How a Christian Marriage Was Saved by a Wise Guerilla Leader

I woke up to texts that several of the exiled political party/guerrilla bases in our area had been bombed. One main base was hit with a devastating rocket attack. I scanned the updates, wondering if any of the teenage guards or kind officials that we had interacted with there had been killed. I was struck again by the sad security realities of our area of Central Asia. Things could seem so stable and safe, then all of the sudden, the veneer of security gets shattered as someone you interacted with gets disappeared, assassinated, or targeted by a neighboring country’s rockets or drones. It hadn’t been very long since I myself had been at that same base that now had a smoking rocket crater in its central building. Though in general we tried to stay away from sensitive locations like these, it was a crisis among local believers that had brought me there. In fact, the leadership of this guerrilla base had even helped to save the marriage of two local believers.

Two months earlier, things had reached a breaking point in Pauline* and Karim’s* marriage. Their daily arguments about money and respect had escalated, household items had been smashed, and they were at risk of falling back into their pre-conversion violent outbursts toward one another. We asked Karim to come and stay with us for a few days until things could cool off. After initially protesting at how shameful this would be for a Central Asian man to be “kicked out” of his home by his wife, he eventually relented. I was grateful for that humility that won out over cultural pride.

The following weeks were full of crisis counseling, and that in another language. It is one thing to have technically achieved advanced language. It is another thing altogether to keep up with conflict conversation, when accusations and insults you’ve never heard before are flying. Somehow we muddled through it. After a few days, Karim moved back in with his wife and daughter, but things were still not great. Sixteen years of tumultuous marriage as unbelievers had left some mighty deep scars. And in spite of the tremendous growth in knowledge they had achieved in their several years of being believers, both husband and wife accused the other of failing to put their Christian beliefs into practice when it actually counted – in the home.

Karim was willing to work on things, and while truly at fault for a great many things, was willing to take some initial steps of repentance. Pauline was done. Day after day she insisted they get an official divorce. To do this, they would have to visit the headquarters of their political party, an ethnic organization and paramilitary group that had been exiled from one of the neighboring countries and was now based out of our area. The unique way our regional government handles groups like this is to require them to have a separate legal infrastructure for all their party members who live as asylum seekers or freedom fighters in the region. The party is thereby able to grant some measure of legality and protection to it members, who are not granted many of the basic rights that local citizens enjoy. To get a certificate of divorce, Pauline couldn’t go to the local courts. She’d need to work through this parallel system, she’d have to make her case to her party leadership.

Continued pleading and counseling with Pauline had little effect. We asked specifically for a month’s time for her to think over the huge decision she was about to make. But it seemed she had run out of hope entirely that she and her husband could change. She insisted that they go and request an official divorce, and, being without transportation, she asked that I drive them. After weighing the risks with the team, I decided to go with them, hoping that the hour and a half drive might provide some opportunity to talk further.

When we began the drive, I realized how unrealistic my hopes for vehicular counseling had been. Pauline and Karim could barely look at one another, and had no interest in talking. Their teenage daughter merely stared out the window and sometimes cried quietly. The atmosphere in the car was tense and silent. I decided to turn on my playlist of English worship songs. In happier times, Pauline and Karim regularly made jokes about how bad their English was, so there was little chance that songs by City Alight, Josh Garrels, and Poor Bishop Hooper were going to have much effect on them. Still, they might pump some faith into my heart. And it was better than driving in the heavy silence. Maybe they’d pick up on the Hallelujahs and the name of Jesus as the songs played.

I stewed on our depressing situation. Pauline, a member of our church, was stubbornly pursuing an unbiblical divorce against all the counsel she was receiving. Karim was acting like a punk as well, taking angry jabs at Pauline that only made things worse. We were driving to a guerilla base that a neighboring country counted as a terrorist hub, and one they periodically bombed. But the worst part of it all was the horrible witness this whole adventure would likely be to the unbelieving party members that we interacted with. How were they supposed to see the difference Jesus makes if their only comrades claiming to be Christians have a marriage that is falling apart? I shook my head, imaging the kind of bickering they might get into once each was asked to make their case to the judge. Maybe, just maybe, my presence there as their pastor could serve to do some good in all the mess. In all likelihood, their party leadership, influenced primarily by Marxism and ethnic pride, would give them worldly advice, and issue a certificate of divorce. Even if they leaned on their Islamic background, supporting a divorce was the most likely outcome.

I drove and prayed. We had tried everything, and it hadn’t been enough. If Pauline proceeded, we’d need to shift into a church discipline process as our final option. What else could be done? Some moments in ministry we feel only too keenly the powerlessness of our words to effect change upon hardened hearts.

After an hour and a half we passed the last local government checkpoint and drove down the desert road toward the area where the exiles had built a neighborhood and their political party and paramilitary facilities. Eucalyptus trees swayed in the spring wind. Rain clouds teased the thirsty orange soil with small sprinklings here and there. It was a beautiful day, the kind likely to produce a rainbow or two over the distant foothills. It was too bad our excursion to this small desert outpost had to be for such a sobering reason.

We pulled up to the base’s checkpoint and were approached by a gate guard who looked like he was seventeen. He and the other young female guard with him were dressed in dark solid green fatigues and had checkered black and white scarfs around their necks. I remembered how idealistic I was at seventeen and wondered if these kids were true believers in the guerrilla cause or if this was simply what one does growing up in this kind of community of political exiles – a high school job of sorts. After checking Karim’s papers, they waved us through and we found a place to park in a small gravel lot.

A party official with a large mustache soon arrived in his vehicle and parked next to us. He recognized Karim and was familiar with their situation. Having been responsible for some of their official processes in the past, he felt some responsibility for their family and quickly shifted from respectful greetings to an almost fatherly demeanor. He put his hand on Pauline’s shoulder and began warmly but earnestly entreating them to do whatever it took to save their marriage. This was when I began to realize that some of my assumptions about the day might not be correct. This man was talking sense, sound wisdom that backed up the counsel they had been getting from their church. I looked at Pauline to see if it was having any effect. Negative. Her respectful nods were accompanied by a steely gaze.

