Living In a Different Financial Universe

“Your pastors aren’t paid by the government?!” Our friend’s language teacher was in shock. He had never heard anything like this. “So how do they make a living?”

“By the faithful giving of the church members,” said our friend. More astonishment followed.

The longer we live in Central Asia, the more we realize that we are living in a different financial universe when it comes to money and religious institutions.

The local religious leaders are salaried by the government, as long as they are part of one of the officially approved religions. This means a somewhat secure income – but also government control.

Local religious institutions themselves are also given a monthly stipend from the government, even those institutions which would otherwise have died long ago – such as a Sufi-dervish branch I visited this past week. The Sufis (Islamic mystics) were the most powerful group here for about 1,000 years. But sometime in the past century their power collapsed. My local friends say it’s because so much of their teaching and practice was based on tradition and personality, as opposed to the more text-based Sunni Islam exported by Egypt and Saudi Arabia since the early 20th century. But it’s that monthly government stipend that keeps them holding on. The few members of their branches get a cut of that stipend, and so they keep coming back, chanting, and talking about the glory days. The government for their part gets a friendlier group than the more militancy-prone Salafis, who are growing exponentially here based on a strong mix of ideology and funding.

As long as there were melons, the relatives were score. But now the melons have run out, the relatives are no more. So goes a local proverb that seeks to explain how many locals’ loyalty is dependent on a basic monthly payout.

This type of top-down money scheme is carried into the church when locals come to faith. Many are offended to not be given monthly cash for simply being faithful attendees. And watch out if you hire an unbeliever for that development job instead of a local believer – that is viewed as akin to betrayal.

As far as sacrificial giving that could fund a local pastor – that’s going to take some time to be understood and actually put into practice. In fact, we have never had a financially independent local church in the three decades that missions has been taking place here. The patron-client worldview means local believers give their time and loyalty to a certain missionary, group, or church, and then often expect to receive cash and favors of influence in return. For many locals this is self-evident, just the way the world runs.

There are also wild stories believed among the locals about the missionaries’ financial situation. $25,000 payout per baptism is one of the more extreme ones that I’ve personally been accused of. Even this past week a dear brother was shocked to learn that healthy organizations don’t tie higher or lower salaries to results.

“You mean to tell me that if a foreigner’s church plant falls apart, he’ll still get the same salary?” he asked, incredulous. I just shook my head and attempted to carefully explain that a fair income for a sent-out one should be tied to faithfulness, not to ministry results. It was the first time he had ever considered this.

The widespread assumption here is that numbers, events, and baptisms equal top-down, outside money. Some of this is the fault of this cultural context, as I’ve been describing here. But some of it is also the fault of evangelical organizations that have come in and splashed money around carelessly, not realizing the harmful precedents they are setting. While many locals fall into these issues simply for lack of discipleship, others have also learned to play the game. Western pastors who visit our region are a favorite target. In a one-week trip, the visitors are dazzled – and financial commitments follow. The long-term missionaries who try to follow up on these “high-impact” groups often find they have already been shattered by conflicts over money – leaving believers embittered and unwilling to gather with others.

These problems are deep-rooted, and won’t go away overnight. But there is a quiet transformative power that comes from biblical, congregational churches – where members learn to work hard and give generously, to decide together, even to discipline together. This bottom-up participatory Christianity has overcome honor-shame patron-client cultures before, such as that of ancient Rome and that of the American South (See the writings of David A. Desilva and Gregory Wills, respectively). If this kind of faith truly takes root here, we can expect similar reform to eventually take place.

In the meantime we’re going to have to get really explicit when it comes to how the local church should handle money. When living in different financial universes, assumptions are highly combustible. Somehow in security-sensitive contexts like ours, we’re going to have to find ways to say, “No pastor or missionary should ever get money for a baptism – ever! If they do, they are dangerous and a wicked example.”

Work hard. Give generously. Support your own pastor. Serve the poor. Fund your own cross-cultural workers. These are our dreams for the local churches here. There are no short-cuts to these outcomes. Outside money will always be quicker and easier. But it will keep the churches here from reaching adulthood. Bottom-up congregational giving, on the other hand, will lead to a beautiful maturity.

Photo by Jp Valery on Unsplash

An Idiom of Deep Respect

I kiss your eyes!

Local Oral Tradition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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

Please Bring Your Holy Imagination

A few weeks ago we were asked by some future teammates if there is anything they can do to prepare for the mission field during their last few months in the US. I said something to them that I had not previously mentioned in these types of conversations.

