Half the Iranian Empire

These various waves of immigration of Christian refugees help account for the fact that, although at the start of the seventh century Christians constituted nearly half the population of the Iranian Empire, about 75 per cent of these were Nestorians, 20 percent Miaphysite Jacobites and 5 per cent Melkites faithful to Chalcedon.

In retrospect, three factors contributed to the rapid success of the missionary efforts in the east: First, significant Jewish exile communities were living in Mesopotamia. Second, Aramaic served as the lingua franca from Antioch to Central Asia, enabling Aramaic-speaking missionaries to communicate easily with both Jews and non-Jewish merchants and members of the upper classes. Third, the close-meshed net formed by the various routes of the Silk Road eased the spread of the new religions. Although the Roman-Parthian border was generally tightly maintained, traders or missionaries disguised as traders could cross it unhindered. In fact, the missionizing of Mesopotamia, which moved from Edessa to Nisibis, Arbil, Seleucia-Ctesephon and Maishan, followed the land routes of the Silk Road. The sea routes then enabled the expansion of missionary activity to the islands of Kharg and Socotra, as well as – presumably – South India.

Baumer, The Church of the East, p. 25

I was just sharing with a local believer the other day that it was only as recent as the 1500s that the number of Christians in Europe outnumbered the number of Christians outside it. In line with this, Baumer here shares a remarkable statistic, that while never having government control, Christians in the Zoroastrian Persian (Sassanian) empire at one point made up nearly half the population.

Also, take note that business as mission is not a novel concept at all, but a tried and true method of the early church as they sought to bring the gospel to the Middle East and Central Asia.

Photo by Joel Heard on Unsplash

Involuntarily Sent

One crisis of this past spring hit our small local church particularly hard. Frank and Patty*, after five years of living in our city as asylum-seekers, were finally kicked out for good. They always had a tenuous set up here, patching together a life with the partial legality of official UN documents that said their case was in process. But five years of UN stalling, under pressure from the local government, itself under pressure from the powerful regime of the country next door, had never produced the official refugee status that international law promises.

What this meant was five years of not being able to legally rent a house, work a job, or send their daughter to school. Like many asylum seekers, they were able to achieve these things sometimes through the connections or goodwill of others, and mostly under the table. But several attempts to secure these basics of life legally also led to attempted deportations, sometimes barely averted by the last minute intervention of UN lawyers. It was not uncommon for us to plan church picnics outside the city accordingly, making plans to minimize the possibility of Patty and Frank getting arrested at government checkpoints on the road. The reality was and is that returning to their country of origin means certain imprisonment, and possibly worse. This is, sadly, normal for many Central Asian believers, the cost of following Jesus in a region where they are a tiny minority.

The final deportation came after Frank and Patty tried to legally rent a different house. The house they had been renting was suffering from rot in the ceiling plaster, which kept collapsing unexpectedly in various rooms. This was both messy and dangerous and the church offered to set up a workday where we’d chip all the plaster off the underside of the cement roof. But Frank and Patty were confident that this time they could get the coveted official permission. In fact they made it to the very last step of security police approval when everything went wrong. Someone high up in the local security apparatus must have had it out for them. A week of encouraging approvals led only to a sudden rejection – and a letter of deportation. “We are deporting this family on suspicion of being spies,” read one not very promising line of this letter.

Another lawyer scramble bought them a week and an option to flee to a neighboring province, to a city in the plains where we had lived for a period prior to moving back here to the mountains. We were actually out of the country at the time of their deportation so it fell to the rest of our team and the church to care for them in this crisis. Goods were sold off at great loss, many tears were shed, emotional discussions took place regarding how much of the church funds should be sent with them. Our role from a distance was to work our connections in our previous city to try to find some kind of a landing place while they waited, once again, to receive legal permission to rent their own place. Wonderfully, it worked out to have them stay with one of the pastors of the international church in that city.

So, Patty and Frank, the only believing local household in our church, the most consistent at attending, central pillars of our fledgling spiritual family, left. They had come to faith and been baptized in our church. We had labored to disciple them faithfully through the messy toddler years of being new believers. They had, at times, made us want to pull our hair out. Yet they had also enriched us greatly. Frank kept us laughing, fixed our electricity, and often led our church in prayer and Bible distribution. Patty served the church tirelessly, often hosting believers with a feast they really couldn’t afford, and she labored hard to memorize Bible verses in spite of being barely literate. Their teenage daughter taught our kids the local language and was one of the most articulate believers when it came to gospel clarity.

We had seen much transformation take place in their lives, but when the final abrupt departure came, it felt too soon. We were hoping they would be much further along in their spiritual maturity before having to leave. But all of the sudden, our time was up. We entrusted them to God and to the community of believers in their new city – and of course, promised to visit often.

Their four months of living with the pastor’s family were akin to Elijah being fed by ravens in the wilderness. God unmistakably provided for them through the sacrificial hospitality extended by this family. And the life-on-life discipleship that took place in those months of living together was worth its weight in gold. Still, they lived in limbo, in a wilderness of not knowing how the UN and the local government would decide, not knowing if in the end they would still end up being trucked across the border and promptly arrested. In the anxiety of this waiting and the trauma of yet another deportation close call, their faith was pressed to the limit, with Patty often expressing despair in tearful calls to my wife. Yet they clung to God and to their new community of believers, until one day the news finally came. They had been granted legal permission to stay.

