The Border Bridge

“You have to leave tomorrow. There’s a chance the other faction of the government will take control of the border and your exit visa will no longer be valid.”

The land border was the only exit we had left. During a political crisis the airports had been shut down. Other borders were shut or went through territory too dangerous to traverse as Westerners. We had been stuck in-country for a while, hunkered down as we watched political powers slowly tighten the grip on the region we were living in.

One colleague wisely counseled us in that season, “There’s a unique stress to being stuck out of country, and there’s a unique stress to being stuck in. Which one can your family better handle right now?” It was time to risk the stress of being stuck out.

We handed off our responsibilities to local believers and partners and consulted maps together. The tense uncertainty of our ability to return meant it was a sweet goodbye with the little core of our local church plant. Early the next morning, we set off.

The journey to the one border crossing left meant a six hour drive through the mountains, then leaving our vehicle with some friends. From there we would take a taxi one hour to the border, go through the border processes, and then drive another two hours to an airport city in the least unstable country of our region. We looked forward to a two-night rest in a hotel once we got there. We would need it to be ready for the long flights back to the US with two small children.

The drive through the mountains went well. It was spring and the bright green carpet of grass was already creeping over the mountains. We drove by ancient cities and villages I still hope to visit someday. Everything was strangely quiet for the six hour drive. The vehicle drop-off went well. The designated taxi was waiting and we made the trip. So far so good. Now for the border – the most unpredictable part.

Had the other faction taken control and would they block our exit or fine us? Would the border even be open? Would there bathrooms – or chai?! I had crossed this land border once before, but that was ten years previous. We were at the mercy of our taxi driver, who thankfully was very adept at shuffling us and our documents from one window bureaucrat to another. He also had TV screens for the kids in the back seat, which played several Tom and Jerry episodes in a loop. This would prove to be remarkably helpful as we jumped back in the car and drove to join a massive line of vehicles. After managing to pull into line, we sat. And then proceeded to sit for seven hours.

It wasn’t that we were totally still. We probably moved about one centimeter per minute. In front of us was our country’s security checkpoint, then a bridge across a river – maybe 100 meters long – and the neighboring country’s security checkpoint on the other side. We thought we had gotten there with plenty of time, but before we knew it the afternoon was spent and the sun was setting. The only exit left was one massive bottleneck.

We sat and sat and inched forward and sat some more. We made it through our country’s security checkpoint without too much trouble. No sign anywhere of the rumored takeover. Sometime after sunset we made it onto the bridge itself. An encouraging development, to be sure – until our three year old daughter needed a bathroom. There was no way back. And we couldn’t access the bathroom on the other side of the next security checkpoint, down at the other end of the bridge. So we tried, in vain, to create a shield with the car door and to help her relieve herself there on the pavement of the bridge. What else was to be done? We had at least another two hours to go sitting on this bridge. However, the strangeness (security spotlights and all) was too much for her three year-old-system, and in spite of her full bladder, she simply couldn’t go anymore. My wife decided to see if we could get an exception for a cute kid desperately in need of a potty. She headed off toward the end of the bridge with our daughter in tow, and was able to make eye contact with a female border agent standing at a side door – who mercifully gave them illegal bathroom access. Technically that toilet existed on the territory of a country we had not yet been cleared to enter. But common grace still exists, and cute kids can secure all kinds of exceptions in Central Asia.

We had a lot of time that day to be still and notice our surroundings during the seven hours it took to cross that river. We started noticing something curious. Some people were milling around up and down the bridge by foot. As they would pass our vehicle and others, some would tap twice or three times on the metal siding of the car. It wasn’t aimless. It was some kind of pattern. We started noticing small packages being slyly passed up the line of vehicles and individuals ducking behind cars as the security spotlight hit, and running up behind the next car once it moved on. We were witnessing a robust yet seemingly common-place smuggling operation. All the taxi drivers – judging by the tapping system – seemed to be in on it. Including our own.

We had been clear with him that as Christians, we were not going to be able to take part in any cigarette smuggling that is typically expected of taxi border passengers. Taxi drivers will stuff passengers’ bags with bulk cartons of cigarettes and have the passengers claim them as their own. In this way the drivers and their associates are able to buy cigarettes cheaply on our side of the border, and sell them for a profit on the other. We simply would not participate in the part where we said they belonged to us, we had insisted with the driver. And he assured us that he was OK with this and wouldn’t try any funny business with the smokes.