We soon transitioned into a nearby trailer office, a sort of triage room for those with appointments with party officials. Here we sat on reception couches as the younger official behind the desk ordered tea for us and began to confirm the details of the visit with Karim and Pauline. Once again, this official bore a look of kind concern. He also began reasoning with Pauline, asking her to reconsider her decision to divorce, if only for the sake of their daughter. But Pauline held firm, quietly insisting to see the judge. The official then asked who I was, and Karim shared how I was one of the pastors of their church, and an American. Both of these things surprised the official, who seemed both confused and intrigued at my presence. While they couldn’t have interacted with many Christians, or that many Westerners for that matter, I was encouraged that the hospitable responses so far seemed to indicate my presence at least wasn’t going to make things worse.

We finished up our tea and walked back out to the gravel lot, where were met again by the first mustachioed official. He now learned who I was, and as he walked us into the main building to see the judge, he dropped back to walk beside me.

“If we work together, I bet we can change her mind,” he told me under his breath. “She’s not as set on divorce as she appears. I can tell.”

I found this interpretation encouraging, though Pauline sure seemed hell-bent on divorce to me. Hopefully he was right. As we walked through the corridors, multiple energetic and respectful greetings were exchanged with each person that we passed. I was struck by how well this paramilitary context fit with the formal, honorable tendencies of our local culture. The militaristic structure seemed to bring out some of the best aspects of the culture, and to dampen some of the negative aspects that Islam reinforces, such as the demeaning of women. In fact, there was an easy respect among the men and women on this guerilla base that was downright refreshing. I also noticed that the female soldiers were still very feminine, sporting long black braids for example, and everyone seemed fine with that. This, and the fact that many joined up because all their brothers had already been killed presented a more nuanced picture than is usually present in evangelical discussions about women in the military.

At last we were ushered into the large room where we would do the interview for the certificate of divorce. It was carpeted, stiff high-backed couches lined the walls, and portraits of party leaders were prominently displayed. A large, very official looking desk sat in front of the windows. We sat on the couches facing the desk, and were served a second round of tea.

Two women then entered. Like all of those who worked at this base, they were dressed in simple green fatigues. The younger woman was a lawyer. The short woman in her fifties was a high ranking official, and would serve as judge for Pauline and Karim’s case. She had a mature – though tired – look in her eyes and a no-nonsense bearing that called for a respectful hearing. Yet she also seemed kind and approachable. I instinctively trusted her to see through any of the nonsense that might emerge in the following conversation.

After confirming the details of the visit one more time, she proceeded to ask some basic questions. This led to the only funny thing that would come out of the day.

“You are Karim and Pauline, correct?”

“Yes.”

“And you’ve been married how many years?”

“Twenty one.”

“And these two are your children?”

“This is our daughter, and… uh, this is our, um, pastor,” Karim managed to say with only a hint of a smile.

I shot the family a quick glance and could tell they got a kick out of the judge thinking I was their son. That Karim and Pauline are my “dear mother and father” would become a story often told and an inside joke that continues to the present day. But the welcome moment of levity was over all too soon.

“So you are here to request a divorce. Pauline, please explain your situation.”

Pauline proceeded to lay out her complaints for the next ten minutes or so while the judge took careful notes by hand and the lawyer leaned in to listen. After this, the judge allowed Karim to respond and explain his desire to remain married. So far, everything remained calm and orderly. I found myself envying the gravitas this older woman brought, and wondering how I could learn to do likewise in my conflict-mediation conversations with locals that tended to explode.

After hearing both sides and effectively shutting down some bickering, the judge began to reason with Pauline.

“My dear, none of these problems that you are describing are abnormal for a marriage. These are not massive issues. They are the everyday frustrations of a husband and wife that must be navigated and worked through. You are not describing anything to me that seems to warrant a divorce. Think of the great costs you and your daughter will incur if you do this. Think of the regret. Pay attention to your husband’s openness to making change. Why should you give up at this point? Be wise and careful, my dear. This is a very serious thing you are requesting.”

The judge continued on this vein for some time, patiently and wisely attempting to help Pauline see reason. For my part, I was thrilled that the judge was taking this position. Over and over again, these unbelieving freedom fighters were dropping wise and sober counsel. Eventually, the judge turned to me and asked what our church’s advice had been regarding the marriage. I was surprised at this invitation to speak, but grateful.

“Jesus teaches that marriage is between a man and a woman for life, and that a situation like this does not call for a divorce, but reconciliation. We have counseled them to stay married, to commit to regular counseling, and to follow Jesus in this way.”

The judge nodded respectfully and took more notes. A middle aged man with a red mustache came into the room with some files for the judge to sign. He knew Karim and proceeded to make efficient greetings to all present. He seemed very kind.* Following this, the judge rose and excused herself to deal with another situation that had arisen, promising to return soon with her verdict.

We sat in the room for the next fifteen minutes. The lawyer decided now was a good time to wax eloquent about her views on marriage and feminism. It was the first counsel of the day that was less than helpful. But I could tell that neither Karim nor Pauline seemed to like her. The lawyer continued her spiel, seeming not to notice.

At last the judge returned, sinking into her seat with the look of a woman who has to deal with multiple crises every day.

“Having reviewed everything in your case and heard all of your answers, we have decided to give you a month to think things over.”

This same period of waiting was what the church had asked for as well. I smiled, since the judge hadn’t heard that part. She continued.

“We will not be issuing you a certificate of divorce today. Go home. Think it over for a month. If after a month you still desire a divorce, then come back and we’ll give you the certificate. But dear, do you think carefully and wisely about what you really want.”