We recently visited Patty and Frank, a week or two after they had moved into their new legally-rented house. The abundance of answered prayer was unmistakable. In addition to their new rental home, all three had found good work. They had recently become members of the international church and once again served as a pillar household around which other locals were able to gather in the new local-language service/church plant. Frank had begun sharing the local-language preaching load with the pastor they had lived with, who also headed up this ministry. And now their biggest concerns were what to do with all these immature local believers they were meeting!

My wife and I sat at their table nodding as they described their concerns for how few of the local believers they had met knew their Bibles or knew the gospel clearly, and how many seemed mostly interested in money or visas. They expressed concern that the load of discipling so many would be too much for the pastor and his wife. We encouraged them to take responsibility themselves for the discipleship of the other locals around them.

“But it will take years for them to grow as much as they need to! Can’t it happen faster?” Patty exclaimed at one point. I shot my wife a knowing glance, which Frank caught.

“Patty, dear,” he said, laughing, “how long has it taken us to get to where we are? Five years! Let’s not complain about others being slow to grow.”

“That’s not a bad point,” said Patty, thoughtfully.

This perspective was of great encouragement to us. Along with the sweetness of seeing how God works even the hardest seasons of our lives for good. Our two years spent in that city on the plains were not easy ones. Team conflict, culture shock, new-onset diabetes, Covid-19 lockdowns, and a premature departure had all left their mark on us. Yet God had used the love developed between us and other expat believers in that city to create a landing place for Frank and Patty. And more than a landing place. A healthy international church in process of planting a healthy indigenous one. Our seasons of suffering were bearing sweet fruit, as Frank and Patty’s were beginning to also.

As we prepared to leave, Patty and Frank offered to host us for the night, even though they had no extra mattresses. We graciously declined, prayed with them, and pulled our kids away from their 7th episode of Shaun the Sheep – a treat uncle Frank is always happy to bestow, getting a kick as he does from how much our kids cackle at the slapstick humor of claymation farm animals.

Patty and Frank’s departure had left a gaping hole in our small church plant. They will always be a central part of the story of these formative early years. Now they get to be a central part of the formation of another local church. They have, in one sense, been unexpectedly sent. Through their painful deportation they have been called to build up the church in their new city. And they are answering that call. May God grant faithfulness to them, and to any of us who likewise end up suddenly uprooted, involuntarily sent.

Photo by S. Tsuchiya on Unsplash

*names changed for security

A Central Asian Church Covenant

This summer our church plant began a process of adopting a church covenant. This is a brand new concept for this culture, so we spent many weeks teaching about the characteristics of a healthy church, church membership, and how a covenant can help us do these things more faithfully. We tried to write one from scratch together, but quickly realized we’d do much better to take an existing Baptist church covenant from one of the international churches in our region and to seek to adapt it. We spent a good amount of time with the local believers tweaking it according to the local language and supplementing the good historical statements that were there with some key areas of need in this particular time and place.

What were the items that were added? Many of them corresponded to our top Central Asian church killers: domineering leadership, money issues, lack of interpersonal reconciliation, and persecution. A line on the reputation of the gospel and our church also made it in there – a key concern both biblically and also in an honor/shame culture like this one. We added a paragraph on a faithful posture towards our cultures, since intercultural issues are a regular occurrence, not just between us and the locals, but also between the locals themselves, given their diverse backgrounds. Our hope is that this article on culture will set them up well to redeem, reject, and redefine their local culture, creating in this church a local and context-specific biblical culture with clear lines to both the Word and to its own region.

Hopefully in the next few weeks we will be ready to officially covenant together and move from informal membership to formal. This will be the first time this has happened in a church that worships in our local language. Then we hope to read and pray for one article of this covenant every week as we gather, in hopes that this steady exposure will make it a spiritual tool that will truly shape who we are as a church and how we live together. May God grant that to be the case.

Here is the text, translated back into English.

Having been brought by God’s grace and glory to repent and believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, having been baptized and having agreed to the statement of faith, and by his Holy Spirit having given ourselves to Jesus Christ, we do now joyfully covenant with one another.

We will work and pray for the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. (Eph 4:3)

We will conduct ourselves together in the love of a spiritual family, exercising care and watchfulness over each other and faithfully encouraging and warning one another when necessary. We will be faithful and submissive in carrying out the process of confronting sin and making reconciliation. (John 13:34-35, Rom 12:10, Heb 3:12-13, 1 Thess 5:11, Lk 17:3, Col 3:16, Matt 18:15-20)

We will commit to appoint and support the leaders of our church according to the commands of the Holy Scriptures. Our leaders must meet the qualifications of the New Testament and like the good shepherd, seek to serve the church and not domineer over it. (1 Pet 5:1-4, Titus 1:6-9, 1 Tim 3:1-13, 2, Cor 1:24, 1 Thes 2:7-8)

We will prioritize our church’s gathering and not neglect to regularly gather together. (Heb 10:25)

