Discipleship Is a Type of Suffering

The normal work of discipleship is a type of suffering. This, according to Paul in 2nd Timothy 2:2-7.

[1] You then, my child, be strengthened by the grace that is in Christ Jesus, [2] and what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men, who will be able to teach others also. [3] Share in suffering as a good soldier of Christ Jesus. [4] No soldier gets entangled in civilian pursuits, since his aim is to please the one who enlisted him. [5] An athlete is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules. [6] It is the hard-working farmer who ought to have the first share of the crops. [7] Think over what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding in everything.

2 Timothy 2:2-7, ESV

Notice how verse two, which discusses the entrusting of Paul’s message to other faithful men, is immediately followed by an exhortation to share in the suffering of Christ. Along with the local brothers with whom I attended an exegesis and preaching workshop this week, I had been assuming this mention of suffering here referred to persecution. But our cohort leader helped us to see the kind of suffering meant here is illustrated by the three examples of soldier, athlete, and farmer – all examples which emphasize the costliness of hard work and discipline. The costliness of steady, focused, tough labor. Not the costliness of persecution. That was an eye-opener for me, and a timely word.

Yes, elsewhere in 2nd Timothy persecution is mentioned, but the immediate context of these verses suggests that Paul has the suffering of discipline in mind. The kind of discipline and hard work that comes with entrusting the gospel message to faithful men who will entrust it to others also. Like a faithful soldier, a disciplined athlete, a hardworking farmer. This is the suffering of sweat, long hours, and extended seasons of toil.

Why was this takeaway so helpful for me? Because I feel the costliness of trying to disciple others and trying to raise up local leaders. I feel it keenly. Even during the several days of this training, the conduct of the local believers was deeply disappointing. It was exhausting. And it wasn’t just this three-day workshop. It has been a long season of walking through one conflict after another with local believers. And I am tempted to feel like the difficulty, the sweat and fatigue of this season, means I am doing something wrong – or that I am simply not gifted enough for this kind of task.

It seems every time we are ready to extend greater trust and responsibility to locals, some petty conflict emerges (or rather, explodes), showing that the maturity piece just isn’t there yet. Crisis reveals character again and again, and yet again.

How long, O Lord, until your word and your Spirit do their work of making our friends trustworthy and faithful? Will we ever see elder-qualified men emerge in this context?

And yet here in 2nd Timothy 2, I have been given a timely word. The work of discipleship is a kind of suffering. It’s not just me. Even a sharing in the suffering of Christ himself. What an honor! Paul found a Timothy, Timothy found other faithful men, they taught others also. If not, the gospel would have never come down to me, and to my local friends. This work is not impossible. To feel like a weary soldier, a tired athlete, a sore farmer, this is exactly how I am supposed to feel.

Dwelling on this truth these last several days has steadied my soul. Unlike how many missions trainers use verse two to advocate for rapid multiplication of disciples, this context shows us the work is long-term, tough, and yes, even a form of suffering.

That is not bad news at all. For weary workers like myself, it is in fact very good news. It means we are not off-track and unfit simply because the work often feels like working cursed soil in a desolate land. No, this is the nature of the work itself. Deprivation before honor. Sweat before victory. Toil before the harvest feast.

That is the kind of suffering that leads to faithful men who teach others also.

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Be My (Hypothetical) Guest

“Be my guest!”

It’s the kind of polite statement you hear from local merchants all the time if you are a foreigner or even a respectful local.

The merchant running a small sandwich shop or chai stand says this, seemingly with their whole heart. However, what seems to be a generous and hospitable offer actually turns out to be a place ripe for cross-cultural offense.

I once had a coworker who ordered a pizza for delivery. When the delivery driver arrived he was surprised to find out that the customer was an American. His honorable reflexes kicked in and when he handed over the pizza he told the American to put his money away.

“Be my guest!”

The American, wowed at this turn of good fortune, smiled, thanked the driver profusely, took the pizza, and closed the door.

The driver stood at the door for a minute, stunned.

He walked back to his delivery scooter, paused, and then came back to the door, full of embarrassment.

