Seven Factors for Missionary Homes

Whenever new personnel come to the field, we end up discussing the pros and cons of the housing that’s been chosen for them. Usually there’s some concern that it’s too nice compared to how locals live, but sometimes there are concerns that the place is not nice enough. I try to encourage them to settle in to the place they’ve been provided, and to keep their eyes open for the various ways in which locals and foreigners live here. “In a couple years,” I encourage them, “you’ll be in a great spot to find your own posture as far as housing and standard of living.” As we’ve given our colleagues here eventual freedom to choose to live in more modern or traditional places, they’ve felt better able to find their own personal fit regarding this very practical question.

A word of advice to team leaders or church planters out there: insisting on one rigid standard of living for your team doesn’t tend to work out that well. Rather, letting people wrestle with the following factors helps them to balance the different aspects involved, and make a decision with deeper buy-in. We don’t have to all live the same way on the mission field. A variety of housing lifestyles is healthy even for local believers to see. This is another area where we need to be careful not to create laws, even if we have personal convictions regarding what kind of housing is truly strategic.

  1. Access. The most important factor for missionary housing is access. Can workers who live in this house or apartment easily access the people group or the area they are called to focus on? We want to redeem the time and not live in a house that bogs us down in transit or isolation unnecessarily. We are also all creatures who struggle with motivation. When that culture shock is running you over, you want access to your people group to be there with as little resistance as possible. Living next door to (or on top of) your focus people group provides gospel opportunities, even when you might not want them. Easy access is not always possible, but when it is an option, it’s an extremely important factor.
  2. Hospitality. Does that potential home lend itself to gospel hospitality? Will locals feel comfortable visiting you when you invite them? Does your wife find the hosting space efficient or frustrating? Socioeconomic dynamics can have an effect here. If your house seems too fancy or too rough, locals may not feel free to visit you. In our context where apartment towers are a very new thing, many locals are afraid of high buildings, and might not be able to visit an apartment on the 20th floor.
  3. Relatability. Does your house or apartment and the way you live have much overlap with the way that locals live? Or is your house laid out in a foreign way, or lacking important items that locals believe should be in every home (like bathroom shoes)? It’s usually not wise for foreigners to try to live exactly as the locals do, but we should aim for healthy overlap. There should be ways in which our homes feel local, and ways in which they feel Western – especially for rest needs. Our first house in Central Asia was very nice, a surprising step up from where we had been living in refugee apartments in the US. Our second house ended up being a little too small and rough for our family and ministry needs. Our third house? Hoping for the right balance.
  4. Longevity. Is your home restful for you, your roommates, or your family? After spending yourself in local ministry, is your home a place where you’re actually able to recharge? If your house is the biggest cause of stress you have, you likely need to move. Some of our colleagues have moved into communities with 24-hour electricity and have experienced a major decrease in their stress levels now that they don’t have to juggle various fragile electricity systems. Many of us have also lived in homes without adequate natural light, and have learned to prioritize this as a practical way to fight discouragement. My family has moved into an old stone house, but one with green trees and lots of dirt and easy access to the bazaar. Why? Because green and dirt and walking the bazaar are life-giving for us. And it all adds up when it comes to longevity – the ability for workers to actually stay on the field.
  5. Team. Are you close enough to your teammates to be able to function as a healthy team, with regular rhythms of meeting, eating, and working together? One of the costs of our current house is that it is a 30 minute drive from our teammates. But for our first two years on the field, we were neighbors with one set of teammates and lived just up the hill from others. This easy access was crucial in those early days. Sometimes we can prioritize strategy over team and community, and only later realize the deficit that’s been building.
  6. Life Stage. Are you married with small children? Apartment living might not be the best choice, unless you can find a place on the ground floor. You probably don’t want to tell your kids to hush all the time. Are you living in a Muslim context but have teenage daughters? A house in a conservative neighborhood could end up severely limiting your girls’ freedom and end up leading to bitterness. Health problems can also mean needing to live somewhere newer with better utilities. Singles may also not be permitted to live in some neighborhoods because of honor/shame or safety issues. Access to schooling can also be one of the most important factors here.
  7. Beauty. This has been a growing category for me personally. In the past, beauty would not have registered as an important aspect of which house to live in. But we are creators by nature and even in this unstable age we are called to plant gardens in Babylon as it were. Once again, everything adds up when it comes to longevity. Access to beauty at home, or the potential to create beauty by moving into a fixer-upper – these things could actually make the difference in whether or not that internal stress cauldron boils over or not. My mom used to garden in Melanesia. For years I never understood what the point was. Now I am starting to get it. Our lives are supposed to be little previews of the new heavens and the new earth. Splashes of beauty in or around our physical domiciles contribute to that overall foretaste that we hope to give our local friends. In one sense, investing in the beauty of our homes on the mission field doesn’t feel like a very “pilgrim” thing to do. But we are not merely utilitarian beings, laser-focused on the spiritual while ignoring the physical creation around us. We were gardeners in the beginning. We will one day be part of an eternal garden city. Therefore, as “pilgrim gardeners” we are not foolish to hint at these realities in the here and now, even as we admit that these good previews might be here today and gone tomorrow.