Late at night we finally made it to the security checkpoint. I checked our bags as they were taken out of the trunk. No bulk cigarette packages. But I did notice some had appeared in the trunk. Fruit of the car-tappers, no doubt. We shuffled our bleary-eyed children away from their hours of Tom and Jerry on repeat and made our way to the X-ray machine. As soon as we put our bags on the belt, a young man ran up out of nowhere and placed the cartons of cigarettes alongside our bags.

“What are these?” the security agent asked us.

“These belong to them!” said the young man.

“No they don’t, I said in the sister dialect of the local language.”

“These foreigners don’t understand our language,” he said, “I assure you these belong to them.” And he smiled at me with a please play along now kind of look.

“No,” I said, “these are not ours!” I was grateful that these sentences were more or less intelligible across the dialects. A look of worry flashed on the man’s face as a couple of burly security men came and hauled him off. The security officer attending us just shrugged. I shot a look back at our driver who was scratching his head some distance from us, trying not to look disappointed that his sneaky plan had failed.

Around one in the morning we finally made it to the hotel where we were staying, after leaving our house around 5 a.m. the previous day. We slept hard.

Upon waking and heading down to the breakfast buffet, we immediately felt the stress lifting now that we were no longer in a country under political siege. I sipped my Americano and enjoyed the bright light coming into the hotel dining room. After the long season of security crises and our crazy border crossing day, we could now breathe deep for a little bit. Then it was off to the US for our first trip back since moving overseas.

My wife was staring at me. She started mouthing some words. I am positively terrible at lip reading, so after I tried and failed to understand what she was saying, she gave up and just blurted it out.

“I’m pregnant.”

“You’re what?!”

I nearly dropped my coffee. And that’s how I learned about our third-born.

Photo by Max Titov on Unsplash

A Proverb Against Flattery

I eat bread, but I don’t eat yogurt-water bread.

Local Oral Tradition

Translation: I eat bread, but I don’t eat the bread of flattery. Your flattery will not accomplish anything with me. Normal respectful conduct will do just fine, so no buttering up is necessary.

A local idiom for flattery is “making yogurt water.” So, if someone is trying to gain an advantage through flattering speech with you or someone else, you can call that person a yogurt-water man, or you can tell them, “Don’t make yogurt water!” In this context, the above proverb makes a lot more sense. The metaphor of eating bread (receiving complements) relies on another metaphor for flattery (making yogurt water). So the image is of someone eating bread, but refusing to eat bread dipped in said dairy drink.

What is yogurt water? It goes by various names throughout Central Asia, but it’s a drink product traditionally made by allowing milk to ferment in a goatskin, while also rocking that goatskin back and forth on a wood and rope device. It’s tangy and creamy to the taste and can even become carbonated, and is often served ice cold in a silver bowl with dill.

Like most foreigners, I was not excited about the stuff in the beginning. But one blistering hot summer day the bus I was traveling in stopped by a roadside yogurt-water cafe. They were serving it in small buckets, drunk by a ladle, and with a big chunk of ice on the inside. I was converted. Ever since then I have drunk the literal yogurt water, though I do strive not to drink the metaphorical one.

This proverb could serve as a helpful illustration of how to apply Proverbs 27:6 – Faithful are the wounds of a friend; profuse are the kisses of an enemy.

A Song For Those Made For Endless Summer

I really love this new song by the Gray Havens. “Have you ever missed somewhere that you’ve never been?” Yes… yes I have. Reminds me of this quote of Augustine’s where he muses on the “memory” of Eden that each of us somehow carries.

However, I have to say that while endless summer in North America sounds lovely, an endless summer in our corner of Central Asia – with its 115 F/46 C temps – is not quite as pleasant a prospect. Can I have an endless spring, perhaps? Much better for eternal picnics.

Living In a Different Financial Universe

“Your pastors aren’t paid by the government?!” Our friend’s language teacher was in shock. He had never heard anything like this. “So how do they make a living?”

“By the faithful giving of the church members,” said our friend. More astonishment followed.

The longer we live in Central Asia, the more we realize that we are living in a different financial universe when it comes to money and religious institutions.

The local religious leaders are salaried by the government, as long as they are part of one of the officially approved religions. This means a somewhat secure income – but also government control.

Local religious institutions themselves are also given a monthly stipend from the government, even those institutions which would otherwise have died long ago – such as a Sufi-dervish branch I visited this past week. The Sufis (Islamic mystics) were the most powerful group here for about 1,000 years. But sometime in the past century their power collapsed. My local friends say it’s because so much of their teaching and practice was based on tradition and personality, as opposed to the more text-based Sunni Islam exported by Egypt and Saudi Arabia since the early 20th century. But it’s that monthly government stipend that keeps them holding on. The few members of their branches get a cut of that stipend, and so they keep coming back, chanting, and talking about the glory days. The government for their part gets a friendlier group than the more militancy-prone Salafis, who are growing exponentially here based on a strong mix of ideology and funding.

