A Song For When We’ve Denied Him

I really appreciate this song which explores Peter’s betrayal of Jesus – his pride on the front end and his lament afterward. It helps me also remember and lament the ways in which I too have denied Christ. There is comfort in knowing that Christ knows all along – just as he did for Peter – how we will fall. And that he mercifully continues to grant us the promise of true repentance, “when you turn…” Peter’s denials and restoration offer great hope for all of us.

Some select lyrics:

When she asked her question

That servant girl she broke my heart

I knew she was the message

That You had spoken all along

And two behind her followed in the prints her feet had made

Said they’d seen me walking with You, said my tongue gave me away

But I swore against their charges, claimed You I’d never known

Just in time to hear the bird You promised, lift its head and crow

Lift its head and crow

Oh Jesus I wish You were wrong wrong wrong

Wrong about me

“Jesus is Denied by Peter” by Poor Bishop Hooper

The Upsides of Local Houses

“Hm, there’s nothing especially pretty about the local architecture, is there?”

This comment from a visitor a few years back is a pretty good summary of how most Westerners feel about our local houses. Cement rectangles finished in plaster, paint, and tile maybe aren’t exactly something to write home about. Aesthetically, it’s like the sharp corners of the 1980s have been awkwardly wed to hints of Islamic and communist design. And yet, there a quite a few aspects of these houses that we’ve come to appreciate. As with so many other areas, the culture has even seeped into into the architecture, leading to houses that themselves communicate things about their environment and the people who live in them. Despite their challenges, my family continues to live in a typical house here, our third one now since moving overseas. Here are a few things I now appreciate about local houses.

A Separate Hosting Room. Most houses here include a room for hosting guests who come visiting. This room is typically well carpeted and the walls are lined with either couches or with local sitting mattresses. This hosting room is usually separated from the rest of the house by a door and often has its own entrance. This allows guests to be honorably hosted, but also contained out of sight of the necessary workings of the household and hospitality. The meal will often be served in this same room, with a long plastic or fabric table cloth laid on the floor. Guests can also sleep in this room, with the sitting mattresses doubling as beds and with the door providing adequate privacy. This compartmentalizing of hospitality means hosting is much more practical since all the required household business can still happen out of sight, even when guests are present. Just make sure one of the family members is in there with them, the guests are munching on something or someone’s working to bring tea or snacks, and the TV is on.

Diverse Toilets. Many local houses will now have both kinds of toilets, western and eastern. An eastern toilet is also popularly known as the squatty potty. It’s basically a porcelain hole in the floor complete with side treads for your feet so that you know you’re positioned correctly. I’m not going to go into details but let’s just say that it’s ideal to have both kinds of toilets on hand, both for hospitality and for dealing with different kinds of sicknesses! There’s also often an extra guest half-bath in the courtyard, just outside the hosting room, so that guests can use it without needing to pass through the family part of the house.

Flat Roofs. The flat roofs of our region mean that you have an accessible area for placing water tanks, random supplies (but only if they can survive the blistering heat), and air conditioning/heat units. The roofs also make great places to step out onto for a quiet moment or to sit around a fire at night. In the past, many families would sleep on their roofs during the summer, since the night air was much cooler than the air inside the cement house, which had soaked up the heat of the sun during the day. Many locals will also use the roof as a good place to hang up, beat, wash, and dry their Persian carpets, and sometimes to hang their laundry.

The Practical Kitchen. Why have only one kitchen when you can have two? Many local houses have two kitchens, one which is kept spotlessly presentable for guests, and one which is used for the messier stove-top cooking and food preparation. This second kitchen is called the practical kitchen and it is often built in a different room which is only partially sealed to the outside air. This is so that the heat of the stove can escape without being trapped in a house which is already overheating in the summer. Our practical kitchen contains our stove, our hot water boiler, and a chair for when my wife needs to find a quiet place to pray out of sight of the offsprings.

Courtyards. Though much smaller in modern houses than they used to be, courtyards still provide a vital space for the family to work and play with the privacy provided by a high wall and gate. The courtyard is considered part of the house so it gives the women of the family protected access to sunlight and often a small garden/yard area and a cement or tile floor where they can do necessary work. Like many locals, we are working hard to turn our small tiled courtyard into a small garden of sorts, a green refuge from the dust and cement of the city.

