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.
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.
“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.
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 Perspectiveson 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.
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)
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)
Patrick devoted the last thirty years of his life – from, roughly, his late forties to his late seventies – to his warrior children, that they might “seize the everlasting kingdoms” with all the energy and intensity they had lately devoted to killing and enslaving one another and seizing one another’s kingdoms. When he used that phrase in his open letter to the British Christians, he was echoing the mysterious saying of Jesus, which seems almost to have been uttered with the Irish in mind: “From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent bear it away.” In the gospel story, the passionate, the outsized, the out-of-control have a better shot at seizing heaven than the contained, the calculating, and those of whom this world approves. Patrick, indeed, seems to have been attracted to the same kinds of oddball, off-center personalities that attracted Jesus, and this attraction alone makes him unusual in the history of churchmen.
When I saw the title of this song, “O Come, All Ye Unfaithful,” I thought it was a typo. But just before I texted my pastor who sent out the service plan to make a joke about it, I decided I’d look it up, just in case it actually was a real song. Not only is it a real song, it’s an amazing song.
O come all you unfaithful
Come weak and unstable
Come know you are not alone
O come barren and waiting ones
Weary of praying, come
See what your God has done
Christ is born,
Christ is born
Christ is born for you
O come bitter and broken
Come with fears unspoken
Come taste of His perfect love
O come guilty and hiding ones
There is no need to run
See what your God has done
He’s the Lamb who was given
Slain for our pardon
His promise is peace
For those who believe
So come, though you have nothing
Come He is the offering
Come see what your God has done
“O Come, All Ye Unfaithful” by Sovereign Grace Music
When I was a tenth grader my family visited some dear friends working among a very remote tribe. This tribe lived on the tops and sides of several remote jungle ridges which sloped down to the roaring convergence of two major rivers. It is one of the more beautiful and remote places I’ve ever seen. As it would have taken three days to walk to this tribe from the nearest road, we were flown in on a missionary Cessna to the airstrip that the villagers had recently built.
Because of lack of space, this airstrip was built on a short slope, complete with a steeper slope and drop-off at the end. When landing, the upward slope would help the plane slow down. When taking off downhill, the pilot had to make sure he had enough speed once he reached the end of the dirt and grass airstrip. If not, his plane would be smashed into the canopy of trees far below. This had already happened to one plane belonging to someone trying to fly out sacks of coffee beans. Surprisingly, this wasn’t the greatest danger to the pilots. Their worst nemesis turned out to be the village pigs that would tear up the airstrip in their search for edible roots and sometimes run out in front of a plane, causing a collision that could be fatal for all parties involved. It may have been at this same airstrip that this type of collision took place in following years. The plane and the pig were totaled, but the pilot was miraculously spared.
The older Korean missionary couple that we were visiting (Papa S and Mama M) had become like grandparents to us. So this visit to their tribal location was a very sweet time. I learned a lot from their wisdom about how to live a lifestyle that was closer to that of the villagers and how to think more communally about our belongings (like tools) for the sake of the gospel. As they worked to translate the Bible with their local teammates from a neighboring tribe, they truly modeled relationships of equality and dignity, even given the vast education, cultural, and material differences.
My older brother and I spent the days sitting outside in the sunny ridge-top yard of their modest tribal house, reading (my first of several attempts at reading Desiring God took place here), having fun with the hornbill bird that had adopted our friends, and telling stories with the small crowd of villagers that were almost always present. While we didn’t know the tribal language, enough of the tribesmen knew the trade language for us to be able to communicate easily. However, most of the elderly and the children did not know the trade language, so our conversations took place with a constant background hum of the tribal tongue as they interpreted and remarked and made jokes. I’ve often characterized my Melanesian tribal friends as quick to laugh, quick to joke, and quick to fight – a fascinating combination of playful and dangerous, honor-bound yet always wearing their hearts on their sleeves. As is also true of so many of my Central Asian friends, they make the most wonderful of friends and the most daunting of enemies.
One afternoon my mom had decided to bake some chocolate chip cookies in a wood-fired stove Papa S had made from a metal barrel, the kind of barrel that gasoline for the generator came in. Her hippy-missionary skills would prove to be remarkably successful, but as we waited we got into a fun conversation with a group of villagers about distances from their village to other places, such as where we lived, and how far it was to other countries. We were struggling to explain to them just how far away America was when I remembered that there was an inflatable globe inside the house. I went and retrieved it.