As long as there were melons, the relatives were score. But now the melons have run out, the relatives are no more. So goes a local proverb that seeks to explain how many locals’ loyalty is dependent on a basic monthly payout.

This type of top-down money scheme is carried into the church when locals come to faith. Many are offended to not be given monthly cash for simply being faithful attendees. And watch out if you hire an unbeliever for that development job instead of a local believer – that is viewed as akin to betrayal.

As far as sacrificial giving that could fund a local pastor – that’s going to take some time to be understood and actually put into practice. In fact, we have never had a financially independent local church in the three decades that missions has been taking place here. The patron-client worldview means local believers give their time and loyalty to a certain missionary, group, or church, and then often expect to receive cash and favors of influence in return. For many locals this is self-evident, just the way the world runs.

There are also wild stories believed among the locals about the missionaries’ financial situation. $25,000 payout per baptism is one of the more extreme ones that I’ve personally been accused of. Even this past week a dear brother was shocked to learn that healthy organizations don’t tie higher or lower salaries to results.

“You mean to tell me that if a foreigner’s church plant falls apart, he’ll still get the same salary?” he asked, incredulous. I just shook my head and attempted to carefully explain that a fair income for a sent-out one should be tied to faithfulness, not to ministry results. It was the first time he had ever considered this.

The widespread assumption here is that numbers, events, and baptisms equal top-down, outside money. Some of this is the fault of this cultural context, as I’ve been describing here. But some of it is also the fault of evangelical organizations that have come in and splashed money around carelessly, not realizing the harmful precedents they are setting. While many locals fall into these issues simply for lack of discipleship, others have also learned to play the game. Western pastors who visit our region are a favorite target. In a one-week trip, the visitors are dazzled – and financial commitments follow. The long-term missionaries who try to follow up on these “high-impact” groups often find they have already been shattered by conflicts over money – leaving believers embittered and unwilling to gather with others.

These problems are deep-rooted, and won’t go away overnight. But there is a quiet transformative power that comes from biblical, congregational churches – where members learn to work hard and give generously, to decide together, even to discipline together. This bottom-up participatory Christianity has overcome honor-shame patron-client cultures before, such as that of ancient Rome and that of the American South (See the writings of David A. Desilva and Gregory Wills, respectively). If this kind of faith truly takes root here, we can expect similar reform to eventually take place.

In the meantime we’re going to have to get really explicit when it comes to how the local church should handle money. When living in different financial universes, assumptions are highly combustible. Somehow in security-sensitive contexts like ours, we’re going to have to find ways to say, “No pastor or missionary should ever get money for a baptism – ever! If they do, they are dangerous and a wicked example.”

Work hard. Give generously. Support your own pastor. Serve the poor. Fund your own cross-cultural workers. These are our dreams for the local churches here. There are no short-cuts to these outcomes. Outside money will always be quicker and easier. But it will keep the churches here from reaching adulthood. Bottom-up congregational giving, on the other hand, will lead to a beautiful maturity.

Photo by Jp Valery on Unsplash

The Script of Jesus and the Mongols

Likewise unquestioned is the fact that both Syriac languages and scripts developed out of the Aramaic dialect of Edessa [modern Urfa]. This language, which was widespread in Syria and Parthia and functioned as the lingua franca of Egypt and Asia Minor as far as India, was Jesus’ mother tongue and belongs to the Semitic language family. Beginning in the fifth century BCE, it replaced Hebrew as the colloquial language of the Jews. Its consonant alphabet is a further development of the Phoenician. Thanks to the Syriac Gospel harmony of Tatian (c. 170) and the Tetragospels called the Peshitta (c. 400), Syriac spread rapidly in Asian Christianity… Also belonging to the sphere of Aramaic script culture – in part because of the Nestorian mission to Asia – are the right-to-left and/or top-to-bottom scripts of the Sogdians, the Uigurs, the Mongols and the Manchurians.

Baumer, The Church of the East, p. 18

Photo by Vince Gx on Unsplash

Lean Toward the Radical

Two weeks ago we celebrated another wedding anniversary. I’ve now been married to my lovely bride for almost one third of my life. And I marvel at God’s kindness to me that I get to be married to this wonderful woman.

During our anniversary I was reminded of some marriage advice from my first year of college. I had joined a one-year program for freshman at Bethlehem Baptist in Minneapolis, where John Piper was the preaching pastor at the time. Our year of study focused heavily on history, theology, and missions. We read authors like Ralph Winter, Rodney Stark, Thomas Cahill, Jonathan Edwards, and dozens of others. And we focused on important figures in missions history, like William Carey. It was a small group of students in our cohort, only eleven of us – a very good way to reenter life in the US for this MK fresh from Melanesia.

