pain, or premature death by bursting the bubbles of our bad ideas (which yes, we think are good). But the manner in which you do this is very important. We tend to get very excited about our ideas, so whenever possible, let us down gently and we are likely to eventually see the light – and even thank you for saving us from some very bad things. You may immediately feel that an idea is simply the worst ever, but a quick and stiff take-down of an idea is likely to cause the visionary-type to feel that you simply can’t see the possibilities that they can, and they’ll go off to chew on it more in isolation – which not the best outcome for anyone involved.

Creatives and idea people, for our part, we need to humbly seek out people who can help us work through our parade of shiny ideas, and genuinely be open to the critical feedback we receive. Sure, sometimes we can see several steps ahead in a way that others can’t. But the downside of this gift is that we often can’t see the ground immediately around us. To put things in terms of eyecare, we are farsighted, so would be wise to travel with some nearsighted counselors.

Yet even though we need systems, thoughtfulness toward others, and the wisdom of a community in order to balance our strengths (like everyone else), a mind aflame with ideas really is a gift from God. Who can explain how exactly this process of mental generation takes place? While never even near the level or kind of supernatural inspiration that the biblical authors experienced, inspiration can sometimes seem the only word in English fit to describe the experience. An idea that simply wasn’t, now is. Things previously not connected are suddenly, surprisingly, beautifully joined – and for the life of us it sure felt like it was something outside of us that made it happen, as if it were breathed into us by something or someone far wiser and more creative than we are. Perhaps there is a downstream category of “natural” inspiration that functions in the human mind simply by nature of our descent from Adam and creation in the image of God. For it’s not only believers who experience a mind aflame with ideas, but even those still cut off from their creator. This is an experience we share with the lost – though believers are the ones who can turn this natural gift into one that is also spiritual. In this way a gift of vision or creativity can, redeemed, sometimes function as a gift of faith.

The next time you experience your mind aflame with ideas, don’t run for the fire extinguisher. Something good is happening. Lean in, seek to record and channel it wisely. Seek to love others through it, even as you guard yourself from being swept away by it. While most of it may not stand the test of time, there may be one nugget, one seed of an idea, that does prove enduring and good. And only God knows the kind of things such an idea is capable of.

Photo by Juan Encalada on Unsplash

A Proverb on Debt Between Friends

Debt is the scissors of love.

Regional Oral Tradition

This Central Asian proverb speaks to the danger of friends going into debt with one another. Borrow money from your friend, this wisdom claims, and risk the love between you getting cut up.

I’ve experienced the great strain that friendships can come under when money I’ve loaned out to friends in Central Asia isn’t returned or acknowledged in an honorable way. Even though our family tried to be very cautious in loaning out money, it is still an expected practice in a patron-client society where the foreigners are often much wealthier than the locals. Some foreigners take a “never loan money” approach to the culture. But over the years we’ve developed more of a practice of conservatively lending money the first time, and then letting that experience determine if the door is still open or not for future requests. For those who repay their debts, this can greatly increase the trust in the relationship. And it is a wonderful thing to have friends you know you can trust with money, especially between believers who must function as a new household for one another. For those who don’t repay, we know not to extend the same trust in the future, at least when it comes to money. The money may be lost, but wisdom in the relationship is gained. But even with this general approach, we tried to spare our dearest friendships this debt/trust test whenever possible. It’s stunning how money can so quickly come to divide people.

In general, Central Asians are much more comfortable than Westerners with having money be a part of their close relationships. So much so that many feel they can’t honorably say no to a friend asking for a loan. So it’s curious that this proverb also exists in the culture, standing as a wise warning, even if many will struggle to feel they are free to heed its advice.

Some local believers are seeking to change this culture. Harry* once told me his response to requests for loans. “I’m honored that you would ask me this, my respected brother. But I value your friendship so much that I dare not risk it by getting money involved.” This kind of response takes an action viewed as shameful – saying no to a loan – but explains it by appealing to the value of the relationship, something very honorable and close to the heart of the culture. To me, this seems like a very wise way to say no. The goal is to communicate that my refusal is not a rejection of our relationship, but rather a statement of just how important it is to me. So important, I would protect us from the money that might cut our bonds of friendship.

*names changed for security

Photo by Matt Artz on Unsplash

A Practical and Powerful Bible Tool For Every Christian With a Smartphone

There are certain tools and resources that have passed the longevity test. These tools have proven useful, not just for a season, but for the long-term. I want to recommend just such a tool today.