I sat down on a split-log bench. With my impromptu geography class huddled around me, I began to show them their country, the countries next door, and all the way on the other side of the globe, the country my parents were from. Confusion followed. This may have been the first time they had ever seen distances displayed on any kind of a map, let along one shaped like a ball. We talked about what their village would look like to a bird or a plane (the same word in the trade language), what their province would look like if they went higher up, and then what the round planet earth would look like if someone were able to go even higher. It began to sink in. Or so I thought.
Then, someone shouted something in the tribal language and the distinctive communal laugh burst forth. I’ve never seen this anywhere else in the world, but in that Melanesian country, when crowds laugh, they laugh in unison with a climax of a joyful and high-pitched whoop, something like dozens of voices all together exclaiming, “Hahahahaaha…Ha wheeeeee!” This would happen when someone did something funny or embarrassing in front of church, or when a rugby player got taken down in a particularly epic tackle. But this time apparently I was the joke!
I was finally able to get a translation of what was going on. “He thinks the world is round! The skinny white boy thinks the world is round! This is too much!” My short-lived geography class was falling apart as villagers, still laughing, began to make their way back to their huts to tell the story.
“But,” I protested to the few who remained, “It’s true! The world is round like a ball!” To no avail.
“Son,” One man said to me, “Look around you. Are we not on top of a mountain? Look at the horizon. Is it not flat? The world is definitely flat. We simply cannot believe what you are saying when we see this with our own eyes.”
My geography lesson had been an educational failure, however much comedic relief it may have brought to the village that week. I left scratching my head at the whole thing. Munching on a cookie and trying to place myself in their shoes, I began to realize just how outlandish my claims must have seemed to them. If the oral tradition of your ancestors, the only human source of wisdom and education you’ve ever had, claimed the world was flat, it was going to take a lot more than a random sixteen-year-old foreigner with a ball to convince you otherwise. Such is the power of a community’s self-evident truth.
I’ve often thought of that tribe in the years since as I’ve spoken with those in the West or in Central Asia, challenging the accepted truths of their culture with the universe as the Bible presents it. Incredulity sounds remarkably similar, regardless of language or culture. “What? You actually think homosexuality is a sin?” “What? You don’t believe that Islam is the fulfillment of Christianity? Everyone knows that.”
Group-think is universal. We are each limited in our perspective by our own unique cultural-historical time-slice, just like my village friends who thought I was crazy for suggesting the earth is round like a ball. Hence why we need a God who is outside of creation and yet who speaks his truth into it (props here to F. Schaeffer) – an eternally unchanging source of stable truth that takes things we feel (or learn) are absurd and helps us see that they are in fact true, wise, and beautiful. This is why missions is necessary. Yes, so that we can learn things that are true about geography – all truth is God’s truth, as they say. But even more important, so that we will be able to actually respond to the remnant whispers of conscience and stop trying in futility to save ourselves through appeasing and manipulating the spirits (as in Melanesia), through hoping our good deeds outweigh our bad (as in Islam), and through trying to be true to our authentic selves (as in the West).
The world, the earth, is round. And man cannot save himself through animism, religion, or whatever pop morality is dominating Twitter today. Rather, he must be saved by the Son of God, who became a man, lived a perfect life, died a sacrificial death on the cross, rose from the dead, and ascended to be at God the Father’s right hand. The God who is outside of creation and yet speaks into it has told us that this is the only way to be reconciled to him. Perhaps the way in which we’ve heard that message conflicts with the prevailing wisdom of our tribe – but so be it. The path toward truth often begins with a terrifying realization that our tribe has been woefully wrong about many, many things.
I really appreciate how this song explores the story of Edmund’s treachery in Narnia and how it is a parable of our own sin and redemption.
Had I seen the melting snow?
I saw and trembled
For this a power I did not know
Though I was bound with chains
She was cruel but beautiful
And I was greedy
And like a slave I then was sold
By the way she said my name
Father, save me!
I the traitor
I who knew and ran from Love
I can hear the
In the rhythm of the drums
Though I knew all hope was lost
And this what I deserved
I had been conquered by the frost
But on my skin it burned
Cause she had power over me
At her touch I turned to stone
But in her eyes I saw a fear
A deeper magic her own
And when I looked him in the eyes
I felt the weight of all my sin
For I knew what the law required
A death for death, a traitor's end
But when I thought I feel his wrath
Despaired and filled with shame
He bent down to search my eyes
With such love whispered my name
Father, save me!
I the traitor
I who knew and ran from Love
Father, can you
Hear the Lion
It is written
Blood for blood