We Have Found Our New House

We are now the proud renters of a traditional stone house, built in 1955, right on the edge of our city’s bazaar. It’s a got a large garden courtyard that wraps around three sides of the house, enclosed by beautiful, though neglected, stone walls. The house is made of the same kind of stone. The different limestone blocks are subtle shades of grey, pink, tan, and yellow. Small fruit trees line the courtyard – loquat, tangerine, fig, olive, and some grape vines. It also has it’s own well.

The interior rooms are plastered, broad, and lit by many traditional metal windows which are lovely in the spring, but will do very little to keep out the cold of winter. There’s only one squatty potty, and a small traditional bath/sauna room. Three walls have some considerable water damage. The kitchen door is so small we won’t be able to fit in our appliances or counters. There’s a lot of work to be done, but it has such potential and will actually be a beautiful house once it’s fixed up and lived in, in contrast to many of the ugly cement structures of the more recent eras. And beauty may not always seem practical or efficient, but we are finding that is supposed to play a much bigger part in our lives than it has in recent years.

The location is also exciting (for us anyway!). It’s right on the edge of the bazaar, in a very old neighborhood, the one where *Hama grew up. That means it’s a two minute walk for us to be in the bazaar proper and a ten minute walk to the center. I have access to a traditional man street of the bazaar and my wife can walk just a bit further to get access to a street frequented by women. That means I would probably be within walking distance of two dozen tea houses and my wife within walking distance of two dozen used clothes shops.

We have always loved the bazaar and can’t believe that we actually have a chance to live right next to it now. Our hope is that this will mean we can go even deeper into the local language and culture and that our neighborhood will be much more accessible to local believers who are dependent on walking and public transit. All the buses flow to the bazaar. Locals themselves seem to naturally flow to the bazaar, ending up there even on days when they swear they are completely broke or booked by work, study, or visiting relatives. It is in a real sense the soul of the city. We’ve spoken for years about the ministry advantages that could come by living close to the bazaar. Now we get to test it out.

It is a little odd that we are moving into this area. Very few, if any, Americans have lived there. Locals bemoan the terrible afternoon congestion of the area streets and the electricity and water issues. But once we explain that we are old souls who love the bazaar and the classic houses, they seem to mostly understand. “He is a confused man. But alas, whoever does not accept their neighbor is not accepted by God!” is one older neighbor lady’s comment about me now that we’ve actually rented the place. For her part, she was very kind and concerned that we were paying far too much rent for the place given the poor economy and it’s condition. But I am willing to pay a bit more rent than locals would because I believe a little bit of work will make folks a year from now shocked that we got it at such a good price. Plus the economy is likely to rebound, sending rent prices up again. But we’ll be locked into a very reasonable rate. And a big yard right in the middle of the city? That’s an almost impossible find. And at 2, 7, and 9, my kids (and their parents) would be greatly helped by having some space and some dirt and some trees.

We’ve been praying hard for this past month that we would find a good house, close to the bazaar and life-giving for our family. Though it’s a fixer-upper, we are amazed at God’s kindness in answering through this lovely old stone home. May it become an oasis of hospitality, rest, and even eternal life.

A Gray Crown of Glory

Tonight we had dinner with *Frank and *Patti, two dear local believers that I’ve written about before. We had a wonderful time eating and joking together and being introduced to their new poultry micro-business they’re operating from their roof. I must say – the roosters in this part of the world are positively huge.

Frank, in his mid 40s, is already sporting a full head of silvery hair. During our visit tonight I was reminded of the time three years ago when Frank shared his testimony publicly for the first time. We had asked four of the believers in the church plant to share a basic story of what their life was like before Jesus, how they had heard the gospel, the content of the gospel, and then how their life has changed since following Jesus.

When Frank’s turn to share had come, he stuck to this basic outline, but also included a bit of a detour explaining how Islam had always motivated him by fear, whereas the gospel motivated him now by better motives – love, gratitude, and glory. To illustrate, he surprised us by quoting Proverbs 16:31, “Gray hair is a crown of glory; it is gained in a righteous life.”