Karim, his daughter, and myself were relieved. Pauline was furious. The verbal outbursts that followed confirmed for the judge even more that she had made the right call and that Pauline was in no condition to be making this kind of life-altering decision that day. The guerilla leader saw a chance to save the marriage, and she took it, believing that Pauline might come to her senses and stick with her flawed, but loyal husband. And she was right, this is exactly what would happen. God would use the legal decision taken by this party official to buy time for repentance to begin. I had been very concerned that this leftist group of freedom fighters would only help to undermine Karim and Pauline’s marriage. Instead, we had surprisingly found ourselves to be allies, pleading for the goodness and sanctity of marriage together. God uses all kinds of means – apparently even Marxist-leaning paramilitaries and “terrorists.”

It was early afternoon by the time we left, and we were all starving. We stopped by a hole in the wall restaurant to eat some chicken before the drive home. Karim stepped outside to take a call and I seized the opportunity to draw out Pauline without him present.

“Dearest mother,” I started, alluding to judge’s humorous mistake. “How are you doing? Will you not take this month to reconsider your decision?”

Pauline smiled and chuckled, “Oh my dear son, I’m still getting divorced, believe me! We’ll be back in a month, you’ll see. Now pass me some of that chicken.”

But already there was a new softness in her eyes. And she continued smiling. Somehow I knew we wouldn’t be back at that base after a month. She had tried very hard to go her own way. And God had kindly placed obstacle after obstacle in her path.

Today, Pauline and Karim are still married, and doing better than ever.

*Names changed for security

*Sadly, this man would be assassinated in a hotel room two days later.

Photo by Eric Ward on Unsplash

A Proverb On Proximity and Affections

The one before the eyes is the one upon the heart.

Local Oral Tradition

This Central Asian proverb speaks to the effect proximity and distance have upon our affections. We have a similar saying in English, though it focuses on the inverse of this idea – “Out of sight, out of mind.” As humans, we seem to be hard-wired to prioritize the relationships that are immediately in front of us, and we struggle to maintain those relationships that are long-distance. We quickly give resources to the needs that we are faced with, and have trouble feeling the weight of those needs that we don’t ourselves physically interact with.

A wise person will therefore do what they can to to be reminded of those important people and needs in ways their eyes can see and body can sense. This is particularly important for those who have grown up with a lot of transition and goodbyes, as missionary kids have. The temptation after a move is to cut off contact completely and to only focus on those relationships right in front of us. This is because continued contact reminds us of the distance and the change, and therefore the loss. But the seemingly easy way is not really the healthy way here. MKs and others like us need to learn to be present friends, even from a distance. I still have a long way to go on this front.

This is also why daily spiritual disciplines and corporate worship are also so crucial. We do not physically interact with Jesus in the ways his first disciples did. Instead, we interact with him by spirit, through faith, in the realm of the unseen. Our affections for him will fade and we will largely forget him if we do not have ways in which we are reminded regularly of his friendship for us. Hence Bible study which engages our eyes and hands, prayer which engages our lips and ears, and tangible reminders like the Lord’s Supper that engage our taste buds. In fact, Christians should be known as those whose deepest love is for the one not before our eyes, the one we can’t yet see and touch.

Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and full of glory.” – 1st Peter 1:8

Photo by Christopher Burns on Unsplash

A Tale of Two Pythons

If you happen to be growing up in a place like Melanesia, then you want to have a mother as adventurous as mine. My mom allowed us to have all kinds of unique pets over the years, and enjoyed them right along with us. In addition to seasons with dogs and cats, we also at times cared for snakes, tree frogs, owls, parrots, tree kangaroos, rabbits, lizards, turtles, praying mantises, and a baby bat. I would bring my pets proudly to school for show and tell, where they would wow my classmates and inevitably manage to relieve themselves on the classroom floor. Only one pet (a tree kangaroo) ever bit a classmate. Poor guy’s parents made him get a rabies shot. Do tree kangaroos even get rabies? Anyway, I digress.

When I was in junior high we purchased* our first emerald tree python from a local who was selling him on the street of the small government town nearby our missionary compound. These snakes are beautiful creatures, sporting bright yellow scales when they are young, which fade to a bright emerald green as they mature. They are small to medium constrictor snakes that like to eat birds and small mammals when they are in the wild. While newspaper flashbacks to the mid-twentieth century regularly included reports of giant pythons dropping out of the trees to attack an unsuspecting villager, we never saw any get to that size – with the exception of one terrifying carcass I saw at the river where we regularly swam. But the pythons that we owned were still adolescents, so only about a meter long, with a body diameter about the size of the hole made by a finger and thumb making the OK sign.

The first snake was as friendly and gentle as you could hope for. He never tried to bite us, and he enjoyed coiling up on my oldest brother’s laptop or on our shoulders, nestling in to get access to body heat. I have no idea what happened to him earlier in his serpentine life to give him such a pleasant disposition, but he was great, a true pal. Unfortunately, he managed to escape one day. An enterprising local caught him nearby our property and tried to resell him to us, in spite of our insistance that we were the rightful owners. But finders-keepers prevailed and we decided on principle not to buy him back. This was probably the wrong decision.

Some time later we saw another similar-sized python for sale for a good price. Fresh off such a positive experience with our first snake, we decided to get him. Unfortunately, while the first snake was a kindly soul, the second python proved to be very mean and aggressive. I remember staring through the glass terrarium walls with my brothers as the angry thing repeatedly lunged at the glass, trying to bite our faces. He would even snap at us when we attempted to feed him. Whatever we had named him in the beginning, we began to call him Demon Snake. Needless to say, Demon Snake did not get any snuggle time on our shoulders. He did, however, also manage to escape.

In the end, this was probably the best outcome for all parties. Like many pets taken from the jungle after a certain age, our second snake was wild and unlikely to get accustomed to relationships with humans. He needed his freedom where he could live out his grumpy ways in peace. But it seemed he didn’t desire complete independence from humans. One day my mom walked out onto our downstairs patio area where we had clotheslines hung under the roof for when it rained. Above the lines on the wooden rafters lounged the python, snoozing and looking fatter than usual.