We will not neglect to pray for ourselves and others. (Col 4:2, James 5:16)

Although we are sure that all power for salvation is in God’s hand, we will earnestly work to bring up any who may be under our care in the training and instruction of the Lord, and by a loving example and speaking the gospel, through the gospel seek the salvation of our family, friends and neighbors. (Titus 2:1-6; Deut 6:4-7, Mt 5:16, 1 Pet 3:15, Lk 5:19)

We will rejoice with those of us who rejoice and weep with those who weep, endeavoring with tenderness and sympathy to bear each other’s burdens and sorrows, even in times of suffering and persecution. (Rom 12:15,Gal 6:2; James 2:14-17, Hebrews 10:32-34)

For the reputation of the gospel and our church, we will seek God’s help to live carefully in the world, denying ungodliness and worldly passions, remembering that we bear the name of Christ and now have a special obligation to lead a new and holy life. (Eph 5:15-21; Titus 2:12; 1 Pet 2:11-12; 1 John 2:15-17)

We will work together to maintain a ministry in this church that is faithful to the word of God and the gospel, the preaching of God’s Word, the administration of baptism and the Lord’s supper, and the exercise of church discipline. (Phil 1:27; 2 Tim 4:2; Acts 2:38; 1 Cor 11:26; Matt 18:17; 1 Cor 5:13)

Although each person has a unique culture, the kingdom of heaven is universal. Therefore we commit to build a gospel culture with one another. In this way, the positive aspects of our cultures will be redeemed and the negative aspects will fade away. We will seek to live in our cultures with humility, peace, grace, respect, and courage. (John 4:9, 27; 2 Cor 5:17; 1 Cor 9:19-23; Revelation 7:9)

We will contribute cheerfully and regularly to the support of the ministry, the expenses of the church, the relief of the poor, and the spread of the gospel to all nations. We will resist the love of money and will use the church’s finances transparently. (Matt 28:19; Luke 12:33; 2 Cor 9:7, Hebrews 13:5(

If we leave this church, we will leave lovingly and faithfully, and as soon as possible unite with some other Biblical church. (Heb 10:25)

In order to be most faithful to this covenant, we will read it regularly together. (1 Tim 4:16)

May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with us all. Amen. (2 Cor 13:14)

Photo by Mick Haupt on Unsplash

A Question Very Few Are Asking

Today a colleague asked me a very good question.

“Assuming that the worldview of the West is more youth and future-oriented, how do you think that influences missionaries?”

I responded that two effects come to mind right away. The first is the preference for new and novel methods over those that are old more traditional. These older methods, “Grandpa’s tools” as it were, are dismissed out of hand simply because they feel traditional or old-fashioned to us. Very few Westerners would even ask if these older methods are contextual (Since the assumption is that they were mindlessly imported and therefore are not). And even if they turned out to be, few would be without some kind of emotional resistance to employing them. Why is this? Because our future-oriented worldview biases us to the new, the exciting, and the ground-breaking. These novel approaches scratch a very powerful cultural itch that has to do with what we find to be convincing and compelling. Add to this Westerners’ ever-present underlying fear of being paternalistic or of even being perceived as colonial-lite, and we have one powerful combination. Out with the old, in with the new. And very few asking what is actually contextual for a specific foreign people group – meaning what method is the most effective for living and communicating clearly within the locals’ culture? That should be the rubric, not some emotional new-always-better-than-old bias I brought with me that grew from the soil of my passport country.

What of Western culture being youth-oriented? Here I believe there is a connection with our obsession with movements. If you think of the life cycle of a group of churches, the beginning is incremental, steady growth. This could be compared to birth and early childhood. Then comes the movement stage, when growth and multiplication take off at breakneck speed. You could compare this stage to adolescence and young adulthood. After this comes stabilization and institutionalization, which corresponds to mature adulthood. Finally comes decline and possible disappearance, which could correlate to old age and death. What part of the life cycle of a group of churches is missiology obsessed with? The movement phase. Adolescence and young adulthood – just as our culture is obsessed with this very same stage of our individual physical lives. Westerners dream (and sing) of being forever young. So does our missiology*.

I have sat through missions and church planting trainings where this life cycle of churches is graphed out and the goal of the session is to show how bad institutionalizing is and how good the movement phase is. The goal of said trainings is to keep churches forever in the movement stage, always multiplying and growing at remarkable speed. As if a 40-year-old should be expected to grow six inches and three shoe sizes in a year just like he were an adolescent. The implication is that one stage of church life is where the Spirit is really at work, and childhood and mature adulthood are well, just not really where it’s at. And God forbid we ever get old and start to decline. Young, sexy, and multiplying is evidence that we are truly doing ministry like the book of Acts, while stabilizing and forming healthy systems might even be evidence of compromise.

