Respect, Planning, and Presence

Today I was reminded of three common crises of trust that have occurred in our relationships with local Central Asian believers. These three big questions of trust tend to underlie some of the more serious conflict we have. Cross-cultural differences can aggravate these three concerns, but in and of themselves they are very valid questions to ask. And while we would answer with a “Yes, of course!” to all three questions, we also find them very understandable, given the very real challenges faced by those coming to faith in this context of persecution.

Crisis One: Do these foreigners actually respect us? Though most missionaries working among Central Asians possess a deep love and respect for the locals, this question is surprisingly common. Much of this is due to the fact that respect is expressed very differently in our respective cultures – sometimes even expressed in completely opposite ways. Locals feel deeply disrespected if not visited while sick. Westerners tend to respect a sick person by giving them space to recover. Locals use titles in a very serious fashion to express a respectful sense of hierarchy. Many Westerners prefer first name status over titles, as this communicates a respectful sense of equality. But this question and crisis of trust can also emerge from the timeline Westerners might choose when it comes to handing over authority and money to local believers. We choose to take a slower route in response to the culture’s penchant toward domineering leadership and power grabs. This can be misinterpreted as zero trust and respect when in fact it is an approach of incrementally building trust and respect over time.

Crisis Two: Do these foreigners actually have a plan? This question emerges out of the very different places Western and Central Asian cultures find themselves in regarding institutions, plans, and the Church. When it comes to Christianity, Western missions culture definitely has a post-institutional momentum. We tend to want things to be organic, authentic, and not very institutional. We tend to twitch at the term, “organized religion.” But Central Asian culture has a strongly pre-institutional posture. The desire is for robust and complex institutions and plans to be built – though there’s often not a clear understanding of just how this should be attempted. So institutions tend to be started, but then end up just like the rest of the culture – run by strong-man leadership, instead of by values, bylaws, and constitutions. When Western missionaries lead Bible studies or church meetings, we tend to run these times based on experience or on a loose plan we have in our heads. We may have a long-term vision and mission in which we plan to see churches planted and multiplied. But we often don’t share these plans with the locals in detail. We simply might not think of it, assuming that they are a more “organic” culture, or we might not talk about it due to security concerns. Either way, locals can feel like we are risking their lives without much of a plan – and this sense can seriously undermine trust and commitment. They know that Western culture has historically been good at institution building and planning. So it’s confusing to see their Western friends downplaying these things on a regular basis.

Crisis Three: Will these foreigners actually be there for me? We foreign missionaries are a transient lot. We travel for furloughs, medical issues, vacation, or visa issues. We tend to have a high rate of turnover due to things like burnout and struggling kids. We also live only partway inside the local culture, sometimes unwilling and sometimes unable to intervene when locals face persecution or hardship. At the back of many of our friends’ minds they believe that if things get too dangerous we’ll leverage our passports to get to safety – and they’ll be stuck on their own to face the threats. They are not completely wrong in these fears. If things get too unstable in terms of security, most of us will have to leave. But sometimes we make this concern worse by being unwilling to get into the weeds and find creative solutions to locals’ persecution or suffering. These are very messy situations, and they can compromise our presence locally. But if we always use our privilege to stay out of locals’ dangerous situations, we also risk failing to model sacrificial leadership – the kind where good shepherds lay their lives down for the sheep and don’t flee like hired hands.

Respect, planning, presence – these three questions can simmer in the mind and heart of a local believer, and explode in times of conflict or danger. As such, we need to regularly affirm our respect, describe our plans, and express our desire to be present in the hard times. This will help us to build trust with locals and to better weather conflict. We also need to learn how to show these in ways that will be received by the culture, so that our words will be received as genuine. Time will expose where our hearts are truly at. But our actions, even if they fail, communicate more than we know.

However, we should also qualify these affirmations. In the end, we don’t respect locals as consistently as we should, we don’t always have a good plan, and we will not always be present. We are sinners, we are finite, we will die. Yet the collective community of a healthy church can extend these things truly, if imperfectly, to a local believer. The local church in this age can make a God-honoring impact in terms of true respect, wise planning, and steady presence in the midst of suffering. And the missionary team can do its best to model these things to the church plant.

