The Hundred Monkeys Principle

My current language helper is a man who has heard the gospel countless times. He has been helping my colleagues and partners learn the local language for several years now. And that means he has gotten a steady and gloriously unrelenting dose of gospel truth for a long time. He has not professed faith. However, he has read much of the Bible, even memorized portions, and has distanced himself considerably from Islam. He now considers himself a Qur’ani, a type of Muslim who rejects all the Islamic Hadith (authoritative traditions) and the Muhammad they describe. Much of everyday Islamic practice and theology is dependent on the Hadith. Limiting one’s self to the Qur’an alone is to essentially embrace a faith that is considered heretical to most Muslims. My hope is that this is only a way-station for my tutor, evidence that he has grasped the deeply different message of the Bible and that he is seriously (though slowly) wrestling with it.

When I have a local friend like this, I’m not always sure how I should proceed with direct evangelism when they have had so much truth shared with them by so many and have not yet responded. There is a danger of their heart being hardened as they get used to hearing the same message and yet there is also the possibility of one more good word shared being the straw that breaks the camel’s back (in a good way). I will often chew on if there are ways to expose them to other complimentary things that could add to the case made by gospel words they’ve heard so often.

Many of us tend to do this with family members and friends who have heard a great deal of gospel truth and yet are not yet believers. We weigh whether right now is the best time to go direct. Or, if now is a better time to let what has already been shared rest on their heart and mind, and to instead focus on modeling a gospel-transformed life, exposing them to beauty or hospitality or friendship or other categories that could play a part in their eventual surrender to Jesus. It’s a tension. I try to navigate it by regularly praying for opportunities to share the gospel. If the gospel is on the tip of my tongue, and I’m praying for chances to go direct, then I feel a much greater peace about not sharing it directly sometimes in relationships like this.

One of my supporting emphases with my tutor has been to share with him a lot of information about how people from his people group and other people groups are becoming followers of Jesus – and about the history of ancient Christianity in Central Asia. What am I trying to accomplish in this? Well, this tutor has grown up in a society where the overwhelming amount of his fellow countrymen are Muslims and can’t imagine being Christians. It’s not even considered an option. In the mysteries of God’s sovereignty and human responsibility, there is something in the human mind that tends to be more spiritually open to those social streams that have precedence among one’s neighbors and ancestors. Those are viewed as the honorable, good, or at least decent, options.

For example, in my focus people group a person can be a Muslim. That is what is assumed and what is held out as the ideal. But interestingly, at least two other groups have managed to establish themselves as possibilities for identity – something a local could embrace and still be considered basically a member of his people group. These two groups would be the communists and the Zoroastrians. In the mind of most locals, it’s best by far to be a Muslim. But if you absolutely must apostatize, then it’s on some level acceptable to become a communist or a Zoroastrian. These are tolerable options. To become a Christian? That’s still not considered an option on the table.

Hence my attempt to share a lot of stories and data with my tutor about believers from his people group and region, current and past. I want his brain to begin to shift such that by repeated exposure to the idea that others like him have followed Jesus, he might begin to think and feel that it is an option for him as well. Now, I am under no illusions that this is the key to him being born again. The lightning of gospel conviction will have to strike. Only the Spirit can do that. And yet, switching metaphors, I am going to put as many rocks as I can out on top of the icy lake in hopes that when the sun rises, the ice will break and all the rocks will sink to the bottom. Perhaps the sun will even warm those stones such that the ice breaks sooner because of their presence.

I remember hearing a missions trainer years ago share about something he called the hundred monkeys principle. Apparently thousands of monkeys at some point were introduced to an island where there had previously been no monkey population. Researchers studied how they adapted to their new environment. These monkeys were not used to the ocean and so stayed a safe distance away from it. One day an adventurous monkey decided to take a bath in the ocean. The rest watched from their perches in the trees and didn’t join him. After a while of this monkey bathing alone, one more monkey joined him. It was only the two of them for the longest time, until at last there came a third. The number of monkeys not afraid to bathe in the ocean increased one-by-one, incrementally, until it reached ninety nine monkeys. But to the researchers’ amazement the following day there were thousands of monkeys bathing in the ocean. This 99th monkey represented some kind of sociological tipping point for the monkey population. A switch flipped somewhere internally. Now bathing in the ocean was actually a mainstream option.

Similar things happen with human populations. A given custom is viewed as not possible for “people like us.” The early adopters get persecuted and kicked out. But one day, if the adopters keep on increasing, that same custom is viewed as an acceptable option. As I recall, the other possible outcome of reaching this tipping point might not be a general acceptance of the new belief or custom, but could also be large-scale persecution as that movement is suddenly viewed by the mainstream as a very serious threat. Drawing on memory alone, I recall hearing this tipping point being somewhere in the range of 10% – 13%. Any sociologists or missiologists out there will have to correct me if this is off. For a parallel in the West, pay attention to the increasingly-heated rhetoric on immigration once the foreign-born reach this same threshold.

By sharing (safely) with my tutor about others from his people group who have believed, I am trying to nudge him to be more open to being one of the early adopters – and maybe someday even part of the tipping point. We’re a long way from that percentage currently as I write this post. There are always those who must be the first. And their salvation is extra miraculous in that they take a step that no one from their people group has ever taken before. Surely there is some special honor for these pioneers in eternity. But my tutor doesn’t have to be the first. And though I can’t fully explain it, he needs to know that. I am under obligation to do anything that I can do to remove unnecessary barriers to the gospel – cultural, sociological, whatever, such that the gospel itself is the primary offense. Normalize the idea of people like him following Jesus, and that could be one of the many steps the Holy Spirit uses to prepare him for that piercing moment of new birth.

After all, there’s no sense wrestling with the idea of being the first monkey to ever wash in the ocean when you’re actually monkey number forty seven. Others have blazed the trail, so let’s know and feel that deep down inside, and then turn back and consider the invitation yet another time.

Photo by Jakub Dziubak on Unsplash

A Chai Glass and The Cleansing Power of Jesus

A while ago one of my teammates shared an object lesson with us that he used with one of his local friends, a teacher. This particular local friend has been on the fence for a long time, close to following Jesus, but wrestling with the cost. One day they were sitting down in my coworker’s kitchen discussing the gospel yet again. The local teacher was revisiting the concept of biblical forgiveness, specifically how Jesus’ work on the cross takes away our sin and purifies us from our unrighteousness. This concept is very foreign to Muslims who are raised in a very straight forward works-righteousness system. “Surely good deeds take away evil ones,” says the Qur’an.

