Heroically Hospitable Monks

On a plain to the east of the Lower Lake, the monks built what would become in time a kind of university city, to which came thousands of hopeful students from all over Ireland, then from England, and at last from everywhere in Europe. Never forgetting the prehistoric Irish virtue of heroic hospitality, the monks turned no one away, as is confirmed in this description of a typical university city, given to us by the Venerable Bede, first historian of the newly emergent English people:

“Many of the nobles of the English nation and lesser men also had set out thither, forsaking their native island either for the grace of sacred learning or for a more austere life. And some of them indeed soon dedicated themselves faithfully to the monastic life, others rejoiced rather to give themselves to learning, going about from one master’s cell to another. All these the Irish willingly received, and saw to it to supply them with food day by day without cost, and books for their studies, and teaching, free of charge.”

Cahill, How the Irish Saved Civilization, pp. 157-158

Photo by Michelle Rumney on Unsplash

Jesus Spoke a Persian Word From the Cross

One way to distinguish Central Asia as a region is to say that it is the part of the world dominated by Turkic or Persian-related languages. When it comes to Persian-related languages, we’re talking groups like the Dari, Tajik, Kurdish, Luri, and Balochi. There are hundreds of millions of people who speak Persian itself (also known as Farsi) or languages closely related to it.

These hundreds of millions of people are overwhelmingly Muslim – and they might be surprised to hear that Jesus spoke a word from their ancestral language while on the cross.

That word is what we know as paradise. I won’t get into the details of the etymology, but this ancient Persian word for walled enclosure and garden came into many of the languages of the ancient world, including Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic forms. No doubt the Jewish community living under Persian rule is where much of this linguistic influence came from. Plus, the Persians were the superpower of the region for quite some time. The vocab of the superpower tends to spread, just as here the local Central Asian form of laptop is, well, laptop (but said with an “ah” and an “oh”).

The old Persian term’s connection to a garden is what linked it with Eden, and thus with our concept of paradise – not only Eden lost, but heaven as well, and Eden one day restored.

And he said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23:43 ESV)

These are the words Jesus spoke to the dying thief on the cross who simply asked to be remembered. In this saying Jesus uses the word paradise to refer to having died and being welcomed into the presence and rest of God – Abraham’s bosom as it were.

This is not the only Persian loan word in the Bible. There are dozens of them. Somewhere around eighty in the book of Daniel alone. Yet Jesus’ words on the cross are coming at the very climax of redemptive history. And one of them is Persian. I find this fascinating. Iranians I’ve shared this with are struck as well. It’s one more example of the capacity for any human tongue to be redeemed and used in the service of God.

And what a great opening to go on and share the gospel.

A Song for Struggling Saints

I love this song. I find it to be a good example of using holy imagination to explore true themes that resonate with Scripture and the experience of believers. In it the songwriters craft a fictional conversation between a struggling saint and Jesus. Notice the desperation of the saint, “the devil; Rides on my back every mile; And he won’t take his claws out of my skin; I’m sorry if I’m bleedin'” This broken saint is met by a laughing and welcoming savior, who engages him and then lavishes on him a tour of biblical history and the created universe. The song contains a promise that the struggling saint will be singing with Christ and the angels when “the army comes marching right down from the sky” and that “All of this is Mine! And yours too.” This saint is so beat up he is apologizing to Jesus for bleeding and doesn’t even know how to ask for help. But Christ laughs kindly because the the reality he knows is one in which this struggling saint is the heir of the universe. I love the line, “stuck our tongues out at the earth and slowed its rotation.” Ha! I guess that’s one way to demonstrate being a true heir of the world. The interwoven melody of the older song, “When the Saints Come Marching In,” is great as well. Lyrics below.

He said to me where is your halo
Where are your wings your black book bible
I’ve lost them all but you know it’s not your fault
He asked me how I said 'the devil
Rides on my back every mile
And he won’t take his claws out of my skin I’m sorry if I’m bleeding'

He bent down and wrote it in the sand
Made a wave and spelled it out in the ocean
Said we’ll be singing those angel hymns all together
When the army comes marching right down from the sky

'I can help' is what came from His mouth
I’d yell yes please but I’ve never spoken to the clouds
The weight it grows everyday ever hour second and eternity
He laughed out loud and asked me to explain
Forever, no-end, death, and being born again
If it’s the universe you want to see, come and take a walk with Me

I told myself son you better listen...

And we went into the garden and saw Adam die alone
Saw a baby in the water floating to a safer home
Saw the walls fall to the trumpeters then to Gilead we ran
By the time we made it to the top we were out of breath again
Then we stood on the moon, moved the craters to make faces
Stuck our tongues out at the earth then slowed it’s rotation
It was July in the winter before we moved it back to June
Passed the speed of sound, the speed of light and the speed of time too and he said,
'All of this is Mine, and yours too'

“Saints” by Poor Bishop Hooper

A Proverb on Learning One’s Lesson

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

Local Oral Tradition

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

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

Photo by Edson Junior on Unsplash

Planting Forests

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by Lukasz Szmigiel on Unsplash

The Lone and Level Sands

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Ozymandius” by Shelley, from Poetry Foundation

Photo by Juli Kosolapova on Unsplash

A Proverb on The Sweet Spot

Everything with salt, and salt in right amount.

Local Oral Tradition

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

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

Photo by Jason Tuinstra on Unsplash

Things Not to Do in Minefields

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Mines! Mines! Mines!”

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by Robert Bye on Unsplash

*Names changed for security (and dignity!)

An Independent Christian Community

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

Baumer, The Church of the East, p. 20

A few key points to note from this excerpt:

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

Photo by Wikimedia Commons.