The Bearded Robber

I was fifteen. My friend’s dad, uncle John, had just invited me to join them on an overnight hike to a mountain waterfall. We would be a party of four, one near-deaf missionary uncle and three scrawny high school kids. This particular hike was to prove fun, scary, and shaping. It was shaping in that being invited into the accessible adventure of the mountains around our missionary school compound in Melanesia launched me into dozens of hikes over the next few years. Hiking would become a place where I could try my hand at manly things like risk, endurance, sleeping in the rain, and eating cold hot dogs because the matches were too wet to get the fire lit. But this hike was the first one, so I was green and a bit nervous, though excited as well.

Uncle John’s hearing had slowly diminished due to tinnitus, the same condition my dad had had before he had passed away. By the time of our trek into the mountains, he had completely lost hearing in one ear and could only partially hear with his other ear with the aid of a hearing aid. He relied heavily on lip reading and was overall very quiet, though always very kind to me. He has since gotten cochlear implants. I’m told after having his hearing implants he became a man transformed.

This particular hike was nothing too challenging. Initially there was about forty five minutes of trekking, first down a paved road, then on some muddy ones flanked by high grass, then over a river on a swinging wire bridge, then on muddy footpaths into the foothills. There were a few villages we would pass through in the foothills before we started climbing the grassy and wooded slopes in earnest. In all it was about two and a half hours to our destination, a waterfall and swimming hole that lay between two steep spurs of the mountain.

The afternoon was sunny and we made good headway, somewhat bemused and embarrassed by the village grandmothers’ excited offering their granddaughters to us in marriage. At last we made it up and down several small ridges and to the waterfall. We swam and cooked dinner, and by the heat of our campfire somehow managed to provoke the emergence of thousands of small black beetles from the earth, which promptly overwhelmed our campsite. Still, the beans from a can were good (food always tastes better on a hike) and after the beetles dispersed we had a pleasant evening sitting around the fire and listening to the sound of the waterfall. Sleepiness came on fast and we all passed out in the tent without too much trouble. Cicadas and waterfalls make for good background noise.

I woke up in the middle of the night, startled. By the shadows on the wall of the tent and the rustling sounds, I knew that someone was shuffling around our campsite. We knew that we were running a slight risk of being robbed by going on this hike. Opportunistic local men were known to sometime accost foreign hikers and to rob them while threatening them with machetes, and sometimes homemade shotguns. But knowing the local language and carrying very little cash and flashy gear on us, we weren’t sending the kind of signals that might normally entice a robbery. We were almost locals ourselves, living down in the valley. And many women from the villages we had passed through were employed as household helpers on the missionary compound. Still, someone was definitely moving around the campsite. It did seem we were about to be robbed.

Perhaps they would just take the gear around the fire and leave us alone? I prayed. Then the zipper on the tent started moving. And my heart leapt into my throat. The tent door slowly unzipped, zzzzziiiiizzzz, opened, and in the deep darkness I saw the silhouette of a bearded man (most locals wore beards). He was looking right at me. He silently pointed at me with his hand and made the motion for me to roll over. He seemed to be telling me to lie down and not make any unnecessary noise. I didn’t know what to do. The others in the tent seemed to be fast asleep, so I started to roll over, but also started to try to reason in the local language with this criminal about the shamefulness of his actions.

“What you are doing is bad and shameful.”

“We don’t have any money on us.”

“We’re just here to respectfully spend the night in this good place.”

“We’re not rich tourists, we’re just missionaries that live down in the valley.”

“Do you not see that this is shameful? It’s very shameful. It will bring shame on your village and your people and no one will come to see your beautiful land!”

He wasn’t even acknowledging that I was speaking. What to do? I shot a glance over to uncle John’s sleeping bag. Suddenly I realized that it was empty. I gasped. They took uncle John! And he’s completely deaf at night without his hearing aid. Things were seeming much worse than I thought. Violent crime was indeed increasing in the culture. Was this going to turn into a hostage taking?

Heart pounding, I ventured a peek outside the tent door flap. The figure was crouched by the fire, messing with it. Suddenly a flame jumped up. And in the light of the fire I saw that the criminal I was desperately reasoning with was… bearded uncle John. Stirring a can of beans. Relief and embarrassment swept over me. Oh no, he had heard all my desperate negotiating! But wait, had he? No, impossible, his hearing aids were out. He hadn’t heard a thing! And that’s why he hadn’t responded. I began to laugh at myself and settled back into my sleeping bag for the rest of the night.

