An Island in the Mountains

Instead of a revitalization of Mesopotamian and Iranian Christianity, the devastation of the fanatical Muslim Tamerlane (ruled 1370-1405) greatly intensified the destruction wrought by Ghazan and Oljaitu. After the loss of their churches and monasteries, the surviving Nestorians sought refuge in the remote mountains of Kurdistan (in northern Iraq) and Hakkari (in south-eastern Turkey), for only in the shadows of rugged mountains can a persecuted spirit live on in freedom. And so the one-time ‘Christian sea’ of Mesopotamia and Iran was transformed into a small, inaccessible island, surrounded by the wide ocean of Islam.

Baumer, The Church of the East, p. 6

If you are looking for ethnic, linguistic, and religious diversity, always look to the mountains. Groups survive there that tend to disappear down on the plains. They are a sort of time capsule, preserving ways of life that most have assumed are long gone.

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Human Creativity and Conspiracy Theory

I’ve written previously about the tendency of conspiracy theories to take too high a view of human potential. Many conspiracy theories depend on multi-generational secret global coordination that’s just not possible with for humans to pull off. The biblical worldview paints the successes of sin and power as temporary and illusory. Sooner or later everything falls apart as the inevitable destructiveness and selfishness of sin brings even the best diabolical schemes toppling down.

But there is another kind of conspiracy theory, one which takes too low a view of human nature. In this kind of apocalyptic theory, everything collapses. “Get some land in the mountains, stockpile food, and get a gun” is one earnest encouragement I received from another Christian some years ago. “The global food supply is right about to collapse. For your family’s sake, you need to be ready.” The brother who encouraged me to do this was no nut-job living in some kind of bunker. He was the manager of the coffeeshop where my wife worked and himself preparing to be on an international church planting team. Needless to say, his dire predictions a decade ago were wrong.

In that conversation I remember pushing back on several fronts. First, church history informs us that Christians largely stayed and served when calamity befell cities, often giving their lives to serve plague victims and thereby earning an incredible reputation for their faith. They did not run to the hills en masse with their families and weapons in tow (though fleeing can of course sometimes be a faithful option). Second, my friend’s dire warnings did not seem to take into account the incredible creativity, ingenuity, and adaptability that humans have for survival, profit, and system-creation.

I have lived in some extreme places and have visited others. Many of my coworkers have lived in even more extreme places than I have. One of the surprises of visiting these kind of areas? Life keeps on humming. People manage to eat, to have homes and jobs, to have systems of transportation and communication, and to have collective governance and defense. I’m not saying that life in places like failed states, conflict zones, or poverty-stricken areas is easy. But I am saying that humans are remarkably resilient and creative. If one structure collapses, five others rise up to fill the void almost overnight. And someone has figured out how to monetize it. Just look at the ways the world is currently innovating. We are living in a global pandemic, after all.

I live in an area of Central Asia that has experienced an incredible amount of conflict over the last couple hundred years. All of my local friends have incredible trauma in their background. Yet some of our local systems are more efficient and affordable than what we can get in the US. Here’s a brief list:

Fresh bread daily from local neighborhood bakeries, ten small steaming-hot loaves for a dollar

Simple, pay-as-you-go mobile phone systems. Buy a card at a neighborhood shop with credit on it, load it on your phone, no complicated contracts or fine print.

Neighborhood fruit and veggie trucks. These trucks are loaded up with fresh produce and make the rounds through every neighborhood, selling fresh and affordable fruits and veggies and announcing their arrival via loudspeakers.

Taxis and buses. Get anywhere in the city via taxi for $3 or take a bus on established routes for $0.20.

Pharmacy delivery. Stuck at home under a Covid-19 quarantine? No problem, local pharmacies will take your order via Facebook messenger and send a delivery man (for free) to your house with your needed meds.

Womens Saving Clubs. Having a hard time actually saving money for that new appliance? Join a group of 12 local women where everyone contributes $100 a month and when it’s your turn once a year you get “paid” your saved $1200.

