How to Sign Your Name Like a Central Asian Convict

This past week some colleagues were discussing certificate options with a local friend. As you might recall, certificates in this part of the world are taken very seriously. A training or class is often not considered respectable or even real if it comes with no certificate.

We were debating various formats for an upcoming certificate-giving ceremony and trying to fit spots for a couple of signatures, a seal, and a logo on the bottom portion of the paper. Initially, we only focused on the practicalities and aesthetics of the question when an old memory of signature placement and meaning suddenly came back to me.

Mr. Talent*, will it mean something bad in your culture if we go with this centered design and one signature line is placed above another signature line?”

Mr. Talent had to take a minute to understand what I was getting at.

“You know, your culture feels very strongly about the placement of signatures. One must not sign below their printed name, correct?”

Here I flashed back to my first landlord, a fiery older woman who scolded me when I signed below my printed name on our first rental contract, and indicated for her to do so also.

“Don’t put it there! That’s the way convicts sign things! We are most definitely not convicts!”

I remember being thoroughly confused. Was this true all across the culture or was this simply fiery old Aisha* who once told us she would absolutely go join the anti-government protesters – if only her legs were still strong enough to run when the bullets started flying.

Sure enough, as I asked around I found all my local friends somehow knew that to sign above the name meant you were a respectful person, and to sign below meant you were in prison. I have no idea where this came from, but contextualization means we make sure to remember to sign above that line.

Mr. Talent quickly understood what I was referring to. “Yes! Yes, that means you are a criminal!” he laughed deeply and gave me a kiss on the cheek.

“So then,” I continued, “If these signatures are stacked in the middle of the certificate, will that carry a similar negative meaning?”

Mr. Talent chewed on my question. He is most certainly a true local, but is in his early 30s and a member of what more traditional types call “the iPad generation.” He would be one to scoff at the concept of corpses being preserved through the local practice of avowal, for example.”

“No,” he then replied, “we should be good to stack them like this if we decide we like it.”

Mission accomplished. Having checked with a local about this particular interplay of form and meaning, we could now be sure that we wouldn’t be accidentally insulting our students in the very ceremony meant to honor them.

Living in a foreign culture is full of hidden landmines like this. You might be carrying on for years thinking you are being respectful only to realize you’ve been quietly insulting people the whole time. Having grown up in Melanesia, I found out the hard way that you’re only supposed to reply to polite letters written by single female peers if you have intentions of love and marriage. Back in the US, no one told me you’re supposed to tip your barber. I stumbled onto this after years of cheerfully waving goodbye to my barbers without leaving the expected cultural form of thank you. Here in Central Asia, it took five years for us to find out the proper way to not subtly insult gas station attendants.

This is what makes learning another culture so much fun – and so risky. Deep embarrassment is never far away, so it’s great for your humility – and for laughter. On the flip-side, when you learn or anticipate a new part of the cultural code, you get a very satisfying sense of a mystery now revealed.

So then, if you happen to be in our corner of Central Asia, don’t sign all over the place like some kind of careless celebrity. Keep your non-convict status and make sure to sign above that printed name.

*Names changed for security

Photo by Bermix Studio on Unsplash

The Source of a Leader’s Character

I recently had the honor of speaking to a number of my colleagues on the importance of character in leadership development. The following is from the beginning of that talk, from the section focusing on the source of a leader’s character. Today, as we reflect on what we are thankful for, I am thankful for these truths, that we have a sure and steady eternal source for godly character – and because of that we have hope in the often long and painstaking work of leadership development, and hope for our own slow character growth as well.

“As we begin today, we need to step back and look at the source of a leader’s character. How, given the history of fallen man, how is it even possible that a man would have godly character? How can this be when the image of God in was shattered in Adam and we continue to smash it through our own sin?