The Hamam. This room is a fully tiled space that is used for showers. Why limit yourself to a small tub and curtain in the corner when you can have your own tiled sauna room? Locals will often put their water boiler beneath the tiled floor so that the floor itself is heated as well as the water. As a Westerner who greatly appreciates hot showers, I have to say that the shower experience of the hamam is far superior to the Western-style corner or tub shower. That is, unless it’s like our previous house, where the floor of the hamam was somehow conducting electricity!

Light Wells. What do you do when you live in a country with inconsistent electricity? Build houses with light wells throughout, a shaft that goes up to a skylight on the roof, so that most rooms have access to some kind of window that receives natural light. In the dark of winter these light wells can make all the difference.

Local houses are quirky, no doubt. The quality of construction is not very good so things break all the time. I am nearing the completion of about a hundred small repair repair projects in the house where we currently live. In one sense, it would be much simpler to live in one of the new Western-style apartment towers that are being built. And yet there are things about these houses we have come to really appreciate. We can see how they have been built by a people who really care about guests, about family, about comfort, and about making the best out of an unreliable infrastructure. They have their own charm, even if it takes a while to recognize it.

And if I ever build my own house in the West somewhere, count on it, I will be including at least one squatty potty.

Photo by Sohaib Ghyasi on Unsplash

Literally The Man on the Island

A few years back we ran an experimental outreach with some local friends. We were having an awfully hard time getting locals (believers and nonbelievers) to commit to weekly Bible studies in our homes, but we were always being hounded by friends wanting to practice their English with us in cafes. So we decided to start a cafe book group with locals where we would read, in English, Timothy Keller’s The Prodigal God.

The goals of this time were multiple. See if locals would commit to anything on a weekly schedule. See what kind of buy-in we got by combining a desire to improve English with a desire to learn more about the message of Jesus. See if we ourselves could get some rich technical and theological vocabulary in the local language as the group worked through the advanced English of The Prodigal God. And above all, give our local friends the chance to soak for a good long time in the message of the gospel of God’s grace. Turns out all of these good things would come out of this very simple book group. But not without a good deal of surprises along the way.

One of the local men who became a regular at this group was a professing new believer. One week we were discussing some aspect of the gospel in detail when out of his mouth came the classic “man on the island” objection. “But what about the good person who died in a remote place (like India) without hearing this good news about Jesus? Does God really still send them to hell? And what about my ancestors? How is that just?”

The irony of the situation was not lost on us. Here was a man who had been in almost this very same situation. He was literally the man on the island!* He was living in a remote part of the world with much less gospel access than India. And yet the gospel had reached him. But here he was, wrestling with the very same question that so many have in the West. Accordingly, our first response was to have him look in the mirror. “Consider all of the millions of things required for the gospel to have reached you. Jesus has his sheep and they will hear his voice. He will get his gospel to his chosen ones no matter the obstacles. Just as he reached you.”

We next pointed him to the related point that the gospel had gone forth through much of the world in previous centuries. In his own homeland the Church had been established very early on in Christian history, even though it had eventually died out. How many of his ancestors had heard the message and believed or rejected it? We won’t know until heaven. The ancient church took the gospel as far as Ethiopia, Socotra, India, China, and even Korea – all places in which the modern church renewed the witness that had been there but died out long ago. And this is only from the small evidence that remains from those extinct Christian communities. What might have been lost? We shouldn’t be too hasty to assume that any part of the Eurasian-African landmass has had no Christian witness at some point predating the modern missions movement. After all, there’s even a possibility that early medieval Irish monks reached North America!

However, in addition to these historical points, we also pointed him to the sober but consistent logic of the scriptures. The command of Jesus is to preach the gospel to all nations (Matt 28:19, Luke 24:47). If people are safe without hearing the gospel and condemned only if they reject it, how does this command make sense? In fact, we are not condemned only after rejecting the gospel. We were condemned already by rejecting all of the light that we had by virtue of nature and conscience and religion (Rom 2:15). We always resist the Holy Spirit (Acts 7:51), we consistently suppress the truth in unrighteousness (Rom 1:8), without exception. We are guilty because of who we are – in Adam’s race – and we are guilty because we go on and rebel just as our first father did, without exception and as soon as we are morally able to do so (Rom 5:12).