You see, though we live in a place that raises eyebrows among outsiders and frightens off volunteers, locals manage to have some pretty efficient and creative systems for technically living in a war zone. I just learned this week that we have a new local service which will deliver flowers, novels, or locally-tailored men’s formal wear to your front door. Not bad, Central Asia, not bad at all.

To those who are given to the global-system-collapse conspiracies, I would encourage them to take a deeper view of history and a wider view of the current world. Yes, big collapses have happened. The transition from the Bronze Age economy to the Iron Age was devastating as everyone’s stockpiled bronze suddenly lost its value. Later, in the middle ages, global cooling caused crop failures on a massive scale, leading to widespread famine. The Great Depression one hundred years ago was real. It’s not the existence of crises like this I take issue with, but with the implied extent. The assumption is that a post-apocalyptic world will result, when history just doesn’t bear that out. Humans are too resourceful for that.

I believe this creativity and resourcefulness is rooted in our creation in the image of God and in the creation mandate.

So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them.

And God blessed them. 
And God said to them, 
“Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, 
and have dominion over the fish of the sea 
and over the birds of the heavens 
and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” (Genesis 1:27-28 ESV)

Humanity’s incredible ingenuity and ability to bounce back and build societies comes from being created in the image of God. We can’t help but create, even when we don’t mean to. It’s in our very DNA. As we were commissioned to do in the beginning, we bring order in small ways to the rest of creation. Yes, all of this has been affected by the fall and our attempts at re-creation and bringing order are marred, transient, and imperfect. They are infected now with greed and a thousand other sins. And yet the image of God must have been so powerful in its unblemished form that it continues to shine forth even in the darkest parts of the globe and following the biggest calamities.

Why don’t I give much time of day to the global collapse conspiracy theories? It’s not because I have so much faith in humanity. I believe in total depravity. Rather, it’s because I have such faith in the remnant image of God within humanity. Even with our brokenness, we are an awfully creative bunch.

Photo by Jen Theodore on Unsplash

Making Observations, Not Laws

“All Chinese restaurants here are fronts for prostitution.” This statement was communicated to us when we were brand new on the field. Over time we learned that it was a bit overstated. Yes, some of the Chinese restaurants were fronts for prostitution, but not all. From asking various locals we were able to learn about certain restaurants where we could enjoy some delicious Asian cuisine without indirectly supporting prostitution – and where we would also not be in danger of being perceived by locals as ourselves being customers of the wrong sort. Turns out that even in our corner of Central Asia there were Chinese small business owners who were just here to make a living by opening a restaurant (some of whom in other cities were rumored to be missionaries themselves, part of the Back to Jerusalem movement).

What had been a valid observation had become a law of cultural interpretation. “Chinese restaurants here tend to be fronts for prostitution” had become “All Chinese restaurants here are fronts, therefore never eat at one.” For us, this served as one example of a common trend among those doing cross-cultural ministry – the trend of making laws when we should instead be making theories and observations.

It’s understandable. When we enter a new context we are eager to learn the culture, the rules, the way things are, and the way we need to act. Important things are at stake, like our sanity and our testimony. We ourselves are adrift in a sea of uncertainty, navigating a foreign culture and context, desperate for something solid to hold onto, eager to make sense of this new world. So we get a piece of intel from our teammates or from a local and we absolutize it. From this day forward, I will honor the laws that all locals have lice, no locals can think abstractly, no locals are comfortable worshiping in a public church setting, etc., etc.

But there are several problems with this way of forming these kinds of laws and absolutes. The first is that every culture is diverse. Just because one local describes his people in a certain way does not mean that is an accurate representation of every demographic in the culture. My wife was once invited to play a role in a local TV commercial for a rice company. Most of our city friends said not to think twice about it, but to take it as a fun opportunity. But when we checked with one of our other believing friends from a more conservative Islamic and tribal background, he told us not to do it. “We would never ever let our women be filmed like that,” he said. “Too much opportunity for them to be objectified by others. It’s not honorable.” We decided to be cautious and to pass on the offer. We were glad after seeing the commercial as they portrayed the foreign women who later took the role as somewhat of a buffoon.