2nd Peter 1:4 says – scandalously – that we become partakers of the divine nature – sharers in the divine character. Well, what changed to make that possible? What happened to ‘They have all turned aside; together they have become corrupt; there is none who does good, not even one?’ (Ps 14:3)

Well, the character of God was restored to humanity in the coming of Jesus Christ. God’s eternal word, the eternal Son, became a human, became a servant in human form (Phil 2), and thereby smuggled in divine character behind enemy lines. Through his coming, his life, death, resurrection, and ascension, he has now made a way for any who believe to share in the nature of the god-man, Jesus Christ. This has been accomplished in the past.

Now, in the present, those who repent and believe experience two stunning realities – the new birth and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.

‘If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come’ (2 Cor 5:17).

The miracle of the new birth makes us a new creation, we get a new heart and a new Spirit, a new core and a new nature – a godly one. As we live in the present this is who we are!

Further, Romans 8:15 says that we have received the Spirit of adoption as sons by whom we cry, ‘Abba, Father!’ This Spirit bears witness in the present that we are children of God. And he also bears fruit in us – the fruit of the Spirit from Galatians 5, a portrait of godly character: Love, Joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self control.

But the source of a leader’s character is not just located in the past and the present. It’s located in the future too – the coming resurrection.

Again, Romans 8. ‘And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first-fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved’ (v. 23-24).

Or, take 1st Cor 15:52-54 ‘We will not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality.’

Every day, we are moving closer to this coming transformation, when the character of Christ in us will be perfected. The source of a leader’s character is also this coming resurrection hope, just as it is the present new birth and indwelling of the Spirit, and the past work of Christ.

Why does it matter that we know the source of a leader’s character? Why spend all this time talking about the past, present, and future? So that we will know where to ground our hope in the difficult and slow task of character development.

We have a small core of guys in our church plant that we have been walking with for years now. And to be honest, we had hoped that some of them would be a whole lot further along by this point. Many times we’ve started the conversation on our team about moving some of them into more leadership. And then something happens that shows us that their character is not yet ready.

We go to a training conference and they fight like middle-schoolers. We try to plan a baptism picnic and they fight some more. Persecution ramps up, an alleged spy enters the group, and some disappear. Or hidden dynamics at home emerge that show the good theology hasn’t been translating into being a godly husband.

It gets discouraging. When will they be ready and our consciences permit us to entrust them with leading God’s church? We must regularly remind ourselves of the source of a leader’s character if we are to persevere in this long-term work that tends to go in fits and starts.

Remember that the work of Christ is accomplished and sure for that struggling local brother, remember that it is a new heart that beats within him, the Holy Spirit that indwells him and won’t let him go. Picture that brother one day, resurrected, free from sin, shining in eternal glory.

‘It’s a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses,’ as C.S. Lewis puts it, ‘to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to [or that struggling local leader in training] may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship.’

Friends, remembering their future resurrection helps us persevere in the messy present.

Remembering the source of a leader’s character keeps hope alive in the long task of character development.”

Photo by Joshua Woroniecki on Unsplash

A Song on the End of the World

We don’t have very many contemporary songs written about the end of the age. I appreciate this one by Jess Ray, which combines serious references to Christ’s return with mentions of zombies and EMPs – and puts it all to a driving folk melody.

Select Lyrics:

Will there be zombies? 
Fires and floods? 
Will there be an EMP? 
Moons turned to blood?

Blessed is the man 
If he knows the lamb when he sees him
Cursed is the man who has money and food
And a place to hide
And a head full of knowledge 
And a heart full of pride
Cursed is the man if he does not know the lamb

“There’s Still Time” by Jess Ray

A Proverb for a Spittin’ Image

Yesterday I was in our previous city and ended up giving some South Asians and some locals a ride from a church service to a following home group time. As I was getting to know the men in my car I found out that one of the local men was from a mountain town far to the north. I looked in the rear-view mirror at him. I knew that face. I remembered that I had recently attended a training with a believer from that very town.

“What’s your father’s name?” I asked him.

“It’s Keith*,” he said.

“I know him! We were together at a training just a few months ago.”

“Ha!” the son said, “They say I look just like him.”

“You do! You look so much like your dad*. Your culture has a proverb for that, right?”