Our former pet had managed to find himself a pretty good living situation. The rafters from the patio disappeared into a gap in between the upper and lower floors – a gap that apparently made for nice snake lodging, and one where big rats also lived. It seemed that he had learned to spend his days hunting the scratching rodents in between the floors and then lounging on the patio rafters where he could soak up the heat from the corrugated metal roof directly above him. Not a bad gig.

We developed quite the complementary relationship in the end. We let him be, and attracted the rats – presumably just by living normal life and eating delicious food, like fried and salted Asian sweet potatoes. He in turn hunted and ate the ROUS’s* which we had been until that point largely unable to trap or catch. We actually grew quite comfortable seeing him up above our heads taking his naps, and just had to make sure he wasn’t around to create any surprise appearances when we were hosting locals, most of whom were completely petrified of snakes.

We moved on from snakes after this experience, purchasing instead a gorgeous green and red Eclectus parrot who was one of our longer-lasting pets, managing in the end to very effectively confuse passersby with the whistles and unique phrases he had learned in the voice of each member of the family.

I’m not sure what became of the Demon Snake python in the end. We came back to the US for furlough for my eight grade year and never heard of him again. But I am grateful for all those rats he ate. Melanesian rats are no joke. I hope he lived out the remainder of his snake days a happier serpent than he had been, full of rodent, warm from corrugated metal roofing, and free from any more missionary kids hoping to snuggle with him.

*Correction: My mom has informed me that we did not actually buy the first snake. He was given to us as a gift from a colleague who heard that our dad had wanted to get us one before he passed away. This then was a very kind gift of a very kind snake.

*For those who haven’t seen The Princess Bride, ROUS stands for Rodent of Unusual Size, which inhabit the Fire Swamp, as well as the walls of my childhood in Melanesia.

Photo by David Clode on Unsplash

Fickle Gods and the Wondrous Clarity of the Law

It’s the time of year again when countless Bible readers are about to get bogged down in Leviticus. It’s easy to quickly skim through these sections of the Pentateuch that deal with Israel’s laws, our brains struggling to stay focused and longing to get back to some narrative passages. We read the minute detail of Israel’s purity requirements and wonder if the ancient audience was just as bored as we are. Could there have been a time and a place where hearing Leviticus read actually held the hearers in rapt attention?

Apparently so, even centuries after the fact. No reading of the Psalms can avoid the evidence that the writers of that anthology – and faithful Israel through them – not only found God’s Law interesting, but even delightful. Why did ancient Israel love God’s law so dearly? It was in Tremper Longman III’s How to Read the Psalms where I first came across one of the powerful answers to this question, an answer that continues to serve me today as I try to read and put myself in the shoes of those during that period of redemptive history. In short, they loved the Law so intensely because of its clarity.

To understand this, we need to step back into the religious worldview of the ancient near east. All of the peoples surrounding Israel would have believed in a pantheon of gods and goddesses. Think Dagon, Baal, Ashtoreth (Ishtar), Chemosh, Ra, etc. These so-called gods and goddesses were not necessarily moral, nor were they necessarily loving and committed to the good of their people. They were deeply flawed like humans, except immensely more powerful. And they needed to be constantly appeased in order to guarantee a good harvest, fertility in marriage, or safety from enemy armies.

To top it off, these gods were fickle and hard to predict. Their will could change on a whim. Elaborate divination ceremonies were needed to discern their wills and to (hopefully) avoid outbursts of their wrath. These divination attempts included things like reading the livers of animals, interpreting dreams, and slapping kings until they cried to see if they still enjoyed the gods’ favor. Ancient Arabs, for example, threw a handful of arrows on the ground in hopes of finding meaning in the unique design thereby created.

Remember, life and death and eternity depended on these shifting signs and their subjective interpretations. This meant that the inhabitants of the ancient world lived in a kind of hell of relativity. Their religious systems taught them that your crop’s failure or your wife’s death in childbirth was due to your failure to rightly appease the gods – whose requirements were always opaque and were always shifting, always arbitrary. How could this not foster fanaticism, resignation, or even madness? There was precious little that was solid and unchanging that you could hold onto. You might do everything right according to the oracles, only to find out after the fact that the gods had mysteriously changed the requirements without telling you. How easy it would have been for the priestly class to abuse this system for its own benefit, while the commoners and kings either gave up or gave themselves over to a life of endless striving and fear.

Into this kind of context came the Law of Moses, not only revealed, but even written in language that could be understood by the people. Written down so that it could be regularly accessible for the entire people group and for each new generation. And it was marvelously clear, on points major as well as minor. Don’t make any idols, take the seventh day off and rest, don’t drink blood, treat the foreigners in your midst well, make sure you rinse that pot when you find a dead lizard in it.

We tend to chafe at the sheer number of laws given to the people of Israel, viewing things primary through our new covenant perspective where so many of these laws have now been fulfilled in Christ. And yet a primary response of the ancient Israelites to these laws would not have been a sense of burden. It would have been a sense of tearful relief, even rest. They did not have to live at the fickle mercy of cruel gods. They had one true and unchanging God, who rescued them because of his steadfast love and who now called them to a life conformed to his clear will – his will that would not change or shift. It was solid, dependable, steadfast, not going to cut their knees out from under them when least expected out of some kind of twisted divine freedom. No wonder they loved the law.

Our own age of diversity echoes the fickle relativity of the ancient gods. Within our own cultures, the changing pace of public morality is increasingly hard to keep up with. Lives are destroyed as one slip of the tongue or keyboard violates the shifting sands of what phrases are now safe (clean) and what is bigoted (unclean). The man on the street must live at the whim of the “priestly class” of academics, politicians, celebrities, and journalists who somehow have the inside scoop on what is newly demanded in order to be a virtuous person.