“I first heard this verse when sister Sister Workman shared it with me,” Frank said.

My wife looked up, surprised. She had shared this verse with Frank largely in jest and not ever thinking that anything would come of it.

“I heard this verse,” Frank continued, “and it struck me as a good example of how very different the gospel is from Islam.”

We cocked our heads and listened. This should be interesting.

“When I was a Muslim I was told that I shouldn’t dye my hair black to cover up these emerging gray hairs. To do so would be a terrible sin and contribute to my condemnation. But I have dyed my hair many times, because this motivation by fear wasn’t enough to control my desire to look good in front of others. But then after I believed, I heard this verse from the proverbs of Solomon, and it introduced a very different motivation to this issue. It told me that gray hair is a crown of glory. It motivated me to obedience with something better and stronger than fear, it motivated me through something beautiful, through glory.”

Frank then made the connection to the heart of the gospel. “The gospel of Jesus Christ doesn’t try change us by merely threatening condemnation, like the religion I grew up with. Instead, we are forgiven through the sacrifice of Jesus, since he took our condemnation for us, and then we are free to obey because of reasons like love and glory… So, I don’t have to dye my hair anymore! You’ll see me getting quite gray here very soon!

And Frank began to laugh his contagious and joyful laugh.

Tonight I smiled at Frank and his gray hair of glory as he proudly showed me his newly hatched chicks and goofy adolescent chickens with their feathered feet. I mused to myself about the potential for mini poultry businesses like this to support believers who lose their jobs because of their faith. Apparently you can buy a baby Turkey locally for $7, and sell it full-grown for $70 – and raise it almost for free on table scraps. Not bad!

Like my local friends, all of us can fall into obeying in order to try and secure God’s favor and appease him. While the Scriptures are full of grace-motivated obedience, we often miss it. What a joy then it is to walk with believers from other cultures who spot gospel motivation in the text in places we never even would have thought to look.

I am myself sprouting quite a few gray hairs these days. I hope to follow Frank, as he follows Solomon (and the true and better Solomon). Gray hairs don’t have to be a shameful thing we try to hide. Instead, they can be a mark of glory, and even a reminder of the gospel itself.

Photo by Takalani Radali on Unsplash

*Names changed for security

A Proverb on Judging by Appearances

Don’t shoot a bullet into the dark.

Local Oral Tradition

This week a local friend and I were standing on a street corner waiting for another friend to connect us with a realtor. After a while, the friend we were waiting for pulled up in his car with the realtor in his back seat. However, at the mere sight of us the suited realtor jumped out of the car, claiming that he wanted nothing to do with us. My friend who had driven him was shocked, and then quickly lost his temper at the shameful way the realtor had judged us without even giving us a chance to speak. This was no way to treat potential renters, and a foreigner who would make a reliable tenant at that! As he railed at him in middle of the street for how utterly disrespectful he was being, this proverb was one of the tamer things that came out. It’s basically the equivalent of “don’t judge a book by it’s cover.” Except this local proverb hints at the disastrous damage that can come by judging by appearances.

Afterward, we talked together about what might have caused the realtor to act so shamefully. Could it have been the beards? An acquaintance with a hipster-style beard had been with my friend to pick up the realtor. This could have raised some questions. Then when he saw me standing next to my other local friend – himself sporting a starving artist sort of beard – he may have thought we were some kind of Islamists. The older generations really don’t like beards because of their association with radical Islam. They prefer respectable mustaches. Or maybe when he only saw only younger men and no family, he thought we were lying to him and looking to rent a house for prostitution, as young wealthy men here sometimes do. It’s hard to say, but it was an unfortunate event all around. Had he given us the time to speak, he would have likely been excited as he discovered he had a chance of renting a house to an Western family. But since I can pass as a local sometimes, he made a snap judgment, “shot into the dark,” and tried to make his exit. My friend’s honor-shame berating of him in the middle of the crowded intersection finished off any interest he may have had.