“Yes,” the other local chimed in, ‘Like an apple split into two parts.'”

This local proverb, unlike some others, is fairly straightforward to understand. We even have a couple sayings like this is English as well. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree is one, but that proverb seems to be used more for behavior. The saying that I’ve heard for physical resemblance from parents to children is that the descendant is the spittin’ image of their mom or dad. Why spitting? Perhaps something to do with spit-cleaning an old reflective surface? I find this an interesting example of how oral tradition in a culture can continue to communicate the metaphorical meaning of something even when the literal meaning and origin has been forgotten. “I know what it means,” you might say, “though I don’t know what it literally means.”

Thankfully, unless some kind of freak fruit disease or collapse of global trade destroys locals’ access to apples, I’m pretty sure that future generations here will continue to understand this local proverb about split apples.

*Names changed for security

*Though I didn’t intend it this way, this is is a weighty local complement to the strength of the father’s genes.

Photo by Eiliv-Sonas Aceron on Unsplash

Ottomans and Incarnation

My son and I were killing some time in a local mall when we entered a furniture store and happened upon a small ottoman-type foot rest. I had been keeping an eye out for one just like it, the kind of addition that would complete a great reading corner in our living room.

We called the salesperson over to ask if we could buy it and while discussing details he looked in confusion from my son to me. My son, blonde-haired and blue eyed, clearly looks like a Westerner. But locals aren’t always sure when it come to me since I have darker hair and features. In fact, the better our language gets, the more my wife and I get mistaken for locals. After many years of plodding language study and countless mistakes, we do enjoy these occasional instances of being viewed as not obviously foreigners. I always chuckle when the checkpoint police ask me, “What are doing with that foreigner there?”

This particular salesperson was really pleased that we could speak the local language, and turns out he himself was no local either, but a transplant from a neighboring country and from a sister people group – one we have no ability to access due to political difficulties.

As we moved toward the cashier I got to ask him questions about his people group and home city, a place with a storied past and a people known for their poetry, craftsmanship, and culture. For example, my particular old stone house was built by masons from his city back in the 1950s. The female cashier joined into our conversation as well, the only actual local among the three of us conversing.

“Are you a Christian or a Muslim?” They asked me.

“I’m a Christian, the type called Injili (Evangelical),” I told them.

“There’s a lot of different groups in Christianity, just like in Islam,” the salesman said to the cashier.

“That’s right!” I jumped in. “Injilis are distinct for focusing so much on the sources, God’s written word, and prioritizing it over human tradition.”

“So, you actually think that Jesus is the Son of God, right?”

“Yes, that’s what he is called in the Scriptures. But the meaning is different than what people think. God has an eternal Word. His word became a man and dwelt among us. When his Word became a human he had a nature that was sinless, unlike ours, because he is actually God’s eternal Word. That’s an important part of what that title, ‘Son of God,’ means.

Their brows were furrowed as I spoke. It was clearly the first time they had ever heard this.

“It’s not a physical sonship as most Muslims think,” I continued. “It has a deeper spiritual meaning. Sometimes we also use ‘son’ in a different way. A man from this city might be called a son of the city, or a son of the mountains. Even the Qur’an has a term, ‘son of the road.'”

My new friends looked skeptical, but they let me keep going.

“At the same time, Adam is also called, ‘Son of God’ for having no earthly father, but being created directly by God. In a similar way, Jesus’ birth was a miraculous act of creation by God.”

“That’s right, because Mary was a pure virgin,” chimed in the cashier.

“Correct! So the title, ‘Son of God’ has important deeper meanings in the Scriptures that are not understood by those who are quick to claim it’s blasphemy.”

They chewed on this information and got back to processing my purchase.

“You know,” said the salesman, “That’s the one big difference between what we believe and what you believe.”

I surveyed the empty store and realized we had time for a little bit more conversation. My phone was buzzing. My wife was done grocery shopping and was likely calling to try and find us. I knew she would let me ignore this call for a few minutes because of the nature of the conversation.

“There’s another big difference,” I continued. “The question of how a person is saved.”