The interconnectedness of the world also brings with it an invitation to fall into relativity. As diverse cultures increasingly interact, the morality of one is seen to be vastly different from the morality of another. For many, this casts doubt on the existence of a universal morality at all. Then languages interact with other languages, highlighting the limitations, weaknesses, and localized viewpoints of each. This casts doubt on any ability to access universal truth through such an imperfect medium as human language. Similarly, the more exposure you have to other cultures and languages, the greater the sense that it’s foolishness to think that you just happened to grow up with the true answers. Yet just like those in the ancient near east, all must be risked upon our attempts to get it right, to rightly discern “the will of the gods.” It’s not surprising then if some of us also turn to fanaticism, resignation, or even madness in response to this uncertainty.

However, just like ancient Israel, believers now don’t have to live at the mercy of the fickle gods. We have God’s Law and his gospel, wondrously clear and accessible. It proved to be a solid rock in the churning sea of ancient polytheism. It is just as stable of a rock in the contemporary sea of progressive culture and globalization.

In a world with nothing to hold onto, we should conduct ourselves with a certain knowing confidence, always ready to invite those weary of the world’s arbitrary demands to something eternally steadfast. “Don’t you want something solid and truly good to hang onto?” “In all the noise, don’t you long for something that is clear and always true?” “Don’t you want access to an eternal definition of love?” We need to keep our eyes peeled for the castaways around us who already know from awful experience how the gods of this age turn on those who were desperately trying to keep up and get it right. They are in need of rescue and rest. We can offer it to them.

The shifting will of the culture, the contradictory decrees of different global cultures, these are not a problem for us as believers. They are echoes of humanity’s desperate need for something solid, universal, and unchanging. And like a weary ancient near east worshiper hearing Leviticus for the first time, we have God’s word. And it is wondrously clear. So clear, it’s worthy of delight.

Image from Wikimedia Commons

A Song on Vanity and Meaningful Work

“The Storm” by The Arcadian Wild

There are some serious echoes of Ecclesiastes in this song that explores the drudgery of work, the things that all men long for, and the meaning of a life well-lived. Lyrics below.

Making a living has a way of killing men
The lungs keep breathing, but the soul suffocates within
There is nothing new under the sun, it's all the same
Need revival 'cause survival's a losing game

Am I fighting the good fight? Am I on the run?
Am I chasing vanity or doing what needs to be done?

A man must always have something to conquer
A woman to fight for, a war to be waged
We are born for the storm, we risk all and rebel
To live hard and die well is why we were made

I've seen an evil that overcomes us all
The backs of good and wicked men are both against the wall
What then shall we do when we are destined for the dust?
Dig our feet into the earth and roll them sleeves up

No matter our station, wages, or trade
Our labor is loving, it's a worthy way to spend all our days

A man must always have something to conquer
A woman to fight for, a war to be waged
We are born for the storm, we risk all and rebel
To live hard and die well is why we were made

This life's a vapor that quickly escapes
My love, my hate, my memory will soon be erased
So let's breathe in this vapor and drink this sea dry
To do and dare greatly 'til our last day arrives

A man must always have something to conquer
A woman to fight for, a war to be waged
We are born for the storm, we risk all and rebel
To live hard and die well is why we were made

Tell Me About a Time You Deeply Hurt Someone

We learn to ask certain questions only after experiencing significant pain or dysfunction. A new question was recently clarified for me, one that I will be sure to ask in any future interviews with those who desire to serve overseas. That question is, “Tell me about a time you deeply hurt someone, and how you made things right.” The ability to answer this question – or not – might make the difference between a teammate you can trust in the midst of conflict versus one who is dangerously self-deceived.

It is said (accurately, in my experience) that team conflict is the number one reason missionaries leave the field. That means that sending and receiving missionaries who are mature in the midst of conflict is of utmost importance. The pressures on missionary teams are immense. Culture shock can send stress levels sky-rocketing. Language learning can make you want to pull your hair out. Life logistics can be maddeningly cumbersome. Security threats can keep missionaries constantly on edge. Cross-cultural relationships are complex and often hurtful. Ministry disappoints. The organization’s or supporters’ demands can be overwhelming. Health issues press in. Marriage and parenting struggles often escalate in a foreign culture.

Who must bear the brunt of these pressures? Often, the small missionary team. A good team will seek to care for one another and as others have wisely emphasized, be “the front line of member care.” But the team itself is also a pressurized environment. Thorny ministry decisions must be decided. Work responsibilities need to be juggled and shared according to the season and abilities of the individual missionaries. The team is often church for one another, family for holidays, the friends who throw you a birthday party, and those you must depend on for all manner of life logistics.

Conflict is inevitable because teams are made up of humans, each of whom has a sin nature. But add in the above pressures, and it’s no wonder that teammates blow up at one another. It is in the prevention of these blowups and in their aftermath that someone’s maturity or character is so vital. Specifically, a certain kind of humility and honesty is needed regarding our own capacity to wound others, a self-awareness that leads to owning our sharp words, our weaponized silence, and our sinfully-expressed emotions. What I am speaking of here is the hard yet simple thing of taking responsibility for our own sin and seeking forgiveness and reconciliation when we have hurt others.

Many Christians end up on the mission field who do not possess this kind of maturity. In conflict situations, these individuals refuse to see or admit any wrong-doing on their part. They vigorously fend off any attempt to lay at their feet any part of the blame. They posture themselves like Teflon – nothing is allowed to stick. They claim there are circumstantial factors that explain everything. Or the wounded party is in the wrong for understanding it that way. Or it’s actually the team leader’s fault for creating this mess in the first place. Deflect, justify, attack.

The defenses employed by this sort of person are legion. But they all serve the purpose of protecting that individual from having to admit any blame or sin in the situation. And this kind of posture kills the possibility of true reconciliation. It can also kill the team – and any hope of doing healthy ministry through the team.