Alas, the chance of finding a house through that important realtor’s office is gone. But least I got a proverb out of it! One that will definitely come in handy.

Photo by Max Kleinen on Unsplash

A Song For Those With Forever In Their Veins

So here we go, like mist and water
That's here and gone
But here we'll stay, on forever
Be back someday
Look all I know
Is I believe it's gonna change at the moment when the trumpets blow
And all I see
All I see I believe is gonna change inside the walls of eternity
So here we go

'Cause forever is in my soul
It's in my veins, I think we know
That the future's gonna be so bright
And when you turn my way
It's gonna fill my eyes
Forever
When you turn my way
Forever is in my soul
It's in my veins and it won't let go

So when I stand at that station
To movin' on
And I find my step, upon the doorway
Where the lights come from
Look all I know
Is I'll be changed in a moment when I
Take that step, when I'm called back home
No end I'll know

'Cause forever is in my soul
It's in my veins, I think we know
That the future's gonna be so bright
And when you turn my way
It's gonna fill my eyes

'Cause forever is in my soul
It's in my veins, I think we know
That the future's gonna be so bright
And when you turn my way
It's gonna fill my eyes
Forever
When you turn my way
Forever is in my soul
It's in my veins and it won't let go
When you turn my way
(Forever)
It's in my veins and it won't let go

“Forever” by the Gray Havens

The Desires That Won’t Go Away

This week we have been house hunting. Unpredictable, exciting, disappointing, stressful, and even fun. We are moving back to the mountain city where we spent our first term as a family, and where I first served as a single twelve years ago. This was the city where I first felt the strangest sense of fit. As an American TCK (third culture kid) who was raised in Melanesia, I didn’t expect to find myself so alive in a place like this – a cultured mountain city of Central Asia. It still surprises me. I can’t really explain it, but the mountains, the locals, the culture, it all seems to enliven my soul such that I’m better able to do ministry in the power and joy of the Holy Spirit.

Should a geographic locale have that kind of effect on a Christian? I’m not quite sure. The idealist in me says no. I should be just as free to minister in another city and culture as I am in this one… right? And yet I can’t escape the repeated experience. When I’m in this city, I come more fully alive. I have more openings to share the gospel. Those gospel conversations seem to bear better fruit. This is all very subjective, but it’s so prevalent that even locals and foreigners have commented on it. “You are meant for this place,” seems to be the steady feedback we get.

Leaving this city two and a half years ago was one of the hardest things we’ve ever done. A local church plant had been established. Dear local believers were growing in their faith. We had solid teammates and partners with whom we had walked through fiery trials. We ourselves had loved and been deeply shaped by this context. But a critical leadership need in another city emerged, and we felt that God would be honored if we moved in order to serve that team and work. We left, we grieved, and we tried to do good work. Two and a half years later, another critical leadership need has called for us to return. It’s as if the beloved city and people we had given up for Jesus were now being given back to us in a way we never expected. It has felt very much like coming home, after we had been called to give up home for the sake of the gospel. Well, we say to ourselves, I guess now we know it’s not an idol. We gave it up for Jesus. Now he is graciously giving it back. And we are at times afraid to believe that it’s actually happening.

Christian, pay attention to the desires that won’t go away. In previous years I had a wonderful job as a missions pastor at a healthy sending church. On paper it seemed to be the perfect fit. But every time I took a short-term trip overseas, I felt the desires to return and minister in this type of missions context growing stronger and stronger. I experienced a similar dynamic over the last two and a half years. Try to suppress it as I might, stubborn desires for a very specific kind of place and ministry simply would not leave me alone. I have learned that those stubborn and good desires that won’t go away – especially on the good days – are often indications of the Spirit’s leading. As those who are indwelt by the Holy Spirit, deep repeated desires for good things are often right and godly. We have new hearts, and this means He often leads us through his gift of specific and long-term desires. “If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task” (1 Tim 3:1).