My friends’ eyebrows raised and they paused to listen.

“In Islam people believe that salvation is like a scale. If your good deeds outweigh your bad deeds, you can go to paradise. But God’s word – The Torah, the Psalms, the New Testament – disagrees with this idea. It teaches that we are so sinful that our bad will always outweigh good, and that even our good is mixed up with our pride. The scale system doesn’t work.”

They were still listening even after this controversial statement, so I kept going.

“Instead, God instituted a system of sacrifice and pardon. All of the prophets were commanded to do animal sacrifices, and through the blood of the sacrifice their sins could be forgiven. God gave these animal sacrifices as a prophecy about the life and death of Jesus. As the eternal Word of God, Jesus had no sin, and his purpose in coming was to be the final sacrifice for sins. The value of his blood was so great – and the power of his resurrection from the dead three days later – that anyone who stops believing in their own scale and in his sacrifice instead, will be forever pardoned, safe, and saved.”

At this point my wife was calling again and I needed to take it. My new friends handed me my change, passed me my ottoman in a shopping cart, and said goodbye. As I met the rest of my family outside the store I glanced back. The salesman and the cashier seemed stunned almost, still standing there, deep in thought.

Just that morning at our weekly service I had been discouraged about not having opportunities to share the gospel recently. Then out of nowhere, a random furniture store interaction about a footrest turned into sharing about the incarnation and how to be saved by faith in Jesus’ sacrifice.

First-time interactions like this seldom lead to immediate professions of faith – the message is so new and so different it takes time and lots of repetition for it to be truly comprehended. But these kind of conversations serve almost as a shock tactic – like an ancient Persian war elephant breaking up a group of Greek hoplite infantry so that the cavalry can come in afterward with devastating effect. In this case, the elephant is the fact that none of their teachers have ever shared these things with them or portrayed accurately what Christians actually believe. And now they are faced with a bunch of new ideas – from an actual Christian – that frame things in an entirely different light. This in itself creates doubt. It puts what the locals call, “a worm in their mind.” One that can someday lead to more questions and even to true spiritual hunger.

Whether I get to do the followup or someone else does many years down the road, I pray that the gospel truths dropped in that short conversation will have their effect. And that the salesman and the cashier will know God’s eternal Word – God’s Son – for themselves.

Photo by WeLoveBarcelona.de on Unsplash

Beware Evangelical Talk

When I was a brand new missions pastor, I was given a great piece of advice from the lead pastors that I reported to.

“Beware Evangelical talk,” they said.

“Given your position,” they continued, “you will have countless opportunities to meet and network with other pastors and people in ministry. Many of them will want to spend precious time talking about what they are about to do, or what they would like to see happen in the future (you will too). Watch out for this, and spend your time first actually getting things done, and then you will have something to talk about.”

I nodded and tucked this piece of advice away. Before long I found out just how necessary the warning was. I was inundated with invitations to meet with other ministry professionals to “connect,” “network,” and get to know one another. Some good came out of these meetings, and some important relationships were formed. But there were also many meetings where it wasn’t quite clear in the end why the meeting had taken place at all, beyond us feeling good about having spent some social time with a new person in a somewhat-related role. Plus, we were in Louisville, so the coffee was often quite good (Sunergos, Quills, Vint, etc.).

Group gatherings of ministry professionals could be the worst in this regard, and not only in ministry contexts in the West. This is a dynamic that also continues on the mission field when groups of workers from different organizations meet together. It usually goes like this. A bunch of evangelical ministry types feel the urge to meet together regularly because “unity” and “the kingdom is bigger than your church” and “don’t be tribal because that’s bad.” But these vague notions don’t often get any more defined than that. So the group meets, and when it’s time to share the bulk of the time is spent by those talking about exciting things that seem right about to get started – or it’s monopolized by someone who has had some measure of success and now believes that what they did is the silver bullet for everyone else’s context. Most leave vaguely encouraged, but each would be hard-pressed to define anything specific that came of those several hours spent together. “Yeah, it was… good to… connect?”