Whether we succeed or fail in these things, both are actually an opportunity to point locals yet again to Jesus, the only one who extends perfect respect, perfect plans, and soul-sustaining perfect presence in suffering. We can ultimately redirect local with these questions and crises to him. We trust him to hold onto our local friends, even as we also seek to carry them in our hearts in these three vital ways.

Photo by Aidan Bartos on Unsplash

Sovereignty and Terrorism

The twentieth anniversary of 9/11 is a sobering milestone. As we traversed four US states today, we saw flags flying at half-mast.

When the attacks happened, I was in the US on furlough, in middle school in the Philadelphia area. Like most of my generation, I will never forget where I was when I first heard the news. For me, it was my English teacher, telling us that New York and Washington had been attacked – and that the world would never be the same. And I can never forget seeing those terrifying images on the TV as soon as we got home from school that afternoon. Like most households, we sat stunned, unable to turn away from the news for hours.

That same night small vigils gathered on street corners, holding flags and lighting candles. Drivers honked and shouted support as they drove by. The next day, pictures of Osama Bin Laden’s face with a target imposed over it went up on lockers all throughout my school.

The cultural and political fallout of 9/11 has reshaped the world as we know it. But one aspect of these attacks rarely gets mentioned: how they have also caused countless Muslims to question Islam – and to instead explore the claims of Jesus Christ.

This dynamic didn’t start with 9/11. In fact, some would trace it back to December 1979 and the siege of the great mosque in Mecca. It was that terrorist attack that served as the symbolic birth of modern Islamist extremism. Yet that attack – and others like 9/11 – has correlated with a greater openness to the gospel among Muslims than an any other known point in history.

It makes sense. I attended an Iranian Iftar dinner in Kentucky some years ago, when ISIS was still in control of a huge territory in Syria and Iraq and committing atrocities seemingly daily. And there at my table, one Iranian man put his fist down and argued vehemently with the rest of us that ISIS represented true Islam – according to the original sources and real history – and that’s why he wanted nothing to do with being a Muslim anymore. The other Iranian at the table of course argued back that the first man was completely incorrect and ISIS represented a mutant, cultish form of Islam (likely started by some foreign power for its own ends). But there they were, two men who had grown up mentored in the prayers of the mosque and the same traditions, now utterly divided by the atrocities of terrorists claiming to act in the name of their God.

In the years since, I have seen this argument played out countless times among the Central Asian people where we now serve. Every time a terrorist attack happens, it’s not only non-Muslims who hear the question, “Is this actually true Islam?” The same question is gnawing at the hearts of many Muslims as well. Or, as our locals say, it becomes a worm in their mind. The worm, as it were, gnaws. Many are able to suppress the question. Sadly, some decide to join the jihad. Yet others are pushed away from the faith of their fathers and pray desperately for God to reveal who he truly is.

Historically, the resistance of Muslims against the efforts of Christian missionaries has caused many to despair. One convert per lifetime was the former mantra. Yet it seems as if the Islamic extremism of the past forty years has done something stunning and unexpected – it has caused countless Muslims to doubt the validity of their faith for the first time, creating fertile ground for Christian evangelists.

Sovereign in all things. Do we believe in a God big enough to even turn terrorism somehow into good?

I pray that all terrorism done in the name of Islam will die out. It is a horrific and evil thing. So many victims have died unjustly, and the bulk of them have been the attackers’ fellow countrymen and Muslims themselves. At the same time, I see God using even these dark and wicked events to slowly create cracks in the foundations of Islamic confidence. Others have pointed this out in the past, we have seen it playing out among our own friends, and I have no doubt this dynamic will continue for the foreseeable future.

9/11 is rightly a time to lament. And yet with our lamenting we also soberly watch the sovereignty of God play out. We pray the attacks will end. We pray that justice will come. And we pray that eyes will continue to be opened – and the cracks will continue to grow.

Photo by Aidan Bartos on Unsplash

A Song For Mourning Turned to Gladness

“Gone are the Days” by the Gray Havens and Julie Odnoralov

I’ve posted the original version of this song in the past, but I really enjoy this remix as well. The lyrics look back, post-death, to the sufferings of this life and the new reality of sorrow turned to gladness.

It is a fitting song for today, when I get to attend a very special wedding. My mom, widowed twenty eight years, is getting remarried. Her new husband is himself a widower, and one of his daughters one of my classmates and friends from high school in Melanesia. As such, it is a very different kind of wedding, where everyone’s thoughts are not only on the bride and groom, but also on the parents and spouses who have departed and gone to be with Jesus. There has been great loss, but there is also new joy.