At breakfast I shared the story of “the robbery” with the rest of our little hiking crew and we all had a good laugh together. Apparently uncle John had woken up in the middle of the night and couldn’t sleep. But what was he doing staring me down and ordering me to roll over like that? Turns out he was trying to indicate that I could move over and use his inflatable sleeping mat. But in the midnight blackness I thought he was a robber, and he must have thought I was at least a little daft myself. Why is this kid staring unresponsive at me like that? My wife still tells me that I’m the worst at lip-reading, so there’s that.

The hike wrapped up without any further incidents and for the three of us skinny MK’s, we had been initiated into the sore and muddy joys of hiking. It was a small thing for uncle John to do that with us high school guys. Just a quick overnight hike. But for me, it turned out to be much more meaningful than either of us could have known at that time. As the youngest sibling of a single-mom household, there just weren’t very many men who invited me to do things with them when I was growing up. Ministry men are busy with ministry. And I was shy. In spite of good intentions, invitations like this hike were seldom extended. I had lots of great role models from a distance to watch, but precious few opportunities to have an adult man show me how to do something adventurous or practical so that I could then do it on my own.

But this hike to the waterfall was easy enough to be repeated – and built on. My buddies and I were soon hiking to the top of the ridge and beyond – eventually summitting the three highest peaks in the country. Uncle John had set some time aside from his ministry responsibilities and shown us some fatherly kindness, and this one gesture had unlocked a world of adventure that was just plain good for us hormonal teenage boys. We needed to test our limits, to risk, to have some adventure. We needed to get arrested by tribal war parties (as would later take place) and learn the hard way the value of having a rain plan – a soaking wet sleeping bag in a patch of jungle on top of a mountain is a very effective tutor! We needed to learn that continuing on in the fog and the dark at 14,000 feet when your guide has left due to altitude sickness is a very bad idea. And learn we did, through many misadventures and near-misses. It was wonderful. We muddled along on our disastrous hikes and somehow learned some good lessons about what it meant to be Christian men.

The year my son was born, 2012, was notable for a tragic reason. It was the year that children born outside of wedlock in the US surpassed those born within it. The doctors in our Louisville, KY, hospital already at that point didn’t quite know what to do with a husband who was there for all the appointments and for the birth itself. They awkwardly tried to address only my wife, not sure if they were supposed to acknowledge me as well. From that year on, the majority of children in my homeland have been raised in single-parent or broken households.

This creates a great need. So many boys are growing up without dads (and daughters, too). Now that I’m a dad I remember the kindness uncle John showed me by inviting me along on that hike. Even one gesture like that was potentially life-changing for me. Men of the Church, let’s lift up our eyes and look around us. Are there any boys growing up without dads that we can sometimes invite into our lives? I’m sure they would love to learn a practical life skill, to go on an adventure, or to just spend time with a kind man who is already an adult. Even if we only have time for this every once in a while, we might be surprised at what might come of it.

Whether they show it or not, I can tell you this, they’ll be grateful for an invite.

Photo by Derek Owens on Unsplash

He Brought His Own Birthday Cake

Last week I got lunch with a local believer and a teammate from our previous city. As they introduced me to the best chicken tenders I’ve had yet in this part of the world (I live in an emerging foodie city), I remembered with gratitude and amusement how this local brother had first professed his faith.

Mr. Talent (as his name translates) was a student and is a close friend of this same colleague. Since both men are quite serious about their food, they initially spent a lot of time together meeting up at new and different restaurants in search of the best kabob in the city. “We would always plan our meetings around which restaurant we needed to hit up next.” As far as a relational evangelism strategy goes, that’s not half bad!

These lunch outings led to many conversations about life and spiritual things, and eventually into a study of the gospel of John. When my teammate left for his furlough, Mr. Talent was clearly wrestling with the claims of the gospel. Just before my teammate’s departure, we had together begun trying to start a local language house church in the morning and an English language house church in the evening, both simple gatherings on the same day, based out of our living rooms. Mr. Talent would come about once every three weeks to the local language group and show up occasionally for the English group as well, even though his English was not great.

Mr. Talent belongs to a certain stream of men in this culture who are a particular blend of soldier masculinity and strong aesthetic-consciousness. The son of a general, he once took us to shoot AK-47s in a field (illegally we later found out, when we got taken into the police station). But whenever he came to our English center he would compliment me on my formal teacher apparel as he adjusted my collar so that it would sit just right. Mr. Talent usually wears expensive suits and watches, has shoes spotlessly shined, and is known to take selfies with other similarly dressed students while they hold a bouquet of flowers. Contrary to the West, there is no conflict in this culture between manliness and immaculate grooming. Think classic James Bond – a James Bond who also really likes poetry and flowers. Yes, while the core of masculinity doesn’t change throughout history and around the world, its expressions certainly have a wide range of play. When you consider how many historic war epics contain the hero fabulously dressed and waxing eloquent in poetic verse (while cutting down his enemies), you might even begin to feel that we are the ones who are somehow out of step with our understandings of manhood. Needless to say, it’s been an adjustment for me, a simple T-shirt guy who used to go everywhere in flip-flops.