We should be careful not to create laws about missionary housing that stem more from preference than sound principles. These seven factors, however, are worth considering as church planters, missionaries, or really any Christian wrestles with how to live on mission in this needy world. There is no perfectly balanced place to live this side of heaven. But by being intentional in where we choose to live, we can have a home that is an aid to our mission, rather than a hindrance.

Photo by Marko Beljan on Unsplash

Only Begotten Brother

At lunch yesterday with some colleagues and local believers, Mr. Talent used a unique phrase to call the waiter.

“Only begotten brother! We’d like some more fermented yogurt water!”

Since it was my first time to hear this particular title, I wasn’t sure if I had heard right. Sure enough, he continued to use it to hail our waiter.

The phrase seems to come from the local word for brother combined with a word that we don’t have in English, which means something like “only child” but can also be applied to an only son in a family of daughters, or vice versa. I can use it for my only daughter, but I can’t use it for my sons. Our King James phrase, “Only begotten” is not too far off, and indeed, this is the local word our language’s translation uses for God’s only Son in John 3:16.

This word also carries with it a sense of special honor and affection. Since it’s organized along male kinship lines, it’s not surprising that our Central Asian culture would bestow this kind of title onto an only son, but I’ve been encouraged to see that this unique honor and affection can also be extended to only daughters. These “only begottens” might even end up a little spoiled.

But I had never heard this kind of special familial term extended in this way to someone like a waiter in a restaurant. It was a perfect example of how honorable titles here are regularly proclaimed onto others in the course of daily business and interactions.

“My flower”

“My soul”

“My lion brother”

“My liver”

“My beautiful son”

“My eyes”

“My dear uncle on my mother’s side!”

I’m only scratching the surface here when it comes to the titles that men can use to refer to their neighbors, friends, and shopkeepers.

One of the hardest things for us to learn as Westerners is this constant art of blessing or honorable proclamation – even after we get up the courage to call a man our flower while kissing his cheeks. I still catch myself mumbling respectful phrases when I should be projecting them confidently. At least that seems to be what Central Asian fathers teach their sons, since they all grow up really good at the art of bold title bestowing.

I find myself a little unsure. “What if they don’t want to be called my lion brother?” But my local friends don’t seem plagued by this doubt. It doesn’t seem that the qualification for the title resides in the recipient, but rather in the will of the one bestowing it. Central Asian men are going to call you that honorable thing whether you feel like they should or not.

In this I see a small window into the nature of God, hidden away in our broken local culture. Does God not also proclaim honorable titles over his children, friends, and enemies dependent only on his divine pleasure? And does he not keep on proclaiming them whether we feel worthy of them or not, whether we want them or not on a given day?

“See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are.” 1st John 3:1

“No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends…” John 15:15

I want to get better at proclaiming respectful titles over my friends and acquaintances here – and not just so that I can become a Central Asian for the sake of reaching Central Asians. I want to become more like God.

In this culture awash with honorable pleasantries, it is not the most skillful orator who will be noticed, but the one whose honorable blessings actually come from the heart. In this case there will be some who truly come to fulfill these titles, to surpass them even. How? As they hear the gospel and are transformed from one degree of glory to another, for all eternity.

Photo by juan pablo rodriguez on Unsplash

22 Questions That Reveal Character – Even Across Cultures

It’s hard to discern a potential leader’s character, even in our native cultures. Unlike physical features, the terrain of character is invisible, demonstrated over time through a person’s life. Veteran pastors in the West say it typically takes 2-3 years to really know if a man has character fit to lead the church. How much more difficult is it then to discern character across culture and language barriers?

