Not Burning the Wet Wood With the Dry

“Wow, you have learned our language! That’s great. Those _______ people live here for decades and never learn the language. They are fathers-of-dogs! You know that word, right? Fathers-of-dogs, am I not right? Hahaha!”

The high ranking security police officer was egging me on to join him in his racist jokes. While I appreciated the goodwill built by his appreciation of our language learning, I wasn’t thrilled that the conversation had taken this turn. I didn’t engage, and thankfully, he turned to his supervising officer for affirmation, and then stamped our paperwork.

In other circumstances I’ve sometimes been bold enough to offer a proverb as a rebuke to these kinds of comments. “As your people say, Don’t burn the wet wood with the dry wood.” This day I hesitated, not sure whether to take that route with this high-ranking official, and the moment passed.

Our focus people group, like all people groups in the world, struggles with the sin of racism. In years past, they were the oppressed, and hated their oppressors en masse. Now, the tables have turned in our region, and they still hate with a vengeance that very same people group – who have now become the oppressed.

Our focus people group’s racism has roots in legitimate grievances. Genocide. Betrayal. Blood feuds. War. Enslavement. Now, the formerly dominant people group also carries legitimate grievances from the injustices committed against them more recently by people like the officials we dealt with that day. They even had some legitimate grievances when they were the oppressors. Whichever position a group is currently in, the sins of the oppressed and the oppressor tend to intermingle in a tangled web of historical chicken and egg accusations.

How far back shall we go? If we stop keeping score at a certain point in history, is that not an arbitrary decision? If we stop where the records stop, is that not to naively proclaim the oppressed group at that point uniquely innocent in the history of humanity – that the absence of records proves that they alone did not do the very same things that every temporarily dominant group tends to do? Is not every people group – in the broad lens of history – simply another representative of this great democracy of the damned? For yes, all people groups have sinned grievously against others and fall short of the glory of God.

But these questions are not the main thrust of this post. Instead, I want to highlight a subtle danger faced by missionaries everywhere, and especially by those working with historically oppressed groups. The danger is that in our love for our people group, we will go beyond appropriate empathy, lament, and action – and begin to absorb some of their racist views and attitudes.

It’s very easy to do. As a cross-cultural worker you strive to love your focus people group so much that you actually become like them. You strive to put on their language, culture, and lifestyle to the extent that you are personally and biblically able. The momentum is in the direction of absorbing huge portions of the cultural cake. But here’s the problem. Racism always comes baked into that cake. And sometimes we ingest it.

In our context, we find ourselves starting with a preference for how our focus people group does things (granted that we come out of culture shock alright). Then, that preference starts to mutate into feelings of judgement when we see how the enemy people group does things. Before long we find stereotypes coming true in our own experience and realize that have to check ourselves. If our jokes and our attitudes and our side comments about those people groups begin coming out slanted, it likely means our hearts have already followed our local friends’ into dangerous places.

How can we fight this momentum such that going deep into a certain language and culture doesn’t mean taking on its unique racist tendencies? A few practical suggestions. Believe and preach what the Bible says about how the gospel overcomes racial animosity. Pursue relationships with at least a few members of that “enemy” group. And finally, aim to plant multi-ethnic churches.

The Scriptures are not silent about the power of the gospel to overcome deep-seated hatred between oppressed and oppressor people groups. The fusion of Greco-Roman and Jewish Christians into local churches in the early church is what precipitated and resulted from passages like Ephesians 2, where Paul celebrates how the gospel has torn down “the dividing wall of hostility” between the Gentiles and the Jews. In Acts, the inclusion of the Samaritans in chapter 8 and the Gentiles in chapter 10 is intentional, and would have been a shocking racial development for the mainstream cultures on both sides. And it’s not like they then self-filtered into homogeneous groups. The diverse leaders of the Antioch church in chapter 13 and the ongoing conflicts present in books like Romans tell us otherwise. Jews and Gentiles, oppressed and oppressors, became fellow church members. Believing and preaching these kinds of possibilities for current people groups that hate each other provides the knowledge and passion that can mount an effective defense against absorbed racism taking root.