He makes all things new. This song, and this wedding, provide me glimpses of how he will do this for all eternity.

Inviting Afghan Refugees Over for Dinner

In this post, I want to link back to a hospitality guide I wrote some years ago. I wrote this practical guide in order to equip Western Christians to open up their homes and show hospitality to Middle Eastern and Central Asian friends and neighbors. With the new influx of Afghan refugees, now would be a good time to revisit the opportunity that Christians have to “show hospitality to strangers” (Heb 13:2). Statistically, most of these refugees will never be invited into a Westerner’s home for tea, dinner, or for a holiday. Imagine the powerful kindness, then, felt by a new refugee family who experiences an exception and is welcomed into your home – and the format of the evening is even somewhat familiar for them.

While this guide was not written with Afghans in particular in mind, there should be a large degree of overlap. I did consult with Iranian friends while writing it, so there should be a lot of near-culture familiarity. A couple of notes regarding things I have learned since then:

Toilet shoes. Set out a couple pair of flip flops or slip-on rubber sandals in front of your bathroom/restroom/WC area. Since they leave their outside shoes at the door, Central Asians feel very dirty going into a toilet area in only their socks or barefoot.

Order of entry and exit. At least in our area of Central Asia, the host should step outside and insist the guest should enter the house first. The guest will then politely refuse. After some back and forth of this, the host is expected to go first into the home. This is then reversed on the way out. The host should not exit the house before the guest, as this can imply that they are eager for the guest to leave.

Pictures. Many Central Asians love to take pictures and selfies together to commemorate an event. It’s best to take your guests’ lead on this front. But don’t be alarmed if your dinner gathering ends up posted on their social media accounts. It’s polite to ask to take pictures together if you are the initiator. Try to be sensitive to whether or not the men of the family want their wife or daughters included in the pictures.

Here is the link to the post containing the hospitality guide. As you hear of Christian friends who have opportunities to host Aghans that are being resettled, feel free to pass this guide along. And if any of the advice in this guide proves to be irrelevant or unhelpful for Afghan culture, then I would love to know that. Happy hosting.

Photo by Mehrshad Rajabi on Unsplash

A Proverb for a Lazy Worker

For fear of day labor he became a musician.

Local Oral Tradition

This proverb is for the person who shuns hard work and seeks out the easier tasks. One young man was hired to help paint our house when we moved in. There was a ton of work to be done, but I kept catching him watering the trees. He really liked watering those trees. Or perhaps he just really didn’t like painting.

I didn’t know this proverb at the time, but it would have been an apt one to use. Needless to say, the painting only got ninety percent done. But the garden trees look great!

Photo by Ben Albano on Unsplash

A Troubling Lack of Martyrdom

And this lack of martyrdom troubled the Irish, to whom a glorious death by violence presented such an exciting finale. If all Ireland had received Christianity without a fight, the Irish would just have to think up some new form of martyrdom – something even more interesting than the wonderfully grisly stories they had begun to learn in the simple continental collections, called “martyrologies,” from which Patrick and his successors taught them to read.

The Irish of the late fifth and early sixth centuries soon found a solution, which they called the Green Martyrdom, opposing it to the conventional Red Martyrdom by blood. The Green Martyrs were those who, leaving behind the comforts of and pleasures of ordinary human society, retreated to the woods, or to a mountaintop, or to a lonely island – to one of the green no-man’s-lands outside tribal jurisdiction – there to study the scriptures and commune with God. For among the story collections Patrick gave them they found the examples of the anchorites of the Egyptian desert, who, also lacking the purification rite of persecution, had lately devised a new form of holiness by living alone in isolated hermitages, braving all kinds of physical and psychological adversity, and imposing on themselves the most heroic fasts and penances, all for the sake of drawing nearer to God.

Cahill, How the Irish Saved Civilization

I am more sympathetic to these monastics than I used to be. After all, the motive for many was to draw closer to God and to see more of his glory, misguided though they may have been in trying to accomplish this by retreating from the world. A far better “martyrdom” would have been to endure the sufferings implicit in taking the gospel to the pagan peoples which had not yet been reached – as the later Irish were indeed to do. This Green Martyrdom, then, was perhaps was the result of Patrick’s limited knowledge of the world. He believed he had brought the gospel to the end of the world, beyond which there was nowhere else left. Perhaps he taught this to his disciples, so they looked around at the newly Christianized Irish tribes, and retreated into the woods.