Any time I’m asked to be part of planning a time like this, I always ask for one condition for the sharing time, “Can people please stick to what they’ve actually seen happen and resist the urge to share about items they think are right on the cusp of being the next great thing?” I often find myself needing templates and models that have actually proved faithful and fruitful, not just creative ideas that might work or might go down in flames (I tend to have too many of those on my own already). And at least in our context, the work is hard enough that always focusing on that new relationship or initiative seems to be a bit of a coping mechanism that keeps us from facing our repeated setbacks. We’ve sometimes lamented that our corner of Central Asia could be called The Land of a Thousand False Starts due to how many promising beginnings simply fail to go anywhere. Workers focus on what’s just around the bend for 10 years and then go home disillusioned, without having left anything behind that lasts.

“But ministry is all about relationships!” Yes, relationships are key, and I don’t mean to minimize the importance of having a network of trusted friends. Meetings, whether one-on-one or a group, can be a great way to build the type of trusting relationships that just might someday save your life – or keep your church from imploding. Effective ministry requires having these kinds of friendships with others who are allies or at least co-belligerants. But the cost of long rambling meetings must also be taken into account. Does it take away from time you could be shepherding your people? Sharing the gospel with the lost? Learning the local language and culture? Working on those important but not urgent projects that seem to be forever punted? Prayer?

I’ve found that a very slight uptick in definition, common ground, and goals for ministry networking can lead to making the best use of the time when meeting with other Evangelicals. What exactly is this meeting and why am I going to it? Why are they wanting to meet with me? What piece of wisdom or experience or help can be gleaned from this time? And what can I give to serve them? How much common ground do we share in terms of theology and methodology? (This last question helps to focus the conversation on the more appropriate areas of partnership).

Building the relationship is often a win in itself, but not always. When thought has been put in to define the meeting, work out its purpose and at least one goal, and do some theological/methodological triage, then relational ministry meetings often are worth the time invested. But without thinking through these things on some level, we risk getting pulled into the Evangelical Ministry Talk Vortex. And one can spend decades in there, floating around from one meeting over coffee to another.

Beware Evangelical Talk. It’s a subtle danger in a world without enough laborers. Let’s get to work, and then we will have a great time meeting to talk about it later.

Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

Brothers Indeed

There’s a new believer in our church plant, a local man we’ll call Hank*. He’s from a very conservative Islamic city not too far from here, the kind of place known for its history, pomegranates, and the presence of radicals. As a friend of one of my colleagues, he’d heard the gospel often over the last five years. Something changed this year, however, and quiet and thoughtful Hank placed his faith in Christ.

When it was time for his baptism, the weather was still warm enough to drive to a nearby lake for a day of picnicking, swimming, fellowship, and celebrating Hank’s immersion. The rocky slope into the lake was quite steep and the men doing the dunking struggled to keep their balance. They wobbled, but put him under the water nonetheless. Our group cheered and yelled congratulations. Actually, the local phrase for “Congratulations!” directly translates, to “May it be holy!” – a very appropriate cheer indeed for a baptism. Other picnickers up on the slope eyed us curiously.

After he dried off, Hank was still quiet and thoughtful as usual, but his eyes were beaming.

A few weeks later he wanted to share a prayer request during our service prayer time. Since we are still a very small church, every service involves a time of prayer together. We regularly begin this time by asking if anyone has had a chance to share the gospel the previous week or if there’s a particular unbeliever on their heart they desire to share with. But it’s also a time for prayers of petition and thanksgiving.

Hank spoke up during this time, and with a shy smile began to tell us what had happened the previous week.

“I was on the phone with my brother who lives in Europe and I began to feel this desire to tell him about my new faith. But I was afraid to. So I started inching closer to the topic by talking about spiritual things and about Jesus. To my surprise, my brother was eager to talk with me about this. After a little while, he said to me, ‘If I tell you something, do you promise not to tell our family?’ I said yes. ‘I’ve been a believer in Jesus for a few years now,’ he said. Then he waited to hear what I would say, not knowing about my faith. ‘You too!?’ I answered. ‘I just became a believer in the last few months and just got baptized!’ We were so surprised and so happy to find out one another’s secrets. I was so afraid to tell my brother about my faith and he was afraid to tell me! But we were both already believers and didn’t know it. Isn’t that great?” Hank said, smiling and shaking his head.