I was once in a taxi with a group of friends from an international church. When I spoke to the taxi driver in the local language, he went down the typical road of complementing me and proceeding to throw millions from his enemy people group under the bus as idiots who don’t learn the language. “Yet I’m one of them,” a voice piped up from inside the taxi, speaking in the local language. I suddenly remembered that one of the passengers in the car with us was a believer from the enemy people group. I’m not sure what I was about to say in response, but I remember feeling very certain that it would not have been as respectful as it should have been for a member of that group to be in the car with us. This was a bit jarring, realizing that my friendship with this man (and his presence) caused me to alter my response so much for that taxi driver. But it was also very healthy check. Knowing this young man meant I was able to better humanize his people group in that encounter. Knowing him as a brother in the faith meant the family honor was on the line. This is exactly why we need to pursue relationships with the enemies of our focus communities. Their faces and their names will serve as vital safeguards against absorbing our adopted group’s racism.

Finally, the danger of putting on the sinful racial attitudes of our focus people group calls for the long-term goal of planting multi-ethnic churches, where former enemies can worship side by side. Planting language-specific churches is very appropriate. A common language means biblical church order can actually take place. And as a language learner myself, I testify that no one should be forced to worship God in another’s language. Doing so should only be embraced by free choice, as we have done. For groups that have experienced suppression of their language, a language-specific church is even more vital. But if enemy people groups or individuals share significant linguistic overlap, then working toward local churches that display the broken wall of hostility should be our aim. Just like the New Testament church, if we live in a context of diverse groups at enmity with one another, we should strive to be able to verbally and visually proclaim that “Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all” (Colossians 3:11).

We don’t have to absorb the prejudice and racism of our adopted people groups. We shouldn’t strive to become like them in that way. Yes, the temptation is real – and subtle. Fear of man, love for our people group, and our own natural tendencies all push us into an unhealthy worldview where other groups are viewed as less human than the one we are called to. But this can, and should be fought. After all, the dividing wall of hostility has been destroyed. And so we are free. Free to love the oppressors. Free to love the oppressed. Free to guard against burning the wet wood with the dry.

Photo by Timon Wanner on Unsplash

The First Church Discipline in 1,000 Years

Locals have a very aggressive way of pruning their fruit trees. At the very end of fall, the old men with their sickle sticks make their rounds again – and leave the trees naked for the winter. We were not in our current house this past winter, but we saw the effects of the lack of pruning on our loquat tree. Yes, this late spring it had several weeks of the yellow/orange fruit. It was fun while it lasted. One morning I triumphantly plucked my breakfast straight from the tree. But the neighbors’ trees had four times as much fruit for twice as long! Next winter, I’m getting an old man to come prune my trees. I will endure the sad loss of branches and leaves for the hope of the coming harvest.

Two months ago we gathered for the last time as members with the international church in our previous city. As we prepared to move, leaving this dear body of believers was one of the hardest parts. Seldom have I heard of another international church like this one. It is both serious about becoming a healthy biblical church and at the same time practical and devoted to serving cross-cultural missionaries like us in planting language-specific churches. Many international churches do not embrace a robust church planting vision for the local population in their host countries. Or, in the name of serving the broader expat community, many others settle for lowest common denominator doctrine and ecclesiology. But not all. There is a small but encouraging movement afoot, begun in the UAE twenty years or so ago, that is dotting this region of the world with a different breed of international churches. In my opinion as a cross-cultural missionary, this is one important part of a broader strategy to reach regions like ours with the gospel.

When we were new members at this church, we got to be a part of their first church discipline vote. Now, this is not at face value a very encouraging thing. Though commanded in scripture in passages like Matthew 18, church discipline is hard, messy, and costly. As such, it is largely absent from the evangelical missions world – despite being practiced by William Carey, Adoniram Judson, and others of our forerunners.

How exactly church discipline should get worked out in church planting situations is complicated, and there is a great need for research and thinking to be done about how to actually do this. As with many areas of ecclesiology, it’s gets muddy when you are seeking to plant the first healthy church ever among a certain people group – in situations that we call “zero to one.” How do you do church discipline when you haven’t been able to raise up local pastors/elders, and the church plant is led by temporary-apostolic-planter-pastor types like us? How do you discipline when you haven’t had a chance yet to teach on church membership and roll out a size and culture-appropriate expression of the inside-outside principle for biblical congregations? Yet the complications don’t erase the biblical commands nor the realities on the ground. For a tree to be healthy and fruitful, it must be pruned. The same is true of the local church – and church plants. After all, Paul’s letters were written to situations not too different from ours, to first generation believers who worshiped in church planting contexts.