When that cashier is careful to not touch your wife’s hand when taking money from her, is that because he believes women are inferior and dirty? Or is that because he is wanting to protect the honorable reputation of your wife in a culture where a bad reputation for women can be life-threatening? Which is it? We are faced with a thousand dilemmas like this when we begin doing character work across culture.

Here are 22 questions that can serve as practical lenses for discerning character no matter what culture you’re in. They’re not exhaustive, but I hope you will find them helpful. They are also not original to me, but represent the pooled wisdom of many conversations with pastors, authors, friends, and wise believers. Some of these questions have also practically emerged out of being burned and bitten by wolves.

Before we look at the questions, however, we do need to keep a couple realities in mind. First, biblical principles do not change throughout time and across cultures. They are universally true and unchanging. However, the expressions – the applications – of those principles do vary from one century to another and from one culture to another. This will also be true at times for how character is expressed.

How an American shows respect is night and day different from how Central Asians show respect. Same principle – respect – outdo one another in showing honor. But very different, even offensively different applications. The same goes for hospitality, what constitutes manliness, who should kiss who, how we think about time, etc.

To make it even more complicated, the scriptures sometimes tie a principle and an expression very tightly together – like baptism and the Lord’s supper. The expressions are commanded along with the principle. But other times we are given principles and a large degree of freedom in expression – as with musical worship in the church. Especially for those of us in cross-cultural ministry, this is an area for careful and nuanced study of the Word.

How narrow or broad is the spectrum of faithful expression for a given biblical principle? We should know that spectrum of faithful expression, and then choose a posture according to our unique context.

To illustrate what I mean, imagine a huge Kentucky oak, not a squat mountain scrub oak like ours in Central Asia, but a remarkably tall and straight tree, a couple hundred years old. This huge oak tree has roots fixed in the earth, steady, strong. It’s trunk is firm and unmoving, solid. However, once you get up into the branches, you see some sway when the wind blows. Even the strongest and healthiest tree has some sway.

Our biblical principles are like the roots and the trunk. Our faithful applications are like the branches. Solid biblical principles have some sway in their applications across time and cultures. Disregard the universality of biblical principles and you become a relativist. Disregard the existence of the sway and you fall into a classic error of fundamentalism, which is mistaking an expression for the principle itself.

So then, ask these questions for discerning character, and be aware of how character does and doe not express itself differently across cultures.

1. How does his local church feel about this brother? The local church is often the very best reference we can have on a man’s character. What do the elders see? What do the old ladies see? Do the members of the church commend him as one already leading, already shepherding even without a title?

2. How does he respond to gospel conversation? Do his eyes gloss over and does he insist he has that topic down? Or does his heart burn within him? Does he light up at the chance to revisit the beauty of the good news?

3. How does he handle the word? Does he exhibit a posture of humility and carefulness toward scripture?

4. Does he repent freely? This is a big one for Central Asian culture! You know your local brother’s character is changing when he doesn’t just give a general, “I’m sorry,” but he starts naming specifics – and in front of others!

5. How does he respond when someone sins against him? Or when he is publicly shamed? Does he know how to extend grace and forgive? Or does he keep bringing it up and holding a grudge?

6. Is he a good follower and team player? I never want myself or my friends to follow anyone who can’t be a good follower themselves. And neither should you. The healthiest leaders are those who also know how to be good followers.

7. How does he respond to those with power and position? Does he always gravitate toward the preaching pastor, the foreigners, those with power? Does he seem to be trying a little too hard to look good in their eyes?

8. How does he respond to the vulnerable? To women, children, the poor. Our response to the vulnerable always exposes our character. Is the instinct to protect them, to ignore them, or to take advantage of them?

9. How do his wife and children respond to him? Let’s not neglect to ask the people who live with this man what he’s really like at home. A pastor who used to be a cattle farmer told me they once fired a man for how the cattle acted around him. They never saw him abusing the cattle, but they could tell from how the cattle acted what was happening when he was alone. How do a man’s wife and children respond to him? And what can that show us?

10. Is he quick to deal out judgement? This often means he’s hiding sin or doesn’t understand the gospel. Most of the wolf-types we’ve encountered have been unpredictably judgemental on minor issues.