Occasionally we would have one of the pastors at Bethlehem be our guest lecturer or come in for a Q&A session. One day John Piper was fielding questions. We had recently finished studying the life of Carey and there was one question that was bugging me.

“Pastor John, William Carey was an amazing man and did some incredible things. But his wife didn’t want to go to India and she lost her mind on the mission field – then she died. He might not have done what he should have to take care of her. Some of us are wrestling with a call to the nations, but also with a call to be godly husbands as well. How can we balance these two callings that sometimes seem in tension?”

Piper furrowed his brow and answered in three parts.

First, he encouraged me to make sure that as I pursued a woman to marry, that I made sure that she shared a similar calling to the unreached. That would prevent many of the issues in the Carey situation.

Second, he warned me against the contemporary Western tendency to idolize the family. The larger danger for our generation, according to Piper, was to love family and safety so much that we fail to sacrifice for the nations as we should. We are unlikely to fall into the same pitfalls of Carey’s era.

Finally, he leaned forward and squinted his eyes at me, giving one last exhortation, “And.. lean toward the radical!”

It was sound and stirring advice for my eighteen-year-old self. The following fall I ended up taking a gap year in Central Asia, where I found my calling to the nations confirmed. The year after that I met my bride-to-be, who also shared a burden for Central Asia. We would joke while dating about her excitement to live among camels and tents. That common love and calling has meant that we have not lost our minds (yet) in the costly seasons and places of ministering among the unreached.

And what of leaning toward the radical? How has that gone for us? Well, we certainly have our scars and our particular brokenness that has come from walking this path. I don’t feel nearly as bold or as strong as I used to. By this point we know well the sting of great risks taken that have ultimately failed. Yet the unreached peoples and places of this world are that way for a reason. They are hard to access, and hard to reach with the gospel once accessed. Our focus culture, for example, seems exquisitely designed to implode church plants before they even get off the ground. Church planting here is like lobbing watermelons into a minefield. Sure, melons will eventually grow in that field, but there’s gonna be whole lot of noise and mess for quite some time.

But oh the difference it makes to have a good woman by your side, one who would have come here even without you. To have agreed to the risks and the costs – together – is something remarkable and gracious. It’s not a simple thing, balancing biblical manhood with the needs of the unreached. But Piper was right. The right woman, a counter-cultural posture, a bent toward the radical – these things have been vital to maintaining a faithful posture in the midst of the tension.

Photo by Prasanth Dasari on Unsplash

An Idiom of Deep Respect

I kiss your eyes!

Local Oral Tradition

Our local language ties much of its respectful language to the eyes, and to kissing. I’ve never seen anyone actually kiss anyone else’s eyes, but I have heard this phrase uttered thousands of times, and often with genuine respect. Personally, I’m still getting used to other men just kissing my cheeks. You never can tell if it will be an every other side three or four kiss exchange or a four or five time same cheek kiss barrage. Or sometimes they go for the rare shoulder kiss. All must be interspersed with respectful phrases, “My brother! (kiss) My flower! (kiss, gasp), You respectable one! (kiss), May you ever live! (gasp, awkward last kiss, unsure if the other person is finished or not).

For kicks, you could try this idiom out with your Western friends sometime.

“Hey bro, I need some moving help on Saturday. Can you come?”

“I kiss your eyes!” (said with a flourish).

“Um, ok, well… does that mean you can come?”

A Song For Pilgrims

“Pilgrim” by John Mark McMillan

I’ve been enjoying this song a lot recently as we’ve once again been a family in transition. Moving cities has highlighted our identity as pilgrims and nomads, those who have no lasting city here, but who seek the city that is to come (Heb 13:14). I also appreciate the tension present in this song, recognizing that there are many things about this world that we do love, “the smell of the grinding sea,” yet we are also compelled to seek another world, an abiding one.

The remix below is also worth checking out. My kids and I have enjoyed bobbing our heads while we listen to it and drive around our Central Asian city.

More Than a Home

The exchange between Patrick and his adopted people is marvelous to contemplate. In the overheated Irish cultural environment, mystical attitudes toward the world were taken for granted, as they had never been in the cooler, more rational Roman world. Despite its pagan darkness and shifting insubstantiality, this Irish environment was in the end a more comfortable one for the badly educated shepherd boy to whom God spoke directly. His original home in Roman Britain had become an alien place to him. But the Irish gave Patrick more than a home – they gave him a role, a meaning to his life. For only this former slave had the right instincts to impart to the Irish a New Story, one that made new sense of all their old stories and brought them a peace they had never known before.