In our first term we got burned by these very complexities. A local leader-in-training turned out to be a very divisive and deceitful man, who was bribing and dangerously misleading new believers. When our team wanted to move against him in order to protect the church plant, we were undermined by our conservative evangelical partners who didn’t feel that church discipline would “work” in this culture. Turns out the line of those who will actually do church discipline and who won’t is another crucial one which, in terms of practice, divides Bible-believing evangelicals. When it comes down to it, many biblical innerantists on the mission field won’t actually obey the Bible on this front. When you are dealing with a wolf, this is deadly.

Even among those of us who felt that we were dealing with a Titus 3 “divisive man,” we were very unsure of how to proceed in a new church plant that was not yet quite a church. We were caught flat-footed, and this skilled manipulator had lots of room to run circles around us, at great cost. Just the other day I was exploring the bazaar and happened to find the tailor shop of a new believer who fell away in that season, one of the first victims of that whole debacle. I don’t know if he’s open to relationship with us again, but now that we know where his shop is we can try to rekindle that connection.

All of this context is why were were both grieved and encouraged that the international church was moving forward to discipline one of their few local members. This young man had stopped coming to the church gathering for about a year and was unrepentant in the face of earnest counsel to return to his spiritual family. Hiking was more important than his church, and it appeared that his faith had been like the seed sown on shallow soil. He was simply over Jesus, and he was OK with that. We prayed for him to repent and waited patiently, but when the members meeting arrived we sought to be faithful to Jesus by declaring this man an unbeliever and no longer a member of our body.

As we reflected on what happened that day, we realized that this local man may have been the first person in our focus people group to be church disciplined for a thousand years. Or perhaps ever. There was a significant presence of ancient Christians in this area, and they did practice excommunication at times, so I can’t positively say he was the first. But likely the first for a millennium. A tragic distinction for him. But a courageous step for the international church. It would have been so easy to excuse away patterned unrepentant sin because as a local he was coming from an unchurched background, because locals are more resistant to the gospel, because their culture means they don’t understand church discipline, etc. But instead of going these routes, the church leadership and body stepped out in faith, obeyed the Scriptures, and pruned the tree.

The aim of healthy church discipline is always restoration – that those disciplined would wake up and respond in true repentance and faith. We pray that this young man would do this. But we also know that healthy church planting here will involve many more situations like this one. Every time will be a challenge. Will we believe and obey the Scriptures when both our culture and our adopted culture find it unpalatable? When local believers and other evangelicals tell us not to? We must. This is simply what faithfulness in church planting looks like. Holding fast to the commands of Christ, come what may.

We must model for the local believers how to prune the church as they model for us how to prune our fruit trees. To be faithful gardeners, we must endure the sadness of the pruning for the hope of the abundant fruit that will result.

Next spring I hope for many more loquats. And next decade? Many more brothers and sisters in the faith.

Photo by Paul Hanaoka on Unsplash

Living In a Different Financial Universe

“Your pastors aren’t paid by the government?!” Our friend’s language teacher was in shock. He had never heard anything like this. “So how do they make a living?”

“By the faithful giving of the church members,” said our friend. More astonishment followed.

The longer we live in Central Asia, the more we realize that we are living in a different financial universe when it comes to money and religious institutions.

The local religious leaders are salaried by the government, as long as they are part of one of the officially approved religions. This means a somewhat secure income – but also government control.

Local religious institutions themselves are also given a monthly stipend from the government, even those institutions which would otherwise have died long ago – such as a Sufi-dervish branch I visited this past week. The Sufis (Islamic mystics) were the most powerful group here for about 1,000 years. But sometime in the past century their power collapsed. My local friends say it’s because so much of their teaching and practice was based on tradition and personality, as opposed to the more text-based Sunni Islam exported by Egypt and Saudi Arabia since the early 20th century. But it’s that monthly government stipend that keeps them holding on. The few members of their branches get a cut of that stipend, and so they keep coming back, chanting, and talking about the glory days. The government for their part gets a friendlier group than the more militancy-prone Salafis, who are growing exponentially here based on a strong mix of ideology and funding.

As long as there were melons, the relatives were score. But now the melons have run out, the relatives are no more. So goes a local proverb that seeks to explain how many locals’ loyalty is dependent on a basic monthly payout.

