On a plain to the east of the Lower Lake, the monks built what would become in time a kind of university city, to which came thousands of hopeful students from all over Ireland, then from England, and at last from everywhere in Europe. Never forgetting the prehistoric Irish virtue of heroic hospitality, the monks turned no one away, as is confirmed in this description of a typical university city, given to us by the Venerable Bede, first historian of the newly emergent English people:
“Many of the nobles of the English nation and lesser men also had set out thither, forsaking their native island either for the grace of sacred learning or for a more austere life. And some of them indeed soon dedicated themselves faithfully to the monastic life, others rejoiced rather to give themselves to learning, going about from one master’s cell to another. All these the Irish willingly received, and saw to it to supply them with food day by day without cost, and books for their studies, and teaching, free of charge.”Cahill, How the Irish Saved Civilization, pp. 157-158
One way to distinguish Central Asia as a region is to say that it is the part of the world dominated by Turkic or Persian-related languages. When it comes to Persian-related languages, we’re talking groups like the Dari, Tajik, Kurdish, Luri, and Balochi. There are hundreds of millions of people who speak Persian itself (also known as Farsi) or languages closely related to it.
These hundreds of millions of people are overwhelmingly Muslim – and they might be surprised to hear that Jesus spoke a word from their ancestral language while on the cross.
That word is what we know as paradise. I won’t get into the details of the etymology, but this ancient Persian word for walled enclosure and garden came into many of the languages of the ancient world, including Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic forms. No doubt the Jewish community living under Persian rule is where much of this linguistic influence came from. Plus, the Persians were the superpower of the region for quite some time. The vocab of the superpower tends to spread, just as here the local Central Asian form of laptop is, well, laptop (but said with an “ah” and an “oh”).
The old Persian term’s connection to a garden is what linked it with Eden, and thus with our concept of paradise – not only Eden lost, but heaven as well, and Eden one day restored.
And he said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23:43 ESV)
These are the words Jesus spoke to the dying thief on the cross who simply asked to be remembered. In this saying Jesus uses the word paradise to refer to having died and being welcomed into the presence and rest of God – Abraham’s bosom as it were.
This is not the only Persian loan word in the Bible. There are dozens of them. Somewhere around eighty in the book of Daniel alone. Yet Jesus’ words on the cross are coming at the very climax of redemptive history. And one of them is Persian. I find this fascinating. Iranians I’ve shared this with are struck as well. It’s one more example of the capacity for any human tongue to be redeemed and used in the service of God.
And what a great opening to go on and share the gospel.
“But that might take hundreds of years!” my new local friend protested.
This potential seeker had attended our church plant’s baptism picnic and had pulled me aside to talk politics and societal change. I was trying to convince him of the goodness of slow, bottom-up change that begins with changed hearts.
“It’s like living in a jail here,” he said. “If I can get my hands on $5,000, I’ll definitely try to get smuggled out of the country.”
Sadly, this is a very common sentiment among the young men in our area. They view the government as hopelessly corrupt. And they would rather risk death while being smuggled to Europe than stay with their limited options. They believe the only other way to access a better life is to align themselves with the corrupt elite. But many don’t have the means or stomach to do so.
I often find myself in this kind of a conversation with frustrated young men. And I resonate with some of their frustration. After all, I also long to see this society transformed – but by the presence of hundreds of healthy local churches, acting like good leaven which spreads and transforms the rest of the dough. Instead, we find ourselves laboring hard only to see few results, and those often choked out by the weeds of an Islamic society which expertly strangles nonconformity.
And yet, here Church history is an encouragement to persevere in the long and slow work of planting the seeds of movements and even societal reform. What began as very small group of marginalized Jews made infanticide illegal in the Roman empire by the early 300s. In the 400s, Patrick’s seemingly quixotic attempt to reach Ireland with the gospel is what led to the Irish re-Christianization of Europe at the dawn of the Medieval period. Luther did not start a movement, so much as unleash the energy which had been growing for a long time, as evidenced by pre-Protestant groups like the Hussites and the Waldensians. The practice of local church democratic governance in the English-speaking world eventually led to the peaceful democratic governance of entire societies.
Yes, it often took hundreds of years for the momentum to grow strong and wide enough for large-scale change. But should that mean we don’t make the attempt? Not at all.