Searching for an analogy, my coworker picked up his chai glass, partially full of dark black tea, and held it up.

“See this chai? Does it become clear when I add a drop of water to it?” And he proceeded to pour a small amount of water into the hour-glass shaped glass cup.

“No, it’s still brown,” said the teacher.

“What about now?” And he poured a little more water in. His local friend shook his head. My colleague did this a few times to drive the point home. Then he continued.

“This is like us when we try to purify ourselves from our sin by doing good deeds. Adding good deeds is not enough to truly purify us from the uncleanness of sin.”

“Yes,” the local teacher agreed. “I agree. It doesn’t really work. But we must try, right?”

Then my teammate got up and walked over to the kitchen sink. He turned it on.

“But this is what the righteousness of Jesus does to our sin when we become one with him.” And he held the chai glass underneath the rushing flow of clean, clear water. In seconds, all of the dark chai was gone, replaced by an overflowing stream of pure water that simply kept on flowing and flowing.”

The local teacher gasped. “Can that be true?! Can Jesus really purify you like that?”

“He did! When I believed in him. And his stream of purifying grace flows for me like this every single day.” The water kept on running as the two men watched and chewed on the power of this truth. One man living in the freedom of Jesus’ purifying grace every day and extending it to others (and this brother is truly a model of God’s grace to all he interacts with). The other man, hovering just outside and peeking over the fence as it were, not yet able to take the plunge. Wanting to and yet not wanting to, painfully within sight of the kingdom.

When I heard my teammate share this example, I was excited. What a clear and powerful opportunity for his friend! And what a simple and helpful object lesson on the difference between gospel and works religion. There’s not a home in this country without chai glasses – meaning we could reproduce this almost anywhere.

Our focus people are very much concrete thinkers. Even extremely intelligent people like this local teacher are wired to greatly appreciate analogy, metaphor, and hands-on examples over the abstract. We all are mixes of abstract and concrete learning to some extent, but in our corner of Central Asia concrete thinking is by far the more dominant stream. As highly literate, abstract-thinking, critically-trained Westerners, we are slowly learning how to better meet our friends half-way so that our message might be as clear and compelling as possible. Analogies like this might seem small, but we should be careful not to underestimate the potential for clarity that comes from small shifts in how the unchanging truth of the gospel is communicated in this world of such diverse lostness.

And wherever the river goes, every living creature that swarms will live, and there will be very many fish. For this water goes there, that the waters of the sea may become fresh; so everything will live where the river goes. (Ezekiel 47:9 ESV)

On the last day of the feast, the great day, Jesus stood up and cried out, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’” Now this he said about the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were to receive, for as yet the Spirit had not been given, because Jesus was not yet glorified. (John 7:37-39 ESV)

Then I Will Never Follow Him

I have a refugee friend in the US who is a member of a minority stateless people group. Being traditionally nomadic, his ancestors migrated from their original country to the country next door. This was about a hundred years ago, when the concept of the nation-state and firm borders was still very new in this part of the world – and for nomads, not really relevant. They had always migrated back and forth across the borders of empires, and even built a lifestyle around the advantages of this (such as smuggling). However, once the nation-state they settled in became more centralized and formalized, the government refused to recognize this people group as citizens. Their original country wouldn’t take them either. So they were stuck, and to this day no one really claims them.

My friend was eventually resettled in the US. But in his final years over in this part of the world he was taken hostage by a terrorist group. Rescue came just in time, when the group was getting ready to execute him. But – and my friend was very keen on pointing this out – he made it through this situation whole and with all of his teeth. He was not so fortunate as a new refugee in the US. For questionable reasons American city governments like to resettle refugees from war zones in some of the most dangerous parts of their new host communities. The idealistic claim is that refugees will use all their immigrant drive and energy to revitalize these drug and crime-afflicted urban neighborhoods. The result, not surprisingly, is often to add trauma on top of trauma. My friend came from a desert country where walking the streets late at night was very normal and mostly safe – even families with small kids are out shopping at midnight. But in his first weeks in the the States he was out walking at 1:00 am and he was mugged – getting one of his front teeth knocked out. “I get kidnapped by terrorists, I keep all my teeth. I come to America, I lose my tooth! Why?” he often asked. All we could do was shake our heads and try to empathize with him.

This friend started studying the Bible with me and even visited church with us regularly for a season. He would show up, long-haired, in a suit that was too big with a collared shirt unbuttoned and showing chest hair, 1970’s style. My fellow bible college students always complimented him on his unique Central Asian style. I had high hopes that as we studied the Bible together, my friend would come to see the beauty of the gospel.

Things went pretty well until we reached Matthew 5:43, “But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” My friend, far from being struck by the beauty of this kind of teaching, was instead deeply offended.

“If you follow Jesus,” I explained to him, “He will ask you to love your worst enemies and no longer to hate them.”

“What?!” He responded. “Even them? Do you know what they did to my people?” He was alluding to one of the dominant regional people groups that had historically oppressed and committed genocide against his minority group.

“Yes, even them. That is what it means to follow Jesus. We can’t naturally do this. But God loves us when we are his enemies, he gives us new hearts, then he calls us to love our enemies.”

“If that is what it means to follow Jesus, then I will never follow him. I will never stop hating them. It is impossible!”

And with that, he closed his Bible, and disappeared out of my life for the next year and a half. We all know that the truth of the gospel can be offensive. Some doctrines are naturally compelling to certain individuals and cultures while others are naturally offensive. Timothy Keller has called these the A doctrines and the B doctrines. For my friend, the call to love his enemies was a bridge too far. For many a Westerner, this teaching is one of the A doctrines, one of the outcomes of the good news that we find very compelling. But for my friend, coming from a minority oppressed people group who had suffered for centuries, even suffered genocide, it proved to be the teaching that was too hard to bear. He would hold onto his hatred of his enemies rather than be forgiven – and asked to forgive.

