The one before the eyes is the one upon the heart.
Local Oral Tradition
This Central Asian proverb speaks to the effect proximity and distance have upon our affections. We have a similar saying in English, though it focuses on the inverse of this idea – “Out of sight, out of mind.” As humans, we seem to be hard-wired to prioritize the relationships that are immediately in front of us, and we struggle to maintain those relationships that are long-distance. We quickly give resources to the needs that we are faced with, and have trouble feeling the weight of those needs that we don’t ourselves physically interact with.
A wise person will therefore do what they can to to be reminded of those important people and needs in ways their eyes can see and body can sense. This is particularly important for those who have grown up with a lot of transition and goodbyes, as missionary kids have. The temptation after a move is to cut off contact completely and to only focus on those relationships right in front of us. This is because continued contact reminds us of the distance and the change, and therefore the loss. But the seemingly easy way is not really the healthy way here. MKs and others like us need to learn to be present friends, even from a distance. I still have a long way to go on this front.
This is also why daily spiritual disciplines and corporate worship are also so crucial. We do not physically interact with Jesus in the ways his first disciples did. Instead, we interact with him by spirit, through faith, in the realm of the unseen. Our affections for him will fade and we will largely forget him if we do not have ways in which we are reminded regularly of his friendship for us. Hence Bible study which engages our eyes and hands, prayer which engages our lips and ears, and tangible reminders like the Lord’s Supper that engage our taste buds. In fact, Christians should be known as those whose deepest love is for the one not before our eyes, the one we can’t yet see and touch.
“Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and full of glory.” – 1st Peter 1:8
“The most strategic thing we could do to reach the Muslim world is for every Muslim to simply have a believing friend.” As a nineteen-year-old, I remember hearing the missionary-statesman Greg Livingstone share this insight at a gathering in the Middle East. His point was that the vast majority of Muslims today are living and dying without ever hearing the gospel message and seeing it lived out in the life of a good friend. It wasn’t complicated, Greg encouraged us, so much could change by giving Muslims access to Christian friends who would genuinely love them and tell them about Jesus. The simplicity of this idea gave me courage. Having grown up among tribal animists in Melanesia, I might not be the most skilled in engaging Islam, but by the grace of God, I could be someone’s friend.
Being at the very beginning of my gap year in the middle east, my prayer became that God would grant me one Muslim friend who was open to Jesus. He answered, and gave me that friend in the person of Hama*, the jaded wedding musician with a British accent who would eventually come to faith after many misadventures together – including nearly getting blown up by a car bomb. In my friendship with Hama I learned that the relationally-intense culture of those from that part of the world meant that one close friend was truly all that was needed for full-time ministry. This is because a Middle Easterner or Central Asian almost never comes alone, but with their own large network of relatives and friends. One good friend serves as a gatekeeper to an entire community of those who will be open to getting to know you if you are hanging out with their boy, and who may also be open to getting to know Jesus.
The following year I found myself back in the US to finish up university. After a difficult semester at a Christian college in a very rural area, I transferred to a different school in Louisville, KY, in large part because I knew there was a community of refugees and immigrants from the Muslim world there. Once again, my prayer became, “God, grant me one Muslim friend.”
One day I learned about an international festival taking place at a community center in the part of the city where most refugees were being resettled. I hitched a ride with some other students, excited to see if I could make any helpful connections with the Muslim community.
At some point I found myself at the booth of a local library which offered ESL tutoring to new refugees. Somehow the librarian present found out that during my year in the Middle East I had become conversational in one of the region’s minority languages.
“We need you!” she exclaimed. “We have a newcomer, Asa*, who has almost no English. And he speaks the language you do. Please come and meet him this weekend!” Before I knew it, she had signed me up as a volunteer.
I was elated to hear that there was at least one person in my new city who spoke the same minority language that I’d been studying. Maybe Asa would be the friend that I had been praying for. It certainly seemed like a providential connection.
The next ESL session I showed up at the library and was introduced to the other volunteers. One older couple greeted me happily.
“We heard that you speak Asa’s language! That’s wonderful. So glad you’re here.”
“Thanks, I’m excited to be able to help.”
“We are in such need of volunteers, but we keep getting these dratted Baptists who try to worm their way in to proselytize, can you believe that?” said the husband, squinting his eyes and glancing around the room. “Keep an eye out. Well, have fun!”
This comment caught me off-guard, so I don’t know what happened to the color on this Baptist proselytizer’s face in that moment. But my mouth stayed shut.
Soon I was introduced to Asa, a single man in his late twenties. We hit it off immediately. Not only could we speak the same language, but Asa was from the very same city where I had spent most of my gap year. Before long, we were lost in that particular joy and relief that overtakes two speakers of a common languagge who unexpectedly run into each other in a foreign land.
