No Word For Grace

“Our people group has no word for grace or gift.”

One missionary couple shared this fact at the gathering of a church planting network this past week. The comment landed with sobering weight, since the preaching at the conference was working through the book of 2nd Timothy. We all realized that without the word or concept for grace, you would get stuck at only the second verse of the book.

How do you preach the gospel in a tribe where there is no word for grace?

At lunch the next day, a couple of us asked these missionaries and bible translators some further questions about this problem of missing vocabulary. Thinking of the sermon on the mount, I was curious about how this people group viewed the blessings of rain and sun, which they don’t work for, but receive freely despite how righteous or not they are.

“Do they view these blessings of nature as gifts somehow, or as entitlements?”

“Our people group, sadly, is a very entitled one,” my friends responded with a frown. “Even with things like these.” Dead end there. Earlier they had shared how even a father building a house for his son would expect payment for this labor.

When faced with a lack of spiritual vocabulary like this, a missionary has three primary options. The ideal one is to dig deeper into the language and culture to find a word or phrase that might be there – though currently hidden – that can in fact do the job. A second option is to make up a new word within that language, ideally by combining other words or word parts that already exist. Finally, you can introduce a loan word from another language. With these latter two options you have to teach the meaning over and over again to make sure the new word created or introduced gets paired with the right meaning. But even with the first option of finding an indigenous word, constant teaching might be needed to make sure the word grows into an accurate, biblical meaning.

Our friends could pursue any of these options as they move forward. This is one reason they are focusing first on bible storying before they begin Bible translation. It gives them more time to iron out these thorny linguistic issues.

As we tossed around the problem at our lunch table, they shared that there is one indigenous word they need to explore further, a word which they had recently learned in the marketplace. Their locals will often sell a batch of produce, such as a small pile of tomatoes, for a set price. But once the customer has agreed to purchase, the seller might throw in a couple extra pieces, and then use a specific local word to describe these extra tomatoes that are apparently functioning as some kind of gift. Initially, this seems to me to suggest a meaning more like a bonus, which is still earned in a sense because of the initial purchase. But it does at least show the culture is not entirely absent of the concept of something being given for free-ish. And that could be a beginning.

Or, since they work as Bible translators and are gifted linguists, this couple could end up just making up a new word with the help of their translation team. But again, this path is not without its risks. There is no guarantee the word will gain traction and actually be used enough to be understood. However, sometimes this can indeed work. Another missionary shared how this has taken place in Indonesian. A word for grace was created a couple hundred years ago, and it is now well-known and widely used among the Christians there. 

Borrowing the word from French – their country’s trade language – could also be the way these missionaries decide to go. But again, the risk is that this loan word could end up being used without understanding or even that grace itself could thereby be understood as a foreign concept, not really something that belongs to this unique tribal group. But this option can also work at times, as it has among the Central Asian people group where we’ve been laboring. A term for grace was borrowed from the historically-dominant language of a neighboring people group, yet is now used freely and without baggage among local believers.  

It is a sobering thing to realize that some societies have fallen so far as to not even have a term for grace or gift. A lack of a word means that since the fall, that category of truth has been almost completely destroyed in that people or culture. Given the nature of God’s law written upon our hearts, I don’t think a spiritual category can ever be utterly destroyed. Yet it seems possible that a concept can become so foreign to a people group long-separated from the truth that it now lingers in the soul only as a shadow of a distant memory – something barely present as a form of intuition, something perhaps felt, but not “known” in a cognitive, linguistic sense.

At times like this the role of the missionary is a stunning and vital one. They are in a sense raising a dead concept back to life, by clothing it in an old, new, or borrowed “robe” of a word. In time, and with the help of the Spirit, this word will become a vital part of the spread of the gospel in this language and the life of the new indigenous Church. This being the case, in the words of 3rd John 8, we really ought to support people such as these. The stakes are very high, and we need to pray for wisdom for those tasked with this kind of high responsibility to make the truth clear in long-lost languages.

I am so grateful for these friends laboring among this tribe, and for all in similar roles. May their labors over specific words and meaning someday bear fruit such that their focus people praises God’s wonderful grace – and both knows and loves what that priceless word means.

