Respect, Planning, and Presence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by Aidan Bartos on Unsplash

Inviting Afghan Refugees Over for Dinner

In this post, I want to link back to a hospitality guide I wrote some years ago. I wrote this practical guide in order to equip Western Christians to open up their homes and show hospitality to Middle Eastern and Central Asian friends and neighbors. With the new influx of Afghan refugees, now would be a good time to revisit the opportunity that Christians have to “show hospitality to strangers” (Heb 13:2). Statistically, most of these refugees will never be invited into a Westerner’s home for tea, dinner, or for a holiday. Imagine the powerful kindness, then, felt by a new refugee family who experiences an exception and is welcomed into your home – and the format of the evening is even somewhat familiar for them.

While this guide was not written with Afghans in particular in mind, there should be a large degree of overlap. I did consult with Iranian friends while writing it, so there should be a lot of near-culture familiarity. A couple of notes regarding things I have learned since then:

Toilet shoes. Set out a couple pair of flip flops or slip-on rubber sandals in front of your bathroom/restroom/WC area. Since they leave their outside shoes at the door, Central Asians feel very dirty going into a toilet area in only their socks or barefoot.

Order of entry and exit. At least in our area of Central Asia, the host should step outside and insist the guest should enter the house first. The guest will then politely refuse. After some back and forth of this, the host is expected to go first into the home. This is then reversed on the way out. The host should not exit the house before the guest, as this can imply that they are eager for the guest to leave.

Pictures. Many Central Asians love to take pictures and selfies together to commemorate an event. It’s best to take your guests’ lead on this front. But don’t be alarmed if your dinner gathering ends up posted on their social media accounts. It’s polite to ask to take pictures together if you are the initiator. Try to be sensitive to whether or not the men of the family want their wife or daughters included in the pictures.

Here is the link to the post containing the hospitality guide. As you hear of Christian friends who have opportunities to host Aghans that are being resettled, feel free to pass this guide along. And if any of the advice in this guide proves to be irrelevant or unhelpful for Afghan culture, then I would love to know that. Happy hosting.

Photo by Mehrshad Rajabi on Unsplash

Of Immersion and Umbilical Cords

Tonight we came to the end of a whirlwind eleven months. We’ll be heading out of the country for a few weeks of rest and family events. But what an ending it was.

This evening *Alan was baptized. He’s the new believer who recently came out of nowhere, having come to faith through YouTube videos while isolated from knowing any other believers.

The initial time of singing and exhortation tonight proved to be a very sweet time. Baptisms are always soul-stirring, but in this part of the world they feel especially weighty. The Islamic society here views going under the water as the point of no return. It means apostasy has been committed. Even though Alan had explored other religions before and even was an atheist for a season, his act of baptism will be viewed with a special kind of hatred by his Muslim friends and relatives.

For their part, the local believers were eager to follow up the exhortation from Romans 6 with their own personal encouragements. One word was regarding ongoing repentance. This prompted spontaneous and public repentance from two of the other brothers present – a particularly life-giving thing for me to witness having recently walked with them through the very messy conflict they were repenting of. This was a tremendous example for Alan to witness, the kind of thing that should be a regular part of a healthy church’s life together.

*Patti also spoke up, exhorting Alan to put off the culture he has known and to put on the new culture of Jesus Christ. Patti is the least-literate of the group of believers, so her clear and biblical contribution was especially meaningful.

Then we took a group photo together (only the one being baptized is allowed to request pictures and use their camera for this kind of event) and headed up to the roof where a kiddie pool was ready. One of us the expats and one of the local brothers flanked Alan as they stood together in the water. Not only does this two person dunking make the physical act of immersing the third person easier, it also helps avoid any false elevation of baptism-by-foreigner while still honoring the locals’ desire to respect us by having one one of us do the actual baptizing. Another local brother read the questions, received Alan’s affirmative replies, and then made the Trinitarian proclamation.

And Alan went under. All but the very tips of his knees. Total immersion continues to be quite hard to actually accomplish! Thankfully, this doesn’t mean he will be raised in the new heavens and new earth without any kneecaps.

The rest of the evening was spent laughing and sharing chai and supper together. And yet in this season we can’t seem to stop uncovering deeply-ingrained aspects of culture that we’ve never heard of before, and which seem somewhat concerning. Sure enough, we had another surprising lesson waiting for us tonight.