Another problem with making laws instead of interpretations has to do with our own limited understanding of our new context. Actually understanding what certain things really mean in a new culture is a marathon effort, not a sprint. We do not always have the lenses we need to see things clearly and without distortion. Once we have spent some years marinating in the values and worldview of our new culture, we will be in a better place to connect the dots. “Try not to make any judgments in your first year on the field” is a wise piece of advice I recall my mother saying. If we’re not careful, one generation of missionaries makes hasty judgments which get passed on as laws to the next generation of missionaries and then on to the next. While some things are blatantly obvious (drunkenness and wife-beating are wrong and to be immediately condemned), others are illuminated in a better light over time (he’s making sure not to touch your hand when he gives you the change, not because he thinks women are dirty, but because he wants to protect your chaste reputation in the community).

Finally, culture is not a static thing. It is living and moving, like a cloud formation that seems stable, only to have shifted a great deal the next time you glance back up at the sky. The valid “rules” a few years ago may have shifted by the time we arrive on the field – or when we come back again after a season away. They may continue to shift. The key is to have a firm grasp on our biblical principles and their range of expressions and then to have a curious and keen eye toward studying the culture. Living in a non-static human culture will bear on commands such as “outdo one another in showing honor,” “he must have a good reputation with outsiders,” “greet one another with a holy kiss,” and others (Rom 12:10, 1 Tim 3:7, 1 Thes 5:26). It is extremely important that I stand to my feet when a local man over forty enters a room. This is changing among the twenty and thirty-somethings, who are moving away from some of their elders’ formality. Rightly discerning our context is key – as is the right kind of stability and flexibility. I will always honor adoption, no matter if it is shameful in my adopted culture. I will not always kiss other men on the cheek without first discerning my context.

Entering a new culture (or reentering) is a wonderful time to make observations. Contrasts which will later fade are stark and vibrant. So let’s make abundant observations and theories. But let’s be cautious with making laws about the culture. They may prove to be valid trends. But turning a trend into a law ultimately results in decreasing our valid biblical options. And frankly, the work is hard enough that we should want all options on the table.

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A Song on the Coming Dawn

A world away and still not far
Like fabric woven into ours
The dawn, it shot out through the night
And day is coming soon

The Kingdom of the Morning Star
Can pierce a cold and stony heart
Its grace went through me like a sword
And came out like a song
Now I’m just waiting for the day
In the shadows of the dawn

But I won’t wait resting my bones
I’ll take these foolishness roads of grace
And run toward the dawn
And when I rise and dawn turns to day
I’ll shine as bright as the sun
And these roads that I’ve run, will be wise

It’s veiled and stands behind the shroud
The final day when trumpets sound
Sometimes I glimpse into the fog
And listen for the song
Til then I’m waiting for the day
In the shadows of the dawn

“Shadows of the Dawn” by the Gray Havens

International Travel During Pandemic October

Around 3 a.m. last night we arrived in our Central Asian city after five months in the US. The return journey was unexceptional in many ways, though trips like this with multiple small children always come with their fair share of challenge and misadventure – He’s eating pretzels off the floor again. Gross. I should stop him, but is it worth it at this point? And yet travel in 2020 is unique enough that I thought a few observations on our trip would be of some interest.

On an encouraging note, we enjoyed seeing airports such as Dallas-Forth Worth and Doha, Qatar humming again with activity, even if it’s less than half of what it was last year. Five months ago when we took the repatriation flight the airports were deserted shells of themselves, dark, empty, and sad. This time travelers and airport staff seemed genuinely happy to just be out and involved in travel again. “Don’t apologize, we’re just glad to be doing some work for a change!” said an elderly counter agent while dealing with our complicated tickets and destination requirements. Alas, all of the Starbucks were still closed. We were hoping for one more American-style cold brew. We did manage to get in one last classic burger.

The planes were all very full, which was a bit surprising for us. Yet all the passengers seemed to don their required face masks and face shields without protest. We didn’t encounter any of the conflict over these requirements we’ve read about in the news. Most seemed happy to comply, glumly resigned, or already adapted to a new normal. Even on 14-hour flights, humanity is remarkably flexible. I mused to my wife about how our youngest might remember these flights. In a few years when we all travel once again with unveiled face, he’ll think back and recall all the space-age face equipment worn, perhaps wondering if that actually happened or if his memory is playing tricks on him. For some kids, returning to “normal” might actually feel like a bit of a loss. No more cool face shields and ninja masks. Bummer.

American Airlines for its part has not adapted to the extent that Qatar Airways has. Qatar brought with it both higher Covid-19 precautions (staff in full PPE, mandatory passenger face shields plus masks) and an almost complete return to pre-pandemic in-flight service. Qatar has never stopped flying during the pandemic, strategizing that it’s better business to make a name for itself as one of the only carriers still going strong. Their flights to and from our region have been a lifeline for us and our organization. I hope it will work out well for them when the industry gets back to normal.

Even with all the restrictions, Qatar Airways also managed to be remarkably child-friendly, ushering our family to the front of lines and showing special attention to the kids during the flights. As usual, this contrasted sharply with the way Western staff tend to treat families with small children. It’s sad to be reminded every time we travel between hemispheres how the East values children while the West views them mainly as an obstruction. “We have a connection to make!” one flight attendant huffed while we fumbled to get off the plane with our kids and our extra bags full of childhood diabetes equipment.

However, this kind of comment was the exception as most travelers and staff, Eastern and Western, seemed more appreciative of simple human interaction than they might have been before. The world has been starving for social contact. There was joy to be found for many just in the simple act of being in a small traveling crowd again. The language barriers, the seat negotiations, and the screaming/laughing kids seemed to be met with a measure of greater patience. Common grace is a wonderful thing. There was potential for a refreshing solidarity, room for conversation where each party gets to share how they’ve been affected by this global crisis. I imagine we’ll be swapping stories about 2020 for decades to come – not a bad thing at all for Christians eager for common ground that leads to conversation about deeper things.

Another trip halfway around the world. But likely one of our more unique journeys – the first one to require face shields and airport nose-swabs at least. Today we are jet-lagging something bad, but our hearts are overflowing with gratitude. Our three kids did great on a difficult journey. We were able to juggle our daughter’s new diabetes and a squirmy almost-two-year-old without any major mishaps. Our oldest son is at the age where he can now help push luggage carts and pull small suitcases! (Game changer). That airline food and coffee was pretty awful, but how wonderful that the long flights served coffee and meals at all. After a canceled flight we even got some rest at an airport hotel (last room available), just enough to keep us sane for our 3 a.m. arrival. God is so good.

So here we are, back in our adopted city, unpacking our bags, coming up on two years of almost-constant transition. Our hope now is for a season of stable presence and ministry. Like so many, we find ourselves largely in the dark as far as the details of God’s purposes for seasons of transition like this. Yet we do not trust in stability or in our ability to piece it all together (much as I might try). Our God is the God of sojourners and pilgrims, the God of wanderers like Abraham. He just saw us through another two day journey around the world… during a pandemic. He’ll see us through whatever longer journey we might yet face. In the end it will all weave together for glory.

Photo by Bao Menglong on Unsplash

In Praise of The Dogpile Effect

The dogpile effect. My former team gave this name to our response against territorialism. Territorialism is a common danger on the mission field where certain believing or unbelieving locals are “claimed” by a given missionary and the other foreigners are not invited into that relationship. Sometimes there are decent reasons for limiting the number of foreigners a local has speaking into their life. Too many diverse voices can cause unhelpful confusion. Somebody needs to run point. And yet most of the time it’s simple fear, insecurity, or pride that leads a cross-cultural worker to not let their teammates or trusted partners get to know their local disciple. What if they like them better than they like me? What if they give them counsel I don’t agree with? Why should I need others investing in my friend if I’m already discipling them?

Desiring to move into a better posture regarding our ministry relationships with locals, we came to instead embrace the idea of the dogpile effect. The premise is simple. A team of believers pouring into a local will be healthier and more powerful in the long run. In the presence of many counselors there is safety (Prov 11:14). Turns out there are several very important reasons to bring others into your discipleship relationships. And while I’m primarily speaking into the world of cross-cultural workers, these things apply to any believer seeking to disciple others.

Transience is the first reason to bring others in. Humans are transient beings, and missionaries even more so. While it’s true for all of us that our lives are mere vapor (James 4:14), fading much more quickly than we thought, this effect is compounded on the mission field. Missionaries may have to leave their context of service abruptly due to political developments, visa issues, health problems, brokenness, family situations back home, or sin. So many plan for forty years and due to unforeseen difficulties have to go back to their home country after four. The average long-termer in our corner of Central Asia stays for only six years. A realistic view of our own transience means we should have other mentors that our local friends can lean on when we get that dreaded phone call saying it’s suddenly time to go. Handing off discipleship relationships is easier said than done. It takes time for trust to be built. We should be bringing in others early on in the process.

My family only ended up serving three years in our previous city, never imagining that we would be called to serve elsewhere after such a brief season. Yet that’s exactly what happened. By God’s grace our local friends were already plugged into a community, a team that was able to carry on with spiritual friendship and their discipleship – even in the relationships where we had previously taken point. This brought comfort in the midst of our transition. Our friends would not be left as spiritual orphans.

Our own lopsided spiritual gifts also advocate for inviting others into our evangelistic and discipleship relationships. Every believer is given particular gifts by the Holy Spirit, but no one is given every gift (1st Cor 12). While we all have strengths, each strength comes with its accompanying weakness. We need other believers investing in our friends because our own discipleship will have some serious holes and shortcomings. Something wonderful happens when several believers invest together in a particular person – their complementary gifts work together for a more holistic and healthy mentorship than would have been possible one-on-one. The body of Christ simply does better work when the members are working together. This doesn’t change simply because we are working in a foreign context.

I will never forget a church discipline situation with a Central Asian friend where I had used every tool and argument that I knew of to plead with my friend to repent. In the end it was insufficient. Yet breakthrough unexpectedly came through a conversation with an East Asian brother who was able to apply a surprising passage of scripture to the situation in a masterful way I never would have. His gifting in wisdom made all the difference. My friend repented and was restored.

Transience and giftedness argue for communal ministry relationships. Yet I would be amiss if I did not also mention one more aspect: beauty. There is a particular compelling beauty that comes about through a community of believers on mission together. This beauty results in the world knowing that we are Jesus’ disciples as our love for one another is displayed (John 13:35). It results in the world believing that the Father has sent the Son as our unity shines (John 11:21). An isolated disciple maker is simply not as spiritually compelling as a dogpile of believers doing the work together. These are the basic dynamics of the kingdom, how it grows and blossoms.We may not think of a dogpile as a particularly beautiful thing, but this kind most certainly is.

What does a compelling communal witness look like? It can be the simplest relationships on display. One friend came to faith in part because he witnessed the dynamics of our marriage – and we were newlyweds at the time, very much figuring things out. Another friend believed the gospel after coming to know the members our small church plant in communal settings. The beauty of believers interacting together and on display is beautiful and powerful – even to raise the spiritually dead.

Territorialism is a constant temptation for disciple makers. My encouragement is that we fight our fears, insecurities, and pride, instead choosing to invite other believers into our evangelistic and discipleship relationships. Because we are transient. Because we need one another’s gifts. Because of beauty.

Let’s embrace the dogpile effect. We won’t regret having done so.

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Patrick’s Love for His Adopted People

His love for his adopted people shines through his writings, and it is not just a generalized “Christian” benevolence, but a love for individuals as they are. He tells us of a “blessed woman, Irish by birth, noble, extraordinarily beautiful (pulcherrima) – a true adult – whom I baptized.” Who could imagine such a frank admiration of a woman from the pen of Augustine? Who could imagine such particularity of observation from most of those listed in the calendar of saints?

He worries constantly for his people, not just for their spiritual, but also for their physical welfare. The horror of slavery never lost on him: “But it is the women kept in slavery who suffer the most – and who keep their spirits up despite the menacing and terrorizing they must endure. The Lord gives grace to his many handmaids; and though they are forbidden to do so, they follow him with backbone.” Patrick has become an Irishman, a man who can give far more credibility to a woman’s strength and fortitude than could any classically educated man.

In his last years, he could probably look out over an Ireland transformed by his teaching. According to tradition, at least, he established bishops throughout northern, central, and eastern Ireland.

Cahill, How the Irish Saved Civilization, p. 109

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The Saga of Plastic Jesus

A photo I stealthily took of plastic Jesus, when Hama wasn’t looking

Right after Sharon’s speech returned, one of Hama’s nephews was given an Operation Christmas Child box by an NGO that was passing them out. Along with school supplies the box also contained some scripture portions and a plastic Jesus who would quote verses when you squeezed his hand. “I am the bread of life” was one of the phrases he would cheerfully intone in a Christian-radio American accent.

Hama and his wife were thrilled and swiftly commandeered action figure Jesus from their nephew and put it up on their wall. They were so excited to show it to me.  For my part, I groaned inwardly as soon as I saw it. It’s remarkable how many of the regrettable parts of consumer Christianity still make it to frontier settings overseas. And yet, by the grace of God, I have learned they can sometimes be appreciated in a wholesome way by our Central Asian friends, free as they are from much of the attending baggage.

Plastic Jesus went up on Hama’s wall, surrounded on all sides by Islamic paraphernalia. I remember that on the opposite wall there was a rather frightening picture of Medina, with a dark, brooding, red sky.  The two stood facing each other for the next couple months, the time when Hama wanted to follow Jesus, but was still held back by his fear.  It was a showdown, a face-off oddly representative of the real spiritual forces at play.  For me it also represented the way Hama and I had been talking.  I had a sense the whole time that I should stay away from polemics and attacking his native religion, Islam.  I felt that if Jesus was held up as beautiful and powerful that everything else would fade. 

The inspirational/terrifying Medina poster which hung directly opposite to plastic Jesus for a season

Indeed, that’s how it happened for Hama. Like the yeast that’s inserted into the lump of dough or the mustard seed into the garden, Jesus went into the midst of Hama’s life (and living room) and changed everything from the inside out. As Hama and his wife eventually walked away from Islam, the different Islamic pictures and amulets on their walls also came down. Only plastic Jesus remained. I thought we might need to have some kind of talk about not venerating images, but Hama beat me to it by giving away plastic Jesus to a mover who was fascinated by it. Hama’s wife was a bit upset that he had given it away, but for my part I was relieved.

Thus ended the saga of plastic Jesus, an unexpected parable of what the real Jesus was doing in the heart of my friend. How shall we apply this strange tale? First, be amazed at the creativity of the Holy Spirit. He can truly use anything to draw those he is saving. Second, if you are ever packing shoe boxes for distribution among children overseas, I would ask you kindly to not include Jesus action figures. God can use anything – but seriously, just don’t do it.

Flip Flops: Mine or Ours?

I had a favorite pair of flip flops that I took along to the Middle East. Being a college student at the time, and one who had grown up in an island-type culture, I had indulged on an expensive American pair of preppy leather flip flops. One summer day I wore them to a house church, depositing them outside the door with all the other shoes and sandals. After the gathering was finished I was dismayed to find that my favorite flip flops had disappeared. Apparently someone had mistaken them for their own – but no, footwear like that wasn’t available in this country, so no one could confuse them for their own. Had someone stolen them? And at a church meeting no less!

A few weeks later a local believer came to our house. And lo! He was wearing my flip flops. As it registered that he was the thief, I sat pondering how and if to bring up this awkward topic. Yet something was strange about his bearing. He wasn’t acting guilty or conscious at all of his infringement upon my personal property. There he was, wearing them right in front of me. I let it slide until I could figure out what was going on and how I should navigate this situation. Somehow I eventually came to realize that my friend wasn’t showing any signs of remorse because he hadn’t even committed a mistake, let alone a theft, according to his culture. Flip flops and sandals were simply considered communal property.

To have special ownership over a pair of sandals was utterly foreign to my host Middle Eastern culture. Shoes, yes, but sandals? Everyone knows that sandals belong to everyone. You wear them to to enter the squatty-potty, to walk to the corner store, to go out on the dusty roof. No one thinks twice about utilizing them however is needed. Once I realized this part of the culture I strategically wore a different pair of sandals to the next house church meeting. I managed to reclaim my cherished flip flops with a subtle switch during a trip to the bathroom. My friend never seemed to notice that I had successfully reclaimed them. Yet given the extent that I had been bothered by the loss of these flip flops, it felt like a hollow victory. As I recall, the leather later shrunk and curled under the merciless Middle-Eastern sun.

Cultures vary in their understanding of communal property. Certain items or spaces are understood as belonging not to individuals, but to the community. In Melanesia, grassy lawns were viewed this way. It was not uncommon to emerge from a missionary’s house to see clusters of locals sitting and enjoying the front yard. And yet when my friends and I tried to hike different mountains, we kept getting in trouble for not first consulting the “owners” of the mountain. Lawns belong to the community, mountains are private property. Got it.

Every culture has communal property, those things which are simply understood by insiders as justly being available to all. We even have this in the West in spite of our heavier emphasis on private property. Just drop a group of American tourists in a foreign context with no public restrooms and see what happens. And yet this is another area of culture that tends to go unspoken. It is caught rather than taught. One grows up and learns by osmosis what is private and what is communal. As such this area poses a real danger for culture stress.

Frustration with a foreign culture often builds slowly, akin to death by a thousand paper cuts. I think that the “trespassing” of our private property is one area particularly irksome to us Westerners. Whether it’s time, space, or belongings (or hair or photos?), we tend to have a harder time overlooking the oft-unintentional violations of what we have learned belongs to us. We need to have eyes that are open and looking for these differences so that we are better prepared to overlook them in love when they do occur. Count on it, when crossing cultures we will have opportunity to practice not counting anything that belongs to us as actually our own (Acts 4:32). Not that the scriptures are against private property at all – on the contrary, it is assumed to be part of the world God has created. But when necessary for the sake of the gospel and the community of believers, these private rights are surrendered for the sake of love.

One of the best examples I have seen of this came from an older Korean couple who worked among a mountain-top tribe in Melanesia. Knowing that the tribe would understood their tools as belonging to the community and not to themselves alone, they decided to proactively own this fact, rather than fighting it as many other outsiders do. When they moved into the tribe, they appropriately asked that the villagers build their first jungle house for them. In return, they publicly announced at their welcome ceremony that their tools were for the use of the whole village, as needed. So when a tool was inevitably stolen later, they gathered the village leadership and told them that the village tools had been taken. The tribe was accordingly alarmed and put together a search party which soon hunted down the culprit and punished him appropriately. The tool was returned and all was well.

Had this Korean couple not contextualized their personal belongings in this way, the village may well have justified the theft because of the vast wealth disparity still present between the average villager and the modest missionaries. In a subsistence culture where survival depends on sharing tools, these missionaries appropriately put away their own culture’s understanding of personal property and put on their host culture’s. They have lived in peace in that remote tribe for many years now.

What is your culture’s understanding of communal vs. private property? Every culture will have both, but the particular arrangements tend to vary. Are we preparing our hearts to respond lovingly when our understanding of private property is violated in a cultural sense? Do we know what private property means in our host cultures so that we can still call theft theft in the biblical sense? These are not simple questions. Yet they are the meat-and-potatoes of living with a good testimony in another culture.

Some days we will find ourselves deeply annoyed that something of ours has been treated as communal property. But it would tragic to lose our witness among our focus people group because we clung too tightly to our own culture’s property preferences. Let us rather be known as those who cheerfully give up our possessions for the sake of others. In this way we can point to him who though rich, became poor for our sake (2 Cor 8:9).

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