Photo by Chinh Le Duc on Unsplash

A Poem on Two Lambs

In this poem, Ephrem the Syrian, poet of the ancient church, compares and contrasts the Passover lamb with Christ, the true lamb of God.

Hymns on the Unleavened Bread, no. 3

In Egypt the Passover lamb was slain,
in Sion the True Lamb slaughtered.

Refrain: Praise to the Son, the Lord of symbols
               who fulfilled every symbol at his resurrection.

My brothers, let us consider the two lambs,
let us see where they bear resemblance and where they differ. 

Let us weigh and compare their achievements
- of the lamb that was the symbol, and of the Lamb that is the Truth.

Let us look upon the symbol as a shadow,
let us look upon the Truth as the fulfillment.

Listen to the simple symbols that concern that Passover,
and to the double achievements of this our Passover.

With the Passover lamb there took place for the Jewish people
an Exodus from Egypt, and not an entry.

So with the True Lamb there took place for the Gentiles
an Exodus from error, and not an entry.

With the Living Lamb there was a further Exodus, too,
for the dead from Sheol, as from Egypt;

For in Egypt two symbols are depicted, 
since it reflects both Sheol and Error.

With the Passover lamb, Egypt's greed
learnt to give back against its wont;

With the Living Lamb, Sheol's hunger 
disgorged back the dead, against its nature.

With the True Lamb, greedy Error
rejected and cast up the Gentiles who were saved;

With that Passover lamb, Pharaoh returned the Jewish people
whom, like Death, he had held back.

With the Living Lamb, Death has returned
the just, who left their graves.

With the True Lamb, Satan gave up the Gentiles
whom, like Pharaoh, he had held back.

In Pharaoh two types were depicted;
he was a pointer to both Death and Satan.

With the Passover lamb, Egypt was breached
and a path stretched out before the Hebrews.

With the True Lamb, Satan, having fenced off all paths, 
left free the path that leads to Truth. 

The Living Lamb has trodden out, with that cry which He uttered,
the path from the grave for those who lie buried.

-Ephrem the Syrian, translated by Brock, The Harp of the Spirit: Poems of Ephrem the Syrian, pp. 52-54

Photo by Gemma Evans on Unsplash

An Encouragement to Young Husbands

A good friend recently got married and I was invited to his bachelor party, which in true Kentucky style consisted of shooting clay pigeons with shotguns (“shootin’ skeet”), grilling meat, and a very large bonfire. While eating our steak and porkchops, the rest of us there – all married – were asked to share some marital wisdom with the groom-to-be.

Now in my second decade of marriage, I thought back to my days as a newlywed, a sweet time which was also full of a lot of youthful idealism and pressure. As a young husband, I wanted to do this Christian marriage thing right. As a couple who felt called to missions among the unreached, I wanted us to discipline and focus everything about our lifestyle toward that end. I desired for us to be an example of a sacrificial, Jesus-centered marriage. These desires were not bad. In fact, I would say they were God-given. However, they were also paired with a rushed time-line, anxiety, and pressure. During this newlywed period I was missing what should have been a major emphasis of that time – helping my new bride to simply rest securely in my love for her.

Like many young believing husbands, I felt that shepherding my wife meant noticing weaknesses, projecting their supposed impact on our future, and offering correction and leadership accordingly. What I didn’t realize was just how much pressure on herself and anxiety my bride had brought into the marriage on her own – questions deep down in her soul such as, “Am I really a good enough wife?”, “Is he going to keep on loving me even when he knows my quirks and weaknesses?”, and “Does he enjoy ministry more than he enjoys spending time with me?”

Meanwhile, I was over here shooting down my wife’s desires to get some more clarity on her health issues by cutting bread out of her diet because I was worried about how that would impact our ability to show or receive hospitality from Muslims. Or concerned that her disappointment that most nights were spent on ministry relationships meant that we might not be very effective missionaries someday. I very much felt that we needed to get things like this right – and pronto – so that we could effectively minister together in the path to which God had called us.

I remember getting counsel from one of our pastors during our second year of marriage, talking about our frequent disagreements about how many nights per week should be reserved to simply spend time together vs. ministering to others. “It’s been like this our whole marriage,” I lamented at one point. “Brother,” he responded, “you’ve been married for a year and a half. Don’t say whole marriage like that. You’re still very much in the early days.” This comment began to wake me up to the arbitrary timeline for achieving “optimal marriage” that I was operating by.