The American opened the door, surprised to see the driver again.

“I’m so sorry, sir,” the driver said, “If I don’t bring back the money from this pizza, I will lose my job!”

“Why didn’t you say so!” responded the American. And he promptly paid up.

Consider also some recent YouTube videos of a young Western travel blogger who visited one of our local cities. “Everyone is so nice here!” she exclaimed. “They all keep giving me free stuff!”

We cringed as we watched this video. While some of the free street food offered wouldn’t be a big deal, we also knew that many of the merchants would later be grumbling about the rude foreigner who actually took them up on their merely rhetorical offer. And ninety nine percent of the time, that’s exactly what it is: rhetorical and hypothetical.

In a highly-verbal honor/shame culture, public displays of hospitality and generosity (or at least displays of intent) are very important. But the whole system gets jammed up when those on the receiving end don’t know that in order to be honorable themselves, they need to politely and profusely refuse these repeated offers.

It’s like a dance. You offer me a free kabob. I turn down the offer and thank you. We go back and forth a few times. The merchant almost always wants and needs the customer to pay for the kabob. But every once in a while, the merchant keeps on and keeps on insisting. At which point both parties understand that it is now honorable to take him up on his gift kabob.

Why not save some time and just take the money? Welcome to Central Asia. Where honor is still way more important than time.

Why not just say what you mean? Well, the local would contend that he is saying what he means. But you are supposed to understand that while he means he is technically willing to do it, you still need to respect him by not letting him do it. He really means it… hypothetically.

While it’s a little more extreme over here, every culture has something like this. When we were still living in the US, it was, “Let’s get coffee some time!” Such an offer from a Westerner shows a friendly politeness. An appropriate response is, “Yes, that would be great sometime!” But if you pull out your calendar right away, it’s likely to get awkward.

A word of advice to Westerners traveling in the Middle East or Central Asia (and Melanesia for that matter). Be very slow to accept gifts from strangers, no matter how sincere they seem. While they genuinely mean for you to be their guest, they often don’t mean this literally.

Be their hypothetical guest, and all will save face.

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North Korea, Persecution, and Insider Movements

I listened to this podcast while driving to another city yesterday in order to attend a training. I thought it looked good. I had no idea just how good it would prove to be. Without exaggerating, this is one of the most thought-provoking, emboldening, and sobering things I have listened to all year.

Turns out the history of missions and the Church in Korea has a lot of lessons for those seeking to plant churches among unreached Muslim people groups today. James Cha, the man interviewed, himself draws these connections regarding compromise, persecution, and God’s purposes in even the worst kinds of suffering.

My American parents were supported by the second largest church in Korea when they went to the mission field in 1989. At that time, the pastor of that huge church told them that Koreans were not quite ready yet to send their own cross-cultural workers. But they were praying in order to get ready. Now, in 2021, they have over 16,000 foreign missionaries on the field. Listening to their spiritual heritage gives me a deeper appreciation for how God has worked to reach that nation, and how he is now using them to reach so many others. What a legacy. And what a tragedy considering the ongoing suffering of North Koreans. May God be merciful and grant the reunification of the North and South so long prayed for.

Could it be that my persecuted minority focus group might some day respond to the gospel and be a huge sending force like the Koreans are? May it be.

Listen to the podcast here.

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The Apostle of Mesopotamia

The Syrian acts of Mar Mari, from the sixth/seventh century… credit Mar Mari with the first complete evangelization of Mesopotamia. He serves as the apostle to Mesopotamia, whose two major rivers, the Euphrates and the Tigris, according the Genesis, flowed out of paradise (Gen 2:14) According to the acts, Mar Addai sent him from Edessa to the east. He first taught in Nisibis and then moved on the Arbil, the capital of the principality of Adiabene in modern Iraqi Kurdistan, where he cured the king of leprosy and cast out a demon the from the son of an officer. On the way south, he, like Jesus, healed the afflicted, cast demons out of the possessed and even raised the dead. In Seleucia-Ctesiphon he encountered resistance; the citizens wanted nothing of the Good News. Only a successful demonstration of divine judgement, in which the apostle remained unharmed in a blazing fire, enabled a few conversions, after which Mari destroyed a pagan temple and erected atop its ruins a chapel – the future cathedral of Kokhe. He then followed the Tigris south, reached present-day Basra and concluded his journey in Khuzistan and the province of Persia. The acts close with the extolling of Mari, who, like a ‘pillar of fire’, led believers through the desert of ignorance into the kingdom of the Gospel.