The Compare feature on Youversion’s Bible app is the kind of tool I have used countless times over the last seven years in order to read scripture side by side with speakers of other languages. This Bible app doesn’t just provide scripture free of charge in 1,950 languages (Which is a stunning thing in itself. Can you imagine Tyndale’s reaction if he knew we had Bible access like this?) But it allows a reader to work through an entire passage in multiple languages side by side, with the texts parallel to one another on the screen of your smart phone or tablet. In our multilingual world, this is an extremely practical tool for Christians eager to share the truth of Scripture.

You can use this feature if you are sharing the gospel with someone from another ethnic or language background and want to make sure the individual verses you are sharing are clear. Instead of only showing your friend a verse in English, you can at the same time be showing it to them in their mother tongue (And in this way also know that you are indeed showing them the verse you mean to). Or, you can use this tool in a Bible study with others as you work through a broader passage, one parallel verse at a time, again, having two or more languages in front of you on your phones’ screens for the sake of clarity and understanding – both yours and theirs.

I have also used this feature to continue growing in my knowledge of other languages. Since I’m very familiar with the text of the Bible in English, it’s an easy way to learn new vocab and grammar in another language. And I’ve recommended this practice to many of my English students as a way to expose them to the Bible while they strengthen their English skills, one parallel verse or passage at a time.

This kind of practice not only helps with language acquisition, but also with language retention. Like our physical muscles, our languages need a little bit of regular exercise in order to not atrophy. A few Bible verses a day keeps that language’s part of the brain online in a surprising way. In this vein, whenever I listen to a sermon I have the Bible app’s Compare feature open in front of me for this very purpose. I’ve found the act of code-switching between Bible languages during a sermon helpful both for the insights as well as the questions that emerge.

What if you are aware of a Bible translation that exists, but it’s not included in the 1,950 languages currently on the app? Youversion provides a form for it to be added (Click My Language is Not Listed on the drop down menu and they’ll get back to you). Several years ago I filled out the request form, asking that the trade language translation I grew up with in Melanesia be added to the app. To my surprise, after a few months, there it was. I could now read the Bible in English, my Melanesian trade language, and my focus Central Asian language side by side. This is a true gift because it means that even if I’m the only one in Central Asia who speaks that particular Melanesian tongue, I can not only keep my knowledge of it alive, but even be edified by the Word while doing so.

I was recently speaking with a missionary friend who didn’t know of this tool, so I wanted to put it out there in case it might serve others who are involved in sharing truth across language barriers. For so many, the realities of immigration now mean that even without leaving our home nations we have neighbors, community businessmen, and fellow classmates from other nations. Few immigrants and refugees ever have anyone from their host nation ask genuine questions about the language they spoke growing up. And many speakers of other languages have no idea that the Bible has been translated into their language. This then can be a great way to invite someone into reading God’s word. Ask about their mother tongue, show them that you have a Bible in their language on your phone, ask them if they’d like to have it on their phone also, then invite them if they’d like to meet up another time for coffee or tea to read some together.

Our team in Central Asia has been able to “distribute” dozens upon dozens of Bibles in this way, with some of them being downloaded the very first time we meet someone and get into a spiritual conversation with them. For long-term or short-term teams, or for any Christian eager to share the Bible with others, this really is a tremendous tool for getting scripture into people’s hands, and for reading it side-by-side.

If you want to use this Compare feature, here are the steps:

  1. Dowload the Youversion Bible app from the App Store or Google Play.
  2. Set up a free account on the app.
  3. Click the Bible button on the menu at the bottom of the screen.
  4. At the top of the screen, choose the passage and English translation. This version will be your default until you change it.
  5. Tap on a verse to select it.
  6. Click on the Compare button from the menu that will pop up when you tap on the verse.
  7. At this point, only the selected English verse will appear on the screen. Click on the Add Version button at the bottom of the screen.
  8. Click on the Language button at the top of the screen in order to select versions in other languages.
  9. Click the magnifying glass button at the top of the screen to search the 1,950 languages.
  10. Tap the language you want.
  11. On the next screen, tap on that language a second time in order to add it to the Compare page.
  12. You should now see the verse you selected in your chosen languages side by side on the screen. Click on the Next Verse or Previous Verse buttons to navigate through the chapter.

I hope you find this tool as practical and powerful as I have. And to the team at Youversion, my sincerest thanks.

Why Americans Don’t Trust Sad People

Americans don’t trust sad people. Daniel Nayeri makes this insightful observation in his hilarious and heartbreaking memoir, Everything Sad is Untrue. As an Iranian refugee, it makes sense that Nayeri would notice this. Because in the Middle East and Central Asia, the opposite tends to be true. They don’t trust people who are overly happy or optimistic.