These things are true of everyone in the world. There are no “Holy Indian Uncles” who are somehow different from we are (Rom 3:23). Again, we should look in the mirror. Deep down our conscience confirms that we have failed even our own broken standards, let alone God’s – we know this in the core of our being. And every other human in the world is just. like. us.

Our local friends chewed on these responses as they simultaneously chewed on pieces from the fancy fruit plate we typically ordered at the cafe where we met. I sipped my bitter Americano and also pondered. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been that surprised that my friend would ask “the man on the island” question. Ultimately, it turns out that objections to the gospel really are quite universal. There is a certain logic of the lost mind that doesn’t change that much from New York to Kabul, Mumbai to Paris. We naturally just don’t like the justice and the grace of God – whatever our religious and cultural background. And without the word of God to enlighten our fallen minds and hearts, we never would have chosen for him to apply justice and grace in the somewhat offensive ways that he has. We come to the Word of God. We are offended. We are then either humbled, or hardened. Such is the effect of confronting the prodigal love of the just Father.

“Friends,” we began again, “One more point. This topic is why you must, even now, look up and see the darkness around you, and in many other parts of the world. So many have never heard this message of Jesus. Right now, even though the gospel is brand new to you and to your people, you should begin to pray and to dream of sending the gospel to those who might never hear otherwise. It’s really good that you’re disturbed that many have had no opportunity to hear. But what should we do about the person with no access to the gospel? Pray. And do everything we can to get it to them. Jesus will find his sheep. But your prayers and your witness is his means by which he does that.”

And with that, someone asked a question about what Keller meant by the word bohemian, and the study moved on.

*For any who might object to my use of literally whereas historical usage requires the use of figuratively, rest assured, I feel your pain. Alas, the meanings of words change by popular usage and that of literally has literally come to mean its opposite of figuratively. Figuratively the man on the island just doesn’t sound quite the same!

*In this kind of discussion I often find it helpful to also point out that the perfect justice of God is not without perfect nuance. Even though we all reject the light that we have, we have evidence in the scriptures that a greater degree of condemnation is deserved by those with greater access to the light, such as Capernaum vs. Sodom and Gomorrah (Matt 11:23-24). God’s justice will perfectly account for these differences.

Photo by Tom Winckels on Unsplash

Signs of Ossified Religion

Roman religion had long since ossified, since it provided no oral principles, no way of salvation, no possibility for a personal relationship with the divinity, and no emotional home in a faith community. It functioned, at best, as the personified ideal of civic life and the state. At worst, it deteriorated into a cult of the ruler, the idolization of a living person, which began with Emperor Nero and under Domitian was required of all citizens. In 85 CE Domitian began presumptuously signing documents as ‘Lord and God.’

Since no god, except for the Jewish, made a claim of absoluteness, the gods became interchangeable. ‘The various cults were regarded by the people as equally true, by the philosophers as equally false, and by the authorities as equally useful.’

Baumer, The Church of the East, p. 11

Photo by Etienne Girardet on Unsplash

A Letter on the Sending Church Relationship

I wrote this letter to our group of fellow missionary candidates shortly before we left for training. Six years later, these conversations and structures are still valuable to consider for any who are hoping to be sent out as missionaries from their church. However, I would recommend talking with your church about these things much earlier, perhaps a year in advance of your departure. The sending church relationship really matters! Consider how you these suggestions might help your church better send in a manner worthy of God.

Fellow Missionary Candidates, 

We have just under two months until training and during that time I wanted to send you a few ideas regarding your relationship with your sending church. For the past couple of years I have served as a missions pastor and also have been involved in broader conversations with other churches about healthy New Testament sending and supporting of missionaries. Our crew of candidates comes from a variety of churches. Some are experienced missions-minded churches who already have developed sending and care structures for their missionaries. Others, in sending you, will be sending out their first ever missionary. We know that it is the church that sends, not the organization (Acts 13). Our org will provide many structures for our care and support while we are on the field, but your relationship with your sending church is a vital lifeline that can be the difference between you staying on the field or coming home. In light of this, here are a few best practices that our church and other like-minded sending churches have implemented in order to care for our sent out ones. I commend these to you as one way that healthy sending can be fleshed out. There are many faithful variations of these, and every sending church still has room for growth. Still, my hope is that these will generate good conversations, ideas, and structures as you speak with your pastors about your sending and care. 