This type of top-down money scheme is carried into the church when locals come to faith. Many are offended to not be given monthly cash for simply being faithful attendees. And watch out if you hire an unbeliever for that development job instead of a local believer – that is viewed as akin to betrayal.

As far as sacrificial giving that could fund a local pastor – that’s going to take some time to be understood and actually put into practice. In fact, we have never had a financially independent local church in the three decades that missions has been taking place here. The patron-client worldview means local believers give their time and loyalty to a certain missionary, group, or church, and then often expect to receive cash and favors of influence in return. For many locals this is self-evident, just the way the world runs.

There are also wild stories believed among the locals about the missionaries’ financial situation. $25,000 payout per baptism is one of the more extreme ones that I’ve personally been accused of. Even this past week a dear brother was shocked to learn that healthy organizations don’t tie higher or lower salaries to results.

“You mean to tell me that if a foreigner’s church plant falls apart, he’ll still get the same salary?” he asked, incredulous. I just shook my head and attempted to carefully explain that a fair income for a sent-out one should be tied to faithfulness, not to ministry results. It was the first time he had ever considered this.

The widespread assumption here is that numbers, events, and baptisms equal top-down, outside money. Some of this is the fault of this cultural context, as I’ve been describing here. But some of it is also the fault of evangelical organizations that have come in and splashed money around carelessly, not realizing the harmful precedents they are setting. While many locals fall into these issues simply for lack of discipleship, others have also learned to play the game. Western pastors who visit our region are a favorite target. In a one-week trip, the visitors are dazzled – and financial commitments follow. The long-term missionaries who try to follow up on these “high-impact” groups often find they have already been shattered by conflicts over money – leaving believers embittered and unwilling to gather with others.

These problems are deep-rooted, and won’t go away overnight. But there is a quiet transformative power that comes from biblical, congregational churches – where members learn to work hard and give generously, to decide together, even to discipline together. This bottom-up participatory Christianity has overcome honor-shame patron-client cultures before, such as that of ancient Rome and that of the American South (See the writings of David A. Desilva and Gregory Wills, respectively). If this kind of faith truly takes root here, we can expect similar reform to eventually take place.

In the meantime we’re going to have to get really explicit when it comes to how the local church should handle money. When living in different financial universes, assumptions are highly combustible. Somehow in security-sensitive contexts like ours, we’re going to have to find ways to say, “No pastor or missionary should ever get money for a baptism – ever! If they do, they are dangerous and a wicked example.”

Work hard. Give generously. Support your own pastor. Serve the poor. Fund your own cross-cultural workers. These are our dreams for the local churches here. There are no short-cuts to these outcomes. Outside money will always be quicker and easier. But it will keep the churches here from reaching adulthood. Bottom-up congregational giving, on the other hand, will lead to a beautiful maturity.

Photo by Jp Valery on Unsplash

Lean Toward the Radical

Two weeks ago we celebrated another wedding anniversary. I’ve now been married to my lovely bride for almost one third of my life. And I marvel at God’s kindness to me that I get to be married to this wonderful woman.

During our anniversary I was reminded of some marriage advice from my first year of college. I had joined a one-year program for freshman at Bethlehem Baptist in Minneapolis, where John Piper was the preaching pastor at the time. Our year of study focused heavily on history, theology, and missions. We read authors like Ralph Winter, Rodney Stark, Thomas Cahill, Jonathan Edwards, and dozens of others. And we focused on important figures in missions history, like William Carey. It was a small group of students in our cohort, only eleven of us – a very good way to reenter life in the US for this MK fresh from Melanesia.

Occasionally we would have one of the pastors at Bethlehem be our guest lecturer or come in for a Q&A session. One day John Piper was fielding questions. We had recently finished studying the life of Carey and there was one question that was bugging me.

“Pastor John, William Carey was an amazing man and did some incredible things. But his wife didn’t want to go to India and she lost her mind on the mission field – then she died. He might not have done what he should have to take care of her. Some of us are wrestling with a call to the nations, but also with a call to be godly husbands as well. How can we balance these two callings that sometimes seem in tension?”

Piper furrowed his brow and answered in three parts.

First, he encouraged me to make sure that as I pursued a woman to marry, that I made sure that she shared a similar calling to the unreached. That would prevent many of the issues in the Carey situation.

Second, he warned me against the contemporary Western tendency to idolize the family. The larger danger for our generation, according to Piper, was to love family and safety so much that we fail to sacrifice for the nations as we should. We are unlikely to fall into the same pitfalls of Carey’s era.

Finally, he leaned forward and squinted his eyes at me, giving one last exhortation, “And.. lean toward the radical!”

It was sound and stirring advice for my eighteen-year-old self. The following fall I ended up taking a gap year in Central Asia, where I found my calling to the nations confirmed. The year after that I met my bride-to-be, who also shared a burden for Central Asia. We would joke while dating about her excitement to live among camels and tents. That common love and calling has meant that we have not lost our minds (yet) in the costly seasons and places of ministering among the unreached.

And what of leaning toward the radical? How has that gone for us? Well, we certainly have our scars and our particular brokenness that has come from walking this path. I don’t feel nearly as bold or as strong as I used to. By this point we know well the sting of great risks taken that have ultimately failed. Yet the unreached peoples and places of this world are that way for a reason. They are hard to access, and hard to reach with the gospel once accessed. Our focus culture, for example, seems exquisitely designed to implode church plants before they even get off the ground. Church planting here is like lobbing watermelons into a minefield. Sure, melons will eventually grow in that field, but there’s gonna be whole lot of noise and mess for quite some time.

But oh the difference it makes to have a good woman by your side, one who would have come here even without you. To have agreed to the risks and the costs – together – is something remarkable and gracious. It’s not a simple thing, balancing biblical manhood with the needs of the unreached. But Piper was right. The right woman, a counter-cultural posture, a bent toward the radical – these things have been vital to maintaining a faithful posture in the midst of the tension.

Photo by Prasanth Dasari on Unsplash

More Than a Home

The exchange between Patrick and his adopted people is marvelous to contemplate. In the overheated Irish cultural environment, mystical attitudes toward the world were taken for granted, as they had never been in the cooler, more rational Roman world. Despite its pagan darkness and shifting insubstantiality, this Irish environment was in the end a more comfortable one for the badly educated shepherd boy to whom God spoke directly. His original home in Roman Britain had become an alien place to him. But the Irish gave Patrick more than a home – they gave him a role, a meaning to his life. For only this former slave had the right instincts to impart to the Irish a New Story, one that made new sense of all their old stories and brought them a peace they had never known before.

Cahill, How the Irish Saved Civilization, pp. 147-148

This description of Patrick might resonate with many who have grown up as third-culture kids, those who are raised in a different culture than their parents’ native one and who develop their own “third” personal culture. Patrick’s story was somewhat different in that he was forced to become a third-culture kid when he was kidnapped and made a shepherd-slave. But many TCKs today will still resonate with the line, “his original home… had become an alien place to him.” Some might also recognize the strange discovery that this failure to fit in often points to a particular purpose elsewhere.

Photo by Dimitry Anikin on Unsplash

Regarding Time, Light, and Second Sleeps

“We’ve got to move discipleship back an hour. It’s too early now!”

This was the claim of one of our local believers last month. As the days lengthen here, most families are eating later as well, pegging dinner time to the setting of the sun. Our local brother wanted to honor his parents by making sure he was there for dinner.

Of course, we support local believers honoring their families, but we had agreed upon a 7 pm start time for our weekly discipleship meeting and had had a good run of stable weekly meetings at that time. We weren’t super eager to change what had been working as a good schedule. Then there are the kids to think about. A meeting that starts at 8 pm means they’re not getting to sleep until after 10.

In our developed-world minds, the most natural thing is to peg a meeting to a certain time on the clock, regardless of what nature is doing. Then stick with it. But many locals find it more natural to live with the rhythms of the sun and the seasons. Islam also encourages this, tying the daily times of prayer to the position of the sun, not to a 24 hour clock.

We ended up shifting the meeting to 8 pm and deferring to this local preference. We’ll likely shift back to a 7 pm meeting in the middle of the fall as locals begin to feel that the deeper darkness that will then be present at 8 pm makes the meeting actually later.

Turns out our developed-world sense of late and early is tied to a fixed 24 hour clock and is not dependent primarily on actual light and darkness. Locals’ understanding of these terms prioritizes the light and the darkness over the clock. It’s a small thing, but it can make scheduling a little complicated!

