Lean Toward the Radical

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

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

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

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

Piper furrowed his brow and answered in three parts.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by Prasanth Dasari on Unsplash

An Idiom of Deep Respect

I kiss your eyes!

Local Oral Tradition

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

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

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

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

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

A Song For Pilgrims

“Pilgrim” by John Mark McMillan

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

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

More Than a Home

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

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

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

Photo by Dimitry Anikin on Unsplash

Eating Out With Your Kids When Hell is Real

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by Hanxiao on Unsplash

Regarding Time, Light, and Second Sleeps

“We’ve got to move discipleship back an hour. It’s too early now!”

This was the claim of one of our local believers last month. As the days lengthen here, most families are eating later as well, pegging dinner time to the setting of the sun. Our local brother wanted to honor his parents by making sure he was there for dinner.

Of course, we support local believers honoring their families, but we had agreed upon a 7 pm start time for our weekly discipleship meeting and had had a good run of stable weekly meetings at that time. We weren’t super eager to change what had been working as a good schedule. Then there are the kids to think about. A meeting that starts at 8 pm means they’re not getting to sleep until after 10.

In our developed-world minds, the most natural thing is to peg a meeting to a certain time on the clock, regardless of what nature is doing. Then stick with it. But many locals find it more natural to live with the rhythms of the sun and the seasons. Islam also encourages this, tying the daily times of prayer to the position of the sun, not to a 24 hour clock.

We ended up shifting the meeting to 8 pm and deferring to this local preference. We’ll likely shift back to a 7 pm meeting in the middle of the fall as locals begin to feel that the deeper darkness that will then be present at 8 pm makes the meeting actually later.

Turns out our developed-world sense of late and early is tied to a fixed 24 hour clock and is not dependent primarily on actual light and darkness. Locals’ understanding of these terms prioritizes the light and the darkness over the clock. It’s a small thing, but it can make scheduling a little complicated!

I’m reminded of church services in Melanesia when I was a boy. If it was a cloudy day everyone knew that church would start late. A certain sensed brightness of the sunlight cued many of the locals there to start making their trek by foot to the church building. Hence the presence of clouds meant a “later” congregation. The Bible school-trained pastor would often scold the congregants for coming late, but in vain. They were comfortably convinced that they had arrived (like a wizard) precisely when they meant to.

It seems that we in the West have sought to become completely independent of nature when it comes to our methods of time management. We use man-made items like clocks, calendars, checklists, and technology to find a steadier time-trellis than we feel that nature provides. But many other cultures, including those in this corner of Central Asia, still approach time management the classic way – that is, by relying on the stimuli of nature and the power of the body’s internal memory.

Locals can tell you that when a certain star appears, that means the worst of the summer heat is over. They have taught us that the flowering of the almond tree means the very beginning of spring – and they know what kind of work needs to be done accordingly. Even in extreme weather, they build their houses and live their lives with a greater openness to the elements. As new apartment buildings go up, most locals still live lives considerably less cut off from nature than do their peers in the West. I wonder if this will change for those of the younger generation. But at least for those their thirties and their elders, living this way is just plain common sense. Their ability to live without an extra trellis for their brain on paper or on a screen truly amazes me. And sometimes stresses me out.

I do feel a certain sadness realizing how divorced from creation we in the developed world have become. Read older books and you’ll notice that the comments made about stars and trees assume a certain level of common knowledge about these things that we just don’t have anymore. I have an app on my phone that can show the names of the constellations, but I don’t know many by heart. This used to be a central part of any education worth its salt. Same goes for different kinds of trees. In this way we are different from most other generations of humanity.

And it’s not just stars and trees. We have been living with cheap lighting for a couple centuries now, and this has changed our collective sleep habits drastically. Consider the disappearance of the term “second sleep” from our cultural vocabulary. What is second sleep? You know, that time in the middle of the night when everyone goes back to sleep after waking up for an hour or two, doing some work, eating a snack, praying, etc. Wait, what?

