On Not Neglecting the Internationals in Our Churches

A couple days ago I got coffee with a missionary who has served in East Asia. During one part of our conversation, we discussed a subtle issue we’ve noticed even in otherwise-healthy churches – that internationals and those from other cultures are often overlooked when it comes to both their care as well as investment in their potential. Similar to what I addressed in my post earlier this week, leadership and fellow church members don’t always “see” this particular class of the lowly or the seemingly-unimportant in the same way they “see” those who are same-culture individuals.

This is only natural. Humans gravitate toward those who are most similar to them and with whom they have the most in common. These sorts of people get more of our attention because relating to them is simply much easier – there are fewer barriers to communication and friendship. But therein lies the problem. The Church is not a natural institution, but a supernatural one, a new family built not on shared natural affinities, but on the spiritual affinity of a new birth into a new family where God is our Father and Christ is our older brother.

It’s makes sense that the Jewish Hellenistic widows were neglected in Acts 6. There were pretty significant cultural and linguistic barriers between them and the Judean/Galilean believers that prevented their needs from being as visible to the apostles. But the apostles and the early church didn’t shrug this off as some kind of natural dynamic that should be embraced (“Let’s just plant First Hellenistic Church, shall we?”). Instead, they created the forerunner of an entirely new office in the local church that would focus on the needs of the needy and marginalized. They recognized that they had a major crisis on their hands, that the credibility and faithfulness of the believing community was at stake if its members who were essentially foreign widows – foreigner and widow both being major categories of concern in the Old Testament – got neglected. So, they went and created the diaconate so that this kind of oversight might never happen again. Or, so that when it happens, there are leadership resources devoted to it.

Neglecting the needs of those from other cultural and linguistic backgrounds can still happen, even in our healthiest churches – though this neglect is often unintentional. In some churches, care for internationals and those from other cultures gets essentially delegated to a select few who have themselves served in the past as missionaries. When those cross-culturally-skilled believers then go back overseas or otherwise are no longer around, the body at large hasn’t learned to care for internationals, and they can very easily slip through the cracks. Care and investment can be neglected, which looks like international students getting forgotten during holidays, older refugees getting targeted by scammers, and promising young leaders with a vision for their home country being left to figure it out on their own. Again, this is so often unintentional.

What would proactive steps look like in building a church culture that cares well for the internationals among us? Many churches in the West and in global cities will continue to have members who are either refugees, immigrants, students, or business professionals. And this does not seem to be slowing down. Here I want to offer some initial suggestions, though I offer these thoughts feeling that this is merely the beginning of a conversation on how we can all do this better in our various contexts.

First, in our churches we need to be serious about appointing wise, spirit-filled deacons who can be lead servants for the body in caring for the marginalized, including any internationals among us. After all, the origin story of deacons is explicitly tied to fixing issues of cross-cultural neglect in a local church. Do we insist that our deacons have their radars finely tuned for those in the body who come from different linguistic or cultural backgrounds, the contemporary equivalent of the Hellenistic widows? What in their deacons meetings and ministry rhythms keeps this demographic regularly before them? Without this kind of intentional focus, again, the danger is that the marginalized from our own culture will accidentally take priority, because there are fewer barriers toward them being seen and heard.

The text of scripture highlights being of good repute, spirit-filled, and wisdom-filled as the primary qualifications for the men chosen in Acts 6:3. These qualifications, along with those laid out in 1st Timothy 3 should be our top priorities when appointing qualified deacons. These are the kind of men who have the character needed to see the lowly, and that is the most important thing. However, many have pointed out that all seven proto-deacons of Acts 6 have Hellenistic names. It’s therefore likely that they themselves were more Hellenistic than Hebrew in their cultural background, and thus chosen as those well-positioned to care for the Hellenistic widows. So, while natural affinity is not the foundation of the church’s unity, here we see that it may be important for mercy ministry to the marginalized. This is because we are simply much better observers of those things in which we also have some experience.

My daughter has type-1 diabetes and uses Omnipod and Dexcom systems for diabetes management. When others walk by us with these devices sticking to their skin, or when we hear their distinctive beeping noises, we instinctively notice, when we would not have noticed before. Why? We now have experience with diabetic devices and are deeply invested in them as a way to care for our daughter. It follows that those with experience and investment in other languages and cultures are going to more intuitively notice those from these backgrounds, and also notice their needs.

Given these realities, it seems wise to appoint deacons from diverse cultures or with missions experience as those with naturally stronger radars for spotting those international members most likely to be overlooked. If you have Spanish-speaking members in your congregations, consider prioritizing the development of Spanish-speaking deacons. If you South Asian members, then likewise. Or, perhaps that retired missionary might make an excellent addition to the team of deacons.

Other than appointing and directing lead-servants, what else can be done to strengthen the skill and gifting in the body for caring for internationals? For this I really only have one tried and true method: get people overseas. Create pathways for both leadership and members to spend extended time immersed in a foreign culture, ideally alongside of missionaries or churches that you know and trust. Again, people notice what they have experience or investment in. It’s remarkable the kind of effect that several months or several years on the mission field can have on someone’s ministry outlook for the rest of their life.

We should get creative about finding ways to get church leadership overseas, and not just for short-term trips. My missionary friend serving in East Asia shared about a house swapping arrangement he had with one of his former pastors. Before the pandemic derailed things, this pastor and missionary were coordinating their sabbatical and furlough so that the missionary family would have housing in the US and the pastor’s family would get to spend six months living in a foreign context. What a great idea! What would it look like for churches to free up their pastors for mission sabbaticals like this? The impact of getting church leadership on the field for extended periods could be tremendous. Whenever I encounter a student whose dream it is to be a pastor, I challenge them to spend a couple years on the mission field first. This is because their perspective on ministry and the church will be dramatically affected by spending time in frontier missions contexts – and yes, they will be more likely to have eyes that see the internationals in their congregation.

But it’s not just – or even mainly – up to the leadership. After all, the work of the ministry primarily belongs to the congregation (Eph 4:12). So, there is a great need to equip the body to care for those from other cultural and linguistic backgrounds. Want to create a church strong in mercy ministry? Make sure there are many accessible pathways for your church members to spend extended time in mission contexts. Short-term trips are a start, but much more profound changes are going to come about by spending several months or longer overseas. They need to be there long enough to experience some negative things, and for the initial shine to wear off. They need to experience what it’s like to be a minority in a strange land, not just a tourist.

What can we do to foster a culture in our churches that cares well for the marginalized from other cultures? I think that pressing into our deacons and getting church leadership and members overseas are some sound ways to start. And let’s not forget the outcome of caring well for the Hellenistic widows in Acts 6 – “And the word of God continued to increase, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith” (Acts 6:7).

Caring well for those often overlooked leads to evangelistic power. Of course it does. Spiritual unity among those without natural affinities is a stunning thing.

Photo by Gyan Shahane on Unsplash

They Gave Us New Names

Many missionaries experience the honor of being renamed by those in their host culture. This is often a kind act of respect and acceptance on the part of the locals. And, depending on the name itself, it can be a gift the missionary holds onto for years to come.

It’s a peculiar thing, the way we humans rename one another. The name itself is often a reflection of some characteristic already present in the person, although naming can also be reflective of the giver, where they project their hopes onto the recipient in the form of a new name. I’m struck by how much mileage these names often get, sometimes becoming a key part of our identity even when the name emerged as a nickname in jest.