Don’t be shy to approach your pastors to talk over these things. An already busy pastor might feel overwhelmed at the thought of one more commitment, but many of these structures can be led and implemented by volunteers as well. And many pastors would be excited to think through these things, simply having never been exposed to these ideas before. One more thing – your eagerness to do the legwork for mobilizing for these things can make all the difference in the eyes of busy church leadership. At the end of the day, faithful pastors and churches really desire to send and support their missionaries in a manner worthy of God. 

1. A Sending Relationship. Ask for a clear sending relationship with your home church. As was suggested at our meetings, read through Acts 13 with your pastors and ask them if they will do for you what Antioch did for Paul and Barnabas. This means that your church claims you as their missionary and takes real responsibility for your sending and care long-term. They acknowledge that before God, they are accountable for you and will hold the ropes for you. Clarify expectations with your leadership. If they are going to be your sending church, what is expected of you while on the field and when on furlough? What is expected of the church towards you? Clarify your role and seek your church’s affirmation. How do your leaders think through your role as a missionary biblically? And do they affirm that you have the character qualifications for that role? If so, will they affirm and commission you publicly? Do you need to go through an assessment process in order for them to do this? At our church we seek to have most of the men we send out go through our elder/church planter assessment process. We want to affirm publicly that they are qualified according to 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 to plant churches and disciple pastors (like a Paul). Other men and single ladies are sent out as church planting teammates (like Aquila and Priscilla), assessed by the deacon character qualifications in Titus 1. It’s a weighty and courage-strengthening thing knowing that your sending church has taken you through an affirmation process and has commissioned you. If there’s not time for you to do this in your next two months, consider approaching your pastors about doing something like this next time you’re stateside. 

2. Prayer Rhythms. Ask your pastors if your church will commit to praying for you. If yes, ask for the when and where of how that will happen. A picture on the wall doesn’t necessarily mean you are being prayed for. At our church we have Sunday morning prayer meetings where we rotate weekly praying for one of our missionaries. This is a chance for updated requests to be lifted up in a timely fashion. We have seen dramatic answers to prayer in response to these times. Is there some kind of structure like this where the church will commit to corporately praying for you? If it’s happening corporately, more individuals will pray for you on their own as well. 

3. Skype or Zoom Calls. We live in an age when communication between the missionary and the sending church is easier than ever. This is a very good thing for your care on the field! At our church we have a monthly group skype/zoom call that all of our missionaries are invited to participate in. It’s simply a time of encouragement from the word, discussion, and sharing of joys, trials, and prayer requests, led by one of us pastors or one of our missionaries. These times have been very sweet. In addition to this we are working to set up all our missionaries and spouses with a regular one on one call with a trusted friend or leader at our church. This is important for personal soul care, sound-boarding, accountability, and encouragement. We also make ourselves available for one-off calls as needed for counseling or discussion of issues on the field. Ask your pastors if they would be willing to set up a regular call with you. 

4. Rope Holder Teams. Other sending churches call these Advocate Teams or Barnabas Teams, but the concept is the same. This is a small group of people within your church who commit to regular prayer, communication, care packages, and advocacy for you. This is particularly important if your church has many missionaries. This group can help provide the support you need on the field so that it doesn’t all fall on the pastors and staff. They are your go-to team for prayer needs, future trips, and other practical needs. They help keep you and your work visible in the life of the church. They also serve as a team of friends that tracks your ministry closely and stays in communication. It’s a good idea to invite close friends to commit to a Rope Holder Team – that way you’ve committed to staying connected. These teams are a great way to equip the church body to take part also in missionary care. Consider approaching 6 – 8 friends at your church to form this kind of a team for you. 

5. Partnership Requests. Various needs arise when you are on the field. You might be in need of a short term team. You might need childcare workers for your regional meeting. There could be a health emergency. You are in need of housing and a vehicle when stateside. Are your pastors OK with you informing them of these needs? Who is the point person when these kinds of needs arise? 