I am mostly for the extra efficiency and productivity that has come from having a stable 24 hour clock. I can’t imagine global logistics really working any other way. But I can’t help but wonder, were we supposed to do it this way? Or are the relative “hours” of the sundial actually healthier for us? Could God have designed us with a need for shorter hours for part of the year and longer hours for another part?

I never would have even pondered these questions had it not been for the cross-cultural differences we’ve encountered regarding time. This is one of the reasons I love living in a different culture. I’m regularly confronted with different life assumptions than my own. Often, that means fertile ground for chewing and imagining. Sometimes it even leads to wisdom. New alternatives can cause us to question whether the way we’ve done it is the only way, or the best way. They can lead us into new expressions of faithfulness. God’s truth is universal and timeless. It seems that the shades of it’s applications are endless.

These differences display a multifaceted glory – that of the image of God in human beings and their societies. Look at how the West has crafted such powerful systems to manage and redeem time! Look at how Central Asia lives so intuitively in touch with God’s creation! Look at the grace of God on display for those of us floundering in the intersection of time cultures!

Speaking of grace, I have a long way to go still in really understanding how locals think about time management. But I am an eager student. These places of culture clash are, in fact, goldmines. And because Revelation 7:9 points to the preservation of visible cultural differences in eternity, we will have all the time we need to explore them.

Photo by Timo C. Dinger on Unsplash

A Proverb on Wise Buying

If the cow were still giving yogurt-water, she would still be with the owner.

Local Oral Tradition

“What’s your reason for selling?” This Central Asian proverb encourages buyers to be shrewd, knowing that sometimes the proverbial cow is for sale because she’s stopped producing the very thing you need her for. If it sounds too good of a deal to be true, it is.

Photo by Doruk Yemenici on Unsplash

Another Early Church Meeting Space Unearthed

Related to my previous post, here’s a recent article from Turkey regarding the discovery of a first century Laodicean house, in which certain rooms were customized for Christian worship. Depending on the findings from this archeological site, this could actually prove to be the earliest church meeting space yet discovered.

Though there aren’t many verified spaces of Christian worship from the first two centuries, it makes sense that more would emerge as archaeology continues to dig up ancient Near Eastern and Mediterranean communities. After all, many of the first-generation Christians – whether Jews, proselytes, or God-fearers – were coming out of the synagogue model. As such, it makes sense that they would naturally seek out creating physical spaces that echoed the synagogue, even as the early Christian liturgy did. Rather than an intentional missiological strategy, I have come to think that the house church was much more likely a practical necessity. This would be due to the particular needs of weekly celebrating the Lord’s supper, persecution realities, a lack of official recognition, the precedence of Roman civil associations that met in larger homes, etc.

Either way, I will not be surprised at all if further discoveries push the scholarship in the direction of, “Wow, they had designated worship spaces much earlier than we previously thought.”

The article says:

‘Şimşek stated that the house, which is estimated to be about 2,000 years old and built on an area of 2,000 square meters, is located in a very interesting place.

“Here, we know that the house was used as of the first century A.D. and that the main planning system of the Roman Empire period continued intact until the seventh century A.D. We obtained interesting results in our works in the house. We saw in the house the fault lines of the earthquakes that destroyed Laodicea over the years. We are working here by protecting these fault lines.”

Şimşek explained that with the spread of Christianity, the first believers had secretly transformed some parts of this large house into a place of worship.’

Photo by Yusuf Dündar on Unsplash

The First Verified Christian House of Worship

It is certain that Edessa [Urfa] had a church very early, and the city chronicle reports that it was destroyed by the great flood of 201. Thus the church of Edessa would have been the first historically verified Christian house of worship, even earlier than the chapel of the border city of Dura Europas, on the Euphrates, which was built between 232 and 256.

Baumer, The Church of the East, p. 16

Photo by ZEKERIYA SEN on Unsplash