During our local trade language class in high school, we were amused one day by some of the older obscure terms we were learning, such as the word for fine hair on plants, mosong. One of the boys in our class, named Ryan, had short, fine, spiky blonde hair both on the top of his head and poking out of his chin. Someone during that class period saw the correlation and dubbed him Mosong. We all (including Ryan, a good sport) laughed at how well the name fit, and it stuck. By the end of high school, no one called him Ryan anymore. He had become Mosong. Now almost two decades later, I would probably still call him Mosong if I saw him again.

This past week as we marked the anniversary of my dad’s death, my mom reminded my brothers and me about the tribal names we were given during our first term in Melanesia. She remarked that they were peculiarly well-given, still seeming to reflect what we are like even decades later. The names were given by new believers in remote village areas where my parents served, my dad providing interim leadership for small congregations while local pastors were being trained up and my mom teaching women and literacy.

My dad was named Kamtai, which means thunder. This was fitting, as he was bold and strong, a former marine and natural leader. My oldest brother was named Kampok, which means lightning. This was because everywhere my dad went, my brother went also – just as lightning and thunder always come in a pair. The middle brother who was always climbing trees was named Kamp, which means cuscus. For those not versed in obscure Melanesian marsupials, a cuscus is basically a cute jungle possum of sorts that is an expert climber. My name was Kilmanae, which translates as parrot. This is because when I was a child I did not have a blog, so all my ruminations about the world around me came out verbally – apparently striking a strong resemblance to a chattering bird. I’ve currently got a four-year-old of my own who could be given the same name. Some days there is an astounding stream of words that comes unceasingly out of that boy’s mouth.

My mom was given a name that she was initially not very excited about: Dogor, which means cicada. Cicadas are big ugly flying bugs with beady eyes and large claws that leave their larval exoskeletons hanging all over jungle tree trunks like little brown insect zombies. They shriek/sing in unison throughout the day, their loud “REEEEEEEE…. REEEEEEEE” filling many of my childhood memories. Curious and a little disappointed with this name, my mom asked her friend why she had chosen to name her after a bug. “Because you brought the light,” she responded, “just as cicadas sing and bring the sunrise.” After that, my mom was pretty happy with her tribal name.

These names still describe us well. My mom continues to bring the light, serving in counseling and cross-cultural roles here in the US. My oldest brother has always had a bold leader side to him, which can’t help but echo our dad. The middle brother has always been good with tactile work, whether climbing trees, fixing up cars, or remodeling houses. As for me, I still love good conversation. Tonight I’ll be getting together with some Central Asian friends just to enjoy talking with one another while sipping on some tea. While I may not be quite the verbalizer that I used to be, the flow of ideas and words these days comes out through the keyboard. The parrot has learned to write.

Of course, giving new names is quite a biblical concept. God renames Abram as Abraham, Sarai as Sarah, and Jacob as Israel. God promises to give Israel a new name in Isaiah 62:2, on the day of her salvation. While Simon is not renamed Peter and Saul is not renamed Paul (these were just their parallel Greek names), others like Barnabus do get a new name tied to their new identity that sticks: Son of Encouragement. And of course in Revelation 2:17 Jesus promises a new name to every believer who conquers, written on a white stone.

Our names given by wise tribal believers have proven to be strangely accurate over the decades. Even nicknames like Mosong have power. I can’t wait to know what meaning will be reflected by our new names given in eternity. Undoubtedly they will reflect us and shape us uniquely as no other name has. On that day we’ll be the same, and yet we’ll also be different – like a cicada that has shed the crawling exoskeleton of its youth, and now can fly. Our new names will surely be a part of this, somehow strangely familiar, somehow wonderfully new.

Photo by Ashlee W. on Unsplash

Fickle Gods and the Wondrous Clarity of the Law

It’s the time of year again when countless Bible readers are about to get bogged down in Leviticus. It’s easy to quickly skim through these sections of the Pentateuch that deal with Israel’s laws, our brains struggling to stay focused and longing to get back to some narrative passages. We read the minute detail of Israel’s purity requirements and wonder if the ancient audience was just as bored as we are. Could there have been a time and a place where hearing Leviticus read actually held the hearers in rapt attention?

Apparently so, even centuries after the fact. No reading of the Psalms can avoid the evidence that the writers of that anthology – and faithful Israel through them – not only found God’s Law interesting, but even delightful. Why did ancient Israel love God’s law so dearly? It was in Tremper Longman III’s How to Read the Psalms where I first came across one of the powerful answers to this question, an answer that continues to serve me today as I try to read and put myself in the shoes of those during that period of redemptive history. In short, they loved the Law so intensely because of its clarity.

To understand this, we need to step back into the religious worldview of the ancient near east. All of the peoples surrounding Israel would have believed in a pantheon of gods and goddesses. Think Dagon, Baal, Ashtoreth (Ishtar), Chemosh, Ra, etc. These so-called gods and goddesses were not necessarily moral, nor were they necessarily loving and committed to the good of their people. They were deeply flawed like humans, except immensely more powerful. And they needed to be constantly appeased in order to guarantee a good harvest, fertility in marriage, or safety from enemy armies.

To top it off, these gods were fickle and hard to predict. Their will could change on a whim. Elaborate divination ceremonies were needed to discern their wills and to (hopefully) avoid outbursts of their wrath. These divination attempts included things like reading the livers of animals, interpreting dreams, and slapping kings until they cried to see if they still enjoyed the gods’ favor. Ancient Arabs, for example, threw a handful of arrows on the ground in hopes of finding meaning in the unique design thereby created.

Remember, life and death and eternity depended on these shifting signs and their subjective interpretations. This meant that the inhabitants of the ancient world lived in a kind of hell of relativity. Their religious systems taught them that your crop’s failure or your wife’s death in childbirth was due to your failure to rightly appease the gods – whose requirements were always opaque and were always shifting, always arbitrary. How could this not foster fanaticism, resignation, or even madness? There was precious little that was solid and unchanging that you could hold onto. You might do everything right according to the oracles, only to find out after the fact that the gods had mysteriously changed the requirements without telling you. How easy it would have been for the priestly class to abuse this system for its own benefit, while the commoners and kings either gave up or gave themselves over to a life of endless striving and fear.

Into this kind of context came the Law of Moses, not only revealed, but even written in language that could be understood by the people. Written down so that it could be regularly accessible for the entire people group and for each new generation. And it was marvelously clear, on points major as well as minor. Don’t make any idols, take the seventh day off and rest, don’t drink blood, treat the foreigners in your midst well, make sure you rinse that pot when you find a dead lizard in it.

We tend to chafe at the sheer number of laws given to the people of Israel, viewing things primary through our new covenant perspective where so many of these laws have now been fulfilled in Christ. And yet a primary response of the ancient Israelites to these laws would not have been a sense of burden. It would have been a sense of tearful relief, even rest. They did not have to live at the fickle mercy of cruel gods. They had one true and unchanging God, who rescued them because of his steadfast love and who now called them to a life conformed to his clear will – his will that would not change or shift. It was solid, dependable, steadfast, not going to cut their knees out from under them when least expected out of some kind of twisted divine freedom. No wonder they loved the law.