This may seem like a lot, but don’t feel like you have to implement all of these things at once. These are suggestions and ideas from one imperfect church trying to take care of the missionaries God has entrusted to us. At the same time, we have found all of these things very helpful. Consider prayerfully if you might need to talk with your pastors about any of the above care structures. As a TCK turned missions pastor turned missionary, I can say that any investment in your sending church relationship is well spent and will bear fruit in your health and effectiveness on the field. 

Congratulations on being accepted and looking forward to seeing many of you again at training!

In Christ,
A.W. Workman

Photo by jules a. on Unsplash

Steps, Stitches, and the Blood Ward

It was late January or early February and we had only just arrived on the field. We were scrambling to get our two toddlers out the door for our weekly team fellowship. This week it was being held at the home of some teammates just down the hill. It was a sunny, but chilly winter morning. We ambled down the hill, arms stuffed with Bibles, kids’ bags, and a guitar, trying to remember which street was the right one. Our kids were thrilled to be outside and excitedly ran ahead of us, pulling off some pungent leaves from the eucalyptus trees that grew on the side of the road.

We turned onto what we thought was the correct street and walked down until we recognized the familiar cement, plaster, and tile construction style of our teammates’ home. Like so many young parents on a church morning, we took a deep breath before we entered, trying to purge some of the stress that had accumulated from the mere effort to make it mostly on time.

Our three-year-old son, excited to be at our destination, stepped ahead of us up onto the stairs – and slipped. His forehead met the front edge of a step, a nice sharp corner where tile met tile – which is typical for Central Asia. So many sharp edges and corners everywhere, be they tile, cement, or metal. The roundness, bluntness, and general kid-friendliness of Western furniture and home interiors have never had greater fans than Western parents who live in Central Asia. Don’t be too alarmed if you invite us over and we admire how toddler-friendly the corners of your coffee table are. Such are the unintended effects of life on the mission field.

Anyway, our son’s forehead met the tile edge of the step and as foreheads are wont to do, blood started instantly gushing everywhere. As he screamed, we scrambled to pick him up and do damage control. I quickly grabbed one of my winter gloves, wadded it up, and pressed it against the wound. Our one year old daughter was screaming by now as well and my wife was bleeding also, having reopened a previous kitchen wound as she reflexively reached out to grab our son. Being in such a state, the rest of us remained perched on the steps as my wife ran inside to alert our teammates.

She burst into the kitchen, yelling, in search of our friends. But no one was there. Looking around, the kitchen seemed very different. I wonder if they’ve reorganized things? She thought to herself. Not missing a beat, she moved around the kitchen until she saw a roll of toilet paper and grabbed it, rushing back outside to try and help with all the blood. Why was the house so quiet when our whole team was supposedly already there for worship?

Moments later a local woman appeared at the kitchen door – looking extremely confused. We were confused as well. Neither of us could quite understand what this local woman was doing at our friends’ house so early on a sleepy Friday morning (the first day of the weekend here). Now, we knew very little of the local language at this point, but my wife knew enough to yell, “My son! My son!” as we wildly gesticulated at his bleeding forehead. The local woman squinted and stared, trying to make sense of this bizarre scene.

All of the sudden, it dawned on both my wife and me that this was not our friends’ house at all. My wife had barged into the kitchen of a total stranger, stolen their toilet paper, and woken them up. My son’s bleeding had been stopped by now, but we had by this point collectively bled all over their steps. Now mortified, my wife handed the roll of TP back to the local woman, who was still standing there befuddled and confused. She looked at the toilet paper, looked at us, looked at the TP again, and then slowly handed it back with a muted but polite phrase which roughly translates to, “Please, go ahead.”

We now did our level best to apologize in every language that we could and slowly backed away down from the doorway. Our family hobbled down the street and turned the corner. I was hunched over, still pressing the glove against my son’s head as we went one street down. Then we spotted it, the correct house. It was the same design except for the color of the decorative tiles. Blasted orange tiles instead of purple!

We burst into the house – this time it looked exactly as we expected it to – and announced that we needed to get our son to the hospital right away. Stitches were definitely going to be needed. Our team leader got on it right away, loading us all into his SUV and speeding off to the government emergency hospital.