Another moment of clarity took place that same year during a work trip to Chattanooga, Tennessee. The organization I worked for had put us up in a grungy extended stay hotel. We didn’t know a soul in Chattanooga. So, for the next two weeks when I wasn’t out canvassing the city, my wife, myself, and our newborn son were in the hotel room together, hanging out, eating snacks, and watching Downton Abbey. I was caught off guard at the end of the two weeks when my wife expressed her surprise at how happy I had seemed to just spend time with her and our son. “Of course,” I responded, “I’d always rather spend time with you than with anyone else.” “You really mean that, don’t you?” was her earnest, hopeful response. Though I thought I’d expressed this to her before, I realized that she had not really felt that this was true until we were cooped up together for those weeks in that small and gnarly hotel room.

Situations like these made me progressively more aware of shepherding emphasis I should have been embracing as a new husband – that of helping my wife simply rest securely in my love for her. There were deep fears and anxieties that she was wrestling with as a new wife, wondering if my love for her was works-oriented, dependent on her performance. Instead, I needed to model covenant love for her, the kind that not only told her but also showed her that my love was steady and not going anywhere – regardless of performance, conflict, or weakness.

In this season I began to visualize a beautiful, though small, flowering plant. The wrong kind of focused messing with the plant would eventually kill it. Instead, it needed stability, dependable sunlight, regular watering, and it would blossom. My nit-picking and projecting on the future were preventing the kind of relational safety that would actually lead to growth. The gospel logic of “accepted, therefore free to grow” was beginning to work its way into how I sought to shepherd my wife.

Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church (Eph 5:25). I knew these words well, and swore by them. Yet my approach early on was overly focused on “fixing” my wife, rather than letting her bask in the warmth and rest of covenant love. I was skipping over the foundation of true covenant, the kind of steadfast love that constitutes Christ-like shepherding and eventually makes for the deepest change and unity.

All of this, in summarized form, is what I shared with my friend during his bachelor party. For any soon-to-be or new husbands out there, this would be my counsel to you as well. Take it slow when it comes to attempting to lead your wife by addressing sins and weaknesses. You have lots of time. And it takes time to wisely discern which things are worth addressing and which concerns are actually a reflection of your own immaturities. Release the pressure you are both likely feeling and instead lead by helping your wife to simply rest in Christ’s love and your love for her. Help her to know in her very bones that this love for her is steadfast, no matter what. As Christ has welcomed you into his rest, so welcome her. Do this, trusting God with your futures – and then sit back and watch her bloom.

Photo by Alvin Mahmudov on Unsplash

The Traditional Bathhouse

My first friend in Central Asia, Hama*, was an eclectic fellow. He was a jaded wedding keyboardist who had lived for a number of years in the UK. This made him relatively progressive in relation to his culture. However, he still retained a deep appreciation for some of the most traditional places and experiences in the bazaar, things that most of his peers were distancing themselves from in their quest to be more modern.

For example, Hama was always ready to take me to eat a traditional dish eaten in the middle of the night, called “Head and Foot,” which could in some ways be compared to the Scottish dish called haggis. The base of Head and Foot is spiced rice sewn up in a sheep’s stomach, boiled in a broth made from the sheep’s head and feet. Sides include tongue, brain, and marrow. I usually just stuck with just the stomach rice and the broth. Paired with fresh flatbread this was a little greasy, but not bad. One intern who decided to eat all the sides as well, and record it for social media, ended up in the hospital. To be fair to the local cuisine, it was the middle of the night and it was his first time and he had also insisted on smoking a Cuban cigar immediately after eating brain and marrow. It may have been this peculiar combination of factors that did him in. As for the locals, the younger generation are starting to turn up their nose at Head and Foot, though the more traditional types still love the stuff. One incident several years ago involved a group of disappointed customers shooting up a Head and Foot restaurant with AK-47s because by 2 am they had already sold out.