Baumer, The Church of the East, pp. 19-20

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A Song on The Loudest and Loveliest Sound

Walking alone through the woods
There's a roar that cannot be denied
Constant and loud
A sound that surrounds
It beckons you come and find 

But you drown it out
So sure that it's something you could do without
Your heart is still hard 
So you disregard the loudest and loveliest sound

Oh won't you come where the water is white
Let it shove you under
Let is steal your might 
And when you surface downstream 
For the first time
You will be free

You're keeping busy so you stay sane 
And were you to stop 
You would hear your real name
So stop your ignoring, come find the roaring
Come back to from where you came 

Oh won't you come where the water is white
Let it shove you under
Let is steal your might 
And when you surface downstream 
For the first time
You will be free

-“Waterfall” by Joel Ansett

He Would Have Come With Me

The summer after my freshman year of college I moved back to the Philadelphia area in order to work and save up for a gap year in Central Asia.

I ended up finding steady part-time work with an elderly cancer patient named Mr. Joe. Because of his age and the weakness brought on by chemotherapy, Mr. Joe needed a lot of help around his suburban property. He paid me a very generous hourly wage to help him with random projects, even paying me for the time it took to go to long lunches with him at a local Jewish diner. He also loaned me one of his cars so that I could easily commute to his place from the mission house where my mom and I were living at that point.

Mr. Joe was a character. He spoke with a New York accent, loved to tell long funny stories, and could never seem to actually finish a project – or even let the young guy working for him finish one. This understandably drove his wife crazy. The yard especially was a minefield of almost-finished projects that Mr. Joe had moved on from. She did her best to keep the house inside well kept-up as her refuge from the various project zones. Alas, at this she was only moderately successful. May God reward her faithful endurance with a project-free abode in the age to come.

“He’s payin’ you to be his friend and listen to bad jokes, tuhts!” his wife would sometimes say, laughing. This wasn’t entirely untrue.

Mr. Joe and his wife knew my parents from years ago where they had overlapped at the same church. This was the church where my dad had come to faith, married my mom, served as an associate pastor, and was eventually sent to the mission field. Mr. Joe and his wife were part of a large contingent that eventually left the church after a long and fruitful season, “the glory years,” came to an end with a pastoral leadership transition that never seemed to stop transitioning. What had been a strong and more traditional Baptist church led by a gifted pastor through the 80’s and 90’s later struggled in the confused church growth movement of the late 90’s and early 2000s.

I hope that Mr. Joe indeed had genuine faith, and he particularly emphasized the importance of finding joy in God. But he was also a contrarian who enjoyed theological provocation, so he would say lots of edgy things to get a rise out of people – or at least to get a laugh. He was originally from a Catholic background, as many of the evangelicals in that part of the Philly area tend to be. But like many from our former church, he never settled again in one local church after the transition fallout.

In one way Mr. Joe was a very traditional older white American man of the mid-2000s. He despised Muslims. And for the life of him he could not wrap his mind around why I wanted to move to Central Asia in order to befriend Muslims and share the gospel with them. The question would come up over and over again as we sat down and enjoyed hoagies, reuben sandwiches, and coffee at his favorite Jewish diner. Why would you ever want to give your life for them?

We had countless conversations over the course of that summer where Mr. Joe tried to square what I was sharing with him about God’s heart for Muslims with what he was watching on TV and reading from the “Clash of Civilizations” literature of that period. To be honest, I didn’t think these talks – heavily interspersed with Mr. Joe’s rabbit trails and stories – were having any effect on him. I was, after all, a 19-year-old kid who hadn’t even grown up in the US, an idealist who could talk a lot about reformed theology and missions but who couldn’t seem to stop ruining Mr. Joe’s yard and doing my fair share of botching his admittedly quixotic list of projects. He was about 50 years my senior. And we had frankly lived in very different worlds.