Photo by Sebastian Unrau on Unsplash

The Right Words For Airport Security

Our trip back to the US a few days ago went pretty well. The security personnel at our Central Asian city’s airport gave us some trouble due to our daughter’s diabetic supplies and devices. But it wasn’t too bad. I was reminded of the last time we had flown out of that same airport. That time I had a suitcase full of Bibles in the local language.

There’s a city in the US which contains a large immigrant population of our focus people group. A new church plant had been started there among them, the first one in all of North America that we are aware of. But they couldn’t get ahold of Bibles in the correct language. The updated Bible translation had recently been printed in Korea and the only available copies were now stored and distributed in our corner of Central Asia. Hence the request for us to bring back a suitcase full of Bibles.

We made it through a couple layers of security without any trouble, but at the final suitcase scanner I got nervous. The officer had indicated that I was to open the particular bag full of Bibles and a few homeschool books. And while it’s not illegal to possess Bibles in the local language or to distribute them in some limited ways, the laws are vague enough that an Islamic – or simply grumpy – official could decide on a whim to confiscate them or to get us in trouble.

“What are these?” the officer asked me, making a sweeping gesture at the large pile of books in the suitcase.

I chuckled nervously, “We love books, as you can see… Um, these are books for our kids’ education… and… those… are Bibles in your language.” There was no hiding it. He could clearly see the dozens of books with Holy Injil (Gospel) printed on their spines.

I held my breath as the official picked up one of the Bibles and flipped through it. I couldn’t read his expression.

Suddenly, I blurted out, “You want to know something crazy? We’re traveling to America and bringing all these Bibles from here to there. The members of your people group there who want to find them or buy them there can’t find any at all – they’re simply not available anywhere! So we’re hauling all these over to help them. Isn’t that crazy that you can’t find a Bible in your language in America? That’s not right. Thankfully we can get them here and can help them out by bringing these to them.”

The officer grunted and nodded, setting the Bible back in the suitcase.

“You tell them when you get to America,” he said in a serious tone and with a look of conviction, “you tell them that that’s not right. They should be printing and selling these Bibles there as well! Bless your hands for carrying these over to our people there. Can you believe that, guys?” He said, shifting from me to his colleagues. “You can’t buy these Bibles in America, so we have to send them from here over to there. What a world!”

And with that he motioned for me to zip up the suitcase and be on our way.

We gathered up our various bags and children and made our way to the check-in counter. I was relieved that security hadn’t give us any real trouble. I reflected on the conversation and smiled. How kind of the Lord to put those particular comments into my brain at just the right time. The conversation could have gone very differently. I only regretted forgetting to offer a Bible to the security officer on the spot.

In passages like Matthew 10:16-20, Jesus promises that we shouldn’t be anxious about what we’ll say when we’re dragged before governors and kings for his sake – that the Holy Spirit would give us the words to say. I haven’t yet had to go before governors or kings for Jesus’ sake. But I do wonder about conversations like that one with the airport security officer. The right words came at just the right time, without planning beforehand what I would say. Perhaps this was a small taste of the Holy Spirit’s particular help in these kinds of situations.

I tend to get very nervous while speaking under pressure. So this promise from Matthew 10 is very relevant for me. My natural self under questioning is likely to kick into fight, flight, or freeze mode – most likely the latter two. The color will drain from my face and the language part of my brain is likely to shut down. And yet I won’t have to rely on my natural self if I am ever brought in front of the authorities for questioning. The Holy Spirit will give me the words to say. He will give my local brothers and sisters the words to say.

What an encouraging and practical promise.

Photo by Tomek Baginski on Unsplash

Of Immersion and Umbilical Cords

Tonight we came to the end of a whirlwind eleven months. We’ll be heading out of the country for a few weeks of rest and family events. But what an ending it was.

This evening *Alan was baptized. He’s the new believer who recently came out of nowhere, having come to faith through YouTube videos while isolated from knowing any other believers.