This tendency to trust (or not) tends to be reflected in which kind of stories end up being most popular. For a story to be truly great, most Westerners want a happy ending. The good guy almost always wins in the end. But Central Asians call for a tragic ending in order for a story to achieve true greatness. The Western movies my Central Asian friends like the most are Titanic (where Jack dies of hypothermia), Braveheart (where William Wallace from disembowelment and beheading), and Forrest Gump (Where Jenny dies of AIDS). As for movies made in Central Asia? Dark endings. Almost all of them. I think I’ve only ever seen one with a happy ending.

This orientation toward tragedy vs. comedy seems to reflect the deep-down worldview beliefs of each culture – what each feels is most true about real life. Westerners really believe deep down that life will have a happy ending, that if we just believe and try hard enough, everything’s going to be alright. Central Asians really believe that no matter how good things get, it’s all going to end in tragedy, just as it always has.

Even our histories tend to strengthen these worldview narratives. Think of the meteoric rise of the power of the Christian West over the last 500 years. Then consider the incredible decline of the power of the Islamic Middle East and Central Asia. 1,000 years ago, the centers of global wealth and culture were not cities like London and New York, but Baghdad and Samarkand. Perhaps back then the Europeans would have been the pessimists, and the citizens of the Silk Road those who believed in rosy endings.

When you meet someone whose bearing contradicts the primary narrative of your culture, you tend to distrust them. This is because they seem to be out of touch with reality. Many a Western aid worker arrives in Central Asia bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, believing that with just a little bit of money and some fresh ideas transformation can be a simple thing. Meanwhile, locals just shake their heads at this naive foreigner, knowing that for all their frenetic activity these Western plans will be about as effective as a dirt clod thrown at a passing tank. I have had countless conversations with my friends and students in Central Asia where I’ve been dumbfounded by their lack of belief in the possibility of change, while they in turn are dumbfounded that I actually believe real change is possible.

The West, for its part, and especially America, traditionally believes in the inevitability of progress. And we are deeply committed to the belief that things really will work out for those who work hard enough. Successful people function as our prophets and idols, the ones who confirm for us what we already believe – that the story of life ends in happiness. So we find ourselves uncomfortable with sad people, with those whose lives seems to be a relentless movement from one season of suffering to the next. We don’t trust them to be prophets of the way things really are. We don’t want to.

Biblically, both cultures are wrong, and both cultures are right. The ending of history will indeed be good – yes, as good even as resurrection. But resurrection is impossible unless preceded by death. It’s got to all die before it can all come back to life. Creation must groan, and painfully so, before the revealing of the sons of God. As such, Proverbs and Ecclesiastes go hand in hand. The wheat and the tares grow together. Suffering and death are inevitable. Hell is real. But eternal life is also inevitable for those who entrust themselves to the one who suffered and died – and now lives forever.

Paul speaks of us as being a people who are “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing.” This means that Christians are those who can be fully awake to the grief and suffering of life, and those who can also be fully awake to the joy and delight of it. This means that a Christian who is shaped by the Bible’s view of reality is one who can be trusted by both kinds of cultures, the optimistic West and the pessimistic East. We know the depths of sadness. So we are not dismissed as naive. But we also know the heights of true hope and joy. So we are not dismissed as fatalists. We are, in one sense, Western and Central Asian at the same time. Or at least we should be.

And yet I find myself very lopsided. I have some idea of what it means to be always rejoicing. But what might it mean to be always sorrowful? And can it be that faithfulness in this age actually involves both at the same time? What might that look like when it boils down to things like daily spiritual disciplines, church services, and our “How’s it going?” conversations with other believers? I at least still have a ways to go in learning how to faithfully lament, not just with my mind, but also with my heart and emotions. I still have a hard time trusting sad people, in spite of spending half my life in cultures where grief and sadness are far more acceptable than here in the US.

Yet I have tasted aspects of this at funerals, when laughter comes easily during stories told of a departed loved one. Or at weddings or concerts, where joy and beauty are so strong they lead to tears. I felt it yesterday at a poetry recitation at my kids’ school. The kind of joy that makes you serious, as Lewis once put it. Joy and sadness intermingled, and something that feels so very right about this.

Americans might not trust sad people. And Central Asians might not trust happy ones. But believers from both worlds have come to trust a man of sorrows who is also the embodiment of purest joy. He holds both perfectly together at the same time, always able to weep with those who weep and to rejoice with those who rejoice. He does this authentically, with no whiplash or disjointedness. He can show us how to laugh and cry at the same time, welcoming both with hearts that are somehow more whole for their embrace of these seemingly-opposite postures.

As we draw near to him the promise is that we will become like him. And that will make us also those that sinners come to trust, whatever their cultural bias. Not because we are so impressive, but because we are the ones who are the most real, those who walk in the truest story. One where grief and joy also walk, hand-in-hand.

Photo by Danie Franco on Unsplash