“Try to go deeper in knowing yourselves. Ask your mentors, friends, and family for feedback on your strengths and weaknesses. Come to the field ready to be honest about those things and knowing how you will need to lean on others on your team. If you have a better understanding of who you are, you will be better able to understand your teammates – and you’ll be less likely to fall into unnecessary conflict.”

I said this because I am slowly coming to the conviction that a lack of self-awareness and a lack of holy imagination are at the root of much team conflict. And the two are related. Regarding self awareness, it simply takes a long time to truly see ourselves in relation to others. Most of us start off kind of ignorant of what we’re actually like, thinking that we are the definition of normal, balanced, and gifted, and that the world would be a better place if everyone else were more like us. It’s often after a long process of clashing and bonding with others who are very different from us that we really learn to live in a robust theology of the body of Christ – that there are all kinds of differences among the members and that this is actually worthy of celebration. We as individuals have some real gifts and strengths, and a unique slew of corresponding weaknesses. But the body of Christ working together is beautiful in how the members complement one another.

We need to get better at knowing ourselves – learning our own personal culture, as I like to think of it. But we also need to pursue growth in putting ourselves in someone else’s shoes – in what has been called holy imagination. I recently listened to an interview where professor Karen Swallow Prior was advocating for Christians to read more good literature – like Frankenstein. Her argument was a new one for me. She said that God has given us imaginations, and we will engage them somewhere. If we don’t engage them in healthy ways (like fiction books), then we will be more drawn to unhealthy things like conspiracy theories. Yikes. An underdeveloped imagination is also likely to lead to ugly conflict with others as we fail to exercise our imagination in interpreting their words charitably. For exhibit A, log on to Christian Twitter.

Yes, believers say things that seem hurtful or offensive all the time. But can we interpret those words in the broader context of our relationship? Can we understand why they would feel that way and speak that way given their history and their personality? Can we see things from their perspective? Feel things even from their perspective? This is what I mean by holy imagination. The Scriptures say that love bears and believes all things. Well, one way to practically apply that is to say that love puts itself in someone else’s shoes. When we consciously put ourselves in someone else’s situation and worldview, we end up more compassionate, patient – and better able to bear with their brokenness and their sin. And turns out this also makes us better at addressing their brokenness and sin.

Why are we so bad at doing this? I think I have more guesses than answers at this point. Though we are very strong in God’s book of revealed Scripture, I wonder why my tribe of reformed evangelicals is not particularly strong at reading God’s book of Nature – which includes things like culture, personality, and history. We are God-centered, but somehow not God-centered enough to study the complexity of God’s creation. We pride ourselves in knowing Paul’s logic in Romans, but for some reason use that as an excuse to not engage poetry as Paul did. Perhaps KSP is right, and we don’t engage our holy imaginations enough in things like literature and art. Is there something we are afraid of there? Or are we simply too busy doing ministry? Has anyone else ever found it ironic that the most influential fiction writers among evangelicals – Tolkien and Lewis – were themselves not evangelicals, but a Catholic and an Anglican?

As locals say when something doesn’t sit right, “there’s a hair in that yogurt.” Missionaries on the field are simply a reflection of our churches back home. And we are not very good at knowing ourselves and in our use of compassionate imagination. These are areas where we many of us need to pursue proactive growth – and I include myself in this.

So, to anyone reading this who is heading to the mission field, please do some hard work understanding yourself before you land on the field and join an already stressed-out team. Bring a metaphorical mirror to the field. It will really help. And please, bring your holy imagination.

Photo by Eddy Klaus on Unsplash

I Finally Got a Pretty Phone Number

I finally did it. I caved and purchased a pretty phone number for around $30.

As cross-cultural workers, there are some aspects of the culture that we are eager to put on. “Wow, the locals are so good at generous hospitality!”

There are other aspects that as Christians we will never put on, such as the shamefulness and suspicion attached to adoption among locals.

Then there are issues of preference in the culture that for one reason or another we just don’t care to put on. The fact that locals spend money to buy phone numbers that are deemed more beautiful? I just haven’t found that very important. Rather, in the age of smart phones it’s just felt kind of vain and goofy. Who cares about phone numbers anymore?

And yet every transition is another chance to reexamine our posture toward local culture and to take some additional steps so that we ourselves might seem less weird and goofy to the locals. This time around, my new platform manager joked that I should get a pretty phone number for my new business cards being made. We laughed about it, but the comment made me realize I was no longer absolutely closed to the idea, and it might be an experiment worth trying. After all, locals have been asking me about my ugly phone numbers for years. So I took the plunge and got a pretty phone number.