11. Can he be trusted with money? As one of our top church-killers, money issues are often what make or break the character of a Central Asian leader. He must be above reproach with money or he will not make it in this environment of foreign organizations excited to partner financially.

12. Is he self-aware of his own weaknesses and need for the body’s diverse gifts? Do not appoint a man to leadership who is still in the phase of thinking that everyone else needs to be gifted exactly like he is. Only appoint men who rejoice in others’ diverse giftings.

13. How does he respond when he doesn’t get his way? A man of good character knows how to defer, how to trust others even when they disagree. 

14. Does he welcome correction? This is a sign of wisdom. (Prov 9:8)

15. Is he gracious toward cross-cultural mistakes? This is a very practical filter for us. The only local partners that will last with us are those who have a robust category of grace for honest cultural mistakes that we can’t help but make. If they’re harsh with your cultural mistakes, they will be with others’ even from their own culture.

16. Does he always make it about himself? Somehow does the conversation always turns back to his accomplishments?

17. Does he host or serve in ways that don’t get recognition? As one Central Asian pastor has said, pay attention to the Central Asian man who cleans the bathroom or does the dishes. That means something!

18. How does he handle his liberties? Mature christian freedom is freedom for the sake of love, not freedom for the sake of freedom. Will he give good things up that cause others to stumble?

19. What is his reputation among the discerning? Do you have folks around you who are perceptive and discerning? Lean on these people and their gifts of character discernment. I am helped to hear what a certain teammate of mine sees in a person, and to hear how my wife feels about that same person. What they see and feel tends to be validated later as a person’s true character is exposed.

20. What comes out of him in a crisis? Some security police crashed a church meeting at a colleague’s house a couple years ago. A new believer who struggles with fear stood right up, went over to the police, greeted them, told them his name, welcomed them, and acted with great courage and respect. You can’t plan reactions like that. Crises expose what is deep down inside.

21. Does he keep his commitments? A righteous man swears to his own hurt (Ps 15:4). This is foundational for building trust.  

And lastly, 22. Does he run when the wolf comes? Or does he lay down his life for the sheep, as the good shepherd did? I was discipling some Iranian new believers in the US and they were bothered by the fact that staff pastors at our church were paid salaries. “How do we know they’re not just in this for the money, like the mullahs back home are?” they asked. “You’ll know,” I said, “when a wolf emerges, or anytime when caring for the sheep means the pastors must sacrifice and suffer. Then you’ll see their character emerge.”

Why is it important that we have some practical filters like this for discerning character? Because it’s hard to see character even in our native cultures, let alone in one where we are outsiders.

These filters give us some tools to have on hand, things to notice as you are walking with potential leaders – or any believer for that matter. How they do with these lenses applied will expose who they are, or who they are becoming.

It’s hard to see character, but a man’s heart is exposed by the fruit of his life (Matt 7:15-20). If we are careful to study the fruit, we can truly “see” the heart, and character will no longer be invisible.

Photo by Stephen Kraakmo on Unsplash

How to Sign Your Name Like a Central Asian Convict

This past week some colleagues were discussing certificate options with a local friend. As you might recall, certificates in this part of the world are taken very seriously. A training or class is often not considered respectable or even real if it comes with no certificate.

We were debating various formats for an upcoming certificate-giving ceremony and trying to fit spots for a couple of signatures, a seal, and a logo on the bottom portion of the paper. Initially, we only focused on the practicalities and aesthetics of the question when an old memory of signature placement and meaning suddenly came back to me.

Mr. Talent*, will it mean something bad in your culture if we go with this centered design and one signature line is placed above another signature line?”

Mr. Talent had to take a minute to understand what I was getting at.

“You know, your culture feels very strongly about the placement of signatures. One must not sign below their printed name, correct?”

Here I flashed back to my first landlord, a fiery older woman who scolded me when I signed below my printed name on our first rental contract, and indicated for her to do so also.

“Don’t put it there! That’s the way convicts sign things! We are most definitely not convicts!”

I remember being thoroughly confused. Was this true all across the culture or was this simply fiery old Aisha* who once told us she would absolutely go join the anti-government protesters – if only her legs were still strong enough to run when the bullets started flying.