During dinner, one of the local moms asked my wife if we could bring her daughter’s something back to the US with us. The word she used sounded an awful lot like belly button. Confused, my wife sought clarification. It wasn’t belly button, it was umbilical cord. She wanted us to bring her teenage daughter’s umbilical cord back to the US with us. If you are anything like us, at this point you’d be thinking, “Why on earth would we ever do such a thing?”

Apparently one of our regional cultures saves the baby’s umbilical cord and places it somewhere in the world that would portend a good future for that child, connected to that particular place. In our case, the mother wanted us to bring the remains of the umbilical cord in our luggage to the US and leave it there so that the power of the cord (?) would enable her daughter to reach the US and find success there.

My wife fumbled for words and reminded this sister of what we had been talking about earlier – that following Jesus means we put on a new redeemed culture. Plus, what in the world would we tell customs?

“Anything to declare?”

“Just our friends’ daughter’s umbilical cord.”

“Um… what?!”

Needless to say, we won’t be carrying any umbilical cords with us this time. Nor in the future, at least until we learn a lot more about what is actually going on with this local practice.

But it’s not just the Central Asians. This confused TCK also learned tonight that even some Westerners keep their child’s umbilical cord for sentimental reasons. Again, I had never heard of this before. Western friends, is this a thing? Culture is fascinating. And sometimes just downright strange.

But putting aside all talk of physical cords that have been cut and their reasons for global travel, Alan himself is very much now spiritually alive and part of the family. Though he started his walk with Jesus as an isolated young man watching apologetics videos, he has a community of brothers and sisters now. He will need them, and they will need him.

As for us, we need to get some sleep. Twenty hours of flight time with multiple small children awaits us. And though we’re getting on that plane tired and spent, we are also getting on it happy and thankful.

The church is repenting, new believers like Alan are taking costly steps of obedience, deeper worldview issues are coming out and getting addressed. He is working. Keep the prayers coming.

Photo by Egor Myznik on Unsplash

*Names changed for security

Be My (Hypothetical) Guest

“Be my guest!”

It’s the kind of polite statement you hear from local merchants all the time if you are a foreigner or even a respectful local.

The merchant running a small sandwich shop or chai stand says this, seemingly with their whole heart. However, what seems to be a generous and hospitable offer actually turns out to be a place ripe for cross-cultural offense.

I once had a coworker who ordered a pizza for delivery. When the delivery driver arrived he was surprised to find out that the customer was an American. His honorable reflexes kicked in and when he handed over the pizza he told the American to put his money away.

“Be my guest!”

The American, wowed at this turn of good fortune, smiled, thanked the driver profusely, took the pizza, and closed the door.

The driver stood at the door for a minute, stunned.

He walked back to his delivery scooter, paused, and then came back to the door, full of embarrassment.

The American opened the door, surprised to see the driver again.

“I’m so sorry, sir,” the driver said, “If I don’t bring back the money from this pizza, I will lose my job!”

“Why didn’t you say so!” responded the American. And he promptly paid up.

Consider also some recent YouTube videos of a young Western travel blogger who visited one of our local cities. “Everyone is so nice here!” she exclaimed. “They all keep giving me free stuff!”

We cringed as we watched this video. While some of the free street food offered wouldn’t be a big deal, we also knew that many of the merchants would later be grumbling about the rude foreigner who actually took them up on their merely rhetorical offer. And ninety nine percent of the time, that’s exactly what it is: rhetorical and hypothetical.

In a highly-verbal honor/shame culture, public displays of hospitality and generosity (or at least displays of intent) are very important. But the whole system gets jammed up when those on the receiving end don’t know that in order to be honorable themselves, they need to politely and profusely refuse these repeated offers.

It’s like a dance. You offer me a free kabob. I turn down the offer and thank you. We go back and forth a few times. The merchant almost always wants and needs the customer to pay for the kabob. But every once in a while, the merchant keeps on and keeps on insisting. At which point both parties understand that it is now honorable to take him up on his gift kabob.

Why not save some time and just take the money? Welcome to Central Asia. Where honor is still way more important than time.

Why not just say what you mean? Well, the local would contend that he is saying what he means. But you are supposed to understand that while he means he is technically willing to do it, you still need to respect him by not letting him do it. He really means it… hypothetically.

While it’s a little more extreme over here, every culture has something like this. When we were still living in the US, it was, “Let’s get coffee some time!” Such an offer from a Westerner shows a friendly politeness. An appropriate response is, “Yes, that would be great sometime!” But if you pull out your calendar right away, it’s likely to get awkward.