The more I learn about how much suffering has taken place in this part of the world, the more I understand his reaction. Every group here has experienced incredible suffering – and has dirt. Just go far enough back in history and everyone is guilty of taking someone else’s land, committing slaughter and genocide, and oppressing the groups weaker than theirs. In fact, this is not only true of our region, but of the whole world. We just lack the historical memory or records sometimes and so we become fixated on the actions of the most recent dynamics of oppressors vs.oppressed within a society. And yet it’s never this simple. My friend’s Muslim people group had been victims of genocide in the last few decades. But few of them knew their own history well enough to know that one hundred years ago they had been active participants in the genocide of ethnic Christian groups. And they are by no means unique. Throughout human history, the oppressed became the oppressors almost every single time. Yes, the Jewish Israelis have some very real historical grievances. Yes, but so do the Palestinians. And both have in turn done some terrible things. How then should we think about justice and forgiveness when all of our ancestors are genocidal murderers? Or do we somehow believe that the victimization of our more recent ancestors somehow wipes away the atrocities of our more distant ancestors? No, to believe that we come from a line any less tainted with oppression than any other line is to embrace both a historical and a biblical naivete.

We don’t often remember the historical context of Jesus’ sermon on the mount. The Jews by that point had been under the thumb of foreign domination for five hundred years – with only a brief interlude of Maccabean independence (and even that full of corruption). The things that the Assyrians, the Babylonians, and then the Greeks and the Romans did to the Jewish people were horrific. A little perusal of the life of Antiochus Ephiphanes will give you a sense of how bad it got, including 80,000 residents of Jerusalem at one point slaughtered in cold blood. So when Jesus said those little words, love your enemies, it’s remarkable that he didn’t spark a violent riot on the spot. This deeply offensive posture – that the deepest problem of the oppressed was not their societal and political oppression, but their slavery to sin – was one of the reasons the political right and left of his day got together to support his sham trial and unjust murder. And yet, Jesus knew every detail of their oppression to an infinitely greater degree than they did. And into this deep knowledge of their suffering and injustice he told them to go two miles if their oppressor asked them to go one, to turn to their head and expose cheek if their oppressor hit them in the face, and to even pray for and love these very real and very cruel enemy occupiers. How shameful. How offensive. How inhuman. How desperately needed in places like this – in a world like this. Nothing else can break the cycle.

My friend eventually got back in contact with me, years later. I’ve gotten to share the gospel with him a few more times in depth. I still pray for him. He has softened considerably toward his enemies, through the comradery that comes to be built between former enemies who simply struggle through the refugee experience together. But he still doesn’t know Jesus. He doesn’t know yet what it is to live inside of God’s love for his enemies – a love so powerful it makes them adopted sons and heirs. I pray that one day he will know this love and be transformed by it. And in doing so, become a reflection of God himself.

But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. (Matthew 5:44-45 ESV)

Photo by Cristian Grecu on Unsplash

Will You Consider Hosting Refugees When Normal Returns?

Yesterday a local friend was helping me move a big mattress for a teammate. In between waddling and heaving the awkward thing, we somehow got into a conversation about how hard it is for many Middle Eastern and Central Asian refugees who are resettled in the West.

“My living room in the US was often visited by refugee friends,” I told him. “They would sit, drink chai, and lament about how there were no people out on the streets, no people mixing in public, no equivalent of the tea house or the bazaar. Just work, more work, then car, home, TV, and repeat it all again. It’s a hard life in the West.”

I remember being puzzled at how often the comment about “no people on the streets” was repeated. This ache for living somewhere with more human interaction was a constant theme that came out as we sat together and kept the dark black tea spiced with cinnamon and cardamom (and plenty of sugar) flowing. The desire to simply see more people on the sidewalks and in public hinted at a much deeper sadness – the absence of true friendship for most of my refugee friends in America. Having lost their natural relationship networks back in their homeland, they now found themselves in a land that felt utterly starved of community – even without the language and culture barrier they had to contend with.

During that season of our lives we lived in an apartment complex where many refugees were resettled. We used to open up our apartment and the one across the hall for a weekly community potluck-style meal and text all our international friends to come and join us. Once a month we would also turn the green lawn in front of our apartment building into a “Community Cafe.” We would set up a small canopy, get some tea and coffee brewing, set out some chairs, put up a sign, and invite anyone who walked by.

I remember one autumn day sitting down in our “cafe” next to a Saudi student and looking around at the various groups of people chatting. Iranian men – Persian, Azeri, Kurdish, Luri – were gathered in one corner. A couple Iraqi Arab friends had also come by and were dumping incredible amounts of sugar in their tea. The ladies were busy getting to know some Eritrean women. And a Nepalese believer was energetically connecting with a Hazara friend from Afghanistan. Strange as our pop-up cafe was for their cultures and for ours, it was proving to be an encouraging environment for our international friends. It was leading to conversation and friendship, and our friends were soaking it in like a Somali refugee in the Minnesota winter huddles in the heat lamp at the bus stops. What a kindness simple conversation and friendship can be to the lonely and those far from home. How their eyes light up when someone really wants to know their story and to learn about their culture.

It also doesn’t have to stop at tea and friendship. Friendship can lead to sharing the gospel, Bible studies, and new believers. And though we didn’t get this far, it can even lead to a new church plant. Oh for a thousand new church plants to be formed in the West because believers showed simple kindness and hospitality to the refugees, asylum seekers, and internationals who now live in so many of our urban areas. They are a field ripe for the harvest. And once they come to faith, they are a powerful force for a jaded post-Christian West to reckon with. I may be dismissed as just another white Evangelical trying to proselytize, but when my generously-bearded Iranian friend starts sharing why he became a follower of Jesus, all my secular countrymen don’t quite know what to do with it. So they listen.

Our time in that particular refugee community came to an end about six or seven years ago. Today it’s 2021, and there’s talk of Western nations returning to some level normalcy this summer. A change of administrations in the US also means the numbers of refugees received there will be increased ten-fold. Believers will be emerging from this strange pandemic time-warp eager to gather physically with the body of Christ – and hopefully – eager to engage the lost face to face again.