The problem with cultural blind-spots like these is just that – we often can’t see them. Missionaries are very good at seeing the blind-spots of the church back home, but we need help finding our own. I’m convinced that this future and youth-orientation seep into our methods and missiology often unexamined, priming us to leap at the novel, the exciting, and the informal, and to prematurely dismiss the traditional, the slow, and the formal. Thankfully, we do have some wonderful allies for exposing these blind-spots: the global church and church history. There is a reason I post excerpts from the stories of the ancient church in Ireland and Central Asia. They provide me a welcome and very different draught to the ever-present kool-aid of the present age. I don’t always agree with everything they did, but these long-dead saints have many things to teach us as they poke at our blind-spots from beyond the grave. Local believers can also be wonderful allies on this front, as they see through some of our cultural assumptions so well.

The key thing is to recognize that our Western worldview really does influence us, and to humbly and courageously admit this, without falling into any silly cultural self-deprecation that forgets that all Christians in every era and culture have to deal with their own version of this very same thing. Once we’ve owned this and developed a healthy curiosity for where this might be happening, then we’re in a good place to begin the difficult task of recognizing our biases. We may end up keeping them, but at least then they will be intentional biases, and not those that exist by mere cultural default.

Missionaries are very good at studying other cultures. May we become just as good at studying our own.

*for some good data on this, see the book “No Shortcut to Success” by Matt Rhodes

Photo by Nicholas Green on Unsplash

Fake Beards and Future Believers

This past week Harry* preached for the first time in over two years. One of the only local believers who was present at the very beginning of our church plant, Harry at one point had become a leader in training. Our hopes were high that he would soon become an elder, but he disappeared during a season of church conflict and increased persecution from his tribe. By God’s grace, he’s come back around this past year and has been a steady and positive presence in the church once again. It was a sweet thing to have him preach again, teaching on John 15:12-17, “Friendship with God.” I led worship for the service, playing several of our local worship songs on our beater guitar that sounds half-way ukulele.

Harry is also one of the few locals still around who had met me fourteen years ago when I took a year off from college to come to this particular corner of Central Asia. Somehow the topic of how we first met came up on our ride home after the service.

“So, you remember this song?” I asked as I turned on “Man of Constant Sorrow” by the Soggy Bottom Boys.

Harry clapped his hands and gave a hearty laugh.

“That’s it!” He said. “That’s that ridiculous song you guys sang at the English club.”

My team at that point took part in a weekly English club at the local university. We would typically show a film clip to the hundred or so students gathered in the auditorium and then break up into discussion groups. The problem was the students were mostly very shy and nervous. At that point locals still felt pretty intimidated to be interacting with native English speakers. So we tried various strategies to get them to loosen up, including skits and musical numbers – mostly in vain.

One week for some reason I suggested we do a live rendition of “Man of Constant Sorrow,” from the film, “O Brother Where Art Thou?” Perhaps it was my grandmom’s West Virginia mountain holler genes getting the better of me. I was sent to the bazaar to find grey wigs that we could fashion into hillbilly beards and we scrounged up some floppy hats, flannel shirts, and overalls. I played guitar and another appropriately stocky man on our team would be our main vocalist. Three other teammates would provide the backup vocals and the hoe-down dance moves. The performance went off surprisingly well, especially our flourish – when the redneck dancing seamlessly transitioned into Central Asian line dancing. That was, as I recall, the one point we got a little bit of audience interaction. This was appreciated, as it was likely the first time in history that the dance moves of the Appalachian mountains met those of Central Asia.

We finished the song triumphantly – but were met by a room of awkward silence, then a few hesitant smiles. One student started some lonely clapping and we performers shrugged at one another and transitioned on to the next part of the program. Apparently it was too much, too soon, but at least we had had a good time with it.

The one student who clapped was apparently the only student to have also seen the movie. “Better than the film!” He said as he came up to interact afterwards.

As I was to learn many years later, Harry was also in that room of perplexed students.

“I remember you all showing up dressed very strangely and wearing fake beards. Then the big guy started singing and you were on the guitar. I was the only one of my friends who knew a little English, so they asked me what was being said in the song. I couldn’t understand a thing – until the line, I have no frieeends to help me now. I leaned over to my friends and told them, ‘He says he has no friends.’ ‘What?’ they responded, ‘Of course he has friends, who are those other guys up there with him? What kind of a song is this, anyway?’ I just shook my head.”

Apparently Harry and I briefly met that day for the first time, though it would be seven years before we would meet again. Instead, I ended up connected with one of his good friends who had good English. Amet* and I would spend the next nine months meeting up in city parks, walking and discussing the book of Romans, and sitting on the grass while we munched the rice wrapped in grape leaves that his mom would always send with us. I felt sure that Amet was close to faith, but I returned to the States at the end of my year somewhat disappointed that he never crossed the line into confessing and believing.

Six years later I would return to the same city on a vision trip and hear that Amet was now a language teacher for another expat family – and they were having regular spiritual conversations with him. Amet soon brought Harry along, and then got lapped by Harry, who was the first to believe, finally dragging his friend over the line as well. Amet later became a refugee in the West, but Harry stuck around and became a steady disciple.

Harry and I laugh when we remember that goofy bluegrass performance. It’s an odd contrast with the hard road we’ve walked together since then. A road that’s involved being betrayed together by a wolf in sheep’s clothing, Harry’s ups and downs with the church and with his tribe, and our mutual struggle to trust that all this mess is really going to one day result in a faithful church.

