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

The Tune that Conquered the World

My wife and I were out for our anniversary date this past week at a very fancy and very quiet restaurant. All of the sudden, the sound system started blaring the local dance floor version of the “Happy Birthday” song. Yes, our local musicians have taken their line-dancing Central Asian techno-folk music and applied it to the traditional Western birthday medley. The result is a surprisingly catchy song that does indeed make you want to link pinkies and bounce your shoulders while wearing a birthday tiara. And if this doesn’t happen, there will at least be dozens of selfies around perfectly arranged birthday decor. Our locals take birthdays very seriously.

We commented that it was nice to have some music, although by now that particular line-dance rendition of “Happy Birthday To You” is getting a little old. I was reminded again of the surprising power of this Western tradition. This little song has truly conquered the world. And while locals in many cultures have made it their own, the basic message, structure, and melody of the original has remained recognizable.

A few years ago I was driving around south Louisville, KY, when I noticed a historical marker. History nerd that I am, I stopped to read it. It said that the wooded hill it was placed next to – Kenwood Hill – was the place where the “Happy Birthday” song was originally written by a pair of songwriter sisters in 1893. This quiet corner of Louisville, Kentucky, unassuming though it is, has musically infiltrated nearly every corner of the globe. Strange and fascinating. Take heart, music and kindergarten teachers everywhere. Mildred and Patty had a far greater influence than they could have ever dreamed.

I have often written about the deep differences in culture and worldview that still persist in spite of the reality of globalization. And yet there are many things that, like the “Happy Birthday” song, have begun in a small corner of one culture and have now become part of global culture. They are present almost everywhere you go. Blue jeans. Coffee of some sort. Smart phones. Wedding dresses. I find it interesting that these things are so globally ubiquitous and yet themselves still not quite unaffected by local cultures. Everything that has gone global has been inescapably localized – even if only in some small way. They are, like Alexander the Great, conquerors who have themselves willingly taken on somewhat the dress and customs of their new subjects.

This dynamic encourages me not to get too bent out shape when cultural applications of Western Christianity get exported overseas. These forms, if they take root in another culture, simply cannot remain completely the same. It’s impossible. The laws of crossing cultures forbid it. They will always be localized in some way. This is simply what humans do. The old missionary hymns sung in English still in Melanesia are in fact sung to a different tempo and pronunciation than they are in the homeland – they have been Melanesianized. In this sense they were not a complete failure of contextualization. Rather, they are an opportunity to observe both the transferability of forms from one culture to another and the resiliance of local culture in the face of foreign forms.

It is impossible to do missionary work in some kind of a cultural vacuum. Global forms have already begun infiltrating every corner of the world and they will continue to do so. The world has always been this way. Statues of Athena influenced the way Buddhist sculptors did their own craft. In this way ancient Greek culture affected the religious imagery of medieval Japan. Globalization is not a new phenomenon. Rather than living in some kind of delusion that we can and should keep out all foreign cultural forms in our missionary work, we would be wiser to recognize which ones are already here to stay – and which ones would be appropriate and strategic for local culture. Yes, while we also encourage the development of as many local forms as possible.

Our local believers love the translated version of the song, “I Have Decided to Follow Jesus.” Initially, I lamented this, carrying the cultural baggage that I do with that song from Bible camp altar calls that were dragged out for way too long. But the locals don’t have that baggage. And turns out it’s not even a Western song. It was written by an Indian believer. After that at some point it took over Western Christianity. In that sense, the song is actually indigenous to Asia. But it became so common in the West that someone like me had no idea of its Asian origin until I was enlightened by a colleague that grew up in South Asia. So there is a hefty dose of irony in my original disappointment that this “Western” song is so beloved here.

I am frankly impressed that the “Happy Birthday” tune has taken over the world. Who could have seen that coming? Now, which creations culture go viral will always be impossible to predict. And yet that is an encouragement to be creators of culture ourselves – songwriters, authors, craftsmen, inventors. If we create cultural forms that serve our local context, then that’s a win. But who knows? Like the little song written on Kenwood Hill, our creation just may go farther then we ever could have dreamed.

An Idiom Defending Hard Work

What? You say I’ve just been peeling onions for five years?

Local Oral Tradition

This is an idiom to pull out when a friend seems a little too surprised that you’ve actually been productive or gotten a lot done. “You were expecting something else? Whaddya think we’re doin’ round here?”

I have in fact not been as consistent blogging this past month as I had hoped. Our move to our previous city and the time it took finding and setting up a new house was more work than I expected. But we have been working hard! No peeling onions going on around here, I can assure you of that. I am however looking forward to a more steady schedule now and a return to more consistent writing. After a year of blogging almost daily, it was interesting to have a few weeks where I wasn’t. I truly missed it. And that itself is clarifying and reassures me that this was not just a good one year experiment, but something I’m supposed to give myself to for the long haul.