As many Western nations plan to reopen this year, will you consider hosting and befriending some refugees that live in your community? It’s not that hard. Volunteer as an English tutor at TESOL programs in your city. Choose to buy your tea and hummus from halal markets in your area (google it and you may be surprised), and while there make some friends. Open up your home for regular meals where you invite international students and others – most of whom never get invited for dinner in a Westerner’s home. Especially consider how you can host gatherings around the holidays. Repeatedly offer to help your immigrant neighbors with any tasks they might be confused about – court documents, mail forms, bills, homework, etc. Realize that most refugees, asylees, and internationals don’t have any good friends who are natives of their new host country. Choose to step into that role, even if only for one family.

The missing piece for so many refugees is relationship with trustworthy locals. Government and social programs might abound, but the crucial ingredient for refugee success in their new society is friendship. And as it turns out, friendship is also the key for some very compelling evangelism. Sure, you’ll make plenty of mistakes. That’s par for the course in any kind of cross-cultural ministry. But you might also make some surprising best friends – as I have – and then get to watch them lead your own Western neighbors to faith! Now that is worth a little bit of risky hospitality.

Photo by Amirhossein Bararsani on Unsplash

Love Bade Him Welcome

This is the story of how a friend came to faith. The same friend, *Aaron, that I had thought was being drawn three and a half years ago. At that time he had shown a strong resonance with the spiritual themes of a poetry group I was leading. But when we had finally connected, God surprised us by saving his best friend, *Darius, instead. And Aaron drifted away. We kept praying for him, but he went dark for two years. That is, until the last week of December, 2020.

My family and I were visiting our previous city for Christmas and were reveling in the chance to connect with believing local friends there. We had even been invited to spend Christmas night with some coworkers and a bunch of the local believers in a mountain picnic house – a fun if freezing time full of chai, conversation, music, and arguments about what kind of smoke is actually going to lead to carbon monoxide poisoning while we were sleeping. The matter was never decided regarding the danger of the wood fireplace vs. the kerosene heater, so one brother stayed up all night making calls to friends, just to make sure the rest of us would actually wake up in the morning. Personally, I was on the side of the kerosene fumes being the only ones worth worrying about! There’s a tale there for another time.

We wrapped up our time at the picnic house and, jet-lagged from the smoke and late night games and theology conversations, made our way back to the apartment where we’d stay for the rest of our time. It was that night that Darius reached out to me.

“I just heard from Aaron! He told me that he is struggling with a huge decision. That he cannot continue anymore without truly knowing God. But also that he is terrified.”

“Really? Aaron? Do you think he is wanting to become a believer?” I asked.

“I am not sure, but it sounds like maybe. Something has clearly changed since we last spoke. I told him that this was a great week to meet up because the three of us can get together again. Can you find time in your visit to meet with us?”

I enthusiastically agreed. One of the harder things about being a new team leader in a new city has been having fewer opportunities for evangelistic conversations like this. “You seemed especially alive when you got back from your trip,” a teammate told me last night. What happened with Aaron is a big reason why.

We met up in a cafe a couple nights after Darius asked. Aaron got right to the point.

“I used to think I was a good person. But I have lost myself. I know I am in the darkness and have been very depressed lately. I know I cannot continue without true faith. But I don’t know what to do. Can you tell me what I need to do? I told God this week I would do whatever is necessary. Since then I have been waiting to meet with you.”

Darius and I just stared at Aaron for a minute. With such a wide open question, where do you begin? Darius, growing by leaps and bounds since he had confessed his faith to his family, was clearly itching to open up the gospel fire hose. But being very kind and honoring, wanted me to start things off.

I’ve found we can never quite predict exactly where gospel conversations are going to start or end up. We rely on the guiding of the Spirit to help us take the same unchanging themes and with them to chart a path through the particular topics and passages needed for that unique context and person. This is exactly why Paul asks that we pray and speak graciously as evangelists, “so that you may know how you ought to to answer each person,” (Col 4:6).

We first encouraged Aaron that his feelings of separation from God and being lost are actually very much in line with the nature of our human situation. We are naturally separated from God, and we can’t shake that sense, no matter how hard we try. Then, because Aaron had said that he needed true faith, we started somewhere I don’t recall ever starting at before, the nature of true faith. We turned to Hebrews 11:1. True faith is simply believing the promises of God, even when we can’t see them. We looked at Abraham, the one counted righteous through believing God’s promises (Gen 15:6). Then we turned to Romans and started looking at how God now counts us righteous if we have faith in Jesus, the one whose death makes God both just and justifier of the unrighteous (Rom 3:23-26). We looked at how true faith is a gift, a free pardon, something given apart from works. How do we receive this gift? By confessing our sin and hopelessness and by confessing our faith in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Aaron was tracking and nodding with everything.

Darius, evidencing the solid discipleship he’s been getting from my coworkers, wanted to make sure that Aaron really understood himself to be a lost person, guilty and shameful and separated from God. This is wise because popular Islam treats sin as something like an excusable mistake. When we looked at Jesus as the good shepherd in John 10 and the parable of the lost sheep in Luke 15, we had our answer.

“That’s me!” Aaron said, “That’s exactly me! I’m the lost sheep. I’ve been so lost… and now Jesus is coming to find me, even though I don’t deserve it.”

Aaron continued, “What do I need to do now?”

We turned to look at Romans 10 and Aaron joyfully confessed the gospel with his mouth. We offered to pray for him and both in turn asked God to confirm and establish our friend’s brand new faith.

“How do you feel?” we asked, curious to see if Aaron was internally experiencing things that matched his words and the wonder in his eyes.

“I feel… amazing. Jesus is my shepherd now.”

We wrapped up shortly thereafter, after some initial advice on how to walk with Jesus as a new Christian. It was one of the most straightforward gospel conversations I’ve ever been a part of. I think Darius and I were both second guessing ourselves because it had been so easy. But Aaron was simply that ready.

The Spirit is full of surprises. Apparently, we had been wrong to think we were wrong that the Spirit had been drawing him three and a half years beforehand. It just wasn’t harvest time yet. Aaron had been the only one in that poetry group who had resonated with Herbert over Henley, Love III over Invictus, humility and grace over prideful self-autonomy. Turns out it really was a preview, just as we had desperately hoped, an initial flicker of the new life that would flood into his soul years later.

We said our goodbyes and I got back into my frigid car. After praising God for such an amazing evening, I sent a message and the text of George Herbert’s Love III to Darius and Aaron.