Sure enough, as I asked around I found all my local friends somehow knew that to sign above the name meant you were a respectful person, and to sign below meant you were in prison. I have no idea where this came from, but contextualization means we make sure to remember to sign above that line.

Mr. Talent quickly understood what I was referring to. “Yes! Yes, that means you are a criminal!” he laughed deeply and gave me a kiss on the cheek.

“So then,” I continued, “If these signatures are stacked in the middle of the certificate, will that carry a similar negative meaning?”

Mr. Talent chewed on my question. He is most certainly a true local, but is in his early 30s and a member of what more traditional types call “the iPad generation.” He would be one to scoff at the concept of corpses being preserved through the local practice of avowal, for example.”

“No,” he then replied, “we should be good to stack them like this if we decide we like it.”

Mission accomplished. Having checked with a local about this particular interplay of form and meaning, we could now be sure that we wouldn’t be accidentally insulting our students in the very ceremony meant to honor them.

Living in a foreign culture is full of hidden landmines like this. You might be carrying on for years thinking you are being respectful only to realize you’ve been quietly insulting people the whole time. Having grown up in Melanesia, I found out the hard way that you’re only supposed to reply to polite letters written by single female peers if you have intentions of love and marriage. Back in the US, no one told me you’re supposed to tip your barber. I stumbled onto this after years of cheerfully waving goodbye to my barbers without leaving the expected cultural form of thank you. Here in Central Asia, it took five years for us to find out the proper way to not subtly insult gas station attendants.

This is what makes learning another culture so much fun – and so risky. Deep embarrassment is never far away, so it’s great for your humility – and for laughter. On the flip-side, when you learn or anticipate a new part of the cultural code, you get a very satisfying sense of a mystery now revealed.

So then, if you happen to be in our corner of Central Asia, don’t sign all over the place like some kind of careless celebrity. Keep your non-convict status and make sure to sign above that printed name.

*Names changed for security

Photo by Bermix Studio on Unsplash

Respect, Planning, and Presence

Today I was reminded of three common crises of trust that have occurred in our relationships with local Central Asian believers. These three big questions of trust tend to underlie some of the more serious conflict we have. Cross-cultural differences can aggravate these three concerns, but in and of themselves they are very valid questions to ask. And while we would answer with a “Yes, of course!” to all three questions, we also find them very understandable, given the very real challenges faced by those coming to faith in this context of persecution.

Crisis One: Do these foreigners actually respect us? Though most missionaries working among Central Asians possess a deep love and respect for the locals, this question is surprisingly common. Much of this is due to the fact that respect is expressed very differently in our respective cultures – sometimes even expressed in completely opposite ways. Locals feel deeply disrespected if not visited while sick. Westerners tend to respect a sick person by giving them space to recover. Locals use titles in a very serious fashion to express a respectful sense of hierarchy. Many Westerners prefer first name status over titles, as this communicates a respectful sense of equality. But this question and crisis of trust can also emerge from the timeline Westerners might choose when it comes to handing over authority and money to local believers. We choose to take a slower route in response to the culture’s penchant toward domineering leadership and power grabs. This can be misinterpreted as zero trust and respect when in fact it is an approach of incrementally building trust and respect over time.

Crisis Two: Do these foreigners actually have a plan? This question emerges out of the very different places Western and Central Asian cultures find themselves in regarding institutions, plans, and the Church. When it comes to Christianity, Western missions culture definitely has a post-institutional momentum. We tend to want things to be organic, authentic, and not very institutional. We tend to twitch at the term, “organized religion.” But Central Asian culture has a strongly pre-institutional posture. The desire is for robust and complex institutions and plans to be built – though there’s often not a clear understanding of just how this should be attempted. So institutions tend to be started, but then end up just like the rest of the culture – run by strong-man leadership, instead of by values, bylaws, and constitutions. When Western missionaries lead Bible studies or church meetings, we tend to run these times based on experience or on a loose plan we have in our heads. We may have a long-term vision and mission in which we plan to see churches planted and multiplied. But we often don’t share these plans with the locals in detail. We simply might not think of it, assuming that they are a more “organic” culture, or we might not talk about it due to security concerns. Either way, locals can feel like we are risking their lives without much of a plan – and this sense can seriously undermine trust and commitment. They know that Western culture has historically been good at institution building and planning. So it’s confusing to see their Western friends downplaying these things on a regular basis.