A Song On Heaven’s Silence

“Shasta’s Complaint” by Sarah Sparks

This song by Sarah Sparks uses Shasta’s story from The Horse and His Boy to explore the Christian’s experience of heaven’s silence. I have certainly had seasons where God seems silent – at the very moment when I felt I most needed a clear word. “Where were you, God, when I was alone and desperately needing your presence?”

Waves that beat upon the shore
They brought no peace
Somewhere else I must belong
Somewhere for me
Who was it left me there 
A boy scared and alone
No, I don't think you heard me calling
Always thought he must not know
Surely he would never leave me
Wouldn't leave me here alone

You tell me now that I was never on my own
Well pardon me, I don't remember you at all
'Cause with my back against the tomb I called you out
But I don't think I heard your answer, 
I don't think I heard a sound
I don't recall you in my anger
Or remember you around

Ouch. A part of me deeply resonates with this complaint. But the answer, in Job-like style, cuts even deeper.

But he answered, Who are you to question me?
Do you command the mountains or calm the raging sea?
For I am the current there to save your life
A man man may find his eye deceiving 
A fool holds on to trust his sight
A wise man knows that his own feeling may not with the truth align

Did you think that you had never seen my face?
But every moment you're alive you know my grace
For only death in this whole world is justly deserved
And you say that I never answered
Just because you have not heard
But you don't know yet how to listen 
Or to understand my words. 

My love, I care for you
I was the comfort you felt in the house of the dead
I drove from you beasts in the night
All of this I have done while you slept
All by my design
Every chapter and every word, I've written every line...

The experience of heaven’s silence is a real and painful one. It is mysterious and worthy of some sober lament. Yet how often have we not heard God because we have not yet truly learned how to listen? I know I have at times demanded a certain kind of narrow communication from God. But why should I limit him in this way? Or how many times have I conflated my feelings of God’s presence with the truth of it?

There is some real wisdom in this song that echoes a biblical theology of suffering and God’s care for his children. Plus, I love the banjo and harmonica, especially how they come in at 3:22. As such, I commend it to your playlists.

Leaders Who Know How to Follow

We recently discovered that one of our colleagues here was best friends growing up with a good friend we knew from our sending church.

“You were best friends with Matt?” I asked. “That’s amazing. We really appreciate that brother.”

My colleague went on to tell me about their growing up together and sharpening of one another.

“You know what I really appreciated him?” I said. “Matt was clearly gifted in leadership when he showed up as a new seminary student. But he didn’t balk at the time it took to become known in a church that was already full of gifted leaders. He plugged in, he served, he didn’t demand to be platformed quickly. Not everyone was able to do that. But he humbled himself and spent years as a good follower – and then became a servant and leader in the body – especially to the internationals.”

It’s true. Matt was one of the promising leaders who made it. Our sending church is in a seminary town. And it has a very strong and gifted team of elders. That means it attracts young men who are eager to lead and teach – because of its culture, its location, and its robust track of leadership training.

It’s as if the church is located at a river delta. Many streams brought the students to the seminary and for a period they are bottle-necked in one place, jostling around awkwardly in the current, before being sent out from the delta to do ministry all over the world. This river delta dynamic presented some real advantages – and some serious challenges – for our church and its leadership.

It also provided a crucial testing ground for young leaders.

What would they do when faced with a church body with a hundred other men just as gifted as they are? What would they do when told that they wouldn’t have opportunities to teach quickly, but that the nursery was desperately in need of help, the refugee ministry needed volunteers, and there’s a three year leadership apprenticeship that they could plug into?

I was one of the young and sure-of-myself students who experienced these dynamics myself. Then eventually I had the privilege of serving as an elder – focusing on strengthening and overseeing our leadership development and sending out of church planters and missionaries. As I’ve written before, I learned in this season how the teachable will lap the gifted. The ones who got to work in the messy behind the scenes ministry, who served the widows, and who didn’t push to be platformed – those men are now serving as faithful small group leaders, deacons, elders, church planters, and missionaries. They are faithfully laboring in the trenches of the kingdom of God.

But many did not pass the test. Faced with a seemingly insurmountable leadership ladder, some left for places where they could lead upfront more quickly. “There’s nowhere in the world harder to become an elder than at this church” is how one brother put it (Though he later became an elder – sweet irony). Others bristled under the slow pace at which they were invited into visible leadership and left angry, broadcasting stories to this day about the supposedly abusive leadership they experienced when they were “unjustly” not given the kind of influence they desired in their preferred timeline.