I’m reminded of church services in Melanesia when I was a boy. If it was a cloudy day everyone knew that church would start late. A certain sensed brightness of the sunlight cued many of the locals there to start making their trek by foot to the church building. Hence the presence of clouds meant a “later” congregation. The Bible school-trained pastor would often scold the congregants for coming late, but in vain. They were comfortably convinced that they had arrived (like a wizard) precisely when they meant to.

It seems that we in the West have sought to become completely independent of nature when it comes to our methods of time management. We use man-made items like clocks, calendars, checklists, and technology to find a steadier time-trellis than we feel that nature provides. But many other cultures, including those in this corner of Central Asia, still approach time management the classic way – that is, by relying on the stimuli of nature and the power of the body’s internal memory.

Locals can tell you that when a certain star appears, that means the worst of the summer heat is over. They have taught us that the flowering of the almond tree means the very beginning of spring – and they know what kind of work needs to be done accordingly. Even in extreme weather, they build their houses and live their lives with a greater openness to the elements. As new apartment buildings go up, most locals still live lives considerably less cut off from nature than do their peers in the West. I wonder if this will change for those of the younger generation. But at least for those their thirties and their elders, living this way is just plain common sense. Their ability to live without an extra trellis for their brain on paper or on a screen truly amazes me. And sometimes stresses me out.

I do feel a certain sadness realizing how divorced from creation we in the developed world have become. Read older books and you’ll notice that the comments made about stars and trees assume a certain level of common knowledge about these things that we just don’t have anymore. I have an app on my phone that can show the names of the constellations, but I don’t know many by heart. This used to be a central part of any education worth its salt. Same goes for different kinds of trees. In this way we are different from most other generations of humanity.

And it’s not just stars and trees. We have been living with cheap lighting for a couple centuries now, and this has changed our collective sleep habits drastically. Consider the disappearance of the term “second sleep” from our cultural vocabulary. What is second sleep? You know, that time in the middle of the night when everyone goes back to sleep after waking up for an hour or two, doing some work, eating a snack, praying, etc. Wait, what?

I am mostly for the extra efficiency and productivity that has come from having a stable 24 hour clock. I can’t imagine global logistics really working any other way. But I can’t help but wonder, were we supposed to do it this way? Or are the relative “hours” of the sundial actually healthier for us? Could God have designed us with a need for shorter hours for part of the year and longer hours for another part?

I never would have even pondered these questions had it not been for the cross-cultural differences we’ve encountered regarding time. This is one of the reasons I love living in a different culture. I’m regularly confronted with different life assumptions than my own. Often, that means fertile ground for chewing and imagining. Sometimes it even leads to wisdom. New alternatives can cause us to question whether the way we’ve done it is the only way, or the best way. They can lead us into new expressions of faithfulness. God’s truth is universal and timeless. It seems that the shades of it’s applications are endless.

These differences display a multifaceted glory – that of the image of God in human beings and their societies. Look at how the West has crafted such powerful systems to manage and redeem time! Look at how Central Asia lives so intuitively in touch with God’s creation! Look at the grace of God on display for those of us floundering in the intersection of time cultures!

Speaking of grace, I have a long way to go still in really understanding how locals think about time management. But I am an eager student. These places of culture clash are, in fact, goldmines. And because Revelation 7:9 points to the preservation of visible cultural differences in eternity, we will have all the time we need to explore them.

Photo by Timo C. Dinger on Unsplash

The Sheikh’s Spells

“You see those peacock doors?” my friend asked as we drove along a major road in our new neighborhood. “That’s where The Sheikh lives. He is super rich from all the people that come to him for – what do you call it in English? You know, when someone uses paper and verses from the Qur’an to curse someone’s enemies?”

“You mean spells?”

“Yes! Spells. He charges $35 for a basic spell – and dozens of people come to him every day. So many women come to curse families that they are fighting with. And he’s been doing it for decades.”

“Is that legal? Does the whole city know about him?” I asked.

“Ha! Yes, the government won’t stop it. And he’s super famous. Everyone knows what he does.”

“So do people come to him for blessing spells as well? Like if they want their child to recover from an illness?”

“Oh yes, that too. Spells for cursing and for blessing. And $35 is only for the most basic ones. He charges a lot more for the bigger jobs.”

“It’s just like Melanesia,” I said, shaking my head. “Every village had a man called a sangumaman, and he was basically the village witch doctor, cursing and blessing (for the right price), helping people try to manipulate the spirits.”