Crisis Three: Will these foreigners actually be there for me? We foreign missionaries are a transient lot. We travel for furloughs, medical issues, vacation, or visa issues. We tend to have a high rate of turnover due to things like burnout and struggling kids. We also live only partway inside the local culture, sometimes unwilling and sometimes unable to intervene when locals face persecution or hardship. At the back of many of our friends’ minds they believe that if things get too dangerous we’ll leverage our passports to get to safety – and they’ll be stuck on their own to face the threats. They are not completely wrong in these fears. If things get too unstable in terms of security, most of us will have to leave. But sometimes we make this concern worse by being unwilling to get into the weeds and find creative solutions to locals’ persecution or suffering. These are very messy situations, and they can compromise our presence locally. But if we always use our privilege to stay out of locals’ dangerous situations, we also risk failing to model sacrificial leadership – the kind where good shepherds lay their lives down for the sheep and don’t flee like hired hands.

Respect, planning, presence – these three questions can simmer in the mind and heart of a local believer, and explode in times of conflict or danger. As such, we need to regularly affirm our respect, describe our plans, and express our desire to be present in the hard times. This will help us to build trust with locals and to better weather conflict. We also need to learn how to show these in ways that will be received by the culture, so that our words will be received as genuine. Time will expose where our hearts are truly at. But our actions, even if they fail, communicate more than we know.

However, we should also qualify these affirmations. In the end, we don’t respect locals as consistently as we should, we don’t always have a good plan, and we will not always be present. We are sinners, we are finite, we will die. Yet the collective community of a healthy church can extend these things truly, if imperfectly, to a local believer. The local church in this age can make a God-honoring impact in terms of true respect, wise planning, and steady presence in the midst of suffering. And the missionary team can do its best to model these things to the church plant.

Whether we succeed or fail in these things, both are actually an opportunity to point locals yet again to Jesus, the only one who extends perfect respect, perfect plans, and soul-sustaining perfect presence in suffering. We can ultimately redirect local with these questions and crises to him. We trust him to hold onto our local friends, even as we also seek to carry them in our hearts in these three vital ways.

Photo by Aidan Bartos on Unsplash

The Deeper Beliefs Begin to Come Out

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Christians Do Not Abandon Their Dead

‘Our brothers from Parthia do not marry two wives; Jewish Christians are not circumcised, our sisters from Gilan and Kushan do not associate with foreigners; those from Persia do not marry their daughters; those from Media do not abandon their dead, nor do they give them to the dogs to eat, nor do they bury the dying while still alive, Christians from Edessa do not kill their wives or sisters who commit adultery, and those from Hatra do not stone thieves.’ This quote from Bardaisan’s ‘Book of the Laws of the Lands’ from the early third century is not merely instructive on account of the descriptions of the morals of the Asian peoples mentioned but also provides valuable evidence of how far Christianity had spread to the east by the end of the Parthian dynasty (224/226 CE). Parthia should be understood here as Mesopotamia, and Persia and Media as Iran. Gilan lies to the south of the Caspian Sea, the most westerly part of the great Kushan empire was Transoxania, and Hatra lies south of Mosul. At the start of the third century, Christian cells existed in all of these regions.

Baumer, The Church of the East, p. 19

What a difference the gospel made in these ancient cultures!

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Why True Faith Is and Is Not Like Sheikhood

We are teaching through the book of John at our small local church plant. This past week we were looking at chapter 8:31-38, a section often summarized as “The Truth Will Set You Free.” A couple of the local believing men came by earlier in the week to study through the passage with me and we spent an hour or so asking interpretive questions of the text and making observations. What a help it is as a teacher to meet with other men with their own eyes and their own insights into the text.

One of the final questions I like to ask in these study sessions is, “What connections does this passage have to your culture? Any proverbs, customs, or history that can serve to illustrate the truth that we see here?” This time around we couldn’t think of much that connected with the major themes of freedom, slavery, and truth. I decided to shelve the question and try to come back to it when I was crafting the sermon later. I was writing out my local language manuscript the next day when it came to me – sheikhood might work.

The local concept of sheikhood could serve as a negative illustration of true faith held out in this passage of John. In this passage, Jesus has proclaimed that true disciples are those who abide in his word, who know the truth, and who are set free by the truth (v. 31-32). In protest, the Jewish audience balks, responding that they are free, that they have never been slaves of anyone, because they are children of Abraham (v. 33). Jesus goes on to spell out their slavery to sin and their need to be set free from the temporary and dangerous situation of the slave, and into the eternal freedom of the son and his house (v. 34-36).