One evening, we had just wrapped up our English language gathering when we heard a knock on the metal door. I opened it, and there stood Mr. Talent, dressed in a light blue suit and with a large cake box in his hand.

“Mr. Talent! How are you? And what is this?” I asked, motioning to the cake box.

“Hellow! It-z my birth-e-day.”

“Really? I didn’t know that! Happy Birthday!” I said as he came in and extended his Salaam to everyone present.

“Not my actual birthday! Tonight I’m going to believe in Jesus,” he laughed and told me in the local language. “So I brought a cake to celebrate.”

It took us all a minute to process what he had just said. He brought his own cake because he’s planned to profess faith? Is this in line with the ordo salutis? We glanced around at one another as we chewed on this unexpected development.

“Wow, really?! That is wonderful, bring the cake over to the table,” my wife said, kicking into honorable hostess mode, as she does so well. The cake was a lot like Mr. Talent – very fancy and very happy.

After some time socializing, our Mexican partner and I took Mr. Talent aside to make sure that he was ready to believe as he had said he was. We ran through the gospel with him a few times, to make sure there was a clear understanding and identification. We were both satisfied. There was a clear confession of personal faith and a clear understanding of the good news – God is holy, we are sinners, Christ is the sacrifice for our sins, we must repent and believe in him.

Then came the part where we had to decide how to proceed. We decided to kneel together and put our hands on his shoulders and pray for Mr. Talent. And we asked him to pray once we had finished, just expressing his new found faith to God in whatever simple terms he chose to. He had never prayed in front of us before and was quite nervous about doing it wrong, but we assured him that whatever was in his heart would be great. I prayed in mixed local language and English. Our partner prayed in mixed local language and Spanish. And then Mr. Talent prayed in his mother tongue, a simple, clear, heartfelt prayer evidencing true faith.

We said Amen and then looked up. Mr. Talent hadn’t heard very many testimonies of faith at that point. He had certainly never read any Christian literature, other than the Bible. So there was no one who had prepped him to say what he did next.

“When you guys were praying for me, I felt this strange energy, like electricity, flowing through my body.”

I took note. Mr. Talent certainly wasn’t the first person in church history to describe things this way. But that wasn’t near as interesting as what happened next. Mr. Talent, who had until that point merely been a shy learner and a seeker, started impromptu teaching us with conviction about the identity of Jesus from John chapter 10. He went on a five minute theologically-solid and passionate monologue, exhorting us to look to Jesus. My Mexican partner and I sat there amazed at the conduct of this brand new believer. Yes, striving to be good soul doctors, we carefully look for the subtle evidence of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in all our friends who who profess faith. But usually it is just that, a bit more subtle. This was blatantly obvious. Mr. Talent was suddenly talented, gifted, overflowing in proclaiming the word in a way he hadn’t been just a few minutes previously.

“Brother… keep doing that!” we encouraged him when he had finished. “Keep holding up Jesus like that. That is not just you, that is the Holy Spirit inside of you, helping you. The Bible says he gives each one of us unique gifts. And be an example to the other believers in consistency and faithfulness. Now… let’s eat some of this cake you brought. Today really does seem to be your born-again birthday!”

Mr. Talent wasn’t always the most consistent. The absence of his main discipler for a season took a toll. Friendship and spiritual progress are intertwined in mysterious ways. But now, three years later, he has persevered and has grown in his regular attendance and service to his small church. I’m not sure what exactly God is going to do in his future, but my guess is that it will have something to do with proclamation.

Proclamation – along with an appreciation for fashion and good food. So be it. The kingdom of God is a colorful place, after all. There’s certainly room for those who can lecture on the virtues of certain kinds of kabobs and suit jackets, and then pivot to exhort others on the shepherd heart of Christ.

Photo by David Holifield on Unsplash

But When Will I Be a Man, Sir?

Twelve years ago I was standing just outside a stationary store near the center of the bazaar. The owner engaged me in conversation, curious as to where I was from. He eventually asked me how old I was, and I responded accordingly, being a twenty-year-old at the time.

“You’re still a child!” the man exclaimed.

I smiled and gave a respectful nod – it was not the first time I had heard that one, and certainly not the last. At thirty two, I’m still getting it.

“But when will I be a man, sir?” I asked.

The man lifted his index finger in the same manner a local teacher would, squinted one eye at me and said, “Son, when you have a wife, a son, and a mustache… then you will be a man!”

I pondered this response and thanked the shop owner for his helpful advice. Interesting ingredients for basic manhood, not too shocking, but a bit different than manhood might be parsed in other cultures. Especially the mustache. This was a few years before they made a comeback in the global hipster movement.