At that point, this free hospital was the only place open on a Friday morning. And, grateful that there was a place open at all, we didn’t stop to ask any questions we normally might have of this particular kind of facility, which we would later come to call “The Blood Ward.” We called it this because there was blood everywhere, puddles of blood in the corners, smears of blood on the beds, and against the wall, a man washing his bleeding head in a sink. Quick action by my wife meant the sheet was adjusted just in time so that my son wasn’t laid on top of the previous patient’s blood (likely belonging to the man at the sink).

Because it was winter, the hospital was freezing. An electric heater, shaped like a standing fan, radiated heat close to the top of the bed where we all huddled, holding my shrieking son down so that the doctor could get to work on the stitches. He went right at it in a manner that showed great skill in stitching and an almost complete disregard that he was actually stitching the skin on the face of a human. We had to make sure the cloth on my son’s face left room for breathing and also had to remove the doctor’s elbow from my son’s eye at one point.

My team leader was doing his best to maintain morale, sharing their own stitches stories from Latin America and snapping photos of the event for posterity. I was watching the needle weaving in and out, a little too closely as it turns out, as I soon realized that I was on the edge of fainting from the concentration of heat, blood, and needle. I moved toward the wall to sit down before it was too late.

“Don’t sit there! That’s a puddle of blood!” my wife hollered.

I scooted over a couple feet and squatted down in an action learned from the muddy earth of Melanesian villages. Sometimes you really shouldn’t sit all the way down. So God in his kindness made us able to squat. Slowly the clouds began to lift.

“Come on, brother!” my team leader yelled, “Do America proud! Don’t faint on us now!”

I smiled and waved and tried to shake off the wooziness. By this point the doctor had finished. He had done an amazing job on the stitches themselves. And my son had stopped shrieking like a nazgul, which helped things calm down a good deal also (I would have shrieked too, if I were in his place!). We were ushered toward a window where we were given a prescription, which we filled at another window for the equivalent of three US dollars. That was it. No other charges at all. Not bad for a procedure that would have cost at least a hundred dollars back in the states! Still, I would have gladly paid ten times the amount we did if it would have helped clean up some of the blood puddles.

To this day my son still has an impressive scar in the middle of his forehead that he can be proud of. What a champ. And we regale friends with the story of how my wife broke into a stranger’s home to steal their TP as my son was bleeding all over their steps. We like to hope that it also makes for a good story for the poor local woman who witnessed our frantic intrusion that quiet winter morning.

“Hey Auntie, tell us the one about those foreigners who were bleeding all over your steps and broke into your house!”

“Well, it was a quiet morning and I was just waking up when I heard the sound… someone was rifling around in my kitchen! I emerged and what did I find? … A strange foreign woman shouting gibberish and stealing my toilet paper!”

Photo by Claire Mueller on Unsplash

A Proverb on Lies

Lies have little legs.

Local Oral Tradition

In other words, they can’t take you very far and they are easily caught. Sooner or later, the truth will come out. I find this proverb strangely comforting as I behold the spectacle of political America from afar this week. So many lies doing so much damage. Many two-faced factions that are just like “Egypt, that broken reed of a staff, which will pierce the hand of any man who leans on it. Such is Pharaoh king of Egypt to all who trust in him.” (Isaiah 36:6 ESV). Don’t entrust yourself to pharoahs nor to lies. Their legs are simply too stubby.

Photo by Photoholgic on Unsplash

A Song of Refuge And Reggae

I appreciate how the serious themes of this song contrast with the upbeat reggae style. It’s this kind of unexpected juxtaposition that makes me want to lean into a song. The music is feel-good music (reminds me of my youth in reggae-loving Melanesia), but the lyrics deal with those times when we are feeling anything but good. Anxiety, spiritual depression, and emotional chaos push the song writers, and us, to desperately seek refuge somewhere. Will we find our refuge in the One who offers himself to us unconditionally, regardless of the state of our emotions and feelings?

Check out “Hiding Place” by Chris Howland on the YouTube link above.

Walking the Graveyards

But why go to the other side of the world when there are so many lost people right here in the homeland?