The first local friend I gave it to was *Frank, himself a very practical man more concerned with things working than with beauty. But sure enough, even Frank lit up. “Wow! Where did you get such a pretty mobile number?”

I just laughed to myself and then awkwardly told him how much I paid for it.

Locals can’t always put their finger on it, but they sense when cross-cultural workers are doing what they can to put on the local culture. It is meaningful because it is not absolutely necessary. “Why would you willingly change preferential things that you have grown up with in order to live more like we do?”

It’s not that a small step like this will make all the difference in becoming all things to all men. I remember being at an evangelism methods debate years ago where a white American brother proclaimed, “I do not need to learn how to shake hands like a black man in order to share the gospel with black men!” A Bolivian brother and I who were part of the discussion just kind of grimaced. Of course, this comment is correct on one level. We don’t need to learn culture as a precondition to sharing the gospel. The gospel itself qualifies us to share it across cultural lines. However, if step by step we also gradually reduce the cultural barriers that might be there, then we often find the cumulative effect to be a more attentive ear – and yes, a more skillful evangelist. The fact is, as an evangelist I have to drop some very hard truths on you regarding eternal damnation. So why not try to remove things that could tempt you to write off my message as for only my type of people?

We have learned that these kinds of shifts are just one more practical way to show love. This is true of any culture. But when foreign workers come from more dominant cultures and then willingly choose to identify with hidden or oppressed cultures, these small steps can mean even more. I can’t tell you how big the smiles get when we drop a few phrases in a minority tongue that no foreigner is supposed to know.

Yes, I am fully within my rights to continue living in the culture of my own heritage. It’s just as much a good culture as the local one, fully equal in its dignity and its brokenness. My parents’ culture is not inferior just because it is Western and has been very influential for a while. To act like it is is to fall into a different kind of error. However, when I willingly lay down my rights for the sake of love, when I take steps to identify just a little bit more with locals – just one more nod toward the honor and dignity embedded in their heritage that still endures even given all the fallenness and sin – this can open remarkable doors.

A pretty phone number will not be the straw that breaks the camel’s back and ushers in revival. But perhaps it will add to the stack! And thus it is an experiment worth attempting.

*Names changed for security

Photo by James Sutton on Unsplash

We Have Found Our New House

We are now the proud renters of a traditional stone house, built in 1955, right on the edge of our city’s bazaar. It’s a got a large garden courtyard that wraps around three sides of the house, enclosed by beautiful, though neglected, stone walls. The house is made of the same kind of stone. The different limestone blocks are subtle shades of grey, pink, tan, and yellow. Small fruit trees line the courtyard – loquat, tangerine, fig, olive, and some grape vines. It also has it’s own well.

The interior rooms are plastered, broad, and lit by many traditional metal windows which are lovely in the spring, but will do very little to keep out the cold of winter. There’s only one squatty potty, and a small traditional bath/sauna room. Three walls have some considerable water damage. The kitchen door is so small we won’t be able to fit in our appliances or counters. There’s a lot of work to be done, but it has such potential and will actually be a beautiful house once it’s fixed up and lived in, in contrast to many of the ugly cement structures of the more recent eras. And beauty may not always seem practical or efficient, but we are finding that is supposed to play a much bigger part in our lives than it has in recent years.

The location is also exciting (for us anyway!). It’s right on the edge of the bazaar, in a very old neighborhood, the one where *Hama grew up. That means it’s a two minute walk for us to be in the bazaar proper and a ten minute walk to the center. I have access to a traditional man street of the bazaar and my wife can walk just a bit further to get access to a street frequented by women. That means I would probably be within walking distance of two dozen tea houses and my wife within walking distance of two dozen used clothes shops.

We have always loved the bazaar and can’t believe that we actually have a chance to live right next to it now. Our hope is that this will mean we can go even deeper into the local language and culture and that our neighborhood will be much more accessible to local believers who are dependent on walking and public transit. All the buses flow to the bazaar. Locals themselves seem to naturally flow to the bazaar, ending up there even on days when they swear they are completely broke or booked by work, study, or visiting relatives. It is in a real sense the soul of the city. We’ve spoken for years about the ministry advantages that could come by living close to the bazaar. Now we get to test it out.

It is a little odd that we are moving into this area. Very few, if any, Americans have lived there. Locals bemoan the terrible afternoon congestion of the area streets and the electricity and water issues. But once we explain that we are old souls who love the bazaar and the classic houses, they seem to mostly understand. “He is a confused man. But alas, whoever does not accept their neighbor is not accepted by God!” is one older neighbor lady’s comment about me now that we’ve actually rented the place. For her part, she was very kind and concerned that we were paying far too much rent for the place given the poor economy and it’s condition. But I am willing to pay a bit more rent than locals would because I believe a little bit of work will make folks a year from now shocked that we got it at such a good price. Plus the economy is likely to rebound, sending rent prices up again. But we’ll be locked into a very reasonable rate. And a big yard right in the middle of the city? That’s an almost impossible find. And at 2, 7, and 9, my kids (and their parents) would be greatly helped by having some space and some dirt and some trees.