One of the main points of the sermon was that only the truth of Jesus can set us free – our physical lineage cannot. This is where sheikhood comes in. Locals believe that an Islamic holy man, a sheikh, passes on his title, his prestige, and to some extent his holiness automatically to his biological male descendants. This is regardless of the actual character or life of said male descendant. He might not pray, he might be a drinker, or he might even be an atheist, and many would still call him “Dear Sheikh So-And-So.” Locals freely acknowledge this, and see the inconsistency in it, but it continues to happen nonetheless. We even had a fun surprise during all this, discovering that one of our own believing members, *Darius, is technically a sheikh in this regard (Given the fun-loving nature of our church plant, we are sure to have a good time teasing Darius with this newfound knowledge).

My point in bringing up sheikhood was to compare it with the Jews’ misplaced faith in their physical descent from Abraham and to contrast it to the true faith that is experienced by the individual who is set free by the truth of Jesus alone. True faith is not like sheikhood. It is not passed automatically from father to son, merely downloaded through physical descent. This view of faith-by-blood is a real danger in this part of the world, one which can destroy gospel clarity in as little as one generation. Local believers begin with the assumption that their physical children are automatically born with the same faith as their father. However, instead of this we should not trust in our parents, our people, our supposed descent from holy men, or anything else. We should trust in Christ alone and continue abiding in his word.

It resonated. The believers knew what I was talking about when I made the connection in the sermon, and they seemed to grasp the contrast presented by the illustration from their own world.

Later on, a few of us were at lunch together, enjoying some good rice, lamb, soups, and flatbread. Our summer volunteer turned to Mr *Talent and asked him what he had learned from the sermon that day. Mr. Talent swallowed his mouthful of flatbread and rice, and furrowed his brow.

“Well, the point about sheikhood was a powerful one for me.”

I nodded, thinking I knew where he was going. Instead, he took it in a different direction.

“Just as sheikhood is given from father to son without the son doing anything, so God the father gives us the eternal freedom of Jesus apart from our good works, and we thus also become sons of God.”

I smiled to myself. How many times had I heard other teachers and preachers recount how some the most powerful takeaways from their messages were not actually connections they had made at all? And yet it was not an improper connection to make. The eternal freedom of the Son is indeed given to us freely, not entirely unlike how the honor of a practicing sheikh is given (imputed) also to his irreligious son. How interesting that Mr. Talent put the pieces together in this way.

So in the end, it seems that we could say that sheikhood is and sheikhood is not like true faith. We are not saved by being part of anyone’s physical line. But we are saved by being part of a certain spiritual line, that of Christ. And in this line we become so much more than mere sheikhs, with their false genetic titles and holiness. We become free indeed, eternal residents of the house of God himself.

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Wine’s Alcohol Content in the Ancient World

This week I came across this article by Dr. Charles L Quarles of SEBTS, titled Was New Testament Wine Alcoholic? It contained this interesting trivia: ancient writers and the water to wine dilution rates mentioned in their works.

The article goes on to argue that the most likely water to wine dilution rate of Jews in the New Testament period was 3:1, which was equivalent to a beverage that is only 3% alcoholic. In other words, equivalent to a modern low-alcohol beer. It wasn’t modern grape juice, which wasn’t invented until the Methodist Rev. Welch came along in the 1800s. But neither was it basically the same thing as a contemporary shiraz.

If this is true, then it’s a finding likely unsatisfactory to both sides of the Christians and alcohol debate. The wine consumed by Jesus was actually alcoholic, but in a pretty mild way. You’d have to drink a lot to get drunk. However, you could indeed get drunk from the common wine of the Jews if you wanted to. And there was certainly other wine around that was stronger, judging from the biblical passages addressing the dangers of drunkenness, as well as the testimony of the ancient writers in this Quarle’s article.

While I find the historical context interesting and helpful – these kinds of details really do matter for good interpretation – I’m not at all sure that it changes the biblical principle. Namely, drunkenness is a sin, and any alcohol consumption should be governed by a Christian accordingly (Eph 5:18). This principle seems sound and stable no matter the alcohol content of a given drink.