Cahill, How the Irish Saved Civilization, pp. 147-148

This description of Patrick might resonate with many who have grown up as third-culture kids, those who are raised in a different culture than their parents’ native one and who develop their own “third” personal culture. Patrick’s story was somewhat different in that he was forced to become a third-culture kid when he was kidnapped and made a shepherd-slave. But many TCKs today will still resonate with the line, “his original home… had become an alien place to him.” Some might also recognize the strange discovery that this failure to fit in often points to a particular purpose elsewhere.

Photo by Dimitry Anikin on Unsplash

Eating Out With Your Kids When Hell is Real

Recently, the New York Times ran a piece on a famous pastor’s son who is now a vocal ex-vangelical and a rising Tiktok star. Many have commented on the story and it’s not my intention here to weigh in on this tragic situation. God is sovereign and I pray that this man will one day have his eyes truly opened, and not remain in the sad ranks of those who achieved fame by publicly maligning the faith their fathers preached.

But there was one comment of his quoted in the article that I have been chewing on. He says, “How are you going to take your family to Outback [Steakhouse] after church while millions of people are burning alive?”

It’s the sort of “gotcha” question meant to highlight the supposed absurdity of a literal hell. “See? You can’t live consistently with this belief. You are a hypocrite to go enjoy a meal at a restaurant if you really believe in eternal suffering in hell.”

My main response to this comment would be to point out that the Christian is not unusually hypocritical to live this way – pursuing occasional wholesome recreation while millions suffer. The entire world lives this way every day. There is in fact no other way to live, in the actual sense of the word.

The fact is that this world is full of a million previews of a literal hell. Genocide. Starvation. Sexual abuse. Natural Disasters. Political violence. Abortion. Racist violence. Disease. War. Millions are suffering even as I write this and sit on my couch with a good cup of coffee. Millions are dying even as you read this line. Untold depths of anguish are taking place in the seconds it takes to verbalize the unbeliever’s “gotcha” question above.

There may be seasons of our lives where we try to alleviate the suffering of this world through burning ourselves out in a frenetic effort to rescue the suffering. Many experience a season like this in the university years. But if we are not careful, this can be the road to a kind of insanity. The weight of the suffering (and the indifference) can crush our hearts, minds, and bodies and we can end up broken, naked, and pounding the cement outside our house until we are arrested – as happened a few years ago with the founder of an American humanitarian movement that worked with African child soldiers.

We are not made to bear the suffering of the world on our shoulders. Only God can do that. We are made to respond compassionately to the suffering that God has brought into our own sphere of influence. And we are made to live whole lives. To not just respond to suffering, but to eat, to sleep, to laugh, to plant, to nurture, to work, to worship, and to recreate in all of its best forms. Those who neglect these things soon experience the cost of doing so on many levels. As one book puts it, the body keeps the score. As does the soul.

Even unbelievers find themselves living normal lives in the face of incredible contemporary suffering. But how how can they _____ when millions of Uighurs are living in concentration camps? What about the street children of Africa? Those trapped in sex slavery in South Asia? The widespread practice of honor killings and female circumcision in Central Asia? How can they just grab coffee with a friend, go to the gym, walk their dog, call their mom, or sit in that staff meeting in the face of such suffering?

The answer, even for unbelievers, is that the real presence of suffering doesn’t nullify our responsibility to live whole lives. We must somehow find a way to live healthy lives and to respond to the tragedy of human suffering. If we sacrifice wise living for the sake of alleviating others’ suffering, we will soon find that we are only adding to the suffering of this world, as our own lives and families fall apart. The only appropriate response to the ever-present suffering of this world must be a sustainable one. Responding to suffering cannot mean a continual neglect of what it means to be a human truly alive. If this is so for this world, then why would it not be so for the next?

This is not a question unique for Christians who believe in a literal hell. This is something we all must struggle with. The difference is that believers have a powerful source for living lives of sustainable sacrifice. Our God entered into our suffering, sacrificed himself, conquered suffering and death, and now indwells us. He gives us depths of compassion and love for the suffering we wouldn’t naturally have. And he is utterly sovereign, meaning we can trust him with the weight of the suffering we are unable to alleviate. I am thus empowered and freed to respond to human suffering and to take my kids out to eat after church. These things are not opposed to each other.

Life, real life, full of friendship and joy and echoes of Eden – this in the end is the most powerful way to heal this broken world. So, let’s love the suffering. By not neglecting to occasionally eat steak with the kids.

Photo by Hanxiao on Unsplash