But isn’t this selfish? What about duty and honor and loyalty to the greater good? These virtues are all weighty and important. But to wisely and patiently respond to the strong and biblical desires given by the Holy Spirit is not selfish, it is in fact obedience, walking in step with the Spirit. In fact, the desires are often present because of some providential need you don’t know about at the time, but which you are meant to fill.

Don’t give too much weight to the strong desires that emerge occasionally and only on the bad days. But those good desires that come back again and again, even on the best of days? Lean into those. It’s there you’ll likely find your calling – and some of your deepest joys.

Photo by Alberto Restifo on Unsplash

Should I Date Someone Who Isn’t Called to Missions?

I appreciated John Piper’s recent answer to this tough question. His last couple paragraphs sum up his argument.

Look, he’s God. He’s God! It is just like God to bless his mission-minded followers with the desires of their heart. God knows what we need. God is good. God is wise. God is sovereign. God is able to do what seems impossible for man to do.

So, I return to my wife’s first thought: How serious and how deep and how confident is this sense of calling in this young woman? Because if it is serious and deep, then probably she should set her face, her heart, to pursue it and trust God that, on that path, she will find her greatest joy and do the world the greatest good and bring Christ the greatest honor.

We simply don’t know what God has in store. If God has been clear and given a calling to go to the nations, and then along comes a potential spouse who is not interested in that kind of life of service, then wisdom would seem to suggest either converting them to missions (as my mom did to my dad), or leaving that potential spouse behind. When God has been clear, we need to move on that clarity – and trust him with the fallout. When we do, we will often find the desires of our hearts met in unexpected ways.

This is a bigger risk for single women than it is for single men. Single men are outnumbered overseas by single women by a scandalous ratio something like of ten to one. For any godly ministry-minded man who is wondering where all the amazing women of God are – get thee to the mission field! Wonderful single missionary ladies are out here, serving faithfully and risking much. But even for single ladies who feel called to both missions and marriage, many faithful brothers are out here too. For both men and women, let us also not discount the goodness of cross-cultural marriages. Some of our closest friends in the US are a formerly single missionary who fell in love with a godly Middle Eastern brother. And let us also not discount the goodness of godly celibacy. Our evangelical culture still tends to not celebrate this as much as the Scriptures do.

We cannot promise one another anything – only God knows the future. Some find spouses on the mission field. Some live lives of devoted singleness. Some lose their spouses on the mission field. My parents went to the mission field together, only for my mom to become a widow three and a half years later. She later continued on the field as a single mom for 7 years.

The key is walking in obedience to the Holy Spirit. Has he unmistakably called you to the nations? Then go. And trust God with the consequences. He is worthy of this. Those who risk their deepest desires for him are never put to shame. Somehow, in some unexpected way, he will give them back better things than those sacrificed – even a hundredfold – and in the age to come, will give eternal life.

Photo by Mel on Unsplash

A Proverb on Patient Gains

The one upon the slower ways comes upon the blessings.

Local Oral Tradition

This local proverb emphasizes the wisdom of slow and steady gains over those more hastily made. However, the local language word for graves also rhymes with blessings, so if you want a quick snarky reply when someone quotes this proverb, you can respond with “The one upon the slower ways comes upon the graves!” i.e. if you go that slow you might as well be dead.

Personally, I prefer the original. My colleagues tell me I’m an old soul and I do indeed find myself more and more identifying with Tolkien’s Treebeard (a character modeled on C.S. Lewis) and his philosophy, “We must not be hasty.” To our local friends who want to go big and go fast and expensive in starting churches, we have jokingly referred to our church planting philosophy as more like that of faithful tortoises. Not very impressive in the beginning. But give us a hundred years…

Photo by Hannah Vorenkamp on Unsplash

A Song On A Death Too Weak

Lament and defiance in the same song. For Christians addressing the death of Christ – and our own deaths – this is a good posture. Make sure to listen until the build at 2:52. Powerful stuff.