For all of the situations like this that I was aware of, one thread stood out. Men felt they deserved to be in leadership – and they were not content to be faithful followers for a longer timeline than they had expected. Overall, these brothers who left have not thrived in the contexts where they have ended up. Should we be surprised? “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble. Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God, and at the proper time he will exalt you” (1st Peter 5:5-6).

We need to be careful as terms like “spiritual abuse” are being thrown around like trump cards on social media – and mud is being flung at the bride of Christ. What I saw going on behind the scenes was very different than abuse. It was leaders wisely saying “not yet” and young men reacting to this in pride rather than in humility. Idols were being exposed. And that always gets messy.

Do I grieve the fact that dear brothers experienced hurt through not being invited sooner into leadership? In one sense, yes. But I am also grateful for what that delay exposed in their hearts. I do not want to be led by a man who does not know how to wait and how to follow. I myself do not want to be a leader who does not know how to humble myself and embrace a slower timeline – even if I disagree with it. A leader who does not know how to defer is not a trustworthy leader. Rather, it’s when he doesn’t get his way that a leader’s true character is graciously exposed.

Furthermore, leadership is often synonymous with suffering. My most recent increase of responsibility was not one I was looking for, but one given to me, attended on my end by some degree of trepidation. The previous two men had to leave the field because of the costs associated with the role. I myself have already known many of the costs of leadership far more intimately than I expected – costs to my heart, my health, my family. From this vantage point I cannot help but wince a bit at young men who are hungry and ambitious for increased leadership. Brothers, do you really know what leadership is going to cost you? Why is it not enough to serve unseen? Do you not know that God sees and rewards it all?

Let us seek to be and to raise up leaders who know how to follow, who know how to wait, and how to defer to other wise believers. The transience of this life is such that, sooner or later, it will be our turn to lead. Let us trust God with that timing – Like my friend Matt, who is now a church planter.

Photo by Chandler Chen on Unsplash

The Sheikh’s Spells

“You see those peacock doors?” my friend asked as we drove along a major road in our new neighborhood. “That’s where The Sheikh lives. He is super rich from all the people that come to him for – what do you call it in English? You know, when someone uses paper and verses from the Qur’an to curse someone’s enemies?”

“You mean spells?”

“Yes! Spells. He charges $35 for a basic spell – and dozens of people come to him every day. So many women come to curse families that they are fighting with. And he’s been doing it for decades.”

“Is that legal? Does the whole city know about him?” I asked.

“Ha! Yes, the government won’t stop it. And he’s super famous. Everyone knows what he does.”

“So do people come to him for blessing spells as well? Like if they want their child to recover from an illness?”

“Oh yes, that too. Spells for cursing and for blessing. And $35 is only for the most basic ones. He charges a lot more for the bigger jobs.”

“It’s just like Melanesia,” I said, shaking my head. “Every village had a man called a sangumaman, and he was basically the village witch doctor, cursing and blessing (for the right price), helping people try to manipulate the spirits.”

We drove along and passed a shiny new shopping mall, a place seemingly proclaiming the triumph of globalized commercialism over the superstitions of the past. It felt a world away from the strange peacock doors we had passed just a few minutes beforehand. I remembered again the subtle trap of believing that modernization in terms of businesses and other external infrastructure was actually changing the inner worldview of the culture. It isn’t – or at least it isn’t any time soon. What do they do when their child is deathly sick? That was always an important test in Melanesia for locals and professing believers. I didn’t expect it to have such a direct parallel here in Central Asia. Apparently folk Islam is still alive and well and running a profit right under our noses.

“You know,” I said to my friend, “someday one of us believers might need to challenge The Sheikh, and tell him that his most powerful spells can’t affect a faithful believer who’s got the Holy Spirit living inside of them. Now that would be an interesting contest. And when his curse failed, then I bet the whole city would know about it.”

“I’m down bro, when do we do it? He has destroyed so many families. Let’s take him down!”

I smiled at my friend’s enthusiasm. That day could very well come. But we certainly won’t go searching out that kind of confrontation. If the Lord clearly asked us to confront him, we would. I’ve read enough missionary biographies to know that the witch doctor has real power – but that he doesn’t stand a chance against the Holy Spirit. And though we are planning for a subtler route for gospel impact, sometimes that kind of direct confrontation is exactly what is needed for breakthrough.

I am reminded one of the main points of Sinclair Ferguson’s book, The Holy Spirit. That point is simply that over and over again when the Holy Spirit appears in the Old Testament, it it for this purpose: to go to war. Sooner or later, He will come for The Sheikh. And on that day all The Sheikh’s little spells will fail him.

Photo by CHUTTERSNAP on Unsplash