We’ve been praying hard for this past month that we would find a good house, close to the bazaar and life-giving for our family. Though it’s a fixer-upper, we are amazed at God’s kindness in answering through this lovely old stone home. May it become an oasis of hospitality, rest, and even eternal life.

Blame It On the Masons

A local friend today gave me a powerful example of how far we humans will go to excuse away shortcomings in our own tribe – something true Christians are not immune from either.

We were discussing the correct use of a new local proverb I had just learned. The proverb translates to something like, “your excuse is worse than your shameful action.” I thought it was to be used for a typical situation where someone does something disrespectful and then uses a lame excuse to defend themselves.

“No, no, no,” my friend insisted, “We use it when someone does something blatantly sinful and then right away tries to do something spiritual as if nothing had happened. Like someone boldly going to do Islamic prayers right away after doing something very shameful.”

This statement reminded me of a sad encounter I had a few years ago with a former English student. He had invited me to his workplace. While there we hung out with his coworkers. One of them, a middle aged woman, was in an unhappy marriage. To my dismay, as I sipped chai and ate the obligatory guest chocolate, I realized that my student was joyfully helping this woman set up secret social media accounts so that she could cheat on her husband. They were laughing and having a great time. I was grieved that this student would so willingly and openly participate in this kind of deceit and betrayal.

Then the call to prayer went off. There was a small mosque built right next to my coworker’s office. “Come! Let’s go pray!” He said to me. I let him know that I was content to sit at the back of the mosque while he prayed, but I wasn’t going to be joining in. One, I’m a follower of Jesus who believes in salvation by grace alone, and therefore can’t participate in a prayer ritual that is understood to count as merit that balances out sins committed. Two, I was not about to join this man in prayer after he had happily become an accomplice to adultery. I was angry inside at the blatant hypocrisy of my student, who then went on after prayers to extol to me the virtues of his religion.

I shared this situation with my friend today as we sat in the park, and he confirmed that this would be a very appropriate situation to use this proverb. But by bringing up this story, I had poked the honor-shame mechanism in my friend’s worldview, and even though he’s not a strict practicing Muslim, he felt obligated to defend his tribe.

“You know, my friend,” he began. “We have some people here, secretly among us.” I nodded. It’s Central Asia. There tend to be actual spies around, and basically everyone suspects everyone else of being some kind of spy for someone. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard that people think I’m a spy. “They are from our people, but they are supported by a group called the Masons. The Masons pay these people a salary and order them to do shameful things and then to go and do Islamic rituals also. In this way they hope to give foreigners like you a negative view of Islam. They hope to make Islam look two-faced, but we are on to them and their schemes.”

Now, lest you get the wrong idea, my local friend who told me this is extremely intelligent. He is a language teacher who is fluent in multiple languages with a sharp mind for cultural, historical, and political information. But as is often the case, intelligence is no match for the deeper impulse of defending the honor of one’s own tribe. The mind will quickly become the servant of the deep emotional need to find some kind of scapegoat or explanation so that shame is deflected – no matter how implausible that explanation is.

I have heard some wild explanations in my time from very dear and very intelligent friends (Central Asians and Westerners). But to hear that the Freemasons were paying locals to act like hypocritical Muslims so that foreigners like me would discount Islam? That’s, um, that’s quite the stretch.

Not really knowing what to do with that story, I moved the conversation on to other topics. But I found myself inwardly grateful for the simple honesty that following Jesus affords. We don’t have to latch on to elaborate stories to excuse away the actions of Christians who are not acting according to the Bible. We can simply say that their words and actions contradict God’s word – and that if they are true believers they will come to repent of them sooner or later. We don’t have to hide our own two-facedness, or that of our tribe. We can admit it, call it what it is, and bring it to the cross for forgiveness and change. After all, our good news begins with the bad news that we are all hypocrites desperately in need of being made clean and being made new.

Those most grounded in the gospel of Jesus Christ should be those most free from the lure of conspiracy theories. We simply don’t need them. We have plenty of clear reasons for what’s wrong with the world, starting with our own sin and brokenness. Thank God, there’s no need for tales of imaginary Masonic spies.

Photo by David Tip on Unsplash