We drove along and passed a shiny new shopping mall, a place seemingly proclaiming the triumph of globalized commercialism over the superstitions of the past. It felt a world away from the strange peacock doors we had passed just a few minutes beforehand. I remembered again the subtle trap of believing that modernization in terms of businesses and other external infrastructure was actually changing the inner worldview of the culture. It isn’t – or at least it isn’t any time soon. What do they do when their child is deathly sick? That was always an important test in Melanesia for locals and professing believers. I didn’t expect it to have such a direct parallel here in Central Asia. Apparently folk Islam is still alive and well and running a profit right under our noses.

“You know,” I said to my friend, “someday one of us believers might need to challenge The Sheikh, and tell him that his most powerful spells can’t affect a faithful believer who’s got the Holy Spirit living inside of them. Now that would be an interesting contest. And when his curse failed, then I bet the whole city would know about it.”

“I’m down bro, when do we do it? He has destroyed so many families. Let’s take him down!”

I smiled at my friend’s enthusiasm. That day could very well come. But we certainly won’t go searching out that kind of confrontation. If the Lord clearly asked us to confront him, we would. I’ve read enough missionary biographies to know that the witch doctor has real power – but that he doesn’t stand a chance against the Holy Spirit. And though we are planning for a subtler route for gospel impact, sometimes that kind of direct confrontation is exactly what is needed for breakthrough.

I am reminded one of the main points of Sinclair Ferguson’s book, The Holy Spirit. That point is simply that over and over again when the Holy Spirit appears in the Old Testament, it it for this purpose: to go to war. Sooner or later, He will come for The Sheikh. And on that day all The Sheikh’s little spells will fail him.

Photo by CHUTTERSNAP on Unsplash

Please Bring Your Holy Imagination

A few weeks ago we were asked by some future teammates if there is anything they can do to prepare for the mission field during their last few months in the US. I said something to them that I had not previously mentioned in these types of conversations.

“Try to go deeper in knowing yourselves. Ask your mentors, friends, and family for feedback on your strengths and weaknesses. Come to the field ready to be honest about those things and knowing how you will need to lean on others on your team. If you have a better understanding of who you are, you will be better able to understand your teammates – and you’ll be less likely to fall into unnecessary conflict.”

I said this because I am slowly coming to the conviction that a lack of self-awareness and a lack of holy imagination are at the root of much team conflict. And the two are related. Regarding self awareness, it simply takes a long time to truly see ourselves in relation to others. Most of us start off kind of ignorant of what we’re actually like, thinking that we are the definition of normal, balanced, and gifted, and that the world would be a better place if everyone else were more like us. It’s often after a long process of clashing and bonding with others who are very different from us that we really learn to live in a robust theology of the body of Christ – that there are all kinds of differences among the members and that this is actually worthy of celebration. We as individuals have some real gifts and strengths, and a unique slew of corresponding weaknesses. But the body of Christ working together is beautiful in how the members complement one another.

We need to get better at knowing ourselves – learning our own personal culture, as I like to think of it. But we also need to pursue growth in putting ourselves in someone else’s shoes – in what has been called holy imagination. I recently listened to an interview where professor Karen Swallow Prior was advocating for Christians to read more good literature – like Frankenstein. Her argument was a new one for me. She said that God has given us imaginations, and we will engage them somewhere. If we don’t engage them in healthy ways (like fiction books), then we will be more drawn to unhealthy things like conspiracy theories. Yikes. An underdeveloped imagination is also likely to lead to ugly conflict with others as we fail to exercise our imagination in interpreting their words charitably. For exhibit A, log on to Christian Twitter.

Yes, believers say things that seem hurtful or offensive all the time. But can we interpret those words in the broader context of our relationship? Can we understand why they would feel that way and speak that way given their history and their personality? Can we see things from their perspective? Feel things even from their perspective? This is what I mean by holy imagination. The Scriptures say that love bears and believes all things. Well, one way to practically apply that is to say that love puts itself in someone else’s shoes. When we consciously put ourselves in someone else’s situation and worldview, we end up more compassionate, patient – and better able to bear with their brokenness and their sin. And turns out this also makes us better at addressing their brokenness and sin.