In our Central Asian culture there is no initiation-into-manhood ceremony, unlike many of the tribes in Melanesia. Marriage practically serves as the most commonly accepted threshold. But many locals would probably agree with the shop owner’s traditional response. Like most Westerners, I can’t really tell you when my culture actually decides that a boy has become a man. Is it the driver’s license at sixteen? The right to vote and join the military at eighteen? Becoming of legal drinking age at twenty one? My year as a single overseas, for me, served as the clearest point of entering “manhood” with its responsibilities and shift of perspective. The head of my org even pronounced me a man after I had completed my year and joined him for a coffee back in the US. Not a bad way to do it, taking a gap year to share the gospel among an unreached Muslim people group. There have certainly been worse ways to be initiated.

I agree with many that a biblical anthropology is the need of the hour for the Western world – a solid understanding of what the bible says about men and women, their differences and their similarities. What is the core of biblical manhood according to the scriptures? And what is the core of biblical womanhood? These are not small questions. They are questions my wife and I wrestle with as we raise two sons and one daughter in between a Central Asian culture with very restrictive gender roles and a home country that has seemingly smoked something awful and sailed off the edge of the world when it comes to sex and gender.

In Central Asia, because of what we believe about the equal worth and dignity of men and women (Gen 1:27), we are considered feminists. In the US, because of what the Bible teaches about natural distinctions in the roles and wiring of men and women (1 Tim 2:12-13), many would consider us backward-thinking misogynists. We live in between, trying to challenge both and carve out a healthy biblical path.

This is a huge subject, so I want to merely make a few general points, in the hopes of returning to each in more detail in the future.

First, we need to acknowledge that the Bible really does speak to a certain universality of femininity and masculinity. There is a core there that does not change from age to age or culture to culture. If biblical manhood and womanhood are like two huge oak trees, we need to take note of the fixed roots and trunk.

Second, we need to be honest about what the Bible does not say regarding the practical expressions of masculinity and femininity. For example, there is no biblically prescribed initiation into manhood or womanhood, despite what certain books in the Christian bookstore might say. Like so many other areas, we have biblical principles and we must work to faithfully express them in our unique contexts and cultures. We also need to study the cultures the Bible was written in. Some of the commands and examples in the scriptures are rooted in the created natures of men and women (and are thus universal, like 1 Tim 2:12-13) and some were applications of these deeper realities meant only for a given context (like the head coverings in 1st Cor 11). Returning to our two oak trees, we need to look up and acknowledge that when the wind blows the branches do actually have quite a bit of sway. Solid, fixed roots and swaying branches can coexist as part of the same healthy tree. The roots and trunk are our principles, the branches the healthy expressions.

Third, we need the global church. This is because we are all so prone to confuse our principles with our own cultural expressions. Being a man in America means I don’t hold another man’s hand, whereas I might be expected to in Melanesia or Central Asia. Manliness is often communicated in the West as a rough, unkempt sort of look, whereas Central Asian manly men are into immaculate grooming, poetry, flowers, and drinking tea from small dainty glass cups. Be careful if you laugh though, they all know how to jerry-rig the electricity as well as shoot an AK-47. Yes, while also wearing skinny jeans. Melanesian manly men weep severely and publicly, while Western manly men tend to keep their grief more private. Why the differences? Are they all equally valid or unequally skewed? Too often the biblical manhood camp in the West (of which I’m a part) has confused biblical manhood with things that are just frontier manhood – things like camping, steel-toed boots, radical individualism, guns, and cigars. Those are sometimes fine expressions of manhood, but they are also merely one culture’s unique expression of biblical principles such as courage (1 Cor 16:13) and subduing the earth (Gen 1:28). Exposure to the global (and historical) church will help us as we seek to get clarity on the faithful range of expressions of biblical manhood and womanhood. Those who have the privilege of international travel or living nearby internationals will have a practical advantage in this effort. Those who don’t resonate as well with their culture’s preferred expressions may find surprising help there as well. And for anyone who reads, the global church is increasingly accessible!

When did I become a man? It probably had very little to do with a mustache. Rather, it must have been at some point when the Lord acknowledged the growing presence of core things like servant leadership, courage, costly obedience, faithful work, and gentle strength. Ultimately it was in relation to him, and not some cultural ceremony, where the true shift of identity must have taken place. For what is biblical manhood or womanhood except coming to increasingly reflect the image of God according to our unique male and female creation? In that sense I have crossed a threshold and become a man. And yet eternity bears on this also. Having become a man, turns out I will never actually stop becoming one. Eternity means there’s always room to grow more like the infinite glory that manhood and womanhood together reflect.

Photo by Josh Rocklage on Unsplash