Restoration, Not Renovation

It was our first trip to a village since our family had moved to Central Asia. One of my English students – a vivacious and persistent fellow named Rahim* – had convinced us to come stay with his family for several nights in the village of Underhill. Our hope in going was to learn more about the language and culture through this immersion experience, and to try to share some gospel truth. Rahim was probably hoping to bring honor to his family and himself by hosting us, since everyone in the village would know that they had Americans staying with them, and his family would get to show us off.

This is not to say that any motivation for honor-accrual made them poor hosts. On the contrary, the locals in our area of Central Asia view guests as a gift from God, and elaborate and generous hospitality as the primary way to gain any honor from a hosting situation. So geese were slaughtered, the chai flowed, the TVs were left constantly on, and I was invited to go fishing with the men on the lake at 5 a.m.

Apparently the men of the family liked to fish either with small explosives or by using a car battery and cables to electrocute any fish close to the boat. Both methods sounded slightly dangerous, but worth observing at least, so I actually woke up at 5 – a very rare occurrence for a night owl like myself. Alas, none of the men of the household woke up with me, so I eventually went back to sleep.

“I called the fish this morning,” Rahim later told me at breakfast, cracking a wry smile, “They said they were still asleep, so I decided to stay in bed also.”

To make up for not going fishing, Rahim offered to give me a walking tour of the village later that morning. The village of Underhill was a newer village in a very ancient area. The hill that overshadowed it and gave it its name was crowned with the ruins of an ancient Zoroastrian fortress. The valley behind it contained villages where not only Zoroastrians and Muslims had lived, but also Jews and Christians in centuries past. Like many areas of Central Asia, it was now one hundred percent Muslim, and proudly so.

Underhill village had been built a couple decades previous, as families were resettled whose original homes had been destroyed by a genocidal dictator. Surrounding the village and in the pastures where the goats and sheep grazed, broken down stone outlines of homes could be easily seen scattered here and there, sad reminders of the terrible things that had taken place when Rahim’s generation were still toddlers.

As we walked in the spring sunshine, I shared with Rahim that I was trying to learn the words in the local language that would help me explain the big story of my faith. I asked if I could run them by him to see if it made sense. Rahim, an observant Muslim who was not at all shy to discuss spiritual things, eagerly agreed.

So I started with the word I had recently learned for creation, and explained that we believed that God had created the universe and made it very good. So far, so good. Rahim agreed with both the content I was sharing as well as the word I used to summarize it. Next, I shared the word I had learned for fall, telling Rahim that our first parents had sinned and had broken both our our good human natures and our relationship with God. Rahim agreed with the word I used, but it was clear he wasn’t very familiar with what I was saying about the devastating consequences of sin for humanity. Islam believes in a watered down concept of sin where it is more like an external mistake, and not an internal corruption. Because of this, they believe that humans are still freely capable to choose good anytime they want to. Given this difference in theology, I wasn’t too surprised that Rahim’s brow furrowed as I tried to explain our doctrine of the fall.

We stepped over some goat droppings and passed some chewing cows on our left. I could sense that Rahim was good with me continuing to share, so I told him the word I had learned for redemption, and explained the good news to him that Jesus is God-become-man who made the perfect sacrifice for our sins and rose from the dead to break the power of death. Rahim listened respectfully, surprisingly not pushing back with the normal objection that Muslims have – such as the belief that Jesus never really died on the cross, because God would never allow his prophet to be shamed like that.

I got to the last word, restoration, as we turned a corner and started going uphill again. I explained how the Bible teaches that when Jesus returns evil will be finally defeated, all who believe in him will be resurrected with new spiritual bodies, and that even the heavens and the earth will be resurrected and new. Heaven and earth will be completely reconciled. Rahim seemed to be thinking hard about what I was saying.

“You’ve got the wrong word for that one,” he said.

I was surprised, the word I had learned seemed a pretty straight forward translation of “to make new again,” a good way, I thought, to communicate restoration.

“We use that word for when someone is renovating their house,” Rahim continued. “You know, new paint, new windows, new drop ceilings. No, there’s another word that I think would fit better, one we use for rebuilding a house that has been completely destroyed, like these houses here.”

Rahim motioned off to his left where more crumbling stone walls rose up out of the bright green grass.

“If you were going to make these houses new, you need a stronger word. One that means a complete restoration after destruction. At least to me that sounds a lot closer to what you are describing.”

Rahim proceeded to teach me the appropriate word, one which carries the sense of restoration from the ruins, rather than mere renovation. As I later checked these terms with local believers, they agreed with Rahim. I’ve used the term he taught me ever since when explaining the big story of the Bible in its four parts of Creation, Fall, Redemption, and Restoration.

Rahim was more correct than he knew. Renovation of humanity, of this world, would never be enough. Our spiritual and material substance needs a lot more than a fresh coat of paint and some new shiny light fixtures. We’ve got problems deep down in the foundation, in the plumbing, in the wiring, and in the walls and beams. Our metaphorical structure has been condemned, and rightly so. No, to live in a world with no more suffering, sin, or death, we need a complete rebuilding from the ground up. Who could ever afford such a rebuilding? The cost would be staggering.

We walked back to Rahim’s house and my light-hearted friend was a lot quieter than usual. It was probably the first time in his life he had ever heard of the need for a costly redemption and restoration of his own heart – and of the entire universe. I prayed that this new message would go deep within, and puncture the whitewashed Islamic veneer of goodness that he was trusting in.

To this day we still don’t know of any believers in Underhill village, though there are a few Bibles there now. Bibles, and memories of many conversations – conversations that we hope will long linger as witnesses, like those bombed out shells of ruined homes. Renovation is not enough. We need restoration.

*Names changed for security

Photo by 李大毛 没有猫 on Unsplash

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