It’s a valid question, and one that feels weightier the more post-Christian the West becomes. Before we moved overseas as a family, we used to share an image to answer this objection.

Imagine a huge and ancient graveyard, full of wooded hills which are covered with thousands of tombstones. But the graveyard is not completely still and silent. Here and there individuals and small groups make their way from one grave to another, pausing to push one or several seeds into the grassy earth. They might move on quickly or linger at a certain grave for some time. Usually nothing happens right away. But sometimes a sudden flash of light occurs, and the one who was dead emerges completely alive and made new. This newly living one (after a period of understandable disorientation and celebration) then joins the others in their methodical and mysterious work of seed-pushing.

It’s not predictable when and where the seeds that are planted will bloom in an explosion of light and dirt and life. Sometimes there are weeks and months with nothing. Other times multiple dead ones suddenly come to life simultaneously. The only trend the planters have been able to gather is that the more graves that receive planted seeds, the more resurrections tend to take place. The planters go about their work steadily, but they are greatly outnumbered by the number of graves, somewhere in the ratio of ten thousand to one.

One day one of the planters climbs a cemetery ridge to conduct his work. From the top of that ridge he can for the first time make out the existence of another graveyard, just within eyesight. It’s even bigger than the one he and his friends have been working in. Yet strain as he might he’s unable to see any movement within that graveyard. There are no planters to been seen anywhere. The reality dawns on him that there are none to walk that graveyard. None to sow the seeds that can raise the dead. The graves there will never stir nor give up their bones.

Gradually he comes under conviction that he must go and be the first planter to walk that graveyard, though the ratio be as bad as one to ten million. It’s not right that all the planters (small in number though they are) be concentrated in one graveyard when there are other cemeteries with just as much potential for resurrection that have no one to sow the seeds.

Everywhere that seeds have been planted, sooner or later, the dirt gives up its dead, who in turn become faithful living workers. Everywhere. So he goes. It’s not a matter of the absence of need in the first graveyard, it’s the presence of such disproportionate need in the faraway graveyard which has no planters. And perhaps one day that graveyard will give birth to enough of its own workers to be able to send some back to lend a hand in the first one. Or perhaps from that vantage point they will see yet another graveyard further away, itself also lacking even one to plant seeds of hope in the dirt of its ancient graves.

This image helps to explain why we came to Central Asia when there is so much good gospel work that needs doing in our homeland. Though the work is daunting, our home “graveyard” has many more workers who are going to keep doing the work faithfully. But our corner of Central Asia? There are towns and villages that we have visited that have no known believers. Places where we may have been the first to ever share the gospel of Jesus Christ. And we’re not even as remote as some of our colleagues are. Many over here are working at a ratio of a million to one. A million graves for every seed pusher. That would be like having only three hundred people to reach the entire population of the US with the gospel. In God’s miraculous power, it’s possible. But man, someone please send those people some reinforcements!

Are there dead people in the homeland? Absolutely. But are there also crews of faithful seed pushers? Yes. That’s why we left. And why we’ve come to another graveyard with just as many dead, but with precious few planters.

Photo by Elizabeth Jamieson on Unsplash

But They Really Do Resemble Their Mother

“You know,” said my host, “in Islam, it’s approved for a Christian girl to marry a Muslim man.”

“Yes,” I responded, “but it’s forbidden to happen the other way around, isn’t it?”

With a sheepish grin, my host admitted that it was true. Muslim men can marry women from other religions, but Muslim women are not allowed to marry men from other religions. My village host had been jesting (mostly) about having our single teammate marry one of his sons.

“For us true believers in Jesus,” I continued, “we won’t do it in either direction. Both men and women won’t marry someone who doesn’t share their same faith. Our faith is that central to us. It’s the same for our single friend here.”

Our gracious new teammate was already being jokingly called the family’s “bride” and she was enduring it admirably. But it was important for them to know that jesting aside, this was out of the question.

The seemingly inconsistent Islamic position on marrying nonbelievers is not inconsistent at all when you understand the cultural belief that it sprung out of – something called patrogenesis. This Middle Eastern and Central Asian belief holds that children biologically generate only from the father. Mothers are merely carriers, vessels, but they do not contribute meaningfully to the biological or spiritual makeup of the child. Strange as it may seem, this was the dominant view in this part of the world until quite recently. It now exists in an uneasy tension with the growing knowledge of genetics and modern medicine.