“Remember when we read this one and you really liked it? This poem is actually all about the gospel of Jesus. We have been praying for you ever since. Welcome to the family.”

Love bade me welcome. Yet my soul drew back
                              Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
                             From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning,
                             If I lacked any thing.

A guest, I answered, worthy to be here:
                             Love said, You shall be he.
I the unkind, ungrateful? Ah my dear,
                             I cannot look on thee.
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
                             Who made the eyes but I?

Truth Lord, but I have marred them: let my shame
                             Go where it doth deserve.
And know you not, says Love, who bore the blame?
                             My dear, then I will serve.
You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat:
                             So I did sit and eat.

Looking back, Aaron’s conduct in our meeting was one of the clearest embodiments of this poem I’ve yet seen. Knowingly undeserving and yet welcomed in regardless. The man knew he was lost and marveled that God would actually be so kind to him. Two weeks later, he publicly professed his faith in front of the small church of local believers.

Pray for Aaron, he may have a very hard road ahead of him. Grandpa is a mullah, an Islamic preacher/teacher, and his relatives are known for their hardcore devotion to Islam. This usually means new believers lose their housing, marriage prospects, and sometimes work. It can even mean physical attacks. As we parted, we emphasized to Aaron that the church is his new family now, no matter what his physical family tries to do to him. Pray that no matter what comes, Aaron will cling to Jesus and that the family of faith would be with him every step of the way.

*Names changed for security

Photo by Daniel MacDonald on Unsplash

Literally The Man on the Island

A few years back we ran an experimental outreach with some local friends. We were having an awfully hard time getting locals (believers and nonbelievers) to commit to weekly Bible studies in our homes, but we were always being hounded by friends wanting to practice their English with us in cafes. So we decided to start a cafe book group with locals where we would read, in English, Timothy Keller’s The Prodigal God.

The goals of this time were multiple. See if locals would commit to anything on a weekly schedule. See what kind of buy-in we got by combining a desire to improve English with a desire to learn more about the message of Jesus. See if we ourselves could get some rich technical and theological vocabulary in the local language as the group worked through the advanced English of The Prodigal God. And above all, give our local friends the chance to soak for a good long time in the message of the gospel of God’s grace. Turns out all of these good things would come out of this very simple book group. But not without a good deal of surprises along the way.

One of the local men who became a regular at this group was a professing new believer. One week we were discussing some aspect of the gospel in detail when out of his mouth came the classic “man on the island” objection. “But what about the good person who died in a remote place (like India) without hearing this good news about Jesus? Does God really still send them to hell? And what about my ancestors? How is that just?”

The irony of the situation was not lost on us. Here was a man who had been in almost this very same situation. He was literally the man on the island!* He was living in a remote part of the world with much less gospel access than India. And yet the gospel had reached him. But here he was, wrestling with the very same question that so many have in the West. Accordingly, our first response was to have him look in the mirror. “Consider all of the millions of things required for the gospel to have reached you. Jesus has his sheep and they will hear his voice. He will get his gospel to his chosen ones no matter the obstacles. Just as he reached you.”

We next pointed him to the related point that the gospel had gone forth through much of the world in previous centuries. In his own homeland the Church had been established very early on in Christian history, even though it had eventually died out. How many of his ancestors had heard the message and believed or rejected it? We won’t know until heaven. The ancient church took the gospel as far as Ethiopia, Socotra, India, China, and even Korea – all places in which the modern church renewed the witness that had been there but died out long ago. And this is only from the small evidence that remains from those extinct Christian communities. What might have been lost? We shouldn’t be too hasty to assume that any part of the Eurasian-African landmass has had no Christian witness at some point predating the modern missions movement. After all, there’s even a possibility that early medieval Irish monks reached North America!

However, in addition to these historical points, we also pointed him to the sober but consistent logic of the scriptures. The command of Jesus is to preach the gospel to all nations (Matt 28:19, Luke 24:47). If people are safe without hearing the gospel and condemned only if they reject it, how does this command make sense? In fact, we are not condemned only after rejecting the gospel. We were condemned already by rejecting all of the light that we had by virtue of nature and conscience and religion (Rom 2:15). We always resist the Holy Spirit (Acts 7:51), we consistently suppress the truth in unrighteousness (Rom 1:8), without exception. We are guilty because of who we are – in Adam’s race – and we are guilty because we go on and rebel just as our first father did, without exception and as soon as we are morally able to do so (Rom 5:12).

These things are true of everyone in the world. There are no “Holy Indian Uncles” who are somehow different from we are (Rom 3:23). Again, we should look in the mirror. Deep down our conscience confirms that we have failed even our own broken standards, let alone God’s – we know this in the core of our being. And every other human in the world is just. like. us.

Our local friends chewed on these responses as they simultaneously chewed on pieces from the fancy fruit plate we typically ordered at the cafe where we met. I sipped my bitter Americano and also pondered. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been that surprised that my friend would ask “the man on the island” question. Ultimately, it turns out that objections to the gospel really are quite universal. There is a certain logic of the lost mind that doesn’t change that much from New York to Kabul, Mumbai to Paris. We naturally just don’t like the justice and the grace of God – whatever our religious and cultural background. And without the word of God to enlighten our fallen minds and hearts, we never would have chosen for him to apply justice and grace in the somewhat offensive ways that he has. We come to the Word of God. We are offended. We are then either humbled, or hardened. Such is the effect of confronting the prodigal love of the just Father.

“Friends,” we began again, “One more point. This topic is why you must, even now, look up and see the darkness around you, and in many other parts of the world. So many have never heard this message of Jesus. Right now, even though the gospel is brand new to you and to your people, you should begin to pray and to dream of sending the gospel to those who might never hear otherwise. It’s really good that you’re disturbed that many have had no opportunity to hear. But what should we do about the person with no access to the gospel? Pray. And do everything we can to get it to them. Jesus will find his sheep. But your prayers and your witness is his means by which he does that.”

And with that, someone asked a question about what Keller meant by the word bohemian, and the study moved on.

*For any who might object to my use of literally whereas historical usage requires the use of figuratively, rest assured, I feel your pain. Alas, the meanings of words change by popular usage and that of literally has literally come to mean its opposite of figuratively. Figuratively the man on the island just doesn’t sound quite the same!