At that point I was fresh from a year of studying at Bethlehem, John Piper’s church, so we found some common ground when discussing the pleasures of walking with God. And of course we developed other common ground as I learned about the pleasures of long lunches at Jewish diners. But Mr. Joe knew that I was saving the money he paid me so that I could afford my year overseas in Central Asia. And from the beginning he told me he was absolutely against the idea of me going – and that he thought I was crazy and foolish. Apparently his need for help was greater than his opposition to what I planned to do with the money.

But God was at work over the course of those several months where we started countless projects together and even managed to finish a few. As summer transitioned to fall, one day we went out for a final lunch together at his favorite diner. And there Mr. Joe, with tears in his eyes, told me something I will never forget.

“A.W., you know I think you’re crazy for wanting to go over there. But I’ll tell ya what, if I were a younger man and weren’t about to die from cancer, I’d go with ya… You be safe over there and ya tell them about Jesus and how he loves ’em.”

I nearly choked on my cottage cheese.

It was, for me, one of the more miraculous heart changes I had ever seen. I remember thinking to myself, “If God can change this old man’s hatred toward Muslims, and replace it with love, well then maybe I’m not crazy for thinking God can change Muslims’ hearts as well.”

Mr. Joe sent me off with a very generous gift of financial support, asked to be on my update list, and that was the last we ever saw of each other. He passed away shortly thereafter from cancer.

God changes hearts. He did it for me. He did it for Mr. Joe. He can do it for any person in our lives who seems absolutely unchangeable.

The kingโ€™s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the LORD; he turns it wherever he will.

(Proverbs 21:1 ESV)

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The First Literates

For it was Patrick’s Christian mission that nurtured Irish scholarship into blossom. Patrick, the incomplete Roman, nevertheless understood that, though Christianity was not inextricably wedded to Roman custom, it could not survive without Roman literacy. And so the first Irish Christians also became the first Irish literates.

Cahill, How the Irish Saved Civilization, pp. 150-151

And this continues to be the case. I remember my mother teaching literacy classes in the woven reed huts of Melanesia. Friends in Cameroon are teaching others to read and write for the first time. And even here in Central Asia, literacy and eventually scholarship goes hand in hand with gospel advance. Just this week I helped pay for some seminary books in one of our languages and wrote someone else asking them to consider coming and investing in one of our many unengaged minority language groups. They (or you) could be the first Christian and outsider ever to learn one of these tongues and preach the gospel in it.

Is it pragmatic to teach indigenous peoples how to read and write so that the faith might survive and advance? Sure, but I believe it’s more than that. Christians have always been people of the book. We are lovers of language who truly delight to see the worship of God breaking into more and more mother-tongues.

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The Deeper Beliefs Begin to Come Out

This past week we received some timely encouragement from veteran workers.

“Don’t be discouraged by the messiness of the situations you’re facing in local discipleship. That messiness is actually evidence of arriving at a place in language and culture where the deeper beliefs are starting to come out. It wasn’t until we had been in Africa for five years that we started to discover some of the deeper hidden and very problematic parts of believers’ worldviews.”

This was indeed a timely word. The messy revelations that have been occurring in the lives our local believers are quite discouraging. It can feel like the years of steady teaching and discipleship have failed to trickle down into the places of the soul where it really counts. Are the basic means of grace actually enough to transform these people? is a question I find myself wrestling with.

One fresh example from just a few hours ago. I went walking in the bazaar with a local believer caught up in a complex plot against him involving a broken engagement, stolen money, alleged death threats, accusers and police who are related to each other, and a judge who became livid and vindictive when our friend refused to swear on the Qur’an. Toward the end of our conversation, we sat down to have some melon juice together.

“You know how if you bury a body, but you will need to rebury it somewhere else, you can tell the ground that it’s Avowal, and the body won’t decompose for the length of time you set?” asked my friend.