I learned that Asa was not particularly profiting from this ESL group class (the librarian seemed to have a crush on him) and he earnestly asked me if the two of us could meet separately for English tutoring instead. Between his aversion to the class and the class’s aversion to Baptists, I thought this was a great idea. At the end of the tutoring time we exchanged numbers and proclaimed a barrage of respectful farewells to each other. We both left, mutually elated to have a new friend.
The next couple weeks were just like it would have been with a promising new friendship in the Middle East. Lots of calls, lots of hanging out, lots of chai, cutting up, and talking about all kinds of things. Middle Eastern and Central Asian men love to talk, and the particular Western masculinity that focuses on doing rather than talking is one of many factors that contributes to profound loneliness for most refugees from those regions. We had even begun to have our first spiritual conversations, and to my great excitement, Asa expressed interest in learning more.
This was it, I thought, this was God answering my prayers. Asa was going to be like another Hama for me. I was a busy Bible college student, I couldn’t do a lot. But I could be a good friend to a guy like Asa. I was so encouraged by God’s kindness in providing me with this friendship.
Two and a half weeks after we met, Asa called me.
“Hey A.W., I’m… moving to Boston!”
“Boston? That’s like seventeen hours from here. Why?”
“Well, a friend there said he could get me a job.”
“Can you come by my apartment tomorrow to say goodbye?”
“Sure, I’ll be there.”
The next day I made my way across the city to Asa’s neighborhood, disappointed and feeling a bit misled by God. Things had seemed so providential, so perfect. Why was it turning out this way? Why must I so quickly lose a friend who seemed like he could become a brother?
I walked up the creaky wooden stairwell to Asa’s apartment and knocked on the door. Asa opened it and greeted me excitedly. He was packing, he said, and he invited me to come in and have some chai. In the tiny living room were two other refugee men, one tall and lanky, named Farhad*, and another short and energetic, named Reza*. As Asa packed his small bags, we began to converse in his dialect about his plans. Farhad and Reza turned to me with wide eyes.
“How is it that you can speak _____ ?” they asked. Turns out both of them were from other regional unreached people groups and were also conversational in Asa’s language. To see a skinny white boy speaking this language was one of strangest things they had seen in America so far.
Asa handed me a scarf as a farewell gift and insisted that I exchange numbers with Farhad and Reza. “A.W. is my true brother,” he said to his two other guests, in the honorable overstatement so typical of his people. I smiled, wondering how many cultures would extend brotherhood in this way so quickly. For my part, I sent Asa off with the last New Testament I still had in his language.
Asa left for Boston and I didn’t hear from him again for years. Farhad and Reza, on the other hand, started reaching out to me. Eventually, we started meeting up regularly to argue about politics, culture, and how so-and-so’s people group was related to that other guy’s people group. Sure enough, God opened the doors again for gospel conversation, and before long we had a Bible study going that would at its inaugural meeting run afoul of Al Mohler’s security.
We eventually lost Farhad when discussing Jesus’ call to love our enemies. “If Jesus requires me to love them, then I will never follow Jesus!” he raged during the last time he would ever study the Bible with us. Farhad’s people group had suffered genocide and centuries of oppression at the hands of the dominant people group of his country.
Reza, on the other hand, kept coming around. He became a dear friend. And he became a brother in the faith. What I thought God was doing through Asa, he had in store for me with Reza. One friend who was open to learning about Jesus. One friend who would in turn go on to share the gospel with his network, both Middle Eastern Muslims and Kentuckians.
God had answered my prayers in a way I hadn’t expected. It had first involved disappointment. But it had ended in kindness. As ultimately, it always will.
This Central Asian proverb speaks to what many in seasons of suffering have experienced – that suffering reveals who our truest friends really are. When the good times end and the trials have come, we find out who is still able to be a companion, even in the darkness. And who was there only for the proverbial melons. We have an equivalent English proverb that gets at the same idea: “a friend in need is a friend indeed.”
Very few people naturally know how to be a good friend in suffering. It seems to be something we must learn, often as we suffer and grieve ourselves and thereby grow in the unique wisdom of those who mourn. We also learn how to do this as we experience responses to our suffering that are not so helpful.
I am trying to learn to not pivot so quickly to the sovereignty of God in the midst of pain. I’ve learned there is a cheap way to turn to this glorious doctrine that can keep us from lamenting as we need to, whether for our own pain or for others. It can function as a deflecting mechanism of sorts because I am afraid of what will happen if I am truly open to the pain. I find it instructive that Jesus does not plainly tell Mary and Martha in John 11 what he is up to, that he allowed Lazarus to die because he is purposefully bringing about his resurrection from the dead. Instead, he hears their tortured questions, reminds them of who he is, and then weeps with them. It seems that even a death of a mere four days must be mourned before it is appropriate to start putting the pieces together. The faithful friendship of Jesus is revealed not only by his bringing Lazarus back from the dead, but also by his choosing to weep with his family first. “See how he loved him!” (John 11:36).