I challenged my friend that if he really wants true freedom, he won’t find what he’s looking for by merely changing his environment. Instead, he needs to become a free man in his spirit and his heart. Christ can pardon him and change him and make him truly free, and he will be able then to live as a free man even under the worst of human governments.
Free men never influence only themselves. The freedom they have found as citizens of heaven is compelling, and whatever small circle of influence they have takes note. As that small circle is impacted, it often grows. That free man might not live to see his society changed, but he might see his family and friends radically transformed. And that is no small thing.
“Long before movements, Jesus often creates faithful remnants,” I shared with my friend. “And without the hard slow work of that faithful minority, movements never happen.” And though I didn’t share this kind of info with this local, the history of missions even bears this out. The verifiable church-planting movements that exist have taken place in areas with hundreds of years of missionary work. Contrast that to Central Asia, where missions was largely non-existant before the 1990s. We are likely living in the beginning of the faithful remnant stage, only thirty years in. Our grandkids or great-grandkids may be the ones to see the movement. Should we complain about this and move on to where God is “really at work?”
“Think about planting a forest,” I said, “Planting a forest is a noble goal, and one that takes a lot of work. But if we start today, we will be old men before we get to truly enjoy the results of our labor. But once we were old, we would say it was all worth it, even though it took a long time and a lot of sweat. For us to get there, we must hold onto hope. Without that hope, we would never even start. We need to think less like the social media generation and more like farmers. But if we do, we might build something that truly lasts.”
My friend affirmed that he got my point, but he wasn’t yet convinced. This was not too surprising. He doesn’t have a new heart yet. Once he experiences that impossible transformation, then he will know what true hope is – and what ultimately transforms entire societies.
Our corner of Central Asia is an ancient place. We had some first-time visitors with us this past week, and while traveling back from another city we took the opportunity to visit some very old ruins – old, as in circa 2,700 years ago. Remarkably, ancient carved script was still clear and legible on dozens of the large limestone blocks.
The few scholars that can read that script say that most of it is typical of the bragging monument-speak of ancient kings. “I’m the king of the world” and all that. If you’ve ever read the poem “Ozymandius” by Shelley, you’ll understand the sad irony felt when that kind of chiseled pride is contrasted with the desolation that inevitably comes with the passage of time – and with death.
I’m reminded of the time I visited the ruins of Ephesus. The site of the temple of Artemis only contained one pillar still standing – and that from a recent German reconstruction – and a whole bunch of grass and grazing sheep. So much for “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!” (Acts 19). The site in Central Asia we visited was similar. Broken beer bottles littered the site itself, and nearby were tents of nomads, their shuffling flocks, and a lazy guard dog. So much for “the king of the world.”
However, I’ve also read that this particular monarch (later murdered by his own sons) may have been privately realistic when it came to his own mortality. In public he may have claimed to be a semi-divine global ruler who would live forever. But scholars say that on the underside of some stones, hidden for centuries, a very different kind of message has been discovered. It’s along the lines of “If you are reading this, then my kingdom has been destroyed, I am no more, and was a mere mortal after all.” That’s quite the time capsule message to leave buried beneath massive limestone blocks. And a rare example of realistic humility for ancient royalty, if these carvings were indeed commissioned by the king himself and not a sneaky dig made against him by the head stone chiseler.
The visitors and I had a great time exploring the site. It’s simply astounding that ruins like this exist and that they have lasted so long – especially the carved script itself. 2,700 years is no small achievement for an ancient mason or scribe shooting for quality work. It was an invigorating place because of the remarkable history, but also a humbling one. Our empires’ greatest public works will one day look just like it, if they even last half as long. A testimony in the desert to glory long gone. It makes one long for the city whose foundation blocks will never fall or waste away.
I found myself wishing the pompous autocrats and politicians of our contemporary scene could visit this historical site, and take away lessons on both the enduring legacy of bold projects and the importance of humility for any powerful – yet oh so temporary – leader. Yes, we may be “crowned with glory and honor” for a day, yet all too quickly it comes to an end. They, and we, would be wise to more often consider these things, and to heed the warnings of Psalm 2:10-12.
Now therefore, O kings, be wise; be warned, O rulers of the earth. Serve the LORD with fear, and rejoice with trembling. Kiss the Son, lest he be angry, and you perish in the way, for his wrath is quickly kindled. Blessed are all who take refuge in him.