“Wait… what? What’s that word, Avowal? I’ve never heard of this before,” I responded.

“Yes, like if you need to take a body back to America. You can bury it in the ground and instead of the flesh decomposing in a matter of weeks, it will remain until you come back to get it – as long as you tell the ground it is Avowal, it will respect this word.”

I was trying to piece together this brand new concept my believing friend was sharing with me.

“Hm, interesting. Is this something from your previous religion or your culture?” I asked.

“No, this is something that is. The ground respects that word.”

I realized that this was not something my friend – a college-educated believer of six years – was presenting as a mere tradition of his culture. He was presenting this to me as reality. Avowal (a rough translation, to be sure) is something that my friend is convinced has power in the real physical world.

He went on to clarify that he used this word in the context of his legal problems, initially giving money to someone else in the category of Avowal. He fully expected them to not misuse this money, but instead, to honor the weight of this word.

Apparently you can use Avowal to entrust someone else with anything precious that you need to be kept safe and protected at all costs – such as a child or gold. And the expectation is that they will honor this sacred word, just as the ground does for a corpse. If they don’t, they are counted as the most despicable of persons.

A couple other local believers came over to my house this afternoon. Curious, I ran this concept by them. The younger, more progressive one, readily spoke of Avowal being used as the strongest kind of promise regarding safekeeping. But he balked at the idea of it being used for burial and reburial. The other believer, ten years his senior, not only said that he had heard of Avowal being used for the dead, but he had seen it work with his own eyes, many years ago.

What, exactly, are we to do when we come across something like this? Much of today I’ve been thinking about this new discovery and trying to find a category for it. I think we’ve found one: white magic.

What else would you call a specific word that is used to keep the earth from decomposing a corpse as it is naturally meant to do? Sure, it’s for a good motive, preserving the body so that it can be honorably buried elsewhere. But it is more or less a verbal spell used to manipulate the created world and get it to do something different. It’s white magic. As such it is out of bounds for those who are now indwelt by the Holy Spirit and reconciled to the Lord of creation.

I have to think more about the uses of Avowal when it comes to entrusting offspring or treasure to others for safe keeping. Could there even be possible positive connections to the woefully underdeveloped local concept of covenant? It’s worth looking into for culture where jihad is the only real known covenant and everything else is just a contract – yes, that includes even salvation and marriage.

But at least when it comes to its usage regarding the dead, Avowal is a concept we’re going to have to revisit as part of a practical discipleship. Just as the believers in Ephesus burnt their books of magic, so we’ll need our local friends to in fact disavow their practice of graveside Avowal.

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The Spiritual Uses of Eczema

For a while now I’ve had eczema outbreaks on my hands. It started in earnest after my daughter developed diabetes in the middle of spring 2020 Covid lockdowns. Which followed a decade of a pretty intense ministry lifestyle on my part. Apparently an auto-immune disease like eczema can develop in response to massive stress or experiencing trauma. These things don’t get fully dealt with and can come out in the body. Makes sense, given the season and background.

The eczema itself hasn’t been terrible, but along with some other small health things that won’t go away it has been a regular and sobering reminder of my own brokenness. A chance to lament with a deathbed line from M’Cheyne, that God gave me a message and a horse (a body). I have preached the message – and I have been killing the horse. My eczema reminds me that I am a limited creature, with a limited body and mind. When I push beyond the good boundaries baked into my created nature, things tend to break. And they might stay broken for a long time.

As such, eczema keeps me humble. It reminds me of the importance of living at a God-honoring pace. It itches and breaks open in seasons of increased stress. When it does, it reminds me of the ways my pride has contributed to that load of stress. God uses it as a kind reminder of hard truths that I am prone to ignore.

However, tonight I heard of a very different spiritual use of eczema. *Alan came for the first time to our discipleship meeting tonight in order to share his testimony with the other believing local men. He had shown up out of nowhere a couple weeks ago, professing faith and desiring baptism. Normally we’d be pretty skeptical, waiting for the tell-tale question about baptism certificates that indicates a young man is looking to “convert” in order to craft a religious persecution case for the UN. But Alan’s story was very different. After years of studying different religions, he had immersed himself in a study of Christianity during those same lockdowns of 2020. After many months and thousands of hours of study, he seems to have been born again, in isolation, this past January. And right around that time, God healed him of his severe eczema.