Ironically, one of Harry’s greatest struggles has been to believe the opposite of that line from the song – that he has friends who will help him now. He doesn’t have to isolate when things get hard.

He may have many hardships that fill out his testimony, but in God’s sovereignty he can at least begin his story with something funny. “One day these foreign Christians showed up at my university. They looked utterly absurd. And don’t even get me started on their singing.”

*names changed for security

Trying to Hug a Parade – a Framework for Goodbyes

The life of a missionary or missionary kid is one of constant goodbyes. Transition to the field, back to the field, to a different field, or off the field means a relentless lifestyle of “we meet to part, and part to meet.” I myself recently counted again and I have moved thirty two times in my life, only counting moves where we lived somewhere for several months or longer. I’m in my mid-thirties.

Then there are the goodbyes caused by everyone else’s transitions – coworkers, friends, partners who themselves leave, and often with very little notice. When others’ transitions are put together with our own, this revolving door of relationships only picks up speed. So many goodbyes begin to add up.

It’s like trying to hug a parade. This was how it was often put at our sending church, describing the cost to those who stayed and continually sent out worker after worker to the mission field. Whether sending or going, goodbyes are costly. And we don’t tend to naturally lean into them. Rather, those of us who have to say the most goodbyes often get very good at strategies to numb ourselves to the natural grief that accompanies every loss of relationship and place. Like Adoniram Judson, we’d rather slip off early in the morning and skip all the emotion and ritual. I know I have done something similar countless times.

After all, why make goodbyes a big deal when you have to navigate them so frequently? Who can handle that kind of emotional investment? Is it even practical? However, as hard as honoring each goodbye might seem, eventually some of us learn that to suppress and ignore them might come at an even greater cost. That cost might spill out in surprising ways, as bodies and souls begin to break down from all of the sadness that has been building and has been shoved under the surface now for years.

Strange as it might seem, it was only a couple months ago that I heard for the first time of a healthy framework for saying goodbye. It came from the book, “Raising a Generation of Healthy Third Culture Kids,” by Lauren Wells. Along with lots of other tested wisdom for caring well for TCKs, I found Wells’ recommendations in this section of her book both insightful and practical.

She presents this framework in the form of an acronym – RAFT. Now, I love sticky tools like acronyms because it means I’m so much more likely to remember a given framework or set of truths. I’ve still got RICE (Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation) stuck in my head from my high school sports medicine class – Mr. Hemphill, if you’re out there, good on ya.

RAFT stands for Reconciliation, Affirmation, Farewell, and Think Destination. Wells describes Reconciliation as, “Make amends with anyone you may have hurt or been hurt by before moving.” She then reports how many TCKs form a bad habit of skipping this uncomfortable step as it’s just easier to get on that plane and leave. Instead, this kind of proactive reconciliation is a very wise and God-honoring step to take as we plan to leave a place.

The Affirmation step is described as, “Tell the people you love that you love them.” It’s very important that we say thank you and express our love to those we care about before we leave. Again, due to the emotions this stirs up, it’s easier to just leave. But both of these first steps will lead to regret if neglected.

Wells then discusses the step of Farewell, where she encourages TCKs to “say good-bye, not only to people, but to places and things as well. This is especially important for young children.” Wells writes that it’s crucial for healthy grieving that kids know when they are saying their final goodbye to a friend, a favorite place, or a special thing. Evidently, in God’s mysterious wiring of us, our souls hunger for this step of verbal ceremony in order to be able to move on to our next season well.

Think Destination is the final part of the acronym, where Wells encourages us to regularly talk about where we are headed next so that we quickly have things to be excited about, even as we grieve what is being lost. This step can be an application of our trust in God’s steadfast love to us. He has been kind to us thus far, he will be kind to us where we are going next – so let’s dream about how that kindness might be expressed.

Reconciliation. Affirmation. Farewell. Think Destination. I plan on giving the framework a test run the next time we experience a major transition. I think it would bless my kids – and do my heart good as well.

This framework is very simple. Yet how very practical for those who are called to live as sojourners and strangers. How is it that so many of us have embraced ministry lifestyles of costly transition without any practical tools for saying healthy goodbyes? I don’t think I’m the only one who had never heard of a framework for saying goodbyes well. When was the last time you heard a sermon, a podcast, or heard of a book written on saying goodbye well as a Christian? What a strange blind-spot for us to have. Perhaps there is a practical theology of goodbyes out there somewhere. If not, it needs to be written.

To this framework of RAFT I would only add one more step: Resurrection. Speak to one another and remind yourself of the very real hope of the coming new heavens and new earth, where there will be no more goodbyes. Each and every goodbye now is a chance to build our faith and love for that coming world where we will be reconciled with so many of those that we have said goodbye to, and where we will somehow find even the true and better forms of those places and things that we left behind. However much I love the bazaars, cafes, and libraries of this world, I will find in the world to come places that put them all to shame and are in fact their true essence fulfilled. The library as it was always meant to be, as it were. The pang of each goodbye therefore is a reminder that heaven is real and a chance to strengthen the solidity of this hope in the invisible.