Their glory and honor will fade. Only one ruler has a throne and a kingdom that will last forever. If they do not take refuge in him, if they do not give him the kiss of loyalty, they will fade into the sand, just like our local “king of the world.” Just like Ozymandius.
In case you haven’t read it before, here is “Ozymandius” by Shelley.
I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.“
“Ozymandius” by Shelley, from Poetry Foundation
The acts [of Mar Mari] represent an obvious attempt to portray the Christianization of the Nestorian heartland as the work of an apostle. They cannot be taken at face value, although the historian J. M. Fiey believes that the church of Kokhe was in fact founded at the time of Mari. On account of the description of Mari’s chapel and the fact that, between 79 – 116, the Tigris altered its course, he concludes that Mari must have laid the cornerstone before 79/116. However, the first historically certain bishop of Seleucia-Ctesiphon was Papa, who served from c. 290 to 315 and died in 327. We can be assured that, beginning in the second century, there existed in Seleucia-Ctesiphon an independent Christian community, which showed evidence of an episcopalian structure in the third century. Already around 315 Bishop Papa tried to gain primacy over the other dioceses of the Church and to impose on them disciplined administration. Although Papa himself failed to achieve this, the other bishops soon accepted that the bishop of the capital should take over the administrative leadership of the Church. In any case, it is certain that the diocese of Seleucia-Ctesiphon – that is – the nascent church of the East – was never subordinated to Antioch.Baumer, The Church of the East, p. 20
A few key points to note from this excerpt:
- There is a possibility that this Christian chapel near Baghdad (Seleucia-Ctesiphon) was built between the years 79-116. This would be one of the earliest Christian worship structures that we know of anywhere in the world.
- The eventual movement toward centralization and hierarchy that occurred in the churches of the Greco-Roman world was mirrored by those in the Parthian empire, and the church of the capital city here also claimed primacy.
- The church of Seleucia-Ctesiphon was never subordinated to Antioch – nor to Rome. This is a point for early local/city church autonomy. In fact, it was hundreds of years before these more autonomous relationships of ancient churches gave way to the centralized hierarchy now practiced – and claimed as apostolic – by the older Christian communions.
Photo by Wikimedia Commons.
So the wished-for extremes of the Green Martyrdom were largely – and quickly – abandoned in favor of monasticism, a movement which, though it could support and even nurture oddity and eccentricity, subjected such tendencies to a social contract. Since Ireland had no cities, these monastic establishments grew rapidly into the first population centers, hubs of unprecedented prosperity, art, and learning.Cahill, How the Irish Saved Civilization
Sooner or later, archaeology tends to validate the biblical record. Take this research being done in the lower Jordan valley, the area of Genesis’ description of Sodom and Gomorrah’s destruction. Archaeologists have found evidence in a layer of soil of a cosmic air burst from around 3,650 years ago. A cosmic air burst is when a meteor explodes while still in the atmosphere, which can cause devastation on the ground resembling a nuclear bomb, such as occurred in the Tunguska Event in 1908 Siberia. The research on the site in Jordan goes on to describe cataclysmic temperatures, in excess of 2,000 degrees Celsius:
In addition to the debris one would expect from destruction via warfare and earthquakes, they found pottery shards with outer surfaces melted into glass, “bubbled” mudbrick and partially melted building material, all indications of an anomalously high-temperature event, much hotter than anything the technology of the time could produce.
Not also was there a fiery disaster from the sky spelling the end of the cities in the area, there’s also a connection with salt:
The airburst, according to the paper, may also explain the “anomalously high concentrations of salt” found in the destruction layer — an average of 4% in the sediment and as high as 25% in some samples.
The salt was thrown up due to the high impact pressures,” Kennett said of the meteor that likely fragmented upon contact with Earth’s atmosphere.
If this is indeed archaeological evidence of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, then we now have a little more information about what kind of means God used in this particular judgment: a meteor, exploding before it hits the ground. If so, it’s not that we now say that God wasn’t really actively carrying out a judgement of sin, since we now have some evidence that it was a meteor – something that naturally occurs. Nor do we have to reject this kind of evidence, insisting that God’s judgements in history must be purely “miraculous.” Rather, here we see an example of how God can sovereignly judge through natural means. A meteor – set on its cosmic track countless years beforehand – explodes above the lower Jordan valley at the appointed time, when the outcry against cities’ sin has reached its full pitch, and just after Lot and his family are rescued. And thus God’s sovereign action in history and the (super)natural workings of the universe are seen once again to go hand in hand.