The initial time of singing and exhortation tonight proved to be a very sweet time. Baptisms are always soul-stirring, but in this part of the world they feel especially weighty. The Islamic society here views going under the water as the point of no return. It means apostasy has been committed. Even though Alan had explored other religions before and even was an atheist for a season, his act of baptism will be viewed with a special kind of hatred by his Muslim friends and relatives.

For their part, the local believers were eager to follow up the exhortation from Romans 6 with their own personal encouragements. One word was regarding ongoing repentance. This prompted spontaneous and public repentance from two of the other brothers present – a particularly life-giving thing for me to witness having recently walked with them through the very messy conflict they were repenting of. This was a tremendous example for Alan to witness, the kind of thing that should be a regular part of a healthy church’s life together.

*Patti also spoke up, exhorting Alan to put off the culture he has known and to put on the new culture of Jesus Christ. Patti is the least-literate of the group of believers, so her clear and biblical contribution was especially meaningful.

Then we took a group photo together (only the one being baptized is allowed to request pictures and use their camera for this kind of event) and headed up to the roof where a kiddie pool was ready. One of us the expats and one of the local brothers flanked Alan as they stood together in the water. Not only does this two person dunking make the physical act of immersing the third person easier, it also helps avoid any false elevation of baptism-by-foreigner while still honoring the locals’ desire to respect us by having one one of us do the actual baptizing. Another local brother read the questions, received Alan’s affirmative replies, and then made the Trinitarian proclamation.

And Alan went under. All but the very tips of his knees. Total immersion continues to be quite hard to actually accomplish! Thankfully, this doesn’t mean he will be raised in the new heavens and new earth without any kneecaps.

The rest of the evening was spent laughing and sharing chai and supper together. And yet in this season we can’t seem to stop uncovering deeply-ingrained aspects of culture that we’ve never heard of before, and which seem somewhat concerning. Sure enough, we had another surprising lesson waiting for us tonight.

During dinner, one of the local moms asked my wife if we could bring her daughter’s something back to the US with us. The word she used sounded an awful lot like belly button. Confused, my wife sought clarification. It wasn’t belly button, it was umbilical cord. She wanted us to bring her teenage daughter’s umbilical cord back to the US with us. If you are anything like us, at this point you’d be thinking, “Why on earth would we ever do such a thing?”

Apparently one of our regional cultures saves the baby’s umbilical cord and places it somewhere in the world that would portend a good future for that child, connected to that particular place. In our case, the mother wanted us to bring the remains of the umbilical cord in our luggage to the US and leave it there so that the power of the cord (?) would enable her daughter to reach the US and find success there.

My wife fumbled for words and reminded this sister of what we had been talking about earlier – that following Jesus means we put on a new redeemed culture. Plus, what in the world would we tell customs?

“Anything to declare?”

“Just our friends’ daughter’s umbilical cord.”

“Um… what?!”

Needless to say, we won’t be carrying any umbilical cords with us this time. Nor in the future, at least until we learn a lot more about what is actually going on with this local practice.

But it’s not just the Central Asians. This confused TCK also learned tonight that even some Westerners keep their child’s umbilical cord for sentimental reasons. Again, I had never heard of this before. Western friends, is this a thing? Culture is fascinating. And sometimes just downright strange.

But putting aside all talk of physical cords that have been cut and their reasons for global travel, Alan himself is very much now spiritually alive and part of the family. Though he started his walk with Jesus as an isolated young man watching apologetics videos, he has a community of brothers and sisters now. He will need them, and they will need him.

As for us, we need to get some sleep. Twenty hours of flight time with multiple small children awaits us. And though we’re getting on that plane tired and spent, we are also getting on it happy and thankful.

The church is repenting, new believers like Alan are taking costly steps of obedience, deeper worldview issues are coming out and getting addressed. He is working. Keep the prayers coming.

Photo by Egor Myznik on Unsplash

*Names changed for security

A Proverb on Conflict

A clap is not achieved by one hand only.

Local Oral Tradition

This one recently emerged in a context of – you guessed it – conflict. It’s the local equivalent of “It takes two to tango.” While exceptions to this principle exist, and greater and lesser degrees of fault are important to consider, conflict often has two parts: a sinful action and a sinful reaction. This is good news for peacemakers who are involved in conflict. There’s almost always a way to lead, to initiate, with a humble admission of our own sin or shortcoming. And that is often the key that unlocks the main offender’s repentance as well.

Photo by Guillermo Latorre on Unsplash