These teammates who refuse to own their sin seem to be engaged in a desperate attempt to protect themselves. From what exactly? What is so terrifying about admitting that we have wronged another believer? After all, it’s Christianity 101 to admit that we are forgiven sinners and saints who still stumble. In reflecting on a number of these situations, it seems there is a kind of terror there at what might have to be faced if they admit that they can and have hurt others. So the door to this part of their heart is guarded at all costs because they are horrified of what it might mean about them to be in the wrong. There are likely voices of condemnation always running in the background that must be silenced at all costs – even at the cost of a fellow teammate. This terror leads to enormous efforts to suppress these thoughts and emotions, to a kind of self-deception. They cannot admit to their team that they were wrong, because they do not dare admit it to themselves.

This kind of person needs the freedom of the gospel. They need godly pastors and counselors. They need to understand where their terror-fueled defense comes from and how to heal those deep roots. They do not need to be on the mission field. If they remain, they will slowly but surely poison their relationships through their inability to admit blame and pursue true reconciliation.

I have learned to ask upfront about a person’s awareness of their weaknesses, of those areas in which they will need to lean on others’ strengths. This is helpful, since it can show if someone has the spiritual maturity to delight in and depend on the diversity of the body’s members and gifts. This will prevent a certain kind of team conflict, since this missionary will be less likely to fall into the trap of thinking his unique gifts are really the superior ones. He will thus be less threatened by his teammates and more thankful for the ways they are different from him and the areas where they excel and he does not. But there is a way to acknowledge our own weaknesses that still might not show that a person is capable of being in the wrong, of truly repenting. “Sure! I’m bad at admin…” That’s why I want to ask about how they have deeply hurt someone in the past. This has the chance of getting closer to “seeing” their character. The cost on the field is too great to not have at least some evidence that a missionary will actually be able to navigate conflict with some maturity.

Some would name the kind of person I have described here as a narcissist. I heard a podcast this week where author Chuck DeGroat drew that connection. Just as the mythical character Narcissus was not in love with himself, but with an image of himself in the water, so some kinds of narcissists are committed to seeing themselves as never truly in the wrong. It was a new category for me, and one that I want to think more about. But if this dynamic really is describing narcissists, then that would mean that Central Asian culture (and most honor-shame cultures) is full of them. We must therefore be able to model on our teams something drastically different. We must be able to admit when we have hurt others, and to repent. We must even learn to glory in the ways the gospel has healed relationships where we have deeply hurt others.

Every spring the fields of our corner of Central Asia burst to life with green grass and spring flowers – among them the yellow and white narcissus. They are beautiful flowers, but they are ever so fragile, wilting remarkably quickly after being plucked. And they don’t stand a chance against the summer sun. In a similar way, too many missionaries have a kind of fragility in the midst of conflict that keeps them from admitting wrong, and which keeps them from faithfully enduring the tremendous pressure of the mission field.

Pastors and sending churches, make sure you only send missionaries to the field who are deeply honest about the ways they have wounded others, and who have the kind of character that is ready to own it when they do it again. Missionaries on the field, please screen those you are interviewing for these things. Conflict on the field is inevitable. Let’s do everything we can to be sending those who can navigate it with humility.

Photo by Mohammad Asadi on Unsplash

How to Pray for Iran Right Now

The country of Iran continues to experience widespread protests as the population vents its anger against the national government. Hundreds of protesters have been killed and thousands arrested. One Iranian friend told me that last week the truckers joined in, staging a nationwide strike and effectively crippling the country for days. The Iranian Church is in desperate need of our prayers to know how to navigate this season wisely. Like all Christians in every age, they live in the tension between the Romans 13 truth that every government is ordained by God and the Romans 13 tension that the God-ordained role of government is to punish evil and reward those who do good. There is some point at which a government that does the opposite – rewards evil and punishes those who do good – has ceased to be a legitimate government at all. But when is that point? This question has been the cause of countless debates of political theology among Christians for thousands of years. This tension has the potential to cause deep divisions in Iranian churches and between believers. At the same time, Iranians remain one of the most receptive people groups to the gospel in Central Asia.

This is a helpful prayer guide that provides good categories by which we can pray for the Iranian people and the Iranian Church in these days.

Photo by Sajad Nori on Unsplash

Grant Me One Muslim Friend

“The most strategic thing we could do to reach the Muslim world is for every Muslim to simply have a believing friend.” As a nineteen-year-old, I remember hearing the missionary-statesman Greg Livingstone share this insight at a gathering in the Middle East. His point was that the vast majority of Muslims today are living and dying without ever hearing the gospel message and seeing it lived out in the life of a good friend. It wasn’t complicated, Greg encouraged us, so much could change by giving Muslims access to Christian friends who would genuinely love them and tell them about Jesus. The simplicity of this idea gave me courage. Having grown up among tribal animists in Melanesia, I might not be the most skilled in engaging Islam, but by the grace of God, I could be someone’s friend.

Being at the very beginning of my gap year in the middle east, my prayer became that God would grant me one Muslim friend who was open to Jesus. He answered, and gave me that friend in the person of Hama*, the jaded wedding musician with a British accent who would eventually come to faith after many misadventures together – including nearly getting blown up by a car bomb. In my friendship with Hama I learned that the relationally-intense culture of those from that part of the world meant that one close friend was truly all that was needed for full-time ministry. This is because a Middle Easterner or Central Asian almost never comes alone, but with their own large network of relatives and friends. One good friend serves as a gatekeeper to an entire community of those who will be open to getting to know you if you are hanging out with their boy, and who may also be open to getting to know Jesus.

The following year I found myself back in the US to finish up university. After a difficult semester at a Christian college in a very rural area, I transferred to a different school in Louisville, KY, in large part because I knew there was a community of refugees and immigrants from the Muslim world there. Once again, my prayer became, “God, grant me one Muslim friend.”

One day I learned about an international festival taking place at a community center in the part of the city where most refugees were being resettled. I hitched a ride with some other students, excited to see if I could make any helpful connections with the Muslim community.