*In this kind of discussion I often find it helpful to also point out that the perfect justice of God is not without perfect nuance. Even though we all reject the light that we have, we have evidence in the scriptures that a greater degree of condemnation is deserved by those with greater access to the light, such as Capernaum vs. Sodom and Gomorrah (Matt 11:23-24). God’s justice will perfectly account for these differences.

Photo by Tom Winckels on Unsplash

Walking the Graveyards

But why go to the other side of the world when there are so many lost people right here in the homeland?

It’s a valid question, and one that feels weightier the more post-Christian the West becomes. Before we moved overseas as a family, we used to share an image to answer this objection.

Imagine a huge and ancient graveyard, full of wooded hills which are covered with thousands of tombstones. But the graveyard is not completely still and silent. Here and there individuals and small groups make their way from one grave to another, pausing to push one or several seeds into the grassy earth. They might move on quickly or linger at a certain grave for some time. Usually nothing happens right away. But sometimes a sudden flash of light occurs, and the one who was dead emerges completely alive and made new. This newly living one (after a period of understandable disorientation and celebration) then joins the others in their methodical and mysterious work of seed-pushing.

It’s not predictable when and where the seeds that are planted will bloom in an explosion of light and dirt and life. Sometimes there are weeks and months with nothing. Other times multiple dead ones suddenly come to life simultaneously. The only trend the planters have been able to gather is that the more graves that receive planted seeds, the more resurrections tend to take place. The planters go about their work steadily, but they are greatly outnumbered by the number of graves, somewhere in the ratio of ten thousand to one.

One day one of the planters climbs a cemetery ridge to conduct his work. From the top of that ridge he can for the first time make out the existence of another graveyard, just within eyesight. It’s even bigger than the one he and his friends have been working in. Yet strain as he might he’s unable to see any movement within that graveyard. There are no planters to been seen anywhere. The reality dawns on him that there are none to walk that graveyard. None to sow the seeds that can raise the dead. The graves there will never stir nor give up their bones.

Gradually he comes under conviction that he must go and be the first planter to walk that graveyard, though the ratio be as bad as one to ten million. It’s not right that all the planters (small in number though they are) be concentrated in one graveyard when there are other cemeteries with just as much potential for resurrection that have no one to sow the seeds.

Everywhere that seeds have been planted, sooner or later, the dirt gives up its dead, who in turn become faithful living workers. Everywhere. So he goes. It’s not a matter of the absence of need in the first graveyard, it’s the presence of such disproportionate need in the faraway graveyard which has no planters. And perhaps one day that graveyard will give birth to enough of its own workers to be able to send some back to lend a hand in the first one. Or perhaps from that vantage point they will see yet another graveyard further away, itself also lacking even one to plant seeds of hope in the dirt of its ancient graves.

This image helps to explain why we came to Central Asia when there is so much good gospel work that needs doing in our homeland. Though the work is daunting, our home “graveyard” has many more workers who are going to keep doing the work faithfully. But our corner of Central Asia? There are towns and villages that we have visited that have no known believers. Places where we may have been the first to ever share the gospel of Jesus Christ. And we’re not even as remote as some of our colleagues are. Many over here are working at a ratio of a million to one. A million graves for every seed pusher. That would be like having only three hundred people to reach the entire population of the US with the gospel. In God’s miraculous power, it’s possible. But man, someone please send those people some reinforcements!

Are there dead people in the homeland? Absolutely. But are there also crews of faithful seed pushers? Yes. That’s why we left. And why we’ve come to another graveyard with just as many dead, but with precious few planters.

Photo by Elizabeth Jamieson on Unsplash

Closer to Islam than to Liberal Christianity

When I was twenty one, *Henry, a good friend from the Middle East, came to the US on a summer exchange program. I was excited to see him again and eager to see how he was doing in his young and still mostly-secret faith. He had not been willing to gather with other believers yet, which was disappointing, and he was terrified to tell his family. Still, like a Nicodemus or Joseph of Arimathea, his faith had continued. I was relieved when we met up and he was eager to pull me aside to talk in hushed tones about spiritual things.

His hosting situation was a peculiar one. He was staying with an elderly couple, the husband a retired pastor in a liberal mainline denomination. Another student, a conservative Muslim from Egypt, was also staying there. This Egyptian student was eager to ply the elderly pastor with hard questions about Christianity. His host was mostly willing to engage his questions, but with an inclusivist air that made the answers quite disappointing for the Egyptian – and for me. Now, this elderly couple was wonderfully kind and hospitable, admirably so, hosting two young Muslims (or so they thought) during the height of the War on Terror. But having had very little interaction with liberal American Christianity, I found myself growing more and more concerned that his answers were so, well, squishy. Did this man actually believe that Christianity was true? If so, where was his backbone, where was his conviction, where was his Bible? The Egyptian’s bias against Christianity was only being confirmed by this man’s very NPR-style politically correct responses. Henry, for his part, was not going to jump in and risk revealing to his Muslim Brotherhood-influenced roommate that he himself had apostatized.

I listened respectfully to their conversation, observing the retired pastor with a good deal of inner astonishment – and hoped that Henry would not be led astray by this well-meaning but watered-down Christianity. And I prayed for a chance to get to talk with the Egyptian myself. Thankfully, after a pleasant dinner and evening together, we got our chance as the three of us ended up bunking in the same room. Out came the polemics. The Bible has been changed. Christians Believe in three gods. Jesus never claimed to be the Son of God. The Bible prophesies Mohammad. And finally, out came the Bibles.

We discussed Christianity and Islam late into the night, open Bibles in front of us. Even Henry got into it, making some good points here and there while never quite revealing his own faith. Long after midnight we got into the concept of the Trinity. It was a rousing debate. Both the Egyptian and I loved it. We loved it because, young though we were, we both knew that truth matters. We both knew that Islam and Christianity make exclusive truth claims. We both believed that an honorable believer doesn’t insult his opponent by pretending that the differences aren’t real. We knew that the promises of squishy humanism were coming up empty. Somehow, strangely, we knew we were “older” than our elders and that we must muddle forward together in the pursuit of absolute truth. We debated and muddled until we finally called it a night around 2 a.m. To my great joy, Henry’s heart was freshly encouraged in the gospel.