“All the observations stated in Genesis are consistent with a cosmic airburst,” says the quoted professor. Yes, we may not always see how, but the record of scripture and the record of the soil will ultimately align. The archaeologists may be surprised. But we shouldn’t be.
And this lack of martyrdom troubled the Irish, to whom a glorious death by violence presented such an exciting finale. If all Ireland had received Christianity without a fight, the Irish would just have to think up some new form of martyrdom – something even more interesting than the wonderfully grisly stories they had begun to learn in the simple continental collections, called “martyrologies,” from which Patrick and his successors taught them to read.
The Irish of the late fifth and early sixth centuries soon found a solution, which they called the Green Martyrdom, opposing it to the conventional Red Martyrdom by blood. The Green Martyrs were those who, leaving behind the comforts of and pleasures of ordinary human society, retreated to the woods, or to a mountaintop, or to a lonely island – to one of the green no-man’s-lands outside tribal jurisdiction – there to study the scriptures and commune with God. For among the story collections Patrick gave them they found the examples of the anchorites of the Egyptian desert, who, also lacking the purification rite of persecution, had lately devised a new form of holiness by living alone in isolated hermitages, braving all kinds of physical and psychological adversity, and imposing on themselves the most heroic fasts and penances, all for the sake of drawing nearer to God.Cahill, How the Irish Saved Civilization
I am more sympathetic to these monastics than I used to be. After all, the motive for many was to draw closer to God and to see more of his glory, misguided though they may have been in trying to accomplish this by retreating from the world. A far better “martyrdom” would have been to endure the sufferings implicit in taking the gospel to the pagan peoples which had not yet been reached – as the later Irish were indeed to do. This Green Martyrdom, then, was perhaps was the result of Patrick’s limited knowledge of the world. He believed he had brought the gospel to the end of the world, beyond which there was nowhere else left. Perhaps he taught this to his disciples, so they looked around at the newly Christianized Irish tribes, and retreated into the woods.
I listened to this podcast while driving to another city yesterday in order to attend a training. I thought it looked good. I had no idea just how good it would prove to be. Without exaggerating, this is one of the most thought-provoking, emboldening, and sobering things I have listened to all year.
Turns out the history of missions and the Church in Korea has a lot of lessons for those seeking to plant churches among unreached Muslim people groups today. James Cha, the man interviewed, himself draws these connections regarding compromise, persecution, and God’s purposes in even the worst kinds of suffering.
My American parents were supported by the second largest church in Korea when they went to the mission field in 1989. At that time, the pastor of that huge church told them that Koreans were not quite ready yet to send their own cross-cultural workers. But they were praying in order to get ready. Now, in 2021, they have over 16,000 foreign missionaries on the field. Listening to their spiritual heritage gives me a deeper appreciation for how God has worked to reach that nation, and how he is now using them to reach so many others. What a legacy. And what a tragedy considering the ongoing suffering of North Koreans. May God be merciful and grant the reunification of the North and South so long prayed for.
Could it be that my persecuted minority focus group might some day respond to the gospel and be a huge sending force like the Koreans are? May it be.
Listen to the podcast here.
The Syrian acts of Mar Mari, from the sixth/seventh century… credit Mar Mari with the first complete evangelization of Mesopotamia. He serves as the apostle to Mesopotamia, whose two major rivers, the Euphrates and the Tigris, according the Genesis, flowed out of paradise (Gen 2:14) According to the acts, Mar Addai sent him from Edessa to the east. He first taught in Nisibis and then moved on the Arbil, the capital of the principality of Adiabene in modern Iraqi Kurdistan, where he cured the king of leprosy and cast out a demon the from the son of an officer. On the way south, he, like Jesus, healed the afflicted, cast demons out of the possessed and even raised the dead. In Seleucia-Ctesiphon he encountered resistance; the citizens wanted nothing of the Good News. Only a successful demonstration of divine judgement, in which the apostle remained unharmed in a blazing fire, enabled a few conversions, after which Mari destroyed a pagan temple and erected atop its ruins a chapel – the future cathedral of Kokhe. He then followed the Tigris south, reached present-day Basra and concluded his journey in Khuzistan and the province of Persia. The acts close with the extolling of Mari, who, like a ‘pillar of fire’, led believers through the desert of ignorance into the kingdom of the Gospel.Baumer, The Church of the East, pp. 19-20