At some point I found myself at the booth of a local library which offered ESL tutoring to new refugees. Somehow the librarian present found out that during my year in the Middle East I had become conversational in one of the region’s minority languages.

“We need you!” she exclaimed. “We have a newcomer, Asa*, who has almost no English. And he speaks the language you do. Please come and meet him this weekend!” Before I knew it, she had signed me up as a volunteer.

I was elated to hear that there was at least one person in my new city who spoke the same minority language that I’d been studying. Maybe Asa would be the friend that I had been praying for. It certainly seemed like a providential connection.

The next ESL session I showed up at the library and was introduced to the other volunteers. One older couple greeted me happily.

“We heard that you speak Asa’s language! That’s wonderful. So glad you’re here.”

“Thanks, I’m excited to be able to help.”

“We are in such need of volunteers, but we keep getting these dratted Baptists who try to worm their way in to proselytize, can you believe that?” said the husband, squinting his eyes and glancing around the room. “Keep an eye out. Well, have fun!”

This comment caught me off-guard, so I don’t know what happened to the color on this Baptist proselytizer’s face in that moment. But my mouth stayed shut.

Soon I was introduced to Asa, a single man in his late twenties. We hit it off immediately. Not only could we speak the same language, but Asa was from the very same city where I had spent most of my gap year. Before long, we were lost in that particular joy and relief that overtakes two speakers of a common languagge who unexpectedly run into each other in a foreign land.

I learned that Asa was not particularly profiting from this ESL group class (the librarian seemed to have a crush on him) and he earnestly asked me if the two of us could meet separately for English tutoring instead. Between his aversion to the class and the class’s aversion to Baptists, I thought this was a great idea. At the end of the tutoring time we exchanged numbers and proclaimed a barrage of respectful farewells to each other. We both left, mutually elated to have a new friend.

The next couple weeks were just like it would have been with a promising new friendship in the Middle East. Lots of calls, lots of hanging out, lots of chai, cutting up, and talking about all kinds of things. Middle Eastern and Central Asian men love to talk, and the particular Western masculinity that focuses on doing rather than talking is one of many factors that contributes to profound loneliness for most refugees from those regions. We had even begun to have our first spiritual conversations, and to my great excitement, Asa expressed interest in learning more.

This was it, I thought, this was God answering my prayers. Asa was going to be like another Hama for me. I was a busy Bible college student, I couldn’t do a lot. But I could be a good friend to a guy like Asa. I was so encouraged by God’s kindness in providing me with this friendship.

Two and a half weeks after we met, Asa called me.

“Hey A.W., I’m… moving to Boston!”

“Boston? That’s like seventeen hours from here. Why?”

“Well, a friend there said he could get me a job.”

“Oh.”

“Can you come by my apartment tomorrow to say goodbye?”

“Sure, I’ll be there.”

The next day I made my way across the city to Asa’s neighborhood, disappointed and feeling a bit misled by God. Things had seemed so providential, so perfect. Why was it turning out this way? Why must I so quickly lose a friend who seemed like he could become a brother?

I walked up the creaky wooden stairwell to Asa’s apartment and knocked on the door. Asa opened it and greeted me excitedly. He was packing, he said, and he invited me to come in and have some chai. In the tiny living room were two other refugee men, one tall and lanky, named Farhad*, and another short and energetic, named Reza*. As Asa packed his small bags, we began to converse in his dialect about his plans. Farhad and Reza turned to me with wide eyes.

“How is it that you can speak _____ ?” they asked. Turns out both of them were from other regional unreached people groups and were also conversational in Asa’s language. To see a skinny white boy speaking this language was one of strangest things they had seen in America so far.

Asa handed me a scarf as a farewell gift and insisted that I exchange numbers with Farhad and Reza. “A.W. is my true brother,” he said to his two other guests, in the honorable overstatement so typical of his people. I smiled, wondering how many cultures would extend brotherhood in this way so quickly. For my part, I sent Asa off with the last New Testament I still had in his language.

Asa left for Boston and I didn’t hear from him again for years. Farhad and Reza, on the other hand, started reaching out to me. Eventually, we started meeting up regularly to argue about politics, culture, and how so-and-so’s people group was related to that other guy’s people group. Sure enough, God opened the doors again for gospel conversation, and before long we had a Bible study going that would at its inaugural meeting run afoul of Al Mohler’s security.

We eventually lost Farhad when discussing Jesus’ call to love our enemies. “If Jesus requires me to love them, then I will never follow Jesus!” he raged during the last time he would ever study the Bible with us. Farhad’s people group had suffered genocide and centuries of oppression at the hands of the dominant people group of his country.

Reza, on the other hand, kept coming around. He became a dear friend. And he became a brother in the faith. What I thought God was doing through Asa, he had in store for me with Reza. One friend who was open to learning about Jesus. One friend who would in turn go on to share the gospel with his network, both Middle Eastern Muslims and Kentuckians.

God had answered my prayers in a way I hadn’t expected. It had first involved disappointment. But it had ended in kindness. As ultimately, it always will.

*Names changed for security

Photo by Sohaib Al Kharsa on Unsplash

The Table Grace of Brigid

I should like a great lake of finest ale
For the King of kings. 
I should like a table of the choicest food
For the family of heaven. 
Let the ale be made from the fruits of faith, 
And the food be forgiving love.

I should welcome the poor to my feast, 
For they are God's children. 
I should welcome the sick to my feast, 
For they are God's joy. 
Let the poor sit with Jesus at the highest place, 
And the sick dance with the angels.

God bless the poor, 
God bless the sick, 
And bless our human race. 
God bless our food, 
God bless our drink, 
All homes, O God, embrace. 

-Cahill, How the Irish Saved Civilization, pp. 174-175

This is a prayer associated with Brigid, the abbess of an Irish monastery in the early 500s famous for its hospitality. This prayer reminds me of Lawrence of Rome, who, when asked in the persecution of 258 to surrender the riches of the church to the emperor Valerian, presented the poor, the crippled, and the widows, inviting the emperor to “Come out and see the wondrous riches of God.”