Because of this belief in patrogenesis, traditional locals do not believe that a child can be half one ethnicity and half another. They are considered one hundred percent the ethnicity of the father. This also holds true for religion. It simply doesn’t matter if the mother is another religion. If the father is a Muslim, the children will be born biologically Muslims. Therefore it’s no threat to the faith to have a Muslim man marry a Christian woman. Rather, it means the tribe has gained a “carrier” from a rival tribe. However, in this understanding any Muslim woman who marries a man from another religion has been lost to an enemy tribe, and is no longer able to contribute to the continuity of her own community. Hence why it was outlawed from the beginning of the faith.

But that’s not fair! No, it’s not, but it is awfully convenient, and one of the many aspects of Islam that allowed it to slowly squeeze the life out of the religious minorities in its domains over the last 1,400 years. This belief also has Islamic legal ramifications. Children legally belong only to the father, and not to the mother, since they are considered the fruit of his loins alone. You can imagine the terrible position this puts local mothers when dealing with an abusive man.

Even when it comes to small talk, it’s traditionally a shameful thing for children to be said to resemble their mother’s features. In the West, it’s a celebrated thing that all of my children look more like my wife – she is by far the prettier one in this relationship! But here in Central Asia, it’s kind of awkward for more traditional locals (who still point it out for some reason) and I find myself having to attempt to rescue them from the shameful situation their comment just created, “Look! They really did get my ears, Eh?!” While thinking to myself, Why are you publicly questioning my virility? How is that not weird?

Worse still, the presence of patrogenesis presents the possibility of heresy for the new believing community here. “Congratulations, a new believer has been born!” was how one believing friend greeted the birth of our third-born, much to our horror. The cultural logic makes sense. Dad is a believer, so newborn is a believer. The problem is this cultural belief is radically anti-gospel, the kind of dangerous assumption that means the gospel can be lost in one generation as the parents come to faith and the children are merely assumed to be believers by nature of their father’s blood. It has already happened to communities of Christians present in the Middle East from ancient times as well as those converted to Christianity by missionaries in the 1800s. Most of them have become new ethnic people groups, and the gospel emphasis on the new birth has been lost. This is where the tragic term, CBB (Christian background believer), came from.

Some cultural beliefs are not wrong, just different (as every culture-shocking new missionary constantly repeats to himself). Patrogenesis is not one of them. It’s not only scientifically wrong, it’s also morally wrong, denying women their equal dignity as co-contributors to the biology of their offspring. Patrogenesis relegates them to the status of a mere carrier and denies them equal parental rights. It’s an affront to the image of God that equally resides in every woman and to the wonder of the created female body. Frankly, it is an idea that requires the oft-overlooked contextualization category called rejection. Good contextualization means recognizing that part of the culture is downright evil, and needs to be discarded as soon as possible. Discarded – yet replaced with a better theology of the image of God and the wonder of two people conceiving spiritual-physical beings that have a real beginning in time, but who also live forever.

It’s these kinds of landmines that propel us ever onward in our attempt to learn the cultures of our lost friends. These sorts of underlying assumptions can go unknown and unchallenged for years, even when Muslims have believing friends who are sharing the gospel faithfully with them. Though it takes time, getting into these areas of worldview and belief is essential because they touch core issues of identity, how a certain enculturated person answers the crucial “Who am I?” question. And last I checked, a biblical understanding of identity has something to do with genuine faith.

These are the kinds of issues that run through my mind when believing Western friends genuinely ask if focusing on learning culture is really that biblical and necessary. “Can’t we just preach the gospel?” Yes, technically you can just preach the gospel. But surely you will be a more skillful and effective preacher if you dig deep into what your audience actually believes about life, birth, and death – rather than assuming they share your assumptions about these things. As those called to contend for the faith once for all delivered to the saints (Jude 3), that also means attacking those worldview beliefs that radically disagree with the word of God. And that means tearing down anti-gospel strongholds like the belief in patrogenesis.

Photo by Jon Flobrant on Unsplash