Riddles of Hands

At our post-service lunch of beans, rice, and flatbread today, a group of us men got into sharing riddles. I don’t know that many riddles, but I did manage to submit a few to the group, including one translated from my childhood readings of The Hobbit: “A box without hinges, key, or a lid, yet inside golden treasure is hid.

Hint: the answer is something that comes from chickens and is fried for breakfast.

One local rhyming riddle was new for me:

What has a ceiling above and a basement beneath, one shepherd, and four sheep?

The answer was a hand, as held out flat and horizontally. The ceiling – the back of the hand. The basement – the palm. The four sheep? Fingers. And the shepherd? The thumb.

This led to a session of discussing the local names for each of the fingers. I find them honestly hilarious and quirky.

The pinky finger: the lil’ guy

The ring finger: the lil’ guy’s brother

The middle finger: the tall-bodied one

The pointer finger: the sauce taster

The thumb: the lice killer

The sauce taster and lice killer? Ha! Why not?

Photo by Andrik Langfield on Unsplash

A Song On Everything We’ve Ever Wanted

I listened to this song yesterday on my headphones while prayer walking the bazaar. “No, random Central Asian man, no I’m not I’m not crying, I’m just a foreigner who’s got some, err, dust in his eyes… nothing to see here… (sniffle)”

I’ve bolded the lyrics below that I especially like.

When the day has run its course
You are the goodness
Oh, my sweetest Friend
You are the Avalanche
That falls upon us; in the end
You are my reward
Where all the years have failed us
Oh, my sweetest Friend
You are the House around us
You are the goodness; in the end

And everything I ever wanted
It is found in You
And everything I ever wanted
It is found in You

Of all the strong and able
You are the kindest
Oh, my sweetest Friend
You are the Avalanche
That falls upon us; in the end

And everything I ever wanted
It is found in You
And everything I ever wanted
It is found in You

My One, my Constant
My King, and Brother
My home, is ever
Where Your heart hovers
My One, my Constant
My King, and Brother
My home, is ever
Where Your heart hovers

When the day has run its course
You are the goodness
You are my reward
You are the goodness
When the day has run its course
You are the goodness
You are my reward
You are the goodness

When the day has run its course
You are the goodness
You are the goodness
When the day has run its course
You are the goodness
You are the goodness

-"The Goodness" by John Mark McMillan

Another Take on a Character Proverb

Travel and business are a gold appraisal tool.

Local Oral Tradition

I’ve posted another version of this proverb in the past, but I believe that this version is the older one. In the local culture, they used to appraise gold by scratching it with a special device. The appraiser was able to tell the quality of the gold from the scratch made in its surface. In this proverb, the gold represents a person’s character. So in essence, travel and business, like a gold appraisal tool, reveal a person’s character.

As one who has traveled for my entire life, I testify that the travel part is certainly true. When a trip is long enough (and it doesn’t have to be that long), people are unable to keep up appearances. Sooner or later, they will get tired or stressed or sick or inconvenienced in some way. And at that point, character will spill out.

Every time we travel internationally, I am reminded of the difference the new birth makes in when it comes to simple kindness. In the dehumanizing environment of a crowded airplane, most want to protect at all costs the few rights and the small space they still have. Those who are kind to families with small children or to the sick or the elderly stand out. And often, turns out the kind and sacrificial ones are those who know Jesus.

In an age where we often lament the lack of difference between the Church and the world, I am happy to say that travel truly can reveal the reality of the new birth – and that it is a golden, wonderful thing.

Photo by Jingming Pan on Unsplash

River Cliffs and Reformed Theology

The two of us walked, single file, through the coffee gardens. We were seventeen years old, barefoot, wearing swim trunks, and with inflated tire inner-tubes slung over our shoulders. The coffee cherries were ripening and we occasionally reached out, plucked one, and popped it in our mouths. The clear jelly between the red skin and the green coffee bean itself was deliciously sweet. Then the slippery bean itself could be pinched between forefinger and thumb, and launched at distant targets with surprising accuracy.

Tall sprawling trees spaced at regular intervals provided speckled shade for the short coffee trees below. We followed our dirt path naturally, having trekked it hundreds of times since we were in elementary school. We were, once again, on our way to inner-tube down the river. The horseshoe twists and turns of the main river of our Melanesian valley were such that we could walk ten minutes down trails on one side to a particular cliff to begin our trip, leisurely float down the river bends for forty five minutes, then get out at a different spot only five minutes from the compound where we lived. The trip included two sand bars, several set of rapids, two cliffs for jumping, whirlpools, deadwater, and the occasional abandoned raft made of banana tree stalks. One time we saw the carcass of a massive dead python. Thankfully, we never saw a live one.

Sometimes lots of missionaries and missionary kids would all take a big inner-tube trip together. Other times, groups of guys would go to make campfires on the sandbars and roast hot dogs, or challenge each other in “mud wars,” where soft clay harvested from the river banks was shaped into small round projectiles that splattered with satisfaction on your opponent’s torso (At which point he was temporarily “dead” and had to make his way back to wash in the river, hollering “I am a new man!!!” as he emerged from the water to enter the fray again.)

This particular sunny day it was just me and my close friend, *Calvin, going to float, talk, and perhaps pick up some hot fried skon flour balls on the way home. A simple river trip on a nice afternoon, like so many others. But our minds were not merely carefree that day, enjoying the familiar stroll through the coffee and banana gardens. Instead, they were chewing on some deep questions of the faith.

Calvin and I had been working out regularly together and while doing so, listening to John Piper sermons. Calvin had also been secretly devouring commentaries in our mission school library. While raised in dispensationalist circles, the two of us were beginning to wrestle earnestly with the claims of what was still a scary term for us: Calvinism. We were still in the early stages of our theological journeys, very much looking into something that we were sure couldn’t be true, but which had a much stronger case than we had ever realized.

The adult missionaries we spoke to about this particular theology generally discouraged us from looking into it. This of course only added fuel to the fire. We began to try to hash it out on our own, armed with CD sermons, library commentaries stealthily checked out, and our friendship. This river trip was one of many similar discussions we had during those final two years of high school.

This particular river trip stands out to me though. I remember it as a bit of a turning point, not because my convictions necessary changed that day, but because I admitted something out loud to myself for the first time. Something not contrary to, but consistent with, the God I knew from the Bible and my own experience – that if God is who he says he is, then in a contest of wills, He is the one who must ultimately win.

We had arrived at the small cliff that marked the point we embarked on our inner-tube journey, usually by jumping off of said cliff twenty feet into the river below. We sat down on the edge to survey the water, making sure we couldn’t spot any trees that had been pulled in during rains that might pose a hidden danger under the water. One of our schoolmates had a leg impaled one time jumping off this very cliff.

“So what do you think about irresistible grace?” I asked Calvin, as we scanned the brown water.

“Well, it seems like it would fit with passages like Romans 9 and Paul’s story, right? But I’m not sure, what about the passages that talk about people rejecting God? Doesn’t that count as resisting?”

“Yeah, like what Stephen says to the Jews before they kill him. They always resist the Spirit. How can you really name a point irresistible if there’s such clear examples of people in the Bible actually resisting?”

“Though actually,” Calvin countered, “As I remember, I don’t think it means we can’t ever resist, I think it might mean God will break that resistance for the ones he’s chosen.”

“Oh. But what does that mean, then our resistance isn’t real? That it’s a sham?”

“No, of course not, that would mean we couldn’t be responsible for unbelief, right?”

“Right…”

We sat in silence at the top of the small cliff, legs dangled over. I popped in one last coffee cherry I had saved, and spat out the skin.

“I dunno though,” I continued. “Something tells me that if my will and God’s will gets into a contest, God should be the one who wins. God should win. I don’t know how exactly that’s right with free will and all, but that’s what seems right in this universe. He should win in any contest against a little human like me… shouldn’t he?”

We sat and looked out over the river and the banana gardens on the other side of it. The question lingered. The cicadas hummed their rhythms in the trees.

We both sensed it was time to get moving. We spun our T-shirts and tied them around our foreheads like bandanas, preparing for the cliff jump. Throwing our inner-tubes off the cliff we made a running start for the edge, hollering as we jumped off, and plunged into the chocolately-brown jungle water below.

I didn’t realize it as I hit the water that day, but the Calvins had led me to admit an important point. God wins. He overcomes our resistance whenever he wants to. My mind wasn’t ready to concede that fully yet, but deep down inside, I knew it.

*this is his real name, and a fitting one for the topic of our discussion that day

Photo by Andres Hernandez on Unsplash

The End of the Green Martyrdom

So the wished-for extremes of the Green Martyrdom were largely – and quickly – abandoned in favor of monasticism, a movement which, though it could support and even nurture oddity and eccentricity, subjected such tendencies to a social contract. Since Ireland had no cities, these monastic establishments grew rapidly into the first population centers, hubs of unprecedented prosperity, art, and learning.

Cahill, How the Irish Saved Civilization

Photo by Boudewijn Huysmans on Unsplash

When You Step Out of the Wind

We once stayed on the coast of the Black Sea on the return journey to our corner of Central Asia. After a stormy night, I ventured out for a late morning prayer walk once the rain had stopped. The downpour may have ceased, but the wind and the waves crashed in relentlessly toward the land.

This constant and steady shove of the sea winds led to me walking tilted to one side. But I didn’t really notice this until I passed one of the enclosed bus stops that periodically lined the road. As soon as I stepped behind the shelter of the bus stop, the pressure disappeared and I almost lost my footing and tumbled into the benches. I regained my posture, laughed at myself, and continued on out into the wind again. I paid attention to see if this would happen at the next bus stop. It did, I recovered slightly better this time, and I began to enjoy this unexpected pattern of this particular walk. Walk, lean, lean, stumble and correct, lean again. It was quite surprising how disorienting it was to step out of the wind and into the safety of the shelter.

This little seaside walk reminded me of what it’s like to step out of a high-stress missions environment – or really any high-stress environment. When the pressure is constant, you adjust and gradually cease to notice it. Then you step out – take a vacation, go on furlough, etc. – and boom, you find yourself quickly reeling as the pressure is removed.

“I feel like I’ve been sleeping for weeks and weeks,” one friend told me after leaving a particularly dangerous part of Central Asia. “We didn’t really realize how much stress we had until we got out,” another recently said. Others might feel numb after stepping out of their context, or they might get sick. Feelings of calling and spiritual affections might go strangely haywire. We sometimes get headaches that seem connected to the collapse of the stress and the schedule. Or, after a hard year and a 16-hour flight with small children we might simply feel like chucking it all and going to live like hermits in the woods somewhere.

What’s important to notice is that this sudden disorientation is normal. Though it doesn’t always happen, it happens enough to represent a real pattern. Missionaries stepping out of their context of service will likely face some kind of a disorienting and reorienting period, often due to the removal of the pressures of said context and the effects of reverse culture shock.

It’s important that the missionaries themselves don’t get freaked out by this. And that those receiving them keep the possibility of this kind of adjustment period on their radar as well. Right after return to the home country might not be the best time for a debrief – or at least not the main debrief. It also might not be the best time for lots of scheduled ministry engagements.

Time to get one’s bearings is important, time to let more the temporary feelings dissipate and to let the deeper affections rise again to the surface. Quick decisions about the future should probably be avoided. Instead, what is needed is sleep, steady friendship, time to reconnect with Jesus, and some plain old time to think (preferably while sipping on some good tea or coffee). If coming from high-communication cultures, colleagues may need to cover for their teammates who need to go dark for a while.

We are currently in the midst of a week like this ourselves. After a busy couple weeks of traveling (eight different beds in twenty one days), yesterday I was feeling pretty pessimistic about lots of things. Today? Things are seeming a lot more grounded and good. Nothing really about our circumstances has changed. We just got some extra sleep, some restful time in nature, and some good time to pray. A few more days of this, and we might be ready to step back into the wind, as it were.

If you step out of a high-pressure ministry context, prepare for a bit of a jolt. This is normal. And it is itself an important part of realizing how to live sustainably and sacrificially in that particular context.

Photo by Jens Johnsson on Unsplash

Consistent With A Cosmic Air Burst

Sooner or later, archaeology tends to validate the biblical record. Take this research being done in the lower Jordan valley, the area of Genesis’ description of Sodom and Gomorrah’s destruction. Archaeologists have found evidence in a layer of soil of a cosmic air burst from around 3,650 years ago. A cosmic air burst is when a meteor explodes while still in the atmosphere, which can cause devastation on the ground resembling a nuclear bomb, such as occurred in the Tunguska Event in 1908 Siberia. The research on the site in Jordan goes on to describe cataclysmic temperatures, in excess of 2,000 degrees Celsius:

In addition to the debris one would expect from destruction via warfare and earthquakes, they found pottery shards with outer surfaces melted into glass, “bubbled” mudbrick and partially melted building material, all indications of an anomalously high-temperature event, much hotter than anything the technology of the time could produce.

Not also was there a fiery disaster from the sky spelling the end of the cities in the area, there’s also a connection with salt:

The airburst, according to the paper, may also explain the “anomalously high concentrations of salt” found in the destruction layer — an average of 4% in the sediment and as high as 25% in some samples.

The salt was thrown up due to the high impact pressures,” Kennett said of the meteor that likely fragmented upon contact with Earth’s atmosphere.

If this is indeed archaeological evidence of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, then we now have a little more information about what kind of means God used in this particular judgment: a meteor, exploding before it hits the ground. If so, it’s not that we now say that God wasn’t really actively carrying out a judgement of sin, since we now have some evidence that it was a meteor – something that naturally occurs. Nor do we have to reject this kind of evidence, insisting that God’s judgements in history must be purely “miraculous.” Rather, here we see an example of how God can sovereignly judge through natural means. A meteor – set on its cosmic track countless years beforehand – explodes above the lower Jordan valley at the appointed time, when the outcry against cities’ sin has reached its full pitch, and just after Lot and his family are rescued. And thus God’s sovereign action in history and the (super)natural workings of the universe are seen once again to go hand in hand.

“All the observations stated in Genesis are consistent with a cosmic airburst,” says the quoted professor. Yes, we may not always see how, but the record of scripture and the record of the soil will ultimately align. The archaeologists may be surprised. But we shouldn’t be.

Photo by Vincentiu Solomon on Unsplash

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.