We should speak and think of the coming resurrection as we say our countless goodbyes in the here and now. While I haven’t been the best at carrying out the points of RAFT, dwelling on the coming resurrection has been very good medicine for my transition-weary soul. So then, the acronym comes out to be RAFTR, a big clunkier to be sure. But hopefully even more powerful.

Photo by Ashley Light on Unsplash

Flatbread and the Kindness of God

It had been a rough six months back in the US. After a life-changing year in Central Asia, I had returned to the States in order to get back to being a college student. My first semester back was spent at an expensive Christian liberal arts school in the cornfields, where reverse culture shock hit me like a locomotive. In addition to this, a long-distance relationship had fallen through, a mentor had died of cancer, and God had seemed to go silent. A friend studying in Louisville, KY, invited me to come and visit his school. The combination of this close friendship, a more affordable school, and city with Middle Eastern and Central Asian refugees caused me to move to Louisville in the summer of 2009.

Sometimes providence shows off. Circumstances fall into place in such an unlikely or personalized way that we can’t help but feel that God is uniquely caring for us as known and loved individuals. Soon after moving to Louisville, I searched the internet for halal markets. These stores are run by Muslims and sell groceries – and particularly meat – that are ceremonially clean for Muslims to eat, or halal. Most cities in Western nations that have resettled Muslim refugees will have a small network of these markets, as well as halal restaurants. I was sorely missing my Central Asian friends. And I was eager to be studying the Bible with Muslims again. So I scanned the search results, zeroing in on a market and bakery that were only one mile from my school – close enough for a student without a vehicle to walk to. Suddenly I leaned in. The name of the bakery suggested that it was run by refugees from the very same Central Asian people group I had just spent a year with. My heart leapt, and I decided to go as soon as I could.

The day I visited the bakery I met Rand*, a refugee from the same people group I had lived with, albeit from over the border in a neighboring country. He was just as shocked and happy as I was when we found ourselves able to converse in his mother tongue. We excitedly told our stories to one another and Rand gave me a precious gift – a stack of warm flatbread, freshly baked in a tanur oven. The smell was incredible, and transported me immediately back to the the windy streets of the bazaar. Not only did Rand bake the stuff, but he even delivered it! Now I was feeling spoiled. He was heading out to deliver his bread to the Middle Eastern restaurants in town, so we said goodbye and I promised to come and see him soon. I turned out of the bakery section of the building and starting exploring the small market.

The market was run by a kind family from Afghanistan. I had never had any friends from that country, and they became my first. Both my focus people group and Afghans are from the Persian-related swathe of Central Asia, and I was amazed to find how much of their culture and vocab was similar to what I had learned thousands of miles away. I gleefully picked up some looseleaf tea and spices to make the local chai I had learned – half earl grey, half black Ceylon, a little bit of cinnamon and cardamom and plenty of sugar. I stepped out of that market beaming, walking home awash in a sense of God’s kindness toward me. A halal market and bakery only one mile from where I lived! New friends from Central Asia! And a chance to step back into a part of the world I had come to love deeply, and which was beginning to shape me deeply in turn.

Nothing very dramatic ever happened at that halal market and bakery, but several very good things did. I got into conversations about Jesus with the Afghan family. I met some new friends there from my focus people group. I helped support refugee businesses by buying tea, happy cow cheese, and flatbread. I took a cute girl on one of our first dates there (a girl who would one day become my wife). That day it was snowing and we had a lovely walk through the snow to the bakery where I got to introduce her to the wonders of warm Central Asian naan and hot chai.

After only a year or so, Randy and his family moved out of state, and it wasn’t long afterward that the market closed also. There’s a very high turnover rate among small businesses like these. I missed visiting them, though by this time I had also found a dozen other Central Asian-owned businesses within a couple miles of my school – much to the surprise of even the missions professors. Iranians in particular are very good at starting businesses in the West that blend in pretty seamlessly, unless one is specifically looking out for them.

But I will never forget that bakery that felt like it was placed there just for this reverse-culture-shocking broke college student who dearly missed Central Asia. In what continued to be a very hard season, it was a tangible sign of God’s kindness – especially that fresh flatbread.

Photo by Syed F Hashemi on Unsplash

*Names changed for security

A Lifestyle To Reach the Most

The problem with every culture is that it is in fact a spectrum of subcultures. Sure, there are broad trends that group these countless subcultures under valid, larger headings. But city to city, neighborhood to neighborhood, family to family, culture varies. Not only does it vary, but it also changes over time. This leaves the missionary (or any Christian really) who hopes to do good contextualization in a difficult spot. How do we get an accurate picture of said culture and then how do we choose a missionary posture within it so that we can reach the most?

“Learn from the locals,” might be the given response to the question of how to get an accurate picture of a particular culture. But again, the problem is, which locals? Darius* is a young college-educated city kid from a tolerant middle class family. Harry* grew up in a village, worked as a shepherd boy, and now lives in a neighborhood full of his violent fellow tribesmen and Salafis. Mr. Talent’s* father is a powerful retired general. They live very well-off in a more liberal part of town. Ask these three local men separately what their culture says on a given topic and you are likely to get three very different answers. Does this mean we reject any data from them as invalid? Not at all. But neither do we treat it as carved-in-stone cultural law. Instead, we can take note of it and place it on the cultural spectrum. “Some locals do things this way.”