Many of us can grow in being better friends in suffering. Our own suffering will inevitably teach us how to do this. But we can also learn by listening well to those who are currently in seasons of grief and pain, or those who are reflecting on what they needed during their own dark season. Often, the desire to be a good friend is there. It’s a part of our new nature as believers to want to be this kind of friend for others. But we can often lack the practical know-how of how to actually weep with those who weep (Western culture is a terrible tutor when it comes to how to grieve). Our fear of saying the wrong thing can cause us to not send that note or make that call. When in doubt, we should take the risk and err on the side of extending comfort, imperfect though it may be – especially since so many agree that it’s not the words in the midst of suffering that mean the most, but our presence and mere willingness to enter into the sadness.
This Central Asian proverb echoes the eternal wisdom of God’s word also. Proverbs 17:17 – “A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for adversity.”
When adversity inevitably comes to those around us, may we be revealed to be good and true friends. And may God provide these kinds of friends for us in our suffering as well.
The first day we are friends, the second day we are brothers.
Afghan Oral Tradition
This proverb comes from Afghanistan. I came upon it years ago in a book by Dr. Christy Wilson, and I’ve never forgotten it. It resonates with my own experiences with Central Asians, who have often stunned me with their sacrificial hospitality and friendship.
My family does not live in Afghanistan. But tonight, as the capital, Kabul, falls to the Taliban, we are grieving for what this will mean for the local believers there – indeed what is has already meant for them and for many faithful gospel workers who have invested so much in that land.
Regimes will fall. Evil may temporarily win. But true gospel friendship – and the friendship of Christ himself – will outlast all of it. And every ounce of suffering for Christ will count, will be remembered, and will result in an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison.
On the other hand, every action taken by the Taliban against an Afghan believer is an action taken against a friend of God, a brother or sister of the Messiah himself. He sees it all. And sooner or later, his justice is coming.
You're in a place you think you know
Surrounded but you feel alone
You have a place to rest your head, but not a home
Feels like you lost yourself again
Sit in the silence of a friend
'Cause when you are fully known and loved, you have a home
The burden you choose to bear
That keeping yourself from those who care
Problems and pride play hide and seek, you're unaware
That all of the things you keep concealed
One day are bound to be revealed
We paint a picture of ourselves that isn't real
Feels like you lost yourself again
Sit in the silence of a friend
'Cause when you are fully known and loved, you have a home...
I’ve written previously on *Hama’s dream about Jesus and first time taking communion. This is the story of how I met Hama, my first friend in Central Asia. It is frankly amazing how eternity can hinge on something as small as a guitar peg.
I met Hama on November 26th, 2007. I was nineteen. I had only been in Central Asia for about two weeks and was hoping and praying to find a local friend. Since I could sort of play “the four golden chords” of evangelical worship songs (G, D, Em, C), my team asked me if I would be willing to play guitar for our weekly worship time. They managed to find a beater guitar from somewhere which was short one plastic peg to hold in one of its strings. So, I decided to trudge off to the bazaar to try and find one. My language was very limited at the time and since I didn’t even know the correct term in English, I had a really difficult time trying to explain to the shopkeepers just what it was that I was looking for. I was butchering phrases in the local language in a small dark shop with violins, sitars, and Central Asian tambourines hanging on the walls, when someone called in a tall smiling man, maybe thirty years old.
“What ya ‘on about, man?”
Hama proceeded to ask me in his thick street-British accent (quite the unexpected juxtaposition in our corner of Central Asia) who I was and just what it was I was looking for.
I explained my quest to him and we set off to the various music shops to find this guitar peg. The shop that had them was closed for a little while for the afternoon lull, so Hama invited me to one of the local tea houses. We ordered some chai and started talking and I found out that Hama had been a refugee in the UK for six years, in Leeds, England, which was where he got his thick accent from. “I learnt English from the violence people,” is what he kept on telling me, referring to the Leeds drinking crowd, meaning that his English was regularly interspersed with four-letter words, especially when he was very angry or very happy.
As we sipped our piping hot tea from minuscule glass teacups, and I tried not to burn my American tongue, Hama turned to me.
“Bleepin’ bleep, man! I’m so bleepin’ happy we met!”
I smiled at Hama through the cigarette haze and crashing noises of domino games in the tea house, hoping he wouldn’t see that, yes, my eyes were watering because I had indeed burnt my tongue on the tea. I didn’t know it at the time, but Hama was going through some intense reverse culture shock after returning to his homeland in order to get married. Rough as England was for him, he deeply missed having western friends.
It looked very different than I had expected, but God had also answered my prayer and brought me a friend. We had no idea the ride we were in for.