This kind of ancient Christian delight in the poor and the sick strikes me as very different from what I am used to hearing emphasized in my circles. And that makes me curious. Why might that be? What would it look like for us to not just teach a theology of suffering, but to have a culture and language that better reflects the “great reversal” that the New Testament so often speaks of?

In this new year, may our poor also sit with Jesus at the highest place, and our sick also dance with the angels.

Photo by K. Mitch Hodge on Unsplash

Where Bread is Life

“Oh, and never throw out your old bread.”

“Really? Why not?”

“Locals say it’s really shameful.”

“So… what do you do with it instead?”

“Put it in a bag and hang it on your gate or on a tree limb in the street. People who raise animals will come by and collect it to use as feed.”

“So they come by regularly?”

“Yes, you’ll see. You might never see it collected, but it will be gone before you know it.”

This conversation with teammates happened early on after we had moved to Central Asia. It was an important piece of cultural orientation, the kind of thing that, unknown, could have made for a lot of unintended cultural offense. Our teammates were right. We started hanging up our baggies of dry, moldy, or unusable bits of bread. And they disappeared remarkably quickly.

Bread plays a central role in the diets of our local friends. Every meal will be served with either a form of flatbread or with small, individual loaves that are round or the shape of an eye. In fact, locals feel that if bread is not served, it doesn’t really count as a meal. Their words for breakfast, lunch, and dinner are morning bread, noon bread, and evening bread, respectively. The word for bread even substitutes often for the word for food, so that it’s most common to ask if someone has eaten by asking them if they’ve eaten bread.

“Have you eaten bread today?”

“Yes, I had some kabab in the bazaar.”

Many local women make their bread themselves, but each neighborhood will also have a small bakery or two within walking distance. Here, a crew of men will work all day in scorching temperatures in a kind of dance. For a flatbread bakery, one man shapes the dough into the right size. A second picks it up and twirls it until it is flattened and then slaps it onto a cushion with a strap on the back. Using the cushion, he then smacks the dough onto the inside of a blazing tanoor oven with a circular opening. The third man waits with a pair of tongs, grabbing each piece of flatbread when it has baked and bubbled enough, throwing it frisbee-style onto the counter that faces the street.

At mealtime, a crowd waits at that counter, their place in line marked by the folded bills they have placed in a notched piece of wood on one side of the counter. The person whose turn it is will expertly survey each piece of bread tossed onto the counter, selecting them one at a time, spreading out their scalding chosen pieces with the tips of their fingers and often flipping them upside down to cool. When they have the amount they have paid for, they will place the warm flatbread in a stack, stick it in a bag, and with a “May your hands be blessed” be on their way. Current prices are eight pieces of flatbread for about 75 cents (US).

The style of baking the bread and the lack of preservatives means it’s best when it’s still warm and fresh – and that it tends to get hard and moldy much more quickly than our bread in the US. Hence why we so regularly had bread that needed to be thrown out. That, and the fact that every piece of flatbread has soft parts and hard parts, and most eaters tend to use bits the former to scoop their rice and leave the latter on the tablecloth uneaten. There are some kinds of very thin flatbread that are made to last longer that are stored mostly dry and then made pliable by spraying them with a spray bottle at meal time or sprinkling them with water from your fingers. This practice of sprinkling the bread has come to be an inside joke of sorts among local believers as they discuss the various modes of baptism. “Oh, that missionary? He practices sprinkling the bread.”

There is saying in some parts of Central Asia that “bread is life.” What we have come to learn is that bread is viewed as so fundamental to life itself that it has taken on a somewhat sacred status in a way that’s not true of other food. That’s why it’s never to be shamefully wasted, but always saved for animals if it’s no longer fit for human consumption. Whether hung in the street in bags for farmers or torn up and and thrown on to the roof for birds, bread is precious and therefore never to be simply thrown away. Throwing out your bread would ruin your name in the eyes of the community.

I was reminded of this Central Asian practice when I was recently reading in Leviticus. The reason the people of Israel were not to eat meat with the blood still in it, but rather to pour a beast’s blood out and cover it with earth? “For the life of every creature is its blood: Its blood is its life” (Lev 17:14). Blood was sacred and to be honored. Why? Because it was so fundamental to life itself. This close connection between life and blood changed how the people of Israel were to treat blood. Blood was also how atonement for sin was made (17:11), and this made it a substance even more to be honored. These commands also had serious communal consequences if ignored. “You shall not eat the blood of any creature. For the life of every creature is in its blood. Whoever eats it shall be cut off” (17:14). Not treating blood appropriately would make one cut off from the community.

There are echoes of how old covenant Israel treated blood in the way Central Asians treat bread. On a purely cultural level, both honor that which is crucial to life. There is a natural wisdom in this. In order to respect life, we must also respect those things that life is most dependent on. However, for the people of Israel, their relationship with blood was also divinely commanded because of God’s chosen old covenant system of atonement – itself a prophecy of how Christ would atone for all who believe with his own blood. I don’t know the origins of Central Asians’ honoring of bread. Perhaps it is only a wise tradition. On the other hand, perhaps it came from the traditions of the ancient Christian communities that used to be so common in Central Asia. Similar to blood, we are also saved by bread. We remember this every time we take communion. We are saved by the broken body of Christ, the bread of life torn and pierced for our salvation. In this way, bread is a sign of salvation accomplished in history, and available to any who would believe.

In Acts 15, the Jerusalem council asked Paul and Barnabas and the gentile churches to still abstain from blood, even though they affirmed that salvation was by the grace of Jesus, apart from works of the law like circumcision. I would not be surprised if Central Asian believers continue to also treat bread in their respectful way even as they seek to transform their culture with the gospel. Some parts of culture get rejected when they come into contact with gospel truth. Others are retained, and not only retained, but deepened. Bread is life, and for those who believe in Jesus, now more so than ever.