By carefully placing the some there, we save ourselves from being thrown later when another local contradicts our original cultural informant. We also in this way prepare our minds for the flexibility needed to engage an actual living culture, with its many shifts, variations, and complexities. Yes, we learn from the locals, but we do so by treating their cultural advice as one true part of the picture – a picture that will take a long time to fill out. Their feedback is valid and important, but not sufficient for getting a final picture of the broader culture. It’s worth noting here that locals are just like us and tend to project their own personal subculture as authoritative over the rest of their culture. We need to be aware of this, as often they are not, even as none of used to be aware of our own propensity to do this. In time, self-awareness and cross-cultural friendships will chip away at this.

Learn from the locals, yes, but make sure to learn from all the locals, including those that contradict each other. Together they represent a snapshot of this living, morphing societal system of values, customs, and behaviors that we call the culture.

So then, how should we choose to live within this spectrum of subcultures? Much here depends on one’s particular goal. But for missionaries like us who desire to see healthy churches planted that will reach their own people, we want to find a lifestyle that is accessible for as many locals as possible. This means we will avoid the poles, intentionally not living like the most traditional and not living like the most liberal. Even though in Islamic societies, the latter is usually more comfortable for us. And even though others might assume that going full conservative is the really radical and effective thing to do. Instead, we aim for somewhere in the middle, the kind of place where we can have friends from among the social-media-shaped youth as well as the Salafi-leaning Islamic families.

This means our wives might sometimes get teased by their single university friends for not showing more skin, but they will still be able to befriend the girl in the hijab, even though their hair is not covered, because their clothing still communicates the reputation of an honorable and modest woman. In a society where female appearance is extremely important, dressing for the respectable middle gives them access to almost the entire spectrum of local women.

This may also mean valid lifestyle differences among missionaries. My family eats pork – when we can get it smuggled in that is. Other families choose not to. Both of us have chosen to eat or not eat because we believe that will help us with gospel access to the greatest number of locals.

The key is to attempt to make these lifestyle choices intentionally, rather than an easy default to what we prefer or even a default to what one local friend says. The longer we live in a given culture, the more we will be able to make these contextualization choices in an informed way. Newer missionaries can get worried about their living situations being too Western or too local, but they should relax. If they are studying the language and culture and making local friends, they’ll be in a great spot to find their own posture a couple years in.

We want the gospel to be the stumbling block, not our lifestyle choices. That means we need to understand the culture in all its messy diversity. Embracing the idea of the culture as a spectrum can help with this. That understanding of the culture can then lead to clarity regarding any unnecessary stumbling blocks that need to be removed, and what kind of proactive lifestyle needs to be embraced for access to the most.

No one gets this perfect, but the beauty of a culture’s messy diversity means that even your cultural faux pas might be taken as a positive by at least some locals – even if they’re the rebels. And there is some measure of relief in that. God’s sovereignty often turns our blunders into our breakthroughs. Perhaps those cultural rebels will be exactly the ones you are supposed to reach.

*names changed for security

Photo by Jacek Dylag on Unsplash

Why We Pray for the Local Authorities

Two weeks ago Manuel* sat next to me on the couch, weeping. This semi-secret believer’s brother-in-law had been disappeared by one of the powerful political parties. One week he was an important local official for this same party, the next he was publicly accused by Islamists of misconduct – and summarily disappeared. For two weeks his family had no information about where he was, or even if he was still alive.

I had met this brother-in-law only once. During a particularly stressful intercity move in the fever-heat of August, he had used his connections to get our moving truck through some rival party checkpoints on the road. In the process, he had grilled me rather directly on the nature of my work here, one of the few government officials to press me so hard on my identity that I could feel my face changing color. I answered truthfully regarding my official secular work, and yet also let him know about my personal faith and how, yes, I wouldn’t be here if Jesus hadn’t changed me and given me a heart to serve others. With the help of the alternating shades of my face, I’m pretty sure he figured things out. In spite of this, he helped us – something I was deeply grateful for. Now I learned that he was at least imprisoned, perhaps even dead.

During his visit, Manuel, a respectable local man about ten years my senior, leaned on my shoulder and wept. We read Psalm 23 together, I prayed for him, and I listened as he pleaded with me to do something if at all possible through my political connections, of which I have none. For many local believers the belief runs deep that all Westerners have significant political clout that they could use if they really wanted to. Convincing our local friends that we are merely private citizens of our passport countries and strictly apolitical by choice has proven remarkably difficult. Yes, our home governments might grudgingly intervene if something happened to us – I say grudgingly because they repeatedly warn us not to live in places like this. But we have no such clout as to persuade anyone to intervene on behalf of a local political official who has been abducted, even if we thought such political intervention wise.