Why are we so bad at doing this? I think I have more guesses than answers at this point. Though we are very strong in God’s book of revealed Scripture, I wonder why my tribe of reformed evangelicals is not particularly strong at reading God’s book of Nature – which includes things like culture, personality, and history. We are God-centered, but somehow not God-centered enough to study the complexity of God’s creation. We pride ourselves in knowing Paul’s logic in Romans, but for some reason use that as an excuse to not engage poetry as Paul did. Perhaps KSP is right, and we don’t engage our holy imaginations enough in things like literature and art. Is there something we are afraid of there? Or are we simply too busy doing ministry? Has anyone else ever found it ironic that the most influential fiction writers among evangelicals – Tolkien and Lewis – were themselves not evangelicals, but a Catholic and an Anglican?

As locals say when something doesn’t sit right, “there’s a hair in that yogurt.” Missionaries on the field are simply a reflection of our churches back home. And we are not very good at knowing ourselves and in our use of compassionate imagination. These are areas where we many of us need to pursue proactive growth – and I include myself in this.

So, to anyone reading this who is heading to the mission field, please do some hard work understanding yourself before you land on the field and join an already stressed-out team. Bring a metaphorical mirror to the field. It will really help. And please, bring your holy imagination.

Photo by Eddy Klaus on Unsplash

I Finally Got a Pretty Phone Number

I finally did it. I caved and purchased a pretty phone number for around $30.

As cross-cultural workers, there are some aspects of the culture that we are eager to put on. “Wow, the locals are so good at generous hospitality!”

There are other aspects that as Christians we will never put on, such as the shamefulness and suspicion attached to adoption among locals.

Then there are issues of preference in the culture that for one reason or another we just don’t care to put on. The fact that locals spend money to buy phone numbers that are deemed more beautiful? I just haven’t found that very important. Rather, in the age of smart phones it’s just felt kind of vain and goofy. Who cares about phone numbers anymore?

And yet every transition is another chance to reexamine our posture toward local culture and to take some additional steps so that we ourselves might seem less weird and goofy to the locals. This time around, my new platform manager joked that I should get a pretty phone number for my new business cards being made. We laughed about it, but the comment made me realize I was no longer absolutely closed to the idea, and it might be an experiment worth trying. After all, locals have been asking me about my ugly phone numbers for years. So I took the plunge and got a pretty phone number.

The first local friend I gave it to was *Frank, himself a very practical man more concerned with things working than with beauty. But sure enough, even Frank lit up. “Wow! Where did you get such a pretty mobile number?”

I just laughed to myself and then awkwardly told him how much I paid for it.

Locals can’t always put their finger on it, but they sense when cross-cultural workers are doing what they can to put on the local culture. It is meaningful because it is not absolutely necessary. “Why would you willingly change preferential things that you have grown up with in order to live more like we do?”

It’s not that a small step like this will make all the difference in becoming all things to all men. I remember being at an evangelism methods debate years ago where a white American brother proclaimed, “I do not need to learn how to shake hands like a black man in order to share the gospel with black men!” A Bolivian brother and I who were part of the discussion just kind of grimaced. Of course, this comment is correct on one level. We don’t need to learn culture as a precondition to sharing the gospel. The gospel itself qualifies us to share it across cultural lines. However, if step by step we also gradually reduce the cultural barriers that might be there, then we often find the cumulative effect to be a more attentive ear – and yes, a more skillful evangelist. The fact is, as an evangelist I have to drop some very hard truths on you regarding eternal damnation. So why not try to remove things that could tempt you to write off my message as for only my type of people?

We have learned that these kinds of shifts are just one more practical way to show love. This is true of any culture. But when foreign workers come from more dominant cultures and then willingly choose to identify with hidden or oppressed cultures, these small steps can mean even more. I can’t tell you how big the smiles get when we drop a few phrases in a minority tongue that no foreigner is supposed to know.

Yes, I am fully within my rights to continue living in the culture of my own heritage. It’s just as much a good culture as the local one, fully equal in its dignity and its brokenness. My parents’ culture is not inferior just because it is Western and has been very influential for a while. To act like it is is to fall into a different kind of error. However, when I willingly lay down my rights for the sake of love, when I take steps to identify just a little bit more with locals – just one more nod toward the honor and dignity embedded in their heritage that still endures even given all the fallenness and sin – this can open remarkable doors.

A pretty phone number will not be the straw that breaks the camel’s back and ushers in revival. But perhaps it will add to the stack! And thus it is an experiment worth attempting.

*Names changed for security

Photo by James Sutton 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