But Hama was raised in one of the oldest bazaar neighborhoods, and something about things like Head and Foot spoke to his sense of where he came from. Perhaps it was his years living in Europe that awakened this appreciation in him. Or, like me, he was simply an old soul who found himself strangely drawn to the old ways, as if searching there for a hidden joy and wisdom that is almost out of our reach.

After finishing Head and Foot, the proper order of experience was to have a cup or two of sugary black chai, then to head to the traditional bathhouse. As far as I can tell, these bathhouses have their roots in old Roman culture, which eventually led to them spreading across North Africa, the Middle East, and Central Asia, remaining well-used there even when bathing became unpopular in medieval Europe. The most well-known of these distant Roman descendants would be the Turkish bath, but similar types of bathhouses are spread all over the region. In previous generations they served a very important public function: providing an accessible place where locals could get unlimited hot water and get deeply clean.

It’s only been in the last twenty years or so that hot running water at home became common for most of my peers in our corner of Central Asia. Before that, locals relied on visiting the gender-segregated bathhouses to bathe once or a couple times a week. Those as young as their mid-thirties grew up singing a song in grade school that went, “Today is Thursday; How wonderful; We go to the bathhouse!; Grab the soap; It’s on the window sill like someone sticking out his tongue at us.”

Even now the bathhouse provides a more reliable source of piping hot water than most homes, given the unreliability of government electricity. After Hama introduced me to the bathhouse in the fall of 2007, I found myself a frequent customer there that winter, the coldest the city had seen in forty years. With next to no electricity, frozen pipes, and ice-cold cement walls at home, the bathhouse was one of the only places in the city I could actually get warm – and take as long a shower as I liked. The mostly older locals eyed this skinny nineteen-year-old American peculiarly, but eventually got used to me, nodding in understanding at our mutual appreciation for endless hot water in the dead of winter.

The bathhouses of our area are typically made up of three rooms. First, you enter the reception area where the proprietor’s desk is, in a room with cement or plaster bench seating lining the walls. On top of this bench would be carpeting, and up on the wall lockers and hooks. Lots of natural light streams into this first room from upper windows. This room is a pleasant temperature and is designed for rest, drinking chai, and changing. To enter the second room, you need to be changed into your towel and to be wearing the provided toilet shoes. This second tiled room is warmer and contains some showers and an open floor area where an employee gives somewhat violent back massages for a small fee. The third room is the hottest. This room is heated by fire constantly burning underneath the floor, the hottest point being a raised octagonal platform in the center. Lining the walls are small sink areas built into the floor, each with a tap for hot and cold, a metal bowl for pouring the water over your head and body, and a small cement stool to sit on.

Those in the third room can sit at one of the sink areas to wash, stretch out on a part of the hot tile floor, or pace or exercise to work up a healthy sweat. The violent massage man will also aggressively scrub your back here, again for a small fee. Traditionally, most would be completely naked in this room, but undergarment-wearing patrons are now also very common. Most bathhouses also include some private shower rooms in addition to the open bigger room.

In addition to the blessedly hot rooms and water in the dead of winter, I always enjoyed the bathhouse for the reset of sorts I felt physically from the inundation of hot steam and water, contrasted when needed with bowls of cold. I also have fond memories of sitting with Hama in the rest room afterward, contentedly sipping chai and having good conversation. As other workers in Central Asia have found, the traditional bathhouse can be a place very conducive to friendship and spiritual conversation.

The bathhouse also gave me a picture that will forever be etched into my mind’s eye. I’ve never seen anyone scrub as long or as intensely as those older Central Asian men in the third room. At times it seemed as if they were trying to rub their skin off completely – as if they were even trying to get deep down and scrub their soul. Methodically, intensely, even desperately, they would scrub and rinse and scrub and rinse, using copious amounts of the old olive oil soap bars, over and over and over again. As I came to learn more about the nature of Islam, the image of these old men, ceaselessly scrubbing and yet never satisfied, came to serve as a metaphor for the desperation of those trapped in a works righteousness system. Lacking a way to wash the soul, Islam and other man-made religions rely on external cleansing. And yet the consciences of adherents have moments – or places – where the superficiality of this external “purity” takes over, and like Eustace the dragon, they claw at themselves, physically or emotionally, trying in futility to get another layer of scales off.

Those old men would likely have witnessed war, genocide, honor killings, wife-beatings, sexual and physical abuse, betrayal, slander, greed, and hypocrisy. They may have been victims, or they may have taken part in many of these acts of darkness, leading to an ever-lingering odor of guilt and shame. No wonder they scrubbed the way they did, almost trance-like, trying, consciously or unconsciously, to maybe this time find some way to clean the heart. All in vain. No bathhouse can ever bring the cleansing the mosque has also failed to provide.

There’s only one who is pure enough to clean the soul. He starts from the inside out, sovereignly reaching into our souls with his purity and miraculously making the unclean clean. We also use water, yes, even an immersion in it, but not as a means to become clean, but as a sign that he has already made us so. There is only one source of true cleansing for these old Central Asian men, for all of us. They must hear of Christ.

It is an amazing thing to step out of the dark Central Asian winter into the warmth and endless hot water of the traditional bathhouse. It is even more amazing to step out of the dark freezing hell of this present age and into the warmth, cleansing, and salvation provided by faith in Christ. There we will also find the water endless – even eternal.

*names changed for security

Photo by engin akyurt 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

A Gray Crown of Glory

Tonight we had dinner with *Frank and *Patti, two dear local believers that I’ve written about before. We had a wonderful time eating and joking together and being introduced to their new poultry micro-business they’re operating from their roof. I must say – the roosters in this part of the world are positively huge.

Frank, in his mid 40s, is already sporting a full head of silvery hair. During our visit tonight I was reminded of the time three years ago when Frank shared his testimony publicly for the first time. We had asked four of the believers in the church plant to share a basic story of what their life was like before Jesus, how they had heard the gospel, the content of the gospel, and then how their life has changed since following Jesus.

When Frank’s turn to share had come, he stuck to this basic outline, but also included a bit of a detour explaining how Islam had always motivated him by fear, whereas the gospel motivated him now by better motives – love, gratitude, and glory. To illustrate, he surprised us by quoting Proverbs 16:31, “Gray hair is a crown of glory; it is gained in a righteous life.”

“I first heard this verse when sister Sister Workman shared it with me,” Frank said.

My wife looked up, surprised. She had shared this verse with Frank largely in jest and not ever thinking that anything would come of it.

“I heard this verse,” Frank continued, “and it struck me as a good example of how very different the gospel is from Islam.”

We cocked our heads and listened. This should be interesting.

“When I was a Muslim I was told that I shouldn’t dye my hair black to cover up these emerging gray hairs. To do so would be a terrible sin and contribute to my condemnation. But I have dyed my hair many times, because this motivation by fear wasn’t enough to control my desire to look good in front of others. But then after I believed, I heard this verse from the proverbs of Solomon, and it introduced a very different motivation to this issue. It told me that gray hair is a crown of glory. It motivated me to obedience with something better and stronger than fear, it motivated me through something beautiful, through glory.”

Frank then made the connection to the heart of the gospel. “The gospel of Jesus Christ doesn’t try change us by merely threatening condemnation, like the religion I grew up with. Instead, we are forgiven through the sacrifice of Jesus, since he took our condemnation for us, and then we are free to obey because of reasons like love and glory… So, I don’t have to dye my hair anymore! You’ll see me getting quite gray here very soon!

And Frank began to laugh his contagious and joyful laugh.

Tonight I smiled at Frank and his gray hair of glory as he proudly showed me his newly hatched chicks and goofy adolescent chickens with their feathered feet. I mused to myself about the potential for mini poultry businesses like this to support believers who lose their jobs because of their faith. Apparently you can buy a baby Turkey locally for $7, and sell it full-grown for $70 – and raise it almost for free on table scraps. Not bad!

Like my local friends, all of us can fall into obeying in order to try and secure God’s favor and appease him. While the Scriptures are full of grace-motivated obedience, we often miss it. What a joy then it is to walk with believers from other cultures who spot gospel motivation in the text in places we never even would have thought to look.

I am myself sprouting quite a few gray hairs these days. I hope to follow Frank, as he follows Solomon (and the true and better Solomon). Gray hairs don’t have to be a shameful thing we try to hide. Instead, they can be a mark of glory, and even a reminder of the gospel itself.

Photo by Takalani Radali on Unsplash

*Names changed for security

A Song For the Religious Strivers

I remember having New Testament scholar Tom Schreiner visit the small cohort of pastoral apprentices I was a part of. He had come to teach on Romans 7 as our cohort was working through the book of Romans for that first year. We all waited eagerly to hear his take on the debate about whether Paul is speaking of a believer an unbeliever in the famous Romans 7 “I do not do what I want” passage. I myself was torn. It seemed to me that if I focused on the slavery language in the passage, the person Paul spoke of must be an unbeliever – because only unbelievers are slaves to sin. But if I focused on the divided-man language, then it must be a believer – because only believers are internally divided over their own sin.

Schreiner landed somewhere unexpected. “I say wrong question! This passage is not focusing on whether someone is a believer or an unbeliever. This is anyone who is trying to justify themselves by keeping the Law.” I can’t say that I’m totally settled on this passage yet. But I think most days I agree with Schreiner.

Human religion can be defined as anyone trying to justify themselves through good works – be they a believer or an unbeliever. In this sense, religion is anti-gospel. In the gospel, we are justified by God’s free grace alone – without any expectations placed on us to earn that relationship. There is an older sense of the word religion that did not carry this meaning, but conveyed more the sense of true spirituality, and in this older rendering we could say that the gospel is true religion in a world of false religion. Regardless, the term religion seems to be taking on more of this sense of striving in order to appease God.

I find it helpful among my peers in the West and my peers in Central Asia to divide gospel from religion in this linguistic sense. It resonates with them and proves to be helpful to distinguish the Bible’s teaching from moralism. Many of my peers in the West have been raised to function as if they were saved by grace, but continue to stay in God’s favor by works of the Law. My Central Asian friends have straight up been told their whole lives that they can only be saved by keeping God’s shari’a, his Law. Their society has lots of literal pharisees walking around, like the Salafis, who grow their beards long, cut their pants short, and despise the normal folk as lesser-than.

All of this is the context for why I find this song so helpful. Some in the West want to use this “Jesus is not religious” language to water down the need for church or holiness in the Christian life. I’m not part of that camp at all. But like every other true believer out there, I am a recovering legalist, daily striving to remember that because of Jesus, God delights in me regardless of my performance today. And this song helps me do that.

I am particularly blessed by the bridge, which starts at 3:07. “Meet your maker, smiling bright.” Some days it’s really hard to believe that this is true – that God really smiles at the thought of me. And yet this is what the gospel means for all of us who are now adopted as sons and daughters of the king. He actually lights up at the thought of us. Remarkable.

Contracts and Covenants

“Covenant! We don’t know anything about covenant. All we have is contract…”

I was talking to a local believer who was about a year into his faith. He was beaming as he spoke, grinning from ear to ear.

He continued, “In Christianity, marriage is a covenant. In Islam, it’s just a contract. Everything is like this. Even our religion is like a contract. It can all be canceled. It can all be broken.”

“Really?” I asked. “Do you use the word for covenant for anything? Is there no meaning for that word in your language?”

“The only thing we use the word covenant for is Jihad. That’s it.”

I shook my head, feeling simultaneously the joy of deeper insight into the local culture and not a little corresponding trepidation. We are trying to church plant in a culture whose only understanding for covenant looks like Al Qaeda.

“But I love our church covenant,” said this local brother, holding up and waving around the paper it was printed on. “I’m so glad we read it together at our regular meetings. We need to learn how to live like this!”

The brother speaking with me is a member at an English-speaking international church here in Central Asia. He has been growing by leaps and bounds and leading family members to Christ. Ironically, many missionaries would be quick to dismiss the use of a Western church covenant in this context as a failure to contextualize. Paternalists, they might claim. Yet once again, part of grandpa’s traditional Christianity proved to be surprisingly effective contextualization. My local friend was delighting in how the concept of covenant had hit a blind-spot in his worldview – and had changed everything.

Yes, there were conditional covenants in human history that were similar in some ways to contracts. But covenants are deeper than contracts. They are sacred. They involve blessings and curses. They warrant abundant life when fulfilled and are worthy of lament and judgement when broken. When we dig into the meaning of the New Covenant in the Scriptures, we find that it is eternal – once for all – accomplished by the loving sacrifice of Christ (Heb 9:26). It is this truth of covenant love that transforms our relationship with God, our membership in spiritual assemblies, and everyday Christian marriage. It is the foundation of our gospel hope. That God will unfailingly keep his covenant with us, come fire, death, or even the end of the world. The local translation renders God’s covenant-keeping love as “love-unchanging.”

Imagine living in a society where your bond with God, with others, with your wife… is just a contract. Easily broken given the terms and conditions. Not secure. Fragile. Temporary.

Our local women go into marriage with tens of thousands of dollars of gold and contractual terms. In the event of divorce, they take all the gold with them, like an insurance payment. It’s almost as if they are planning from the beginning on the marriage being broken. And why not? All it takes in a religious family is for a man who is angry at burnt rice to cry out three times, “I divorce you!” And it’s over. His wife is now a divorcee. She takes her gold. And her shame.

If I had grown up in this kind system – and then found Jesus – I would be beaming and waving my church covenant around just like my friend was. Oh the joy of knowing in your soul that there is something stronger than a contract – and that the God of the universe offers it to you freely.

Photo by Tetiana SHYSHKINA on Unsplash

A Trombone Instead of Heroin

My Iranian refugee friend, *Reza, had come to faith. It had felt like a long road for him, but there was now clear evidence of the new birth in his life. After lots of struggle and discussion about baptism and church membership, he had taken the plunge. My wife and I began dreaming about seeing a group of Middle Eastern refugees in our American city come to faith. Who knew? Maybe this new believer would result in a church plant that strategically focused on this diverse and overlooked community.

Initially, we did have some traction with some of his Middle Eastern contacts. But through his friendships as an employee at Walmart, my friend started befriending and reaching out to a very different community – struggling Kentuckians. He befriended a single mom who had had a very broken past and was in need of a lot of help. Our community group rallied, helping her with practical needs and sharing the gospel with her. We helped her walk away from a false church with cult-like tendencies. It was encouraging to see my friend’s new faith resulting in mercy ministry. But I was a little uneasy with this direction things were taking. My vision was reaching Middle Eastern refugees. Mercy ministry with local Americans was a good thing, but very time-consuming. And it was something there were many churches already doing.

Things got more complicated with this single mom and she ended up moving in with us temporarily while we searched for a safe living situation. She seemed to be close to coming to faith. Then we found out there was romantic interest there as well between her and Reza. Two baby believers with very complicated pasts were now interested in one another. We had only been married a year ourselves and had a newborn. We were in over our heads, but kept trying to plug our friends in to good opportunities for growth with us. So Reza started attending a Perspectives class with us. If you haven’t heard of Perspectives on the World Christian Movement, it’s a class offered in many places in the West that focuses on global missions and includes a lot of church history. If you want to wake a local church up to God’s heart for the nations and their part in that, hosting a Perspectives class can be a great way to begin. It’s not really designed for brand new believers, but we were hoping to get missions DNA into our Iranian friend from the get-go.

Then we learned about his girlfriend’s brother, *Akin. Out of the blue he had reached out to his estranged sister, asking for help and telling her that he had finally burned all his bridges in the city where he lived. He had been addicted to heroin for three years. I didn’t know very much about drug addiction, but my friends who did told me to be extra careful with heroin users. “They’ll rob their own mothers,” is the sentence that I remember. Reza told me they were going to go pick him up and have him move into his sister’s new place, an apartment we had just been able to find in a sketchy refugee apartment complex we would later live in ourselves.

“Absolutely not,” I told him. “That is a really bad idea. I have been told to be super careful with heroin users, so you should not let him move in with his sister who just escaped a dangerous living situation. Just give me a couple days to work something out with the homeless center that we’re connected with. They should be able to get him a good option that’s also safe. Just whatever you do, don’t go get him tonight.”

He ignored me.

The Perspectives class was just starting when Reza called me. “I’ve got the brother. We’ll be with you in class shortly.”

“What?!” I asked, “You went and got him? Bro, I told you not to!”

“It’s OK, I’ll take responsibility for him. See you soon.” And he hung up. I looked around the room, wondering what to do with the unfolding situation. I decided there was nothing really to be done. Not for the last time I shook my head at the stubbornness of Iranians.

After a short time, they arrived. My short and mustachioed Iranian friend walked into the room with a pale, skeletal American guy. He looked to be about my age, had scruffy facial hair, sunken eyes, and didn’t look completely aware of his surroundings. They came and sat at our table and we did some hushed introductions as the class was now underway. But I was frustrated. Why wouldn’t my friend trust me and listen to me? Why would he complicate our already complicated situation like this when we had so much else that we needed to sort out? Couldn’t he have waited just a couple days and not brought this guy to a missions class? I sighed. I was supposed to spending my time doing relational evangelism with Middle Eastern refugees, not doing emergency ministry triage for these messy Americans. I could see glances being exchanged by different class facilitators as they took stock of the situation also.

The next part of the class was the part where we would pray at our tables for an unreached people group. That night, it was a people group in India and we were instructed to pray in pairs with the person next to us. My assigned partner was Akin. Well, I thought to myself, at least I can pray the gospel as we pray for this people group. Oh, the strange situations I keep finding myself in. I’m prayer partners with an unbelieving heroin addict, praying for a group of unreached Hindus in India!

I can’t say that it was the most faith-filled prayer I’ve ever prayed. Internally I was all over the place. But we made it through the prayer and through the class. Akin, to my surprise, listened intensely to the speaker’s presentation, which contained a lot of gospel. Somewhere in the middle of class, I looked over and noticed how calm he had become. Other facilitators also told me afterward that something had visibly changed about Akin over the course of the class. He borrowed a copy of Ragamuffin Gospel from somewhere, moved in with his sister, and was nursed through a month of detox by my Iranian friend. He started coming to church with us right away and plugged in to our community group of messy young believers and young seminary families. Soon he had an interview with one of our pastors where they dug into the gospel and the changes taking place in Akin’s life.

I caught him in the church sanctuary after the interview and asked him how it went.

“It went well. I’m so encouraged that the pastor has a past of drug addiction too! He pushed me real hard on some things, but I didn’t back down. I’m not going back to heroin. I believe in Jesus now.”

“Really?” I asked. “What do you mean by that?”

Akin went on to explain the gospel and his trust in it. And how he had begun to experience dramatic internal changes – starting from when I had prayed with him for that random Indian people group.

“What?! You think that’s when God might have saved you? That first night when we hadn’t even had a chance to talk yet?”

“Hard to say, but something changed during that prayer. Then I kept reading and praying when I was doing detox, and studying the Bible with Reza. Yep! I think God’s made new.”

God had indeed made him new. Whenever the specific act of regeneration had occurred, God had used our strange circumstances – and my Iranian disciple’s ignoring of wise advice – to save Akin. Mysterious and ironic. I did not feel called to work with Kentuckians like Akin, but that wasn’t going to stop God. He was out to save Akin and his sister anyway.

It wasn’t long before we noticed things coming full circle. Akin started counseling a Middle Eastern refugee who was struggling with drug addiction and was a resident at our partner homeless center. I had assumed that investing in this broken American family was something apart from the particular ministry God had called us to. I didn’t realize that God was going to use us Americans to reach a Middle Easterner, who would himself reach some Americans, who would then go on to in turn serve Middle Easterners. It was, for me, a particular lesson in providence.

Akin would go on to get baptized and become a member of our church, to marry a godly woman – a marriage ceremony I had the great joy to officiate – and to eventually become a faithful deacon at that church. These days it’s not uncommon for him to be caught scheming with the other deacons about how to bless others through mercy ministry, playing his trombone for the worship team, or busy on the phone with his Iranian brother-in-law, planning when to play basketball with the nephews. During our last visit together they hosted us for some sublime barbecued pork – a particular kind of mercy ministry for people like us who work in Islamic countries.

Whenever I encounter those struggling with substance addictions, I think of Akin. I’ll never forget the first time I saw him playing trombone with the worship team in a powerful rendition of “Absent from Flesh.” Everything God had saved him from hit me afresh. God doesn’t always instantly heal addictions. But sometimes he does. I’ve got a deacon to prove it.

*Names changed for security

Photo by Rich Smith on Unsplash