However, we pray every week during our church plant’s service for the local government officials. We do this to obey scripture, and because incidents like the disappearance of Manuel’s brother-in-law are stark reminders of the sudden danger that stalks almost anyone in this society should they run afoul of the powers that be. So when we gather, we pray for the government and those who wield political power to act justly, to rule wisely, and to serve their people (Micah 6:8, Romans 13:1-7). We pray for this so that the local believers may live quiet, faithful lives and that peace and stability might be granted for the sake of gospel advance (1st Timothy 2:1-4). The local believers are still getting used to this kind of prayer, regularly taking digs at the corrupt governing elite even as we ask who is ready to pray for them. We empathize, but also remind them of how bad Nero was, and then remind ourselves of the same truths when later that day we see the insane political news coming out of the West.

Tonight Manuel visited me again, requesting ahead of time that we sing some worship songs together. When he arrived, he shared the welcome news that his brother-in-law had been released. He’s much skinnier than he was before, bearing evidence of having been beaten, but alive, and back home with his family. I reminded Manuel that God had answered our prayers, and we spent an encouraging time singing together, studying John 15, and praying.

During our conversation, Manuel shared how just before his previous visit he had come very close to doing something dangerous, but suddenly felt redirected to come to our house instead for comfort and counsel. I’m thankful he did, or else he may have been summarily arrested/abducted as well. It makes me wonder how many close calls like this come down to a barely conscious obedience to subtle nudges from the Spirit. And if those nudges and responses would happen if we were not regularly praying for wisdom, and yes, praying for the corrupt local authorities.

*names changed for security

Photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash

Time to Bring Out the Fruit

Every culture, in spite of the fall, retains elements of the image of God. For those with eyes to see, these positive elements of a culture quietly point to the wisdom, beauty, and goodness of God, a remnant witness which can’t help but spill out even in cultures that have been cut off from the truth for centuries. Everyone who has ever lived honestly in a foreign culture will find things they simply do better in that foreign culture than in his native one. Sometimes these are noble, serious things. Other times, well, they fall much more in the realm of practical common sense.

Take, for example, what our adopted Central Asian culture does with fruit. This culture is extremely serious about hospitality. “If your enemy comes to your door, you must host him,” is a local saying I’ve recently learned. House architecture, family roles and rhythms, and much of the language itself have been crafted around this ideal of generous and honorable hospitality. It’s not uncommon for long evenings to be spent hosting friends, relatives, or patrons for dinner, progressing through an abundant sequence of snacks, drinks, food, and dessert offerings.

However, no matter how lofty the cultural ideal, practical life needs cannot be ignored. At some point, the guests need to leave, the hosts need to clean up, and the family needs to sleep. This might happen at midnight or later, especially during the summer nights, but somehow an indirect signal needs to be sent to the guests that while it’s been a great time, we need to be wrapping things up. This is where the fruit comes in.

When the women of the household start to sense that it’s time to draw the visit to a close, a final round of food will be brought out and set before the guests. This will usually consist of a platter full of fresh fruit and cucumbers, with a small plate and fruit knife handed to each guest. Right now, being summer, it’s often gorgeous slices of sweet watermelon. Locals don’t begin rushing out the door at this point, but everyone intuits what the fruit means. In the next 15-30 minutes, the kitchen is shutting down and it will be time for a barrage of highly verbal goodbye pleasantries to be exchanged all around.

Once we foreigners started noticing the importance of the serving of the fruit in the traditional culture, we started asking our language tutors and friends about it. Some denied that serving fruit played this role of wrapping up a visit. Others thought about it, then the realization dawned on them for the first time that yes, this was a very real correlation. Still others laughed and told us that our observations were spot on – that was exactly what was going on. Much like Americans getting their keys out of their pockets when they are feeling ready to leave, apparently the fruit serving functions among some locals somewhat subconsciously, while with others it is an explicit and recognized thing. More progressive families are of course mixing things up, serving fruit early on in a visit, which tends to alarm new missionaries here who have recently learned about the “fruit principle.” Alas, culture, like language, is never static, but a continuously morphing thing.

What we have come to appreciate about all of this is the existence in this culture of a simple, polite, indirect signal that serves to conclude a visit. Why don’t we have one of these in Western culture? I’ve heard of American families who, sensing this lack of a signal, have employed their own, such as disappearing and reappearing, having donned their pajamas – a signal only the most out of touch guest would ever miss. Others have allegedly feigned falling asleep. Of course there’s also the risky move of looking conspicuously at your watch or a clock, or exaggerated yawning. Some Christian hosts might ask, “How can we pray for you?” – not a bad way to bless someone and indirectly conclude the visit at the same time.

When we are back in our passport countries we find that that the absence of the fruit leaves a nagging hole of ambiguity as an evening visit gets later. We end up longing for this aspect of our adopted culture and the hospitable open secret that it represents. There are certainly things about my parents’ Western culture that I prefer over my adopted Central Asian one. Greater freedom to ignore texts and phone calls, for example. The tyranny of an immediate answer or reply in order to avoid offense is a frustrating thing. But when it comes to hospitably and clearly wrapping up a visit? I’ll take the fruit signal any day as the superior system.

The next time you are hosting or visiting and the evening is getting later, pay attention to what signals might be being sent. The need to understand a visit is concluding is of course universal, in spite of its cultural variations. Does fruit emerge? Pajamas? A conspicuous lull in the conversation?

My sense is that if Westerners could develop our own equivalent “fruit signal,” we just might be making hosting a little easier for everyone.

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash