He Thinks the World is Round!

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.

Friendly hornbills make for pleasant, if goofy, companions.

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.

Photos by ActionVance and Axel Blanchard on Unsplash

A Song for Traitors Like Us

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

“Blood for Blood” by Sarah Sparks

A Song On What We Were Made For

Deep in the caverns of Your heart
Stood Your beloved, Your daystar
The fairest among ten thousand wines
You formed the seasons and fixed the time
You gave me smiles in the morning light
Creation flowed from pure love
You were crafting I was breathing
You were laughing I was reaching out for You

      I was made for heaven
      I was made for Jesus
      I was made to walk in the cool of the day with You
      With You

Cursed in the garden of paradise
You knew the pain from a Lover's eyes
To get us back, You gave it all
Filled in the likeness of flesh on earth
You bore the Cross that we deserved
You've gotten down on one knee
Spirit's breathing, now I'm living
We've been married, now I'm seeing
What I was made for

The whole point of my existence
Is to know Your love
The whole point of my existence
Is to know You Lord
The whole point of my existence
Is to know Your love
The whole point of my existence
Is to know You Lord more and more and more
The whole point of my existence
Is to know Your love, Lord
Is to know Your love

“Made For Jesus” by John Mark Pantana

The Scale Versus the Sacrifice

Today a painter friend is doing some touch up work in our house. Leaking water and life with three kids has left their mark on our white on plaster walls. I found out that he hadn’t eaten breakfast before he came, so my wonderfully hospitable wife set us up in the courtyard with some fresh chai, hot bread, walnuts, honey, tahini, cream cheese, and fried eggs. “Your wife is just like a local!” my painter friend proclaimed. Moments like this this missionary husband’s heart glows warm with pride. She has also surpassed me in her knowledge of the local language. Not bad for a homeschooling mom of three! A wife of noble character I have found.

Over breakfast my painter friend asked me if I have read the Qur’an. I shared with him that I have read most of it and am working through a good English translation to finally finish it (I highly recommend The Qur’an by A.J. Droge – so much more readable with lots of helpful footnotes). I was able to share with him the importance of reading the primary sources for ourselves and not just trusting what experts say. Most locals will not even read a translation of the Qur’an for themselves, cannot read the Arabic original, and simply trust that what they’re hearing from their local teachers and the internet apologists is accurate.

“Sometime I will introduce you to my mullah friend,” the painter said. “He is brilliant and can explain everything to you. I’m not a smart book person, just a practicing Muslim.”

I responded, “But every religion and religion and philosophy has brilliant scholars. And they don’t agree with one another! We can’t trust only in what the smart people say. We need to humbly read these books for ourselves and search for the truth.”

Walking inside, my friend stopped at our bookcase to take a look at my Bibles and my Qur’an. He has read some verses from the Bible in his language in the past, thanks to the faithful witness my colleagues. But I also hope to later have the chance to help him download the new audio bible that has been made available in his language on the YouVersion Bible app. So many of our local friends struggle to read books, being functionally but not truly literate in their preferences and ability. Audio can be a real help for the functionally literate like my Central Asia painter friend or my working class relatives in the US. I love audio learning as well, perhaps a side effect of growing up in primarily oral cultures.

Talking about the written sources led to the opportunity to clarify a crucial difference between the Qur’an and the Bible – the way of salvation. I tried to use a sentence that I learned from the Qur’an to summarize its philosophy, “Good deeds take away bad deeds” (Sura 11:114 Hūd). But for some reason my friend wasn’t quite understanding my meaning. So I switched to the image of the scale. Here he nodded with understanding. “That’s right, Islam teaches that there is a scale that weighs your good deeds and your bad deeds.” If the bad outweigh the good, most likely you’ll go to paradise (after a possible time in purgatory). With this image of the scale in mind, we then shifted to talking about how the way of salvation in the Bible is through faith in God’s sacrifice. This was foreshadowed by all of the Old Testament animal sacrifices and fulfilled through Jesus’ death as a substitute on the cross. Instead of being saved by our deeds, we are saved by faith alone in the sacrifice of Jesus. All our sins can be forgiven, pardoned by God if we will trust alone in the blood of his provided sacrifice.

“You can see this difference and understand this, right?” I asked.

“Yes, I can see that they are very different,” my friend responded.

This alone is a small victory. So many of my local friends stubbornly insist that the Bible and the Qur’an have the same message, even after we’ve spent an hour explaining their contradictory messages. My friend ended our conversation by encouraging me to read the Qur’an several more times. He told me that he knows the day of judgment is coming and he’s concerned about me and my family being safe on that day. So he’s not exactly ready to give his life to Jesus. But I do hope that another chance to hear the gospel contrasted with what he is currently trusting in will eventually have its effect. Put another pebble in his shoe, I told myself.

Once again I’m grateful for the contrasting images of the scale and the sacrifice. They consistently help to paint the contrast between true Christianity and Islam (and all works-based religion) in a vibrant yet simple way. My local friends currently treat the scale as a simple, matter-of-fact way that God runs the universe. My hope is that someday they will come to view the scales of God’s justice as a terrifying thing, something that only offers condemnation and death – and that they will on that day remember Jesus and flee to the sacrifice.

Photo by Flavio Gasperini on Unsplash

A Second Verse to The Gospel Song

My family, like so many others, are indebted to Drew Jones, Bob Kauflin, and Sovereign Grace Music for “The Gospel Song.” It was the first song our firstborn learned to sing and it has been a steady gospel presence in our family times of worship for the past eight years. There is tremendous power in simple memorable songs that can be sung anytime, anywhere, and without musical accompaniment. If you are not familiar with the lyrics, here they are:

Holy God in love become
Perfect man to bear my blame 
On the cross he took my sin
By his death I live again 

Many a bedtime in Central Asia we have sung this song with our kids, sometimes alongside of Central Asian friends who were visiting when it was time for our kids to hit the hay. As an aside, bedtime bible reading, songs, and prayer as a family present a great chance to model family worship for new believers or to proclaim the gospel to unbelieving friends. Most who have joined us for this time have expressed that it was the first time they had seen something like it. And our family rhythm of read, sing, pray is very simple… and sometimes a little chaotic now that we have three kids.

Over time we desired to incorporate the resurrection of Jesus also into “The Gospel Song.” So we wrote a second verse for our kids and it stuck. Here it is:

On the third day he arose
Christ defeated all our foes
Satan, sin, and death can't win
By his life I die to sin

We wanted to stick to the song’s original AA BB rhyme as well as include the life/death contrast in the final line. In terms of content, we wanted to include Christ’s victory over our enemies through the cross and resurrection as important aspects of the gospel that go hand-in-hand with Christ being our sin-bearer. Growing up in tribal Melanesia, I remember the radical power of the idea that Jesus has defeated Satan, so we no longer have to be afraid of the spirits. As a young man fighting lust, I clung to the truth that I was now dead to sin through Jesus. I remember also being a pastor in the US and seeing that most prospective members of our church forgot to mention the resurrection of Jesus when asked to share what the gospel is. Now we serve in Central Asia, where the fear of persecution and death often cripple local believers from faithful obedience. These and many other reasons are why we want to build in wherever we can a steady emphasis on the resurrection alongside of our emphasis on the cross, for our kids and for our lost friends.

Though I am no songwriter by by trade, nor the son of a songwriter, I humbly commend this unofficial second verse of “The Gospel Song” to any families or teachers out there that may find it helpful.