Our own age of diversity echoes the fickle relativity of the ancient gods. Within our own cultures, the changing pace of public morality is increasingly hard to keep up with. Lives are destroyed as one slip of the tongue or keyboard violates the shifting sands of what phrases are now safe (clean) and what is bigoted (unclean). The man on the street must live at the whim of the “priestly class” of academics, politicians, celebrities, and journalists who somehow have the inside scoop on what is newly demanded in order to be a virtuous person.

The interconnectedness of the world also brings with it an invitation to fall into relativity. As diverse cultures increasingly interact, the morality of one is seen to be vastly different from the morality of another. For many, this casts doubt on the existence of a universal morality at all. Then languages interact with other languages, highlighting the limitations, weaknesses, and localized viewpoints of each. This casts doubt on any ability to access universal truth through such an imperfect medium as human language. Similarly, the more exposure you have to other cultures and languages, the greater the sense that it’s foolishness to think that you just happened to grow up with the true answers. Yet just like those in the ancient near east, all must be risked upon our attempts to get it right, to rightly discern “the will of the gods.” It’s not surprising then if some of us also turn to fanaticism, resignation, or even madness in response to this uncertainty.

However, just like ancient Israel, believers now don’t have to live at the mercy of the fickle gods. We have God’s Law and his gospel, wondrously clear and accessible. It proved to be a solid rock in the churning sea of ancient polytheism. It is just as stable of a rock in the contemporary sea of progressive culture and globalization.

In a world with nothing to hold onto, we should conduct ourselves with a certain knowing confidence, always ready to invite those weary of the world’s arbitrary demands to something eternally steadfast. “Don’t you want something solid and truly good to hang onto?” “In all the noise, don’t you long for something that is clear and always true?” “Don’t you want access to an eternal definition of love?” We need to keep our eyes peeled for the castaways around us who already know from awful experience how the gods of this age turn on those who were desperately trying to keep up and get it right. They are in need of rescue and rest. We can offer it to them.

The shifting will of the culture, the contradictory decrees of different global cultures, these are not a problem for us as believers. They are echoes of humanity’s desperate need for something solid, universal, and unchanging. And like a weary ancient near east worshiper hearing Leviticus for the first time, we have God’s word. And it is wondrously clear. So clear, it’s worthy of delight.

Image from Wikimedia Commons

Where Bread is Life

“Oh, and never throw out your old bread.”

“Really? Why not?”

“Locals say it’s really shameful.”

“So… what do you do with it instead?”

“Put it in a bag and hang it on your gate or on a tree limb in the street. People who raise animals will come by and collect it to use as feed.”

“So they come by regularly?”

“Yes, you’ll see. You might never see it collected, but it will be gone before you know it.”

This conversation with teammates happened early on after we had moved to Central Asia. It was an important piece of cultural orientation, the kind of thing that, unknown, could have made for a lot of unintended cultural offense. Our teammates were right. We started hanging up our baggies of dry, moldy, or unusable bits of bread. And they disappeared remarkably quickly.

Bread plays a central role in the diets of our local friends. Every meal will be served with either a form of flatbread or with small, individual loaves that are round or the shape of an eye. In fact, locals feel that if bread is not served, it doesn’t really count as a meal. Their words for breakfast, lunch, and dinner are morning bread, noon bread, and evening bread, respectively. The word for bread even substitutes often for the word for food, so that it’s most common to ask if someone has eaten by asking them if they’ve eaten bread.

“Have you eaten bread today?”

“Yes, I had some kabab in the bazaar.”

Many local women make their bread themselves, but each neighborhood will also have a small bakery or two within walking distance. Here, a crew of men will work all day in scorching temperatures in a kind of dance. For a flatbread bakery, one man shapes the dough into the right size. A second picks it up and twirls it until it is flattened and then slaps it onto a cushion with a strap on the back. Using the cushion, he then smacks the dough onto the inside of a blazing tanoor oven with a circular opening. The third man waits with a pair of tongs, grabbing each piece of flatbread when it has baked and bubbled enough, throwing it frisbee-style onto the counter that faces the street.

At mealtime, a crowd waits at that counter, their place in line marked by the folded bills they have placed in a notched piece of wood on one side of the counter. The person whose turn it is will expertly survey each piece of bread tossed onto the counter, selecting them one at a time, spreading out their scalding chosen pieces with the tips of their fingers and often flipping them upside down to cool. When they have the amount they have paid for, they will place the warm flatbread in a stack, stick it in a bag, and with a “May your hands be blessed” be on their way. Current prices are eight pieces of flatbread for about 75 cents (US).

The style of baking the bread and the lack of preservatives means it’s best when it’s still warm and fresh – and that it tends to get hard and moldy much more quickly than our bread in the US. Hence why we so regularly had bread that needed to be thrown out. That, and the fact that every piece of flatbread has soft parts and hard parts, and most eaters tend to use bits the former to scoop their rice and leave the latter on the tablecloth uneaten. There are some kinds of very thin flatbread that are made to last longer that are stored mostly dry and then made pliable by spraying them with a spray bottle at meal time or sprinkling them with water from your fingers. This practice of sprinkling the bread has come to be an inside joke of sorts among local believers as they discuss the various modes of baptism. “Oh, that missionary? He practices sprinkling the bread.”

There is saying in some parts of Central Asia that “bread is life.” What we have come to learn is that bread is viewed as so fundamental to life itself that it has taken on a somewhat sacred status in a way that’s not true of other food. That’s why it’s never to be shamefully wasted, but always saved for animals if it’s no longer fit for human consumption. Whether hung in the street in bags for farmers or torn up and and thrown on to the roof for birds, bread is precious and therefore never to be simply thrown away. Throwing out your bread would ruin your name in the eyes of the community.

I was reminded of this Central Asian practice when I was recently reading in Leviticus. The reason the people of Israel were not to eat meat with the blood still in it, but rather to pour a beast’s blood out and cover it with earth? “For the life of every creature is its blood: Its blood is its life” (Lev 17:14). Blood was sacred and to be honored. Why? Because it was so fundamental to life itself. This close connection between life and blood changed how the people of Israel were to treat blood. Blood was also how atonement for sin was made (17:11), and this made it a substance even more to be honored. These commands also had serious communal consequences if ignored. “You shall not eat the blood of any creature. For the life of every creature is in its blood. Whoever eats it shall be cut off” (17:14). Not treating blood appropriately would make one cut off from the community.

There are echoes of how old covenant Israel treated blood in the way Central Asians treat bread. On a purely cultural level, both honor that which is crucial to life. There is a natural wisdom in this. In order to respect life, we must also respect those things that life is most dependent on. However, for the people of Israel, their relationship with blood was also divinely commanded because of God’s chosen old covenant system of atonement – itself a prophecy of how Christ would atone for all who believe with his own blood. I don’t know the origins of Central Asians’ honoring of bread. Perhaps it is only a wise tradition. On the other hand, perhaps it came from the traditions of the ancient Christian communities that used to be so common in Central Asia. Similar to blood, we are also saved by bread. We remember this every time we take communion. We are saved by the broken body of Christ, the bread of life torn and pierced for our salvation. In this way, bread is a sign of salvation accomplished in history, and available to any who would believe.