Go on brothers lay him down
Go on brothers lay him down
Wrap his body with a clean white shroud 
Roll that stone leave him in the ground
Go on brothers lay him down

Go on sisters cry for him
Go on sisters cry for him
But wipe your eyes and dry your skin
The crying will be done in three mornings
Go on sisters cry for him

Hold on children wait and see
Hold on children wait and see
The death that’s come is a death too weak
Can’t take my Jesus can’t take my king
So hold on children wait and see

Oh glory glory won’t you come for me
Glory glory won’t you come for me
I know your slumber is a momentary sleep
I feel you rising up from the deep
Oh glory glory you will come for me

“Jesus is Laid in the Tomb” by Poor Bishop Hooper

A Hundredfold Homes Revisited

This week we’ve been packing up for yet another move. My wife came across this poem I wrote for her a couple years ago, which I had posted at the very beginning of starting this blog. She requested that I post it again. And, seeing that she is a very wise and intuitive woman, I am happy to do so. I hope it can serve as one window into how those of us who embrace semi-nomadic missions lifestyles for the sake of the gospel wrestle with the costs – and hope in the world to come.

Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life. (Mark 10:29-30 ESV)

A Hundredfold Homes

We have lived with rich and poor
In places some will not or can’t.
And found there joy, and doors
To life, and friends, and won’t 
Forget the promise, one hundred-fold.
We need it dearly every time 
We move again and say goodbye
And home becomes a house – again.
We do it all for Him.
True, we know the cost is real,
That mingled joy of rootlessness.

But I have heard the king has rooms 
And rooms and rooms and worlds.
Perhaps a place where mountains meet 
The sea, a house with orchards on a hill.
With pen and table, porch and sky
And paper and books, maybe some tea.
A pipe! And fire.   
Yes, room to host and reminisce 
(With friends and of course the King himself)
The glory that we saw 
In our hundred fleeting homes. 

Children born and born again, 
The needy fed, the lost redeemed, 
The straying won, the faithful trained.
A hundred tents of light
Soon dismantled yet again.
For the world was ours, but not quite yet. 
We don’t yet know the fullness of
The joy, although we know the taste.
For each new place a portion sings
And each new move the old refrain:
The promises are coming true
Before our eyes – a hundred-fold!
And new creation, forever home.
Is coming, coming, like the dawn. 

So let us drink and to the full 
The joy of each new set of walls.
For they are fleeting like the fall 
And shine unique, eternal.
Remember the talk of camels and tents? 
And Shelby Park, and Kingston’s rooms 
And Sarkenar or St James Court? 
Yes, more to come, if grace allows
And we shall thank the king for each,
With faith and joy await to see 
The next of our one hundred homes
That really are not ours at all.
The glory – they are forever ours, 
And really are not ours at all. 

Photo by Alexandre Chambon on Unsplash

Such Sacrifices No Longer Needed

The most conclusive evidence that the bogmen were sacrificed is the story their bodies tell of the manner of their deaths. Each submitted himself naked to an elaborate, ritualized Triple Death. In the case of Lindow Man, for instance, his skull was flattened by three blows of an ax, this throat garroted by a thrice-knotted sinew cord, his blood emptied quickly through the precise slitting of his jugular. Here is the ancient victim of sacrifice, the offering made out of deep human need. Unblemished, raised to die, possibly firstborn, set aside, gift to the god, food of the god, balm for the people, purification, reparation for all – for sins known and unknown, intended and inadvertent. Behold god’s lamb, behold him who takes away the sins of all.

Patrick declared that such sacrifices were no longer needed. Christ had died once for all.

Cahill, How the Irish Saved Civilization, p. 140

Photo by Daniel Sandvik on Unsplash