The next morning we attended the mainline church where our hosts were members. Having grown up a Baptist in Melanesia and having recently been part of underground house churches in the Middle East, it was just as much a cultural spectacle for me as it was for my Middle Eastern friends. I had never been part of a liberal mainline service before. I was encouraged that so much truth was still remnant in the liturgy, but discouraged that no one seemed to take it seriously, not even the female pastor. At the end of the service, she called us up to the front. She wanted to welcome us as guests and to present the three of us to the elderly congregation. She let us introduce ourselves and when we were finished, turned to the congregation.

“Pastor *Smith,” she said with a smile, “who is hosting these young men, tells me they were up until 2 a.m. discussing, of all things… the Trinity!”

The congregation erupted into chortles of laughter and knowing smiles. The pastor egged them on.

Well, boys, when you’ve figured it out, be sure to come and let us know!” More laughter. More respectable snickering.

There we were – the secret young believer, the Egyptian who would later become a mullah, the young American missionary – the brunt of a joke because we took the Trinity seriously.

We stood there awkwardly as the laughter died away. I looked at Henry and at my new Egyptian friend, realizing in that moment that we had more in common with one another than we did with all these chuckling church-goers. In fact, we lived in a different world. As a believer, I had more in common with my Muslim friends like this Egyptian than I did with many of my own countrymen who claimed to be Christians. What a strange and tragic thing.

There have been few moments where I’ve been more ashamed of Christianity in my homeland than I was that day. Though as Machen rightly maintained in Christianity and Liberalism, it was not Christianity at all, but a new religion entirely, gutted of the gospel. What would these cultural Christians say if Henry’s family found out about his faith and kicked him out, or tried to kill him? Would they try to comfort him by telling him that “We all really believe the same thing, after all?” What would they say to my other Middle Eastern friends who had lost everything for the sake of Jesus, for holding to beliefs that these wealthy westerners had long ago dismissed as intolerant or not progressive enough? For all of the residue of truth that clung to that church because of its once-faithful tradition, it had become a community impotent. Impotent to represent Jesus to serious Muslim theists, and even more impotent to mentor those who could lose their lives for their faith. Just a shell of what is was supposed to be, full of nice and polite grey-haired members who chuckled at the silly young men who thought it was worth it to stay up late and debate the nature of God.

It’s not always easy to live among Muslims. Sometimes we want to pull out our hair in frustration at how illogical Islamic belief and practice are. But there are many times when we actually find ourselves strange bedfellows with our Muslim neighbors, scratching our heads side by side at the absurd but confident assertions of Western modernity. It’s frankly refreshing to live in a society where the existence of God is strongly believed by most, where male and female still mean male and female, and where the question most wrestle with is What is the truth? rather than What is truth?

My neighbors largely believe that God exists, that he created the world, that he sent prophets and holy books, that heaven and hell are real, and that we should strive to live according to God’s will. This is not a bad theistic starting point, even given all of the distortions that Islam introduces. For many Muslims, like Henry, they are not far from the kingdom of God. They need a friend. One who will tell them of Jesus, open the Bible with them, and pray until the miracle of the new birth crashes in and changes everything.

Woe to the many respectable, progressive, and nice church-goers of the West. For while they chuckle and exchange the power of the gospel for niceness, it is the scrappy Middle Easterners who will get into the kingdom of Heaven before they do.

Photo by Alexis Mette on Unsplash

*Names changed for security

So You Really Believe Your Daughter’s Disease Will Result in Good?

Since returning to Central Asia we have been talking about the phrase once said of J.I. Packer, that he lived slowly enough to think deeply about God. What an aim. Connected to this we have also been trying to live slowly enough to see “normal” interactions with locals as opportunities for eternal impact. This might seem like a basic concept, but it’s amazing how easy it is to slip into a mindset where certain types of relationships are ministry and others are just business. Some are very gifted at turning everyday interactions into spiritual conversations – with gas station attendants, neighbors, restaurant servers, etc. That has never been me. I’ve been prone to mostly dismiss many necessary and brief interactions as not really fertile ground for spiritual conversation. We’re hoping to change this orientation of ours toward relationships. It will require leaving enough margin in our days to be able to stop, slow down, visit, and converse in-depth when God opens that door. But so far we have been very encouraged by the conversations God has given through our initial attempts at this more relational pace. In a city where we have struggled to find our “fishing holes” for evangelistic conversations, this has been doubly encouraging.

One surprising outcome has been a new friendship with our local lawyer. I’ve always had difficult interactions with the various local lawyers that help us foreigners acquire our visas. Their task is an unenviable one, navigating a labyrinthine bureaucracy of forms, numbered windows, and changing policies. We are deeply indebted to their tireless efforts to make sure that we can live here legally. And yet most of the local lawyers I’ve interacted with have seemed self-important suited men, hurried and shady individuals who weren’t always completely honest with us and the government. We have been left stranded at times because of faulty legal advice given – not to mention struggling to adjust to the crazy and unpredictable schedules they keep. “Hello? Mister? Were you sleeping? Good morning. I’m on my way to your house with an officer of the secret police. He needs to see your documents. We’ll be there in five minutes.”

But this time around we were set up to show some basic hospitality to our local lawyer during each step of the process. It’s amazing what a small table and chairs in a courtyard with a little bit of chai can do. It’s as if these basic elements (married to a genuine invitation to sit down) snuck past the lawyer identity of this man and tapped into his deeper Central Asian wiring. We’ve actually had a really good time getting to know one another and working together. He came by the other night to drop off the successfully acquired new visas and once again accepted the offer to take a seat. Eventually the conversation turned to our daughter’s type-1 diabetes because of an emergency travel exception he had acquired for us.

“You know,” I said, “we believe that even this kind of illness and suffering is a gift from God, because he loves us.”

“Wait,” responded the lawyer. “What do you mean? Don’t you think that people suffer because they do wrong?”

“Yes,” that is also a common cause of suffering, according to the Bible. “And yet for those who love God and walk with him faithfully, the suffering in their lives is given for a different reason – so that they would know the love of God more deeply. God will teach us more deeply about his love through this suffering and will do many things through my daughter’s illness.”

“So you really believe your daughter’s disease will result in good?”

“Yes! Do you know about the prophet Joseph?” I asked. The lawyer nodded. “After being sold into slavery (by his brothers no less), he became the prime minister of Egypt. In that role he was able to save the whole Middle East from a terrible famine. God used something terrible to do something very good. Joseph says so himself.”

I opened up my phone to show my friend Genesis 50:20 in parallel English and the local language, “you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good.” We then went on to talk about the story of Lazarus, how Jesus had denied a good request – Lazarus’ healing – in order to bring about something better, a resurrection from the dead. I shared with my lawyer friend how this idea is actually at the very heart of Christianity, since the murder of Jesus was meant for evil, but through his death on the cross he made a way for someone like me two thousand years later to have all my sins forgiven.

My lawyer didn’t push back on my claim that Jesus had died on the cross and risen three days later. Instead he listened intently, pulling his face mask up and down as he sipped his chai.

“We trust that God is going to do so many good things through my daughter’s diabetes. We don’t know what they are yet, but we are waiting, like excited children, to see all the good he is going to accomplish.”

I continued in this vein for a little while longer, sharing some more examples, then paused.

As if catching himself, my friend quickly blurted out, “We believe the same thing too.” But it was clear he was thinking deeply about the conversation, perhaps wondering about the suffering in his own life.

In my mind I thought to myself, and here’s one good purpose already, getting to share the gospel with you for the first timea member of an unengaged people group no less! I had recently learned that despite seeming like a member of my focus people group, our lawyer was actually a member of another minority group, four million strong, with zero confirmed believers among them. (This is one reason these groups remain unreached. They get good at blending in and remain “hidden.”)

The visit wrapped up and we said farewell. It was an encouraging conversation. My wife and daughter lit up when I later told them about it. This kind of deep and practical trust in God’s sovereignty doesn’t lessen the reality of the suffering. We still shudder when we look at pictures from seven months ago, when the undetected diabetic ketoacidosis was wreaking quiet havoc on my daughter’s body, bringing her right up to the brink of a diabetic coma and possibly even death. We caught it just in time. After rushing to the hospital, she and I spent a surreal week there together during the first local Covid-19 lockdown as her body was slowly stabilizing. Seeing the same kind of ambulance the other day brought it all rushing back. Most of the time she’s remarkably strong for a six year old going through something like this. Other days, well, that favorite food she’s no longer allowed to have or the jab of yet another needle is just too much for her heart and she breaks down.

A thousand good things. That is what we strive to trust that God is doing through her illness. Like getting to share the gospel with our lawyer. Like teaching us as a family how to add one more weakness to our growing collection, learning once again to lean on God’s power and not our own. Like pointing our kids to the reality of a new heavens and a new earth, where the ever so practical hope of unbroken bodies awaits us if we will love and trust in Jesus. One way or another, glory.

This illness does not lead to death. It is for the glory of God, that the Son of God may be glorified through it.

-John 11:4

Photo by Matt Chesin on Unsplash

God Said No to Their Prayers So You Could Believe

Last night we read 2nd Peter 3 for our bedtime devotions with our kids. Our brief discussion afterward focused on verse nine, “The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.”

As the passage points out earlier (v. 4), scoffers say that Christ is taking too long to return and therefore that his promise is not trustworthy. Even we believers can be tempted to feel that God is slow to fulfill his promise. So Peter helpfully points out first that time is different for God. “one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years is as one day” (v.8). On the one hand, to God it’s been like a mere two days since Jesus was here on earth. On the other hand it’s been like 728 million years. Clearly, we need to be slow to accuse God of slowness given how little we understand of his existence related to time. In Job-like fashion, we’d be better to put our hand over our mouth here (Job 40:4).

But his second point speaks to God’s motive for his delay. God’s reason for waiting is that he is patient toward his people – “toward you” – and he desires all of them to be saved, that the full number of his sheep throughout history would come into the fold (John 10:16). In this context the any and all in this passage are referring to God’s beloved chosen people, known and set apart for him before the foundation of the world (Eph 1:4). God is waiting until every single chosen one, set apart in his heart from all eternity, has had the chance to exist and to repent and believe.

Now, since the first generation of believers, Christians have been praying that Christ return quickly, “Maranatha!” (Rev 22:20). And yet he has not returned. This delay feels slow to us, yet God has over and over again said “No” to these very good prayers. Why? On our account. So that you might live and believe. So that I might live and believe. So that the chosen ones in the unreached people groups of the world with zero current believers might live and believe. I am so glad that God delayed the end of the world so that I could be born and then born again! I am so glad that he has given my children a chance to live and a chance to believe – and likewise for my dear Central Asian friends. He didn’t have to. Yet out the depths of his patience he delayed for us.

2020 has been a brutal year for the world. Even worse years have happened in the course of the last two millennia. Consider how apocalyptic it must have felt to be a Christian living in the collapse of the Western Roman Empire, the communities of Europe later annihilated by the Vikings, the Central Asian and Middle Eastern cities where the Mongols slaughtered every single inhabitant and piled their heads in giant pyramids. It’s said the Tigris ran red from the slaughter. Consider being a believer during the great plagues, chattel slavery, the world wars, or the horrific famines. In light of such suffering, it’s understandable that believers’ prayers would have been full of pleading and struggle. “Why isn’t Christ coming and setting things right? Where is he?”

Their questions had already been answered in the text of 2nd Peter. There are more yet to be gathered. A little American boy in Melanesia needs to be born in the future and to hear the gospel from his parents. His kids need to be born and hear the gospel (one has so far professed faith – pray for the younger two!), their friends in Central Asia like Hama and Tara, Henry, Darius, and others need to be born so that they can also become followers of Jesus. There are tribes and languages and people groups with as yet no gospel witness whatsoever. And yet they too contain a remnant, lost sheep that belong in Jesus’ fold. For their sake others will need to be born, to believe, to be sent, and to preach.

Have we ever thanked God for Christ’s return not happening sooner? Have we thanked him that for our sake he said “No” to all those prayers prayed by faithful suffering saints in previous eras?

We should pray for Christ to return soon. This is a godly and appropriate prayer. And yet if he continues to delay, we should not scratch our heads as to why that is. There are more yet to be gathered in. And the Lord will wait until he has secured every single one of them.

Photo by Samuel Martins on Unsplash