In Acts 15, the Jerusalem council asked Paul and Barnabas and the gentile churches to still abstain from blood, even though they affirmed that salvation was by the grace of Jesus, apart from works of the law like circumcision. I would not be surprised if Central Asian believers continue to also treat bread in their respectful way even as they seek to transform their culture with the gospel. Some parts of culture get rejected when they come into contact with gospel truth. Others are retained, and not only retained, but deepened. Bread is life, and for those who believe in Jesus, now more so than ever.

An Anchor for Our Tongues

Preachers and authors do it all the time. They quote the English definition of a word or refer to its linguistic roots as a way to ground their argument, to establish the meaning of a term or concept. Then they move on, seemingly convinced that they have offered up enough evidence for their audience to trust that they are indeed communicating the true sense of that term. What is not often realized is that, for the Christian, this kind of appeal to the dictionary or history is actually an inadequate grounding.

Perhaps a sermon is being delivered on Isaiah 40:1, “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.” The preacher focuses on the meaning of comfort in his introduction to his sermon idea. To do this, he quotes Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary, which defines the verb comfort as:

  1. to give strength or hope to: cheer
  2. to ease the grief or trouble of: console

The preacher then takes this meaning of comfort, summarizes what comfort means according to the definitions he’s just read, and then gives his main point: Our God gives strength and hope to his people through his promises of salvation.

Or, perhaps a Christian counselor is writing a book on grief and to establish what comfort means, he appeals to the Latin roots of the word. In Latin, com meant with, and fortis meant strength. So, the author concludes, comfort means “with strength,” to be with someone in a way that gives them strength.

What’s the problem with these very common ways to establish the meaning of a term or concept? The problem is that this method of establishing meaning has only served to give us what one particular language and culture believed about that concept at a given time. But how do I know that Merriam-Webster English is giving me a true and universal meaning for comfort? Or how can I be sure that the meaning the Romans gave to their words is a faithful witness to what comfort actually is? Why should I trust these snapshots of a language at a particular time over my own personal definition for the term, cobbled together by the thousands of contexts where I have heard and seen that term used?

Unfortunately, any given language is an imperfect witness to eternal truth. A language is limited in its perspective on reality. It “thinks” in a certain way, and this affects how it describes things. This gives each language a unique perspective and voice, but that uniqueness also implies it’s missing a bunch of things that other languages notice. In English I am my age, in Spanish I have my age. If I only speak English, I only think about age in a certain way. But I am missing out on the reality that age is not just something I can be, it is also something I can possess.

Each language is also limited by the kind of vocabulary and grammar it has. When a culture is strong in something it will have a whole cloud of words related to that concept. When it is weak in something, it might only have one word, or none. Our Central Asian focus culture (strong on kinship) has unique names for all kinds of relatives that in English would simply be a known as cousin, aunt, or uncle. When it comes to grammar, some languages don’t have a future tense. Others don’t use articles at all (a, the, etc.). Languages are limited things. They are also constantly changing things, with each new generation bringing a slightly different pronunciation and even meaning to the same batch of words – and sometimes inventing entirely new ones.

Consider the necessity of explaining what the fear of the Lord actually means and you’ll see what I’m getting at here. In contemporary English, fear has lost all of its positive connotations and has only retained its negative ones. As for Lord, unless someone is reasonably informed about medieval history, the term has lost any of its earthly contextual meaning and is now only a Christianese term. The fear of the Lord simply does not communicate to my secular contemporaries in an easily understandable way. Our language has changed, like a thick fog rolling in, and obscured the true meaning of this phrase.

All of this is why pointing the audience to a dictionary definition or to the history of a word doesn’t provide an adequate grounding for Christians. We are people of the Logos, God’s eternal word, which entered into the ever-unstable sea of fallen human language and thereby provided us access to fixed, eternal truth and meaning – an anchor, not only for our souls, but also for our tongues. It is not enough for for us to know how Oxford or Merriam-Webster or our various ancestors defined a word. We need to know how God defines it. We need an eternal source with which we can compare our definitions of a word and tweak, turn, or gut accordingly.

Our preachers and authors must demonstrate what a given term means in the Bible, for only in the scriptures do we have what was imperfect human language inspired to perfectly reveal eternal truth. Once we know what the Bible means by words like comfort, then we can lean on the dictionary or a word’s linguistic roots as a good illustration or secondary grounding. But our primary grounding for a term’s meaning must be God’s word.

This means we are deeply indebted to the translators who worked hard to make God’s word clear in our mother tongue. We are also indebted to biblical scholars who can help us understand a word’s range of meaning in the original languages of the Bible – as well as those who can help compare that usage with how that term was used in other contemporary writings. Praise God, in the West we have easy access to many resources like this to help us. But the need is still great to continue to get solid Bible translations and resources into thousands of other languages without this kind of access.

The question might arise of what we should do if a certain term does not appear in the Bible, but we desire to test our language or culture’s limited definition. First, we should ask if the concepts behind the word are present in the scriptures, even if the word itself is not. Second, there is insight to be gleaned from comparing how different languages represent the same or similar concepts. If each language is indeed a unique and limited common grace witness to truth, then we should expect to find help as we put multiple languages together and see a fuller picture of what aspects of God’s wisdom their words have been able to preserve.

Preachers and authors, let’s make sure we ground our definitions in the only inspired source of eternal meaning we have, God’s word. This could often be as simple as an extra sentence or two. “The definition we just read fits well with how the Bible uses this term, as we see illustrated in this passage in…” or, “I like the Latin roots of this word because they echo so well with how the biblical authors use it, for example…” A small step toward a deeper grounding will help us communicate meaning that is eternal, and not that which is a mere snapshot of an imperfect language tradition.

It matters how the English and the Romans defined things. It matters infinitely more how God does.

Photo by Joshua Hoehne on Unsplash

How Central Asian Yogurt Took Over America

My kids had plain Greek yogurt for breakfast this morning. Later, my wife told me that our son complained about that other American yogurt while eating. “It’s so gross,” were apparently his exact words.

“Well,” my wife responded. “A lot of Americans might think you’re the strange one for enjoying thick yogurt without any flavoring or sugar in it.”

I smiled when she told me this later in the morning. “Well, except for all the Americans who now eat Chobani. That’s why it’s so popular, because it’s so different from the runny, sugary stuff that used to be the main kind sold here.

We were standing in the kitchen and she held the Greek yogurt container up to our noses.

“Smell this. Isn’t it wonderful? I miss it.”

I took a deep breath, enjoying the sour, rich aroma. “We will have new stomachs, my love, in the resurrection. And we will eat lots of amazing, resurrected yogurt.”

Something has happened to our digestive systems over the last decade, so we can’t handle much dairy anymore, no matter where it comes from.

In spite of this, I always smile to see how many inroads Chobani yogurt and its Greek yogurt competitors have made into the grocery stores and culture of my passport country. What most don’t recognize is that this represents a quiet Central Asian* culinary invasion.

Greek yogurt isn’t really Greek. It would be more accurate to call it Kurdish, Turkish, or Armenian. Even the name of the company that popularized “Greek” yogurt gives this away. Choban is the Turkish and Azerbaijani word for shepherd. It’s one of many related variants of the same word in the region. Kurds say shivan or shwan. Persians say shiban and Tajiks say supon. So, Chobani yogurt means shepherd yogurt, or, in a direct translation, shepherd-y or shepherd-ish yogurt.

The founder of Chobani, Hamdi Ulukaya, is a Kurd from southeast Turkey, who comes from a family of villagers and nomads who made and sold yogurt from their herds. He immigrated to the US in the mid 90’s, and like many from that region, was disappointed by the runny, sugary stuff that Americans called yogurt. Eventually, he purchased a shut-down Kraft factory and began selling denser, more natural yogurt to Americans. It got traction, and today Chobani has around twenty percent of the US market.

Calling it Greek was a shrewd marketing move. Hamdi says there was already a small category of yogurt which was called Greek in New York, but it’s also true that Middle Eastern and Central Asian restaurants and food brands regularly rely on terms like Greek and Mediterranean in order to market themselves effectively for Western customers. Occasionally you’ll find a Mediterranean restaurant that is actually run by Greeks, but more often than not it’s guys from Iraq or Syria. Truth be told, had Hamdi called it Kurdish yogurt, it’s a lot less likely it would have taken off in the way it has.

Hamdi brought with him not only a superior yogurt savvy, but also some sound wisdom from his Central Asian village roots. From the beginning, he opted to pay his factory workers good wages. He gives his employees stock in the company. He actively hires refugees and immigrants alongside of locals. His people-centered approach to business is a rebuke to much of American capitalism – and an example to Christians of how to hold on to your core principles even when your business takes off and grows exponentially. Check out this interview for more of Hamdi’s encouraging story.

Central Asian yogurt’s takeover of America illustrates the benefits that come when different cultural streams mix. Each stream can reintroduce its strengths to the other, in a reminder of sorts of things mostly forgotten. Central Asians teach us what good yogurt is. We teach them what good coffee is. They remind us about the importance of hospitality. We remind them of the importance of transparency.

Perhaps this is one reason God has cultural diversity baked into human history. We too easily forget his wisdom, not only personally, but also collectively. We are in need of other human groups to show us our group’s blindspots and to help us balance our weaknesses. This is an important way the global church can serve local bodies of believers, wherever they might be. By mixing our streams we can more effectively build local church gospel cultures – not uniform, but harmonious, a diversity of expression that grows out of a solid universal core of creed and principle.

The next time you see Chobani or Greek yogurt, think of Central Asia. And if you want to go all the way, eat it with some flatbread, eggs fried in an ungodly amount of oil, olives, honey, walnuts, and extremely sweet tea.

*Here I define Central Asia culturally, rather than geographically, as the collection of cultures in Asia that are Turkish or Persian-related.

Photo by Jainath Ponnala on Unsplash

Understanding and Transforming Patronage

Patronage is one area of foreign cultures that is hardest for us Westerners to comprehend. Sometimes described as patron-client systems, this is a global and historical way to structure society when you can’t rely on impersonal institutions. If Westerners need to borrow money to buy a house or a car, they get a loan from the bank. If they need a job, they submit a resume to a company. Impersonal institutions help us acquire some of our most important resources for succeeding in life. A patronage system instead relies on important people to get these needs met.

In the West, we sometimes hear that it’s not what you know, it’s who you know. What this means for us is that relationships are still important, as a sort of lubricant that makes the institutions run more smoothly. In a contest of two equal resumes (or CVs), the resume of the person who is already known will win, because relational experience has been thrown in as the tie breaker. In places like Central Asia, resumes are almost meaningless. Far superior candidates are passed over for the unqualified relative or loyal client whose uncle or patron heads up the company. In patronage systems, who you know really is everything.

The basic logic of a patronage system is that society is set up like a pyramid, with patrons on top and clients on the bottom. To get ahead, members of society look to secure patrons, individuals higher up in the pyramid than they are. The client will offer their loyalty, services, and public praise to the patron who will in turn secure the material goods or connections that the client is looking for.

If you’ve ever seen The Godfather, the character Don Carleone spells this out explicitly. After agreeing to order a hit on a man who has shamed his new client’s daughter, he clarifies that this relationship is one of mutual obligation. “Someday – and that day may never come – I’ll call upon you to do a service for me. But until that day, accept this justice as gift on my daughter’s wedding day.” Don Carleone offers a favor of power and influence and the client is thereby indebted to offer any services which might be in his power to offer his patron in the future.

In the past in Central Asia, this could look like an important chief granting land, seed, a horse, and a rifle to a villager. The expectation would be that that villager would give the patron a portion of the crops, that he would fight for him when conflict arose with other tribes, and that he would in every way become his loyal man. Central Asian culture being what it is, this also would mean the client must regularly visit the patron in order to drink his tea and thereby honor him. The peasant was client to the chief, who was client to the regional governor, who was client the emir or king, who was himself client to the emperor or caliph. A current manifestation of Central Asian patronage might look like a politician giving cars or monthly salaries to individuals in order to ensure their votes and support come election time. Or a working class woman bringing food regularly to the family of a university professor to ensure that her son gets into university – while that same professor is indebted to a patron higher up for his job.

There are at least two types of patrons, the powerful individual and the one who connects you to the powerful individual. This latter person is sometimes called a broker. He may not be able to get you the job, but he’s got the ear of the guy who can. Individuals who are on an equivalent level in society with one another are either rivals or “friends,” equals who are in a positive relationship of helping one another out, perhaps sharing the same patron above them.

The mutual obligations of patron-client relationships are the sort of thing continually taught and modeled to kids by their parents and broader society as they grow up, in a sort of “how to invest and get ahead” informal mentoring. These obligations are then (unlike the quote from The Godfather) usually implied rather than spelled out. Patron-client realities are something everyone in society is just supposed to understand. This is what makes this aspect of culture such a minefield for Western missionaries, who arrive completely ignorant of how a patronage society works.

Westerners often look askance at a patron-client society as one in which unequal access to powerful individuals replaces a more just system of merit and equal opportunity. This critique is not always wrong. But remember that most of these societies do not have dependable impersonal institutions to rely on, such as insurance companies. So, your extended family serves as your insurance policy, and beyond that, your network of patrons and clients. Westerners often assume that everyone in their new society can depend on impersonal institutions as they can back home, not realizing that things like banks and government entities are often merely shells which actually contain an internal patronage system. Westerners come from a society which assumes that everyone should be equals, whether “friends,” rivals, or strangers. So a Central Asian may befriend a Westerner in hopes of finding a broker or a patron, only to have the Westerner treat him as an equal “friend” with no strong mutual obligations. Confusion and frustration results.

Patronage causes some big problems for missionaries and for the establishment of healthy churches in our region. For starters, the Western missionary is viewed as a potential patron with lots of wealth and connections. This brings a flood of relationships that are trying to get a leg up on the societal ladder, but which the missionary might mistake for purely friendship or spiritual interest. Missionaries hiring locals is another minefield. Far from the limited contractual relationship between employers and employees that we are used to, employers in Central Asia are patrons responsible for much more than the unsuspecting Westerner knows. Many warm relationships blow up when the Westerner ends the employment of a local. It’s even more dangerous for how locals might come to understand the local church, as a place where their loyalty and services are given in return for the patron-pastor’s providing them with their physical and spiritual goods. But viewing the pastor as patron or broker merely recasts the church in the image of a fallen patronage society.

After living these past seven years in a patronage society, I’m only now beginning to see the through the fog of it all a little bit. Since so much of this kind of a system is meant to be intuited rather than explicitly taught, I’ve had to find scholars who have studied these kind of systems in order to make sense of the patronage sea I’ve been swimming in. One of these helpful guides is a New Testament scholar who wasn’t writing with my context in mind at all, but instead doing historical context work on the Jewish and Greco-Roman cultural world of the first century. David A. DeSilva’s book, Honor, Patronage, Kinship, and Purity, has proved to be a very helpful resource for better understanding how patronage still functions among our focus people group. Even my framing of patronage in this post relies heavily on language that that DeSilva uses to describe New Testament culture. Turns out much of the culture of the societies in the Bible has hung on in parts of our region – not entirely surprising given how the mountains tend to preserve things and Islam itself arose in and is compatible with a patronage culture.

The wonderful surprise I found, with DeSilva’s help, is that the New Testament authors model how to transform a patronage culture. I’d like to go into more detail of how this is done in future posts, so for now I’ll content myself with a preview. In short, the New Testament authors didn’t reject patronage, but they did radically redefine it. God is held up as our true patron, the generous patron of all humanity, yes, but the specific patron of believers to whom he freely gives gifts of salvation and new life. Jesus is presented as our true broker – or mediator, in first century language – who mediates creation, redemption, and continual access for us with God the Father. Believers are now all “friends” with one another, regardless of socioeconomic status, who share the same patron and are to work for one another’s good and honor, without rivalry. All of this results in a certain posture of gratitude and service toward God the Father and Jesus Christ which taps into the logic and motivations of a patronage system: what client could ever betray such a generous and trustworthy (faithful) patron? To do so would be unspeakably shameful. Instead, God is worthy of our eternal loyalty, public praise, and joyful service – for our patron has even more glorious gifts yet in store for us, namely resurrection.

This is how the New Testament authors transformed the patronage cultures of the early churches. To make sense out of patronage cultures, and to faithfully engage them ourselves, we need to follow their lead. Given that so many of the unreached people groups of the world are patronage cultures, how amazing that the New Testament authors can serve as such direct models of faithful engagement. My guides for understanding and engaging patronage were there all along, right under my nose.

Photo by Europeana on Unsplash


Evidence Our Kids Haven’t Been Living ‘Round These Parts

Growing up overseas is bound to leave a mark on kids’ behaviors, assumptions, and worldviews. Any return trip to the passport country is a fun time to notice how these changes have filtered down into everyday life. I remember as a child being mesmerized by these strange creatures called squirrels and being shocked to learn that pasta was in fact not grown on a farm somewhere. Now as parents, we find ourselves doing our best to help our kids fill in their TCK gaps while also enjoying what they have absorbed as simply “normal.” Here are some recent examples.

  1. “Who keeps throwing their TP in the trash can? You can flush it in this country.” Yes, this is a very practical one. In many countries overseas the plumbing can’t handle toilet paper, so a small trash can is where you stick it instead. Apparently, our kids have been trained well on this front, so it’s taking a while to convince them that it really is OK to send it flushing.
  2. “Dad, are you drinking the tap water in this hotel?” Again, many other countries don’t have tap water that is safe or wise to drink. Hotels in our area of Central Asia usually have signs near the bathroom sink that warn guests in several languages, including bad English, that the water is not for drinking. But yes, with the exception of a few cities whose water infrastructure has recently tanked, we can safely drink the tap water in the US.
  3. “Is our power out?” “No, buddy, the power doesn’t go out in this country.” One way to tell that someone has been in Central Asia for a while is to observe how they don’t even flinch when the electricity goes off. Or to notice how they keep waiting and waiting for it to be cut even in countries where it’s on 24/7.
  4. “Guys, you always have to wear a seat belt here. Or we’ll get in trouble with the police. Or die.” Seat belt and car seat laws and customs are a lot more relaxed in some other parts of the world. Yet every time we return to the US it seems like the age for required booster seats has been raised yet again. This one, though obviously necessary for safety and not being illegal, is a tough one for the kids to adjust to with happy hearts.
  5. “Don’t take candy from random men on the street in this country.” With the possible exception of small towns, we generally have our kids switch their behavior from the Central Asian norm, where it is quite common for sweet older men to give candy to random cute kids in public. And maybe a kiss on the cheek.
  6. “Kids, people here don’t say goodbye that many times. One or two solid goodbyes are enough.” Here our offspring have ingested Central Asian culture, where goodbyes consist of a blast of honorable words. Whether in person or on the phone, it should sound a lot more like, “Goodbye! Bye! God be with you! Bye now! Goodbye! Safe travels! Bye! Farewell! Byyyyeee! … (followed by a goodbye honk of the car horn whenever possible).”
  7. “They have bacon at this restaurant too?!” “Yes, son, bacon is available almost everywhere here… it’s wonderful, isn’t it?” One month in, the kids still haven’t gotten over the ubiquity of pork and bacon in the states. Truthfully, neither has their dad. We assume that sooner or later this will feel normal. For now, we’ll keep savoring the availability of this sweet forbidden meat.

Photo by Caleb Woods on Unsplash

On Spiritual Dreams

Today I met up with my dear friend, Reza*, a believer from an unengaged people group who came to faith as a refugee in the US. He shared with me a part of his story that I had never heard before.

“I was recently reading in the Old Testament,” he told me as we sat at a sunny table in a local Louisville coffeeshop. The Black Lives Matter and rainbow pride flag stickers were visible on the glass door just over his shoulder.

“And I read the part about the lion and the lamb and the leopard and the goat lying down together.”

“And a little child shall lead them…” I added. “That’s Isaiah.”

“That’s right, yes, it was Isaiah. I hadn’t read this part of the Bible before, but it helped me make sense of the dream I had right around when I believed.”

“How so?”

“Well, a part of my dream had to do with all these kinds of animals being at peace with one another, like leopards and goats, just like Isaiah describes. In my dream I was telling people about how good this was, but until recently I didn’t know this was an image from the Bible.”

I smiled as Reza described this discovery to me, then told him what I was smiling about.

“I’ve had a good number of friends tell me just what you are telling me now. That imagery or language in a dream they had from around the time they believed later proved to be from the Bible. None of them had read that part of the Bible before they had the dream.”

“Really?”

“My friend Adam* dreamed about Jesus giving him a white stone with something written on it. He hadn’t read Revelation 2 yet, where Jesus says that to the one who conquers he’ll give a white stone, with a new name written on it.

“Then there’s Henry*,” I continued, who had Jesus speak to him in his mother tongue and call him, ‘My son,’ before telling him, ‘It is the glory of God to conceal things.’ This is a sentence from Proverbs 25, which Henry had never read. It blew his mind when we showed him the verse, word for word what he had heard in his dream.

“Or my friend Hama*, who leaned over to me the first time we took communion and told me that he’d done this before. I told him that no, this was definitely his first time. ‘No,’ he pushed back, ‘I did this with Jesus, in a dream, the night you told me you thought I was already a believer in Jesus. He gave me some bread to eat and something red to drink.'”

Including Reza, these four close friends of mine, all believers still persevering in their faith, had independently experienced a very similar thing. As new or almost-believers they’d had dreams in which they saw or heard specific language and imagery – only to later have the hair on the back of their neck stand up as they realized it was a clear quote or allusion to a passage of scripture as yet unknown to them. The effect, of course, was a sober excitement that God really was at work in their lives – and a deepened amazement at God’s word.

“You know, it’s a little weird to talk about this stuff with believers here,” Reza admitted. “It freaks some people out.”

I nodded, “Yeah, a lot of our Western churches either say things like this don’t really happen, or they make it the center of everything and get obsessed with it.”

“And then people feel pressure to fake it,” said Reza, shaking his head.

One of the baristas with bright blue hair and piercings cleaned the glass door behind Reza as we squinted in the bright afternoon sunshine. An American guy was sitting at a table close behind me. I hoped he was listening in on our conversation, since he would easily be able to hear Reza’s confident, accented voice. Reza always manages to leave secular Westerners a little confused and tongue-tied as he winsomely and boldly shares his faith in Christ. Iranian refugees who choose to follow Jesus and become faithful Baptists don’t exactly fit the cultural narrative.

After a short pause, I continued,

“One of the things I appreciate about Middle Eastern and Central Asian churches is that things like dreams are neither ignored nor obsessed over. They are common enough in the testimonies of solid believers to be held in a more balanced way. It’s interesting, actually. Western Christians, even evangelicals, used to have spiritual dreams and write about them. A little-known fact is that the history of the Southern Baptist Convention is itself connected to a dream about Jesus. A pastor named Shubal Stearns moved from the north to South Carolina to plant churches, specifically because he had a dream where he claimed Jesus told him to. His work led to the formation of the Sandy Creek Association, which is kind of where it all began for the history of the SBC.”

Reza and I continued to talk for a good while longer, ranging over topics that the progressive coffee-sipping patrons around us likely found bizarre, and hopefully interesting. It’s hard for me in some ways, being back in the states for this season. But I love spending time face-to-face again with this brother.

Reza is a member of a SBC church, though one of the minority of churches in that denomination which happen to be continuationist in theology. Yet even then he finds it hard to be open with American Christians about some of his experiences. Most SBC churches would be cessationist, and leaders such as Al Mohler (SBC) and John Macarthur (Nondenominational Baptist) have publicly said they don’t believe God uses dreams in a supernatural or revelatory way. Personally, I would very much like to get these men in the room with the many (often Reformed) Baptist missionaries working with Muslims overseas who come across credible accounts of spiritual dreams on a regular basis. It is one thing to dismiss third or fourth-hand accounts. It is quite another to see your close friend who has been an enemy of Christ shaking in front of you because you are showing him a Bible verse for the first time, one which Jesus quoted to him in a dream. Or to grapple with the accounts of your very own church’s missionary, whom you have affirmed and sent out and you implicitly trust. Better yet, let’s get leaders like these to take a missions sabbatical, where they can be six months on the ground in places like Central Asia and hearing and seeing things first-hand.

Experience does not dictate theology. But experience can reveal blindspots in our theology, places where our categories have been off, or places where we have been unknowingly operating out of tradition, cultural assumptions, or our own experience or lack thereof. Consider a Christian who dismisses the reality of depression as an unbiblical category and the kind of change in his theological lenses that takes place when his own wife descends into a long and dark postpartum depression. Or how simplistic theologies of suffering undergo trial by fire when we ourselves face the deepest kinds of pain. Young singles’ theologies of marriage and parenting often begin with great gusto, only to be torn down and rebuilt as the years pass and their families grow. Many a missionary has quietly dismissed the demonic and spiritual warfare only to find their theologies in these areas in need of some renovation when they move overseas.

I think this is what is going on with Western conservative evangelicals trying to make sense out of Muslims or former Muslims having dreams about Jesus or about God’s word. Because of our own psychologized environment and very modern non-dreaming experience in the West (for comparison, read about Patrick or Caedmon), we begin as skeptics and struggle to have a category for spiritual dreams – unless we are forced to work through the issue because our own Muslim neighbors are coming to faith and having spiritual dreams and literally risking their necks to follow Jesus. At this point we find ourselves in a comparable position to the man born blind in John 9, putting the theological pieces together as we try to make sense of something very surprising and supernatural which we have just experienced, but which the leaders in our community say isn’t really happening or isn’t really something from God.

This blog post is not the place to spell out a robust theology of dreams, even if I were able to do so this evening (which I am not, though if anyone needs a PhD thesis, I think a serious Reformed attempt at making sense of dreams in church history and the global church is needed). But in summary, the canon of Scripture is closed. God does not reveal to nor inspire believers in this age as he did for the apostles and prophets of old (Heb 1:1-2, Rev 22:18). Instead, we have the inerrant and sufficient apex of God’s revelation in the Bible itself (2 Pet 1:19). The Holy Spirit illuminates God’s written revelation for us to understand it and grants us wisdom to faithfully apply it to the questions and experiences of our age (John 16:13-14, Eph 1:17). Yet he also actively leads and encourages us in ways that always uphold the unique place of God’s inspired word – and bring it to bear on our unique life situations (Rom 8:14, Gal 5:25). It is in the Holy Spirit’s ministry of the personal piercing of our hearts with God’s word and wisdom that I would place contemporary spiritual dreams (John 16:7-10).

Believers do not feel that the sufficiency of God’s word is threatened when they are in their waking minds and biblical language or imagery arrests them and stirs their affections anew, providing specific encouragement or guidance. Why would we be so afraid or surprised that this might occasionally happen in our sleeping minds, or in the sleeping minds of those the Spirit is in the process of calling to salvation? Why have we roped off the dreaming neurons and synapses of the brain as qualitatively different (i.e. miraculous and revelatory in an inspired sense) in the way that we have when we at the same time claim that the waking brain is a natural and providential process? It seems our categories might need some tweaking, if only for the sake of consistency. Is the Spirit not indwelling and working in the mind asleep as he is in the mind awake?

All throughout scripture we see that God uses dreams in the lives of his people (Gen 31:11, 1 Kings 3:5, Matt 2:19). Dreams of encouragement and guidance are one category of spiritual dream that are clearly happening in the life of Paul, for example (Acts 16:9, Acts 18:9). Peter tells us that these are the last days, when it is promised that all who call upon the name of the Lord will be saved – and that some men will dream dreams (Acts 2:17). Dreams, however, are not to be relied upon, but tested (Jude 8, 1 John 4:1, 1 Thes 5:21). If in line with the truth, they are to be accepted as spiritual and good, as just another part of the Spirit’s active ministry in the lives God’s people. We need a nuanced approach to this topic that threads the needle right, recognizing that dreams can be abused and that they can also be spiritual and helpful.

While I am a qualified continuationist*, I’m not altogether sure that Muslims having dreams about Jesus or about biblical language or imagery need be a Shibboleth between cessationists and continuationists. In fact, on the mission field the acceptance of legitimate spiritual dreams by missionaries in both camps already exists, not unlike the agreement in both camps that God still supernaturally heals sometimes when we pray for the sick. It is in what we could call the supernaturalist overlap between cessationists and continuationists that I would place the reality of these dreams. Further, I would argue that both camps already hold to a greater ongoing revelatory miracle happening daily – the new birth (2 Cor 4:6). The new birth is a greater revelatory miracle which in no way threatens a closed canon. If then the Spirit works in this greater supernatural way on a daily basis, why not in the lesser way of giving occasional spiritual dreams?

I always appreciate the chance to wrestle with areas where the historical or global church help us to see our particular blindspots and cultural/generational assumptions, places where we find ourselves strangely out of step with those who have gone before us or with our evangelical brothers and sisters around the world. Spiritual dreams are one of these places. I for one believe we need some more conversation regarding these dreams in order to account for the disparity that is currently there between the regular spiritual experience of those from a Muslim background and their brothers and sisters in the West.

At the very least, we need to listen to our fellow believers, like Reza, and try not to get freaked out by their testimonies if they include a dream about Jesus.

*By qualified continuationist, I mean that I am a continuationist by conviction, but that I find in the scriptures, in church history, and in my own experience that seasons of the more miraculous gifts and miracles ebb and flow inconsistently according to God’s sovereign and mysterious plan. There are periods like those of Moses and Elijah/Elisha and the generation of the apostles when they seem to come in downpours, then long periods, not unlike a cloudless Middle Eastern summer, where the showers stop and the ordinary means of grace are all that is provided by the Spirit. Because he is the sovereign Spirit and free to give or not give at his good pleasure, I don’t resonate with the pressure some continuationists put on themselves for these things to function weekly in every era, nor the critique by some cessationists that the gifts among contemporary reformed continuationists seem too quiet, small, and ordinary to be legitimate. I’m not sure exactly what to call this position, but perhaps something like punctuated continuationism would be getting close to the mark.

*names changed for security

Photo from Wikimedia Commons

Gender as Eternal Reality

But whence came this curious difference between them? He found that he could point to no single feature wherein the difference resided, yet it was impossible to ignore. One could try — Ransom has tried a hundred times — to put it into words. He has said that Malacandra was like rhythm and Perelandra like melody. He has said that Malacandra affected him like a quantitative, Perelandra like an accentual, metre.

[W]hat Ransom saw at that moment was the real meaning of gender. Everyone must sometimes have wondered why in nearly all tongues certain inanimate objects are masculine and others feminine. What is masculine about a mountain or feminine about certain trees? Ransom has cured me of believing that this is a purely morphological phenomenon, depending on the form of the word. Still less is gender an imaginative extension of sex. Our ancestors did not make mountains masculine because they projected male characteristics into them. The real process is the reverse. Gender is a reality, and a more fundamental reality than sex.

Lewis, Perelandra, pp. 171-72

This portion of C.S. Lewis’ space trilogy is quoted in a helpful new article by Colin Smothers on Desiring God, “Was C.S. Lewis an Egalitarian?” Like Smothers, I have found Lewis’ fiction to be very persuasive regarding the goodness of complementarity between men and women – that the equal value of men and women is in fact more beautifully displayed in harmonious difference rather than in flat uniformity. And that this good eternal contrast should be displayed in society, the family, and the church. As I think back to what has made me a convictional complementarian, after God’s word, Lewis’ fiction would be one of my top influences. If you’ve never read his space trilogy, The Great Divorce, or Narnia books with this lens, it’s well worth the effort. The key here is that Lewis is not a man imprisoned by the blindspots of his particular time. But as a self-proclaimed “dinosaur” immersed in ancient mythology and languages, he is one of those gifted to see through his culture and to see things more permanent.

Why would fiction, of all genres, be so convincing? Sometimes that which offends our personal culture-shaped logic still resonates deep down when we see it in narrative. Pay attention to which themes keep showing up in our favorite films and stories. These are the things we really know to be true, regardless of what our editorials and think pieces say. The sacrifice of one hero saves the many. Humanity really is worth saving, in spite of our deep brokenness. Troubled characters can make a fateful choice which irredeemably confirms their nature to be evil, and thus their death is just and cause for celebration. Sin must be atoned for. Men and women are deeply different from one another.

It’s hard to argue logically – or biblically – for complementarity in a way that resonates as beautiful in our current Western cultural moment. But stories and narrative can still very much show it to be beautiful in a way that speaks to our consciences and to the eternity in our hearts. Storytellers are therefore a crucial part of the culture wars, one aspect that we conservatives tend to neglect. This is likely one reason why Lewis and Tolkien are everywhere right now. Though long dead, they are some of our few really effective storytellers.

The point which Lewis communicates through his stories that has lodged so deeply in me is summarized by the line, “Our ancestors did not make mountains masculine because they projected male characteristics into them. The real process is the reverse. Gender is a reality, and a more fundamental one than sex.” In my own words, gender is an eternal reality that must exist in the nature of God himself, because it is displayed throughout all creation. Yes, it shows up – downstream as it were – in human sex and gender, but like Lewis says, it appears in countless languages also – both in their very structure and as they attempt to describe reality.

This point resonated so deeply with me when I came across it in Lewis because we also find this to be true as we survey human cultures throughout history and around the world. The reality of masculinity and femininity are universally recognized by the thousands of diverse human cultures that have colored this planet. There has never been a neuter society. Even allowing for great diversity in its expression, the principle of fundamental difference between manhood and womanhood – and the dance of cooperation and competition between them – is always there. Once again, the book of human culture is telling us something about the nature of the universe and about God himself. The reality of binary gender is bleeding through the pages of human culture absolutely everywhere we look.

This is one reason many of the arguments for egalitarianism feel so shallow to me. They present as overly-dependent on critiquing stereotypes from 1950s America. Forget the 1950s. Why would we need to ground complementarianism in such a narrow slice of time and culture? If it is indeed true, then our questions must go much deeper and broader. Why have the tribal and religious institutions of Melanesia and Central Asia been male-led from time immemorial? Why did the ancient Persians recognize the man as the leader of his home? Why have indigenous societies overwhelmingly structured themselves so that the woman’s primary sphere is the the home and the man’s primary sphere is outside the home? Why did the myth of the Amazons exist for the ancient Greeks, serving as a legendary inverse society? Why do so many writers throughout history find the difference in roles between men and women to be honorable, and we find them so distasteful? Have we honestly wrestled with why are we the global and historical oddballs when it comes to how we feel about this topic, and why we are so proud of that?

In spite of the egalitarian air that we breathe in the West, we shouldn’t settle for simple responses that chalk it up to The Patriarchy or the results of the fall. Differences in role and manhood and womanhood are clearly visible before the fall in Genesis 1 and 2, as they should be if they are indeed reflecting deeper eternal realities of gender. The New Testament continues to affirm the differences in roles even as it deepens our understanding of our spiritual equality. Yes, male domineering leadership over women is very real and very universal since sin and the curse perverted these differences and twisted the dance into a cold war (with periodic open combat). But the answer is not to attempt to be the first neuter society in the history of humanity. Nor to remake the church or the home into the image of a fictional universe where masculinity and femininity are temporary, fading things imposed by culture.

Instead, we need to lean in and listen to writers like Lewis who seek to understand the eternal beauty of masculinity and femininity. This will help us place the biblical commands for male and female roles in their proper context. We need some bigger backdrops for this discussion – the breadth of human history and culture, the universe, even the nature of God himself.

Photo by Peter Conlan on Unsplash