Just this past week, *Darius was sharing his testimony. It involved his amazement that during our first time hanging out together, I didn’t drink with him and his friends, breaking their expectations of what an American was supposed to be like. But I was then and am still under a no-alcohol covenant required by my organization. Darius wanted to know why I wasn’t partaking of the alcohol they had on hand and that’s what got us into a gospel conversation. That conversation led to more talks, until Darius came to faith.

I smiled as he recounted this story, because in previous years I had had the exact opposite happen. When I was here previously with a different organization, I had felt unexpectedly led to have a beer with my new Muslim friends. That act of partaking led to good gospel conversations, and *Hama ended up coming to faith.

So which is it? Have a beer for the sake of the gospel or abstain for the sake of the gospel? Both, it seems, according to the place where God sovereignly has you. Both can be done for the sake of love. And both postures can bridge to the heart of the matter – that we need new hearts.

There is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him.” (Mark 7:15 ESV)

Wait, can biblical wisdom really leave the door open to both? Won’t that be harmful or confusing?

For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon.’ The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look at him! A glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is justified by her deeds.” (Matt 11:18-19 ESV)

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*Names changed for security

Respecting Gas Station Attendants and The Importance of Toilet Shoes

I’ve been spending a lot of time this summer with *Darius, one of the faithful local men who is a part of our church plant. Darius has a wonderful gifting – that of a person who is becoming truly bicultural. People like him are able to function well in two or more very different cultural settings without rejecting either culture. They make great students if their teacher is, like me, from another culture. They also make wonderful teachers themselves, since they still deeply value their home culture and are willing to explain it. It’s no coincidence that 1st Corinthians 9, “becoming all things to all men” has been a passage Darius keeps coming back to lately. All this has made him a lifesaver when it comes to the holes in our cultural knowledge that we still have, even as we approach six years in this context. Here are some of the things we’ve recently learned from him.

Gas Station Attendants. In order to display respect to gas station attendants, it’s honorable for the driver to disembark from his vehicle while being served. Here it’s still the norm for gas station employees to pump the vehicle fuel, not the driver. But to remain seated in the cab is apparently to communicate a certain sense of one’s own superiority over the man pumping the gas. So, just as men should get up (or attempt a half-stand) when another man enters the room, so a driver should get down from his seat and stand on an equal level with the attendant. It’s a small thing, one that we would have likely never spotted had Darius not mentioned it to us. But now that we know we have one more area of daily conduct in which we can act respectfully.

Toilet Shoes. The grossest thing in the world to a local is a home bathroom that has no toilet shoes. These are rubbery slip-on sandals that are worn by locals when they visit the W.C. In order to be a good host, these slippers must always be available, conveniently lined up outside the toilet area. Do they ever get washed? Not that I’ve ever seen. But wearing these toilet slippers communicates cleanliness to locals, and to approach a bathroom while barefoot (outside shoes are never worn indoors) is to be faced with deep horror and dismay. We already had bathroom shoes available most of the time for our guests, but now we have become hyper-vigilant to make sure we always have them at the ready.

Shaving Armpits. And speaking of personal cleanliness, Darius and the other local believers were recently scandalized to learn that Western men don’t shave their armpits on the regular. We foreigners were somewhat shocked to hear that local men do shave their armpits, and that they find it to be a cornerstone of regular personal hygiene. “In our culture that’s really dirty!” our local friends said to us. “In our culture that’s kind of unmanly!” we said to them. Who knew? Apparently we had not gone swimming together quite enough to notice this crucial difference in approaches to body hair. Needless to say, neither side has acted yet on this newfound cross-cultural difference.

If you ever serve cross-culturally, pray for a friend like Darius. Little tips like these are immensely practical as we seek to avoid needless offense and to little-by-little put on the local culture and lifestyle. We won’t always choose to practice these kinds of things ourselves. Local men find it unmanly to wash the dishes, for example. But if we don’t know what the differences are, then we are not free to choose which behavior will best commend ourselves and our message to our local friends.

Sometimes we will not put on the local culture, so as to drive home an important contrast. I will most certainly wash the dishes for my wife, regardless of the locals who might snicker. But most often, we will put on the local culture (and yes, the toilet shoes). This is to be like Paul, so that by any means, we “might save some.”

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*Names changed for security