A Proverb on Learning One’s Lesson

If they cut off your arm, God will judge them. If they cut off your the other arm, God will judge you.

Local Oral Tradition

This is our local equivalent of “Fool me once, shame on you; Fool me twice, shame on me.” In other words, once someone has proven themselves untrustworthy or even dangerous, a wise person should no longer extend to them the same kind of trust they did previously. To do so is not only foolish, but this local proverb goes so far as to say it’s the kind of folly that even invites God’s judgement.

And now for a flashback demonstrating the importance of knowing your proverbs, especially if you are going to use them publicly:

Photo by Edson Junior on Unsplash

Planting Forests

“But that might take hundreds of years!” my new local friend protested.

This potential seeker had attended our church plant’s baptism picnic and had pulled me aside to talk politics and societal change. I was trying to convince him of the goodness of slow, bottom-up change that begins with changed hearts.

“It’s like living in a jail here,” he said. “If I can get my hands on $5,000, I’ll definitely try to get smuggled out of the country.”

Sadly, this is a very common sentiment among the young men in our area. They view the government as hopelessly corrupt. And they would rather risk death while being smuggled to Europe than stay with their limited options. They believe the only other way to access a better life is to align themselves with the corrupt elite. But many don’t have the means or stomach to do so.

I often find myself in this kind of a conversation with frustrated young men. And I resonate with some of their frustration. After all, I also long to see this society transformed – but by the presence of hundreds of healthy local churches, acting like good leaven which spreads and transforms the rest of the dough. Instead, we find ourselves laboring hard only to see few results, and those often choked out by the weeds of an Islamic society which expertly strangles nonconformity.

And yet, here Church history is an encouragement to persevere in the long and slow work of planting the seeds of movements and even societal reform. What began as very small group of marginalized Jews made infanticide illegal in the Roman empire by the early 300s. In the 400s, Patrick’s seemingly quixotic attempt to reach Ireland with the gospel is what led to the Irish re-Christianization of Europe at the dawn of the Medieval period. Luther did not start a movement, so much as unleash the energy which had been growing for a long time, as evidenced by pre-Protestant groups like the Hussites and the Waldensians. The practice of local church democratic governance in the English-speaking world eventually led to the peaceful democratic governance of entire societies.

Yes, it often took hundreds of years for the momentum to grow strong and wide enough for large-scale change. But should that mean we don’t make the attempt? Not at all.

I challenged my friend that if he really wants true freedom, he won’t find what he’s looking for by merely changing his environment. Instead, he needs to become a free man in his spirit and his heart. Christ can pardon him and change him and make him truly free, and he will be able then to live as a free man even under the worst of human governments.

Free men never influence only themselves. The freedom they have found as citizens of heaven is compelling, and whatever small circle of influence they have takes note. As that small circle is impacted, it often grows. That free man might not live to see his society changed, but he might see his family and friends radically transformed. And that is no small thing.

“Long before movements, Jesus often creates faithful remnants,” I shared with my friend. “And without the hard slow work of that faithful minority, movements never happen.” And though I didn’t share this kind of info with this local, the history of missions even bears this out. The verifiable church-planting movements that exist have taken place in areas with hundreds of years of missionary work. Contrast that to Central Asia, where missions was largely non-existant before the 1990s. We are likely living in the beginning of the faithful remnant stage, only thirty years in. Our grandkids or great-grandkids may be the ones to see the movement. Should we complain about this and move on to where God is “really at work?”

“Think about planting a forest,” I said, “Planting a forest is a noble goal, and one that takes a lot of work. But if we start today, we will be old men before we get to truly enjoy the results of our labor. But once we were old, we would say it was all worth it, even though it took a long time and a lot of sweat. For us to get there, we must hold onto hope. Without that hope, we would never even start. We need to think less like the social media generation and more like farmers. But if we do, we might build something that truly lasts.”

My friend affirmed that he got my point, but he wasn’t yet convinced. This was not too surprising. He doesn’t have a new heart yet. Once he experiences that impossible transformation, then he will know what true hope is – and what ultimately transforms entire societies.

Photo by Lukasz Szmigiel on Unsplash

The Lone and Level Sands

Our corner of Central Asia is an ancient place. We had some first-time visitors with us this past week, and while traveling back from another city we took the opportunity to visit some very old ruins – old, as in circa 2,700 years ago. Remarkably, ancient carved script was still clear and legible on dozens of the large limestone blocks.

The few scholars that can read that script say that most of it is typical of the bragging monument-speak of ancient kings. “I’m the king of the world” and all that. If you’ve ever read the poem “Ozymandius” by Shelley, you’ll understand the sad irony felt when that kind of chiseled pride is contrasted with the desolation that inevitably comes with the passage of time – and with death.

I’m reminded of the time I visited the ruins of Ephesus. The site of the temple of Artemis only contained one pillar still standing – and that from a recent German reconstruction – and a whole bunch of grass and grazing sheep. So much for “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!” (Acts 19). The site in Central Asia we visited was similar. Broken beer bottles littered the site itself, and nearby were tents of nomads, their shuffling flocks, and a lazy guard dog. So much for “the king of the world.”

What’s left of the temple of the great Artemis of the Ephesians

However, I’ve also read that this particular monarch (later murdered by his own sons) may have been privately realistic when it came to his own mortality. In public he may have claimed to be a semi-divine global ruler who would live forever. But scholars say that on the underside of some stones, hidden for centuries, a very different kind of message has been discovered. It’s along the lines of “If you are reading this, then my kingdom has been destroyed, I am no more, and was a mere mortal after all.” That’s quite the time capsule message to leave buried beneath massive limestone blocks. And a rare example of realistic humility for ancient royalty, if these carvings were indeed commissioned by the king himself and not a sneaky dig made against him by the head stone chiseler.

The visitors and I had a great time exploring the site. It’s simply astounding that ruins like this exist and that they have lasted so long – especially the carved script itself. 2,700 years is no small achievement for an ancient mason or scribe shooting for quality work. It was an invigorating place because of the remarkable history, but also a humbling one. Our empires’ greatest public works will one day look just like it, if they even last half as long. A testimony in the desert to glory long gone. It makes one long for the city whose foundation blocks will never fall or waste away.

I found myself wishing the pompous autocrats and politicians of our contemporary scene could visit this historical site, and take away lessons on both the enduring legacy of bold projects and the importance of humility for any powerful – yet oh so temporary – leader. Yes, we may be “crowned with glory and honor” for a day, yet all too quickly it comes to an end. They, and we, would be wise to more often consider these things, and to heed the warnings of Psalm 2:10-12.

Now therefore, O kings, be wise; be warned, O rulers of the earth. Serve the LORD with fear, and rejoice with trembling. Kiss the Son, lest he be angry, and you perish in the way, for his wrath is quickly kindled. Blessed are all who take refuge in him.

Their glory and honor will fade. Only one ruler has a throne and a kingdom that will last forever. If they do not take refuge in him, if they do not give him the kiss of loyalty, they will fade into the sand, just like our local “king of the world.” Just like Ozymandius.

In case you haven’t read it before, here is “Ozymandius” by Shelley.

I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read

Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

“Ozymandius” by Shelley, from Poetry Foundation

Photo by Juli Kosolapova on Unsplash

A Proverb on The Sweet Spot

Everything with salt, and salt in right amount.

Local Oral Tradition

This local proverb speaks to the bell curve present in many virtues. Too little of it turns it into a vice; too much, another kind of vice. Just the right amount – the sweet spot – is where wise conduct is to be found. Think of the goodness of being transparent with others. Too little transparency, and we risk hiding important information and undermining trust. Too much transparency, and we cross the bounds of what is appropriate and violate trust. I am excited to have learned this proverb because it speaks to the kind of nuance so often needed in mature Christian conduct and speech.

“Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer each person.” – Colossians 4:6

Photo by Jason Tuinstra on Unsplash

Things Not to Do in Minefields

During my college gap year in the Middle East, I worked to secure a grant for a landmine removal organization. Part of this process included visiting a remote village where this organization was painstakingly working to remove mines that had been placed decades earlier.

One of the terrible things about landmines is how easy they are to deploy, yet how difficult they are to remove. There are still more landmines than people in that particular country, though many of them were placed decades ago. At the time of our visit to the village area, we were told that not a week went by that an animal or person didn’t get maimed or killed by stepping on a mine in the broader region. The mines were mostly American, Italian, and Chinese-made, a sad testimony to the global weapons trade. And though villagers often knew where the minefields were, sometimes mines could be washed down a hillside during heavy rains and end up on a path that had been previously safe.

We were given a very important tip that day for traversing territory where there might be mines: Follow the livestock trails. If walking through a field or on a mountainside in an area which has historically been mined, the safest bet is to look for the well-worn trails taken by goats, sheep, and their shepherds. In that part of the world these trails are very distinct, interweaving on dry mountainsides in a web that comes to resemble a kind of net pattern. Just in case you ever find yourself in this kind of territory, look for these animal trails. It just may save your limbs or life.

It was a sobering day trip, yet also encouraging to see the common-grace, painstaking work being done by international and local organizations to make mined areas safe again, one field at a time. It’s not a cause that gets a lot of press, but the world needs more people and organizations committed to mine removal. It’s dangerous and slow work, but vitally necessary.

That particular day trip wasn’t without a dose of humor, however. About an hour into the initial drive a colleague’s vehicle pulled off to the side of the road. It was the SUV directly in front of mine. *Greg, a short mustachioed colleague, had apparently had too much coffee to drink. He began wandering off into a field to “drain the radiator”, as they say in a certain Kentucky idiom. At that point in the drive, none of us foreigners really knew where we were. We simply assumed we were still in safe territory.

Greg found a spot in the field comfortably far away and began to relieve himself. Suddenly, the lead vehicle in the convoy screeched to a halt a ways up the road. The driver and copilot of that vehicle, local employees of the mine removal group, began running back toward us, waving their hands and shouting something.

We all strained to make out what they were saying and doing, since they were a good distance from us. Finally, we heard it.

“Mines! Mines! Mines!”

Suddenly, we all started waving our arms and yelling at Greg as well, “Greg! You can’t pee there! It’s a mine field! Get back, Greg! Mines, Greg, mines!”

Poor Greg was caught in between the will of his bladder and his will to survive. He began hopping sideways and backwards, earnestly trying to get out of that field while still preserving some dignity and fumbling to get his trousers fastened.

After a few nail-biting moments, Greg made it safely back to the road. The sprinting and yelling locals stopped and hunched over, hands on their knees, breathing hard and shaking their heads, perhaps regretting signing up for this little outing.

For our part, our crew of expats sat stunned for a minute, then burst out in peals of laughter, slapping Greg on the shoulder and shaking our heads as well. Since he was safe we were free to laugh about the whole incident. And for months we didn’t let him live it down.

There are many nuggets of wisdom I have picked up over the years while working in foreign contexts. Some are quite eloquent and inspiring. Others, well, they are a little more down to earth and practical, blatantly obvious and yet still needing to be said. This one is definitely the latter. Friends…. Don’t pee in minefields.

Photo by Robert Bye on Unsplash

*Names changed for security (and dignity!)

An Independent Christian Community

The acts [of Mar Mari] represent an obvious attempt to portray the Christianization of the Nestorian heartland as the work of an apostle. They cannot be taken at face value, although the historian J. M. Fiey believes that the church of Kokhe was in fact founded at the time of Mari. On account of the description of Mari’s chapel and the fact that, between 79 – 116, the Tigris altered its course, he concludes that Mari must have laid the cornerstone before 79/116. However, the first historically certain bishop of Seleucia-Ctesiphon was Papa, who served from c. 290 to 315 and died in 327. We can be assured that, beginning in the second century, there existed in Seleucia-Ctesiphon an independent Christian community, which showed evidence of an episcopalian structure in the third century. Already around 315 Bishop Papa tried to gain primacy over the other dioceses of the Church and to impose on them disciplined administration. Although Papa himself failed to achieve this, the other bishops soon accepted that the bishop of the capital should take over the administrative leadership of the Church. In any case, it is certain that the diocese of Seleucia-Ctesiphon – that is – the nascent church of the East – was never subordinated to Antioch.

Baumer, The Church of the East, p. 20

A few key points to note from this excerpt:

  1. There is a possibility that this Christian chapel near Baghdad (Seleucia-Ctesiphon) was built between the years 79-116. This would be one of the earliest Christian worship structures that we know of anywhere in the world.
  2. The eventual movement toward centralization and hierarchy that occurred in the churches of the Greco-Roman world was mirrored by those in the Parthian empire, and the church of the capital city here also claimed primacy.
  3. The church of Seleucia-Ctesiphon was never subordinated to Antioch – nor to Rome. This is a point for early local/city church autonomy. In fact, it was hundreds of years before these more autonomous relationships of ancient churches gave way to the centralized hierarchy now practiced – and claimed as apostolic – by the older Christian communions.

Photo by Wikimedia Commons.

That Are Not of This Fold

Yesterday I got to preach to our small local church plant on John 10:16 – “And I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.”

We simply walked phrase by phrase through this verse, seeking to understand, wrestle with the importance, illustrate, and apply each line. The phrase that got the most audible reactions was “that are not of this fold.”

I shared with the attendees that Jesus was here communicating to the Jews that the people of God would be gathered from unexpected peoples and places – namely, the gentile nations. “Not of this fold” meant not of ethnic Israel. One of the great mysteries revealed in the New Testament is that God had chosen a holy spiritual nation, comprised of those from every nation, tribe, and tongue. Ethnic Israel wasn’t the ultimate Israel.

This part wasn’t very provocative. After all, my listeners were Central Asians, not first century Jews. However, we then discussed why this point is important for us today. We, like Jesus’ initial Jewish followers, tend to believe that there are certain types of people who believe, and certain types of people who really don’t. Those similar to us almost always fall into the category of “likely open to belief.” And groups we are naturally opposed to often end up in the category of “unlikely to believe.”

This has a practical effect on our evangelism. We end up sharing with those we have pre-filtered, and we remain tight-lipped with others. But what has occurred is that our own experience and cultural categories (or prejudice?) have become the filter, rather than the gospel message itself. Given the logic of Jesus in this passage, this is a mistake.

“If we see a person in Western clothes, young, and educated, we are likely to believe they’d be open to a spiritual conversation about the gospel,” I said to the group. “But if we see someone with a big Islamic beard and their pants cut short in the Salafi style, then we are likely to avoid speaking with them about Jesus, right?”

“Oh, for sure!” the group responded.

“And what do we do with the elderly, the tribal, the illiterate, members of enemy people groups, or our own relatives? Do we avoid sharing with groups like these also?”

“Yup, all of them!” the group responded. People were shaking their heads and laughing, but they were being very open and honest and genuinely wrestling with this difficult point of application.

“Friends,” I continued, “I think we need to repent. And seek to share the gospel even with those who seem like the type very unlikely to respond. Jesus has other sheep that are not of this fold.”

It was not lost on me that our small circle of local believers represented those that many in the West would categorize as “not the kind that believes in Jesus,” as I used to. All of the local believers present grew up as Central Asian Muslims. Their passports and physical features are of the sort that qualify them to get extra “random” screenings in Western airports. And yet here they were, now believing, wrestling with the same kind of temptation as they thought about categories of people they really didn’t believe could follow Jesus. It reminded me of the time a local brother was wrestling with “the man on the island” problem. “Brother,” we told him. “You literally are the man on the island!”

But I am just as guilty as any of these local followers in this regard. Too often I also have held back from sharing with that Salafi-looking man, that elderly local, or that secular Westerner. I have used my own filters instead of using the gospel message itself as the filter.

Thank God that the voice of the good Shepherd effectively calls those from among groups we are tempted to avoid. Thank God for his grace toward us weak evangelists with our own faulty assumptions.

The good shepherd has been calling his sheep from other, unexpected, folds for 2,000 years now. My own Anglo-Saxon and Celtic genes are evidence of this. The hardest to reach demographics and people groups have and will continue to surrender a remnant at the power of the shepherd’s voice. The flock – in all its unexpected diversity – will be complete. “And there will be one flock, one shepherd.”

Photo by Samuel Toh on Unsplash

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