We listened to Hank’s story and laughed and celebrated with him. It doesn’t often happen this way in this persecution-prone society, but every once in a while a dreaded conversation with a family member turns into a joyful revelation of long-kept secrets. “You too?!” takes a believer facing isolation from his biological family and shows him that God has already been at work, quietly saving those in his household without his knowing it. In a society where kinship is everything, this is a tremendous mercy.

A local proverb states, “When a brother backs a brother, barring catastrophe, they are divinely prospered.” Even from a distance, these two brothers can now back each other in their risky faith.

Hank and his brother were already brothers by blood. Praise God, now they are brothers indeed.

*Names changed for security

Photo by Scott Osborn on Unsplash

An Idiom on Drinking the Kool-Aid

He has eaten flatbread from ____’s hand.

Local Oral Tradition

This is an idiom to use when someone has drunk the proverbial Kool-Aid. As in they have completely bought into someone else’s story, system, or philosophy. I have many local friends who believe the US and Israel have created groups like Al-Qaeda and ISIS for their own nefarious ends. Next time I hear this opinion come out, I’ll have to drop this idiom. “Bro, seriously? You have eaten flatbread from the mullahs’ hands.”

Photo by Om Kamath on Unsplash

When the Beauty Never Leaves

I love our local bazaar in the fall. A gentle and steady wind blows down from the mountains, stirring the tree branches and their yellowing leaves. The summer heat has passed, and the buildings, the people, and earth itself seem to sigh contentedly in the cooler weather. Some trees and plants even celebrate the lower temps with a second, mini Spring. Pomegranates are ripe, piled high on carts, red and crunchy. Olives are ripening also. The autumn sun, lower and playfully angled to the south, shines through the swaying branches. Street musicians play classic melodies on stringed instruments and traditional flutes.

Every believer likely has certain places where they feel eternity bleeding through into the present. Places where the beauty of this world awaken some kind of deep memory – or prophecy – of another world. Eden that was lost, or Eden to be remade. These longings, as Lewis pointed out, can be sweeter than the deepest pleasures realized in this life. As penned by The Gray Havens, we “can’t find something better than this ache.”

I wonder what kinds of scenes awaken this inner longing for eternity in other believers. Is it something we all experience? Are some of us for some reason particularly haunted by these tantalizing flashes and whispers? If so, then it is a good haunting. Even if at times it leads to tears.

For me, it’s often angled, gentle sun. The wind and the branches softly dancing together. The happy sounds of a bazaar in Autumn. A warmth in my chest and an echo of a memory in my mind of something wonderful and somehow also painful.

I’ve felt it elsewhere also. When sun flicked the waves as the seagulls dove and cried and our ferry made its way across the Bosphorus. Or when we waded into an ancient river barefoot during a summer sunset. Watching a Melanesian island sunrise as the waves smash the coral shores. A silent snowfall over a lamp-lit Minneapolis footbridge. An orchestra playing Handel’s Elijah. A particularly sweet conversation with a local believer over a cup of chai. A moment of Edenic intimacy with my wife.

These echoes, these previews, remind me that I am not yet fully alive. But that one day I will be. The groaning creation will then be set free into the freedom of the glory of the children of God (Romans 8:21). Its resurrection will follow ours, just as its fall followed ours. No more hints, previews and echoes on that day. But face to face, unveiled glory. The creation, the resurrected ones, the king himself.

Sometimes all of this really is present in an afternoon moment in a Central Asian bazaar. It comes, it sings, it fades again. Eternity has bled through once again. And I am left behind. Yet not forever.

Steady on, my soul. One day the beauty will come – and it will never leave.

Photo by Ali Kokab on Unsplash