A word of advice to Westerners traveling in the Middle East or Central Asia (and Melanesia for that matter). Be very slow to accept gifts from strangers, no matter how sincere they seem. While they genuinely mean for you to be their guest, they often don’t mean this literally.

Be their hypothetical guest, and all will save face.

Photo by Javier Molina on Unsplash

The Deeper Beliefs Begin to Come Out

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by Julia Kadel on Unsplash

Why True Faith Is and Is Not Like Sheikhood

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

How to Get Vaccinated in Central Asia

A couple weeks ago we signed up for the local government’s website for foreigners who want to get vaccinated. We need to travel internationally soon, so we hoped for a speedy reply. Our region has until now had more Covid-19 vaccines available than locals willing to take them. However, we waited and heard nothing. And so we waited some more.

Finally, we took a colleague’s advice and walked our family over to the local government vaccine clinic. Armed with the name of the head doctor and our blue passports, we decided we would try to explain our situation, and see if he could make the system work for us.

We arrived to a bit of a madhouse. Locals had not previously been very eager to get the vaccine. But we are currently experiencing record numbers of cases, and people are beginning to panic. Whatever system had been in place was now clearly overwhelmed. So, we braved the wandering crowds holding cotton balls to their shoulders and wandered up to the second floor. We then asked around until we found the room of the head doctor.

It was packed. In one corner the head doctor and his assistant furiously filled out government forms and proof-of-vaccine cards for a jostling crowd that kept shoving their bodies, IDs, and forms right into their immediate space. Of course, it took us a minute to figure out that this was indeed the head doctor, buried as he was in people and papers.

On the main desk across the small room, used syringes and caps lay scattered among stacks of papers. A middle-aged man was rushing to and from this desk and in and out of the room. He quickly spotted us and called us over.

I tried to explain to him that we had registered online but the system didn’t seem to be working, that we needed to talk to the head doctor, etc. He just shook his head, said that wouldn’t be necessary, and told me to lift my sleeve. Then he vigorously stabbed my shoulder with the Pfizer vaccine. I was both shocked and encouraged. I hadn’t expected to get the first dose done today. But there it was. He then did the same thing for my wife, who yelled in protestation at his no-nonsense stabbing technique. Was the method like any other shot we’ve ever gotten? Not exactly. But it was fast.

The next part, however, was anything but fast. We had to figure out how to jostle through or wait out the crowd that was mobbing the doctor and his assistant. We opted to inch slowly forward and wait it out. I’m still not sure how exactly to be both pushy and polite in this culture. Some locals are able to thread this needle very well. Instead, my government office strategy is to be unmistakably visible, but less pushy than those around me. It usually wins you friends in the end, but the wait can take a toll. It is, if nothing else, good stamina training for exercising the fruits of the Spirit. Yep, I’ve been waiting here for an hour, and that guy just jumped the mob/line because he’s a relative or because he’s just pushy. Gritted teeth… Love, joy, peace, patience…

We were provided some brief entertainment by our mustachioed vaccine-stabber, who at one point was in an animated discussion with others in the crowd as he moved back and forth across the room, used needle in hand, point facing out. He was using his hands to gesture dramatically, as Central Asian men are prone to do (I sometimes feel that our local intonation and body language feels somewhat akin to Italian). We watched with concern and fascination and the tip of the needle repeatedly passed just inches from several different shoulders. Eventually it ended up “safely” on the desk as well.

After about an hour and a half of waiting, standing, sweating, squatting, and making “help us” expressions with our eyes above our masks, we finally got our forms filled out. Names here work differently, with most people’s three names being their given name, their father’s name, and their grandfather’s name. That means we have to be vigilant to make sure important forms get written correctly, in the local fashion if needed for a local office, or in the Western given-middle-family name fashion if needed internationally. Today I caught the doctor getting my wife’s last name wrong just in the nick of time.

In the end we waited so long that my wife had to evacuate with the children in order to get our diabetic middle child some sustenance. But being Central Asia, they had no qualms about me as husband signing the place where my wife’s signature was supposed to go. The doctor and I then discussed the relevant information about our family and the second dose.

When we were finished, I thanked him profusely in the local language for our unexpected chance to get vaccinated, “Dear respected doctor, may your hands be blessed. May both of you not grow weary, and may your bodies be whole.”

For that, the doctor gave me a fist-bump. Then he hollered at the next man pushing in to give him his forms. Ah, Central Asia. You wonderful mess of a place.

Photo by Diana Polekhina on Unsplash

Respecting Gas Station Attendants and The Importance of Toilet Shoes

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by John Tuesday on Unsplash

*Names changed for security

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?”