Alan had struggled all his life with terrible eczema on his arms, in spite of trying countless treatments. The dryness of our local climate, the severity of the sun, and the extent of his outbreaks meant arms bandaged up arms and plenty of limitations. Alan is also brilliant, training to be a doctor, with the mind of a young scholar. So a lack of research was not the problem.

But in the mysteries of God’s providence, right as Alan came under conviction that the gospel is true, his eczema completely disappeared. He is convinced it was a miracle of God’s healing power, one which emphasized God’s love and care for him personally. I am prone to believe him.

Just a couple weeks ago I was encouraging some new personnel as they shared about a friend who seems painfully close to faith, but who just won’t yet take the plunge. “I don’t understand. She sees and mentally agrees with the gospel when we study together, but she’s just not quite believing it yet,” my colleague said, shaking her head. I shared with her that this phase is not uncommon at all among our local friends. They come to the place where they know the gospel is true in their minds. But they often get stuck there, seeming unable or unwilling to fully believe it for a season. Those that make it through this season often do so because of a demonstration of spiritual power and/or presence.

I’m not talking about anything too crazy here. But to not notice this trend in the work here one would have to be willfully blind. The majority of our Muslim Central Asian friends who follow Jesus experience something like a dream, a healing, or a powerful indication of God’s care for them as one of their final steps towards believing (Yes, even those being led to faith by us Baptists). This event often confirms for them experientially the truths they’ve been seeing in God’s word. It’s so commonplace – especially dreams – that those who don’t experience one sometimes wonder if they’ve done something wrong. We of course assure them that they haven’t.

The salvation of an individual has been the same since the beginning – counted righteous by faith in God’s promises. Confirmation of the truth of the gospel or the new birth may vary considerably, and we are unwise if we get overly-narrow and demand the optional confirmatory workings of the Spirit look the same every time. No, keep it simple and biblical. A credible gospel profession with the mouth. A life that, even if only in seed-form, evidences the transforming power of the Spirit. After that, the Spirit is free to show off if and how He wants to. And yes, He tends to do so differently in fear/power and honor/shame cultures than he does in the cognitive West. If in doubt, please consult some classic missionary biographies. Or some of our local church members. Or 1st Corinthians chapter one. Greeks seek wisdom. Jews seek a sign. The Spirit saves both and demonstrates the gospel to be the true power and true wisdom of God.

If God indeed miraculously healed Alan’s eczema, what might be the point of that particular healing? If we study the ways the Holy Spirit has tended to work here, it would likely have to do with the category of confirmation and assurance. Yes, you are about to go against your entire society and follow Jesus, but this is not just some philosophy, this is actually and powerfully true. Yes, your body may be broken someday by persecution, but resurrection is coming – and here is a little preview of death working in reverse. Take courage. Yes, your relatives might call you an unclean infidel, but you have found the source of true cleansing. Everything that Jesus touches becomes clean.

For another reason I am very thankful for this experience that Alan has had. He is very intellectually-wired and has already consumed thousands of hours of YouTube apologetics. There is great danger that his heady faith will misfire if not grounded in experience, affection, and a messy local church. Brilliant minds like his can be shaken by subtle or powerful anti-gospel arguments and they can fall into a continual search for truth, one which never ultimately lands anywhere. But what about the eczema? What scholarly argument could convince him that that never happened, that the timing was purely coincidental? It may serve as a safeguard in the future when his faith is shaken, as experiences of God’s faithful kindness serve to stabilize so many of us when we begin to doubt.

If Alan is right, and this was a healing, then how very fitting it is. That Jesus might make someone clean from a skin disease as a metaphor for what he is doing to their very nature.

Regardless, Jesus has truly reached out and touched this young man’s unclean soul. And once again, Jesus did not become unclean. Instead, Alan is now truly and forever healed and whole.

And us? We are making plans for a baptism.

*names changed for security

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