Respect, Planning, and Presence

Today I was reminded of three common crises of trust that have occurred in our relationships with local Central Asian believers. These three big questions of trust tend to underlie some of the more serious conflict we have. Cross-cultural differences can aggravate these three concerns, but in and of themselves they are very valid questions to ask. And while we would answer with a “Yes, of course!” to all three questions, we also find them very understandable, given the very real challenges faced by those coming to faith in this context of persecution.

Crisis One: Do these foreigners actually respect us? Though most missionaries working among Central Asians possess a deep love and respect for the locals, this question is surprisingly common. Much of this is due to the fact that respect is expressed very differently in our respective cultures – sometimes even expressed in completely opposite ways. Locals feel deeply disrespected if not visited while sick. Westerners tend to respect a sick person by giving them space to recover. Locals use titles in a very serious fashion to express a respectful sense of hierarchy. Many Westerners prefer first name status over titles, as this communicates a respectful sense of equality. But this question and crisis of trust can also emerge from the timeline Westerners might choose when it comes to handing over authority and money to local believers. We choose to take a slower route in response to the culture’s penchant toward domineering leadership and power grabs. This can be misinterpreted as zero trust and respect when in fact it is an approach of incrementally building trust and respect over time.

Crisis Two: Do these foreigners actually have a plan? This question emerges out of the very different places Western and Central Asian cultures find themselves in regarding institutions, plans, and the Church. When it comes to Christianity, Western missions culture definitely has a post-institutional momentum. We tend to want things to be organic, authentic, and not very institutional. We tend to twitch at the term, “organized religion.” But Central Asian culture has a strongly pre-institutional posture. The desire is for robust and complex institutions and plans to be built – though there’s often not a clear understanding of just how this should be attempted. So institutions tend to be started, but then end up just like the rest of the culture – run by strong-man leadership, instead of by values, bylaws, and constitutions. When Western missionaries lead Bible studies or church meetings, we tend to run these times based on experience or on a loose plan we have in our heads. We may have a long-term vision and mission in which we plan to see churches planted and multiplied. But we often don’t share these plans with the locals in detail. We simply might not think of it, assuming that they are a more “organic” culture, or we might not talk about it due to security concerns. Either way, locals can feel like we are risking their lives without much of a plan – and this sense can seriously undermine trust and commitment. They know that Western culture has historically been good at institution building and planning. So it’s confusing to see their Western friends downplaying these things on a regular basis.

Crisis Three: Will these foreigners actually be there for me? We foreign missionaries are a transient lot. We travel for furloughs, medical issues, vacation, or visa issues. We tend to have a high rate of turnover due to things like burnout and struggling kids. We also live only partway inside the local culture, sometimes unwilling and sometimes unable to intervene when locals face persecution or hardship. At the back of many of our friends’ minds they believe that if things get too dangerous we’ll leverage our passports to get to safety – and they’ll be stuck on their own to face the threats. They are not completely wrong in these fears. If things get too unstable in terms of security, most of us will have to leave. But sometimes we make this concern worse by being unwilling to get into the weeds and find creative solutions to locals’ persecution or suffering. These are very messy situations, and they can compromise our presence locally. But if we always use our privilege to stay out of locals’ dangerous situations, we also risk failing to model sacrificial leadership – the kind where good shepherds lay their lives down for the sheep and don’t flee like hired hands.

Respect, planning, presence – these three questions can simmer in the mind and heart of a local believer, and explode in times of conflict or danger. As such, we need to regularly affirm our respect, describe our plans, and express our desire to be present in the hard times. This will help us to build trust with locals and to better weather conflict. We also need to learn how to show these in ways that will be received by the culture, so that our words will be received as genuine. Time will expose where our hearts are truly at. But our actions, even if they fail, communicate more than we know.

However, we should also qualify these affirmations. In the end, we don’t respect locals as consistently as we should, we don’t always have a good plan, and we will not always be present. We are sinners, we are finite, we will die. Yet the collective community of a healthy church can extend these things truly, if imperfectly, to a local believer. The local church in this age can make a God-honoring impact in terms of true respect, wise planning, and steady presence in the midst of suffering. And the missionary team can do its best to model these things to the church plant.

Whether we succeed or fail in these things, both are actually an opportunity to point locals yet again to Jesus, the only one who extends perfect respect, perfect plans, and soul-sustaining perfect presence in suffering. We can ultimately redirect local with these questions and crises to him. We trust him to hold onto our local friends, even as we also seek to carry them in our hearts in these three vital ways.

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Sovereignty and Terrorism

The twentieth anniversary of 9/11 is a sobering milestone. As we traversed four US states today, we saw flags flying at half-mast.

When the attacks happened, I was in the US on furlough, in middle school in the Philadelphia area. Like most of my generation, I will never forget where I was when I first heard the news. For me, it was my English teacher, telling us that New York and Washington had been attacked – and that the world would never be the same. And I can never forget seeing those terrifying images on the TV as soon as we got home from school that afternoon. Like most households, we sat stunned, unable to turn away from the news for hours.

That same night small vigils gathered on street corners, holding flags and lighting candles. Drivers honked and shouted support as they drove by. The next day, pictures of Osama Bin Laden’s face with a target imposed over it went up on lockers all throughout my school.

The cultural and political fallout of 9/11 has reshaped the world as we know it. But one aspect of these attacks rarely gets mentioned: how they have also caused countless Muslims to question Islam – and to instead explore the claims of Jesus Christ.

This dynamic didn’t start with 9/11. In fact, some would trace it back to December 1979 and the siege of the great mosque in Mecca. It was that terrorist attack that served as the symbolic birth of modern Islamist extremism. Yet that attack – and others like 9/11 – has correlated with a greater openness to the gospel among Muslims than an any other known point in history.

It makes sense. I attended an Iranian Iftar dinner in Kentucky some years ago, when ISIS was still in control of a huge territory in Syria and Iraq and committing atrocities seemingly daily. And there at my table, one Iranian man put his fist down and argued vehemently with the rest of us that ISIS represented true Islam – according to the original sources and real history – and that’s why he wanted nothing to do with being a Muslim anymore. The other Iranian at the table of course argued back that the first man was completely incorrect and ISIS represented a mutant, cultish form of Islam (likely started by some foreign power for its own ends). But there they were, two men who had grown up mentored in the prayers of the mosque and the same traditions, now utterly divided by the atrocities of terrorists claiming to act in the name of their God.

In the years since, I have seen this argument played out countless times among the Central Asian people where we now serve. Every time a terrorist attack happens, it’s not only non-Muslims who hear the question, “Is this actually true Islam?” The same question is gnawing at the hearts of many Muslims as well. Or, as our locals say, it becomes a worm in their mind. The worm, as it were, gnaws. Many are able to suppress the question. Sadly, some decide to join the jihad. Yet others are pushed away from the faith of their fathers and pray desperately for God to reveal who he truly is.

Historically, the resistance of Muslims against the efforts of Christian missionaries has caused many to despair. One convert per lifetime was the former mantra. Yet it seems as if the Islamic extremism of the past forty years has done something stunning and unexpected – it has caused countless Muslims to doubt the validity of their faith for the first time, creating fertile ground for Christian evangelists.

Sovereign in all things. Do we believe in a God big enough to even turn terrorism somehow into good?

I pray that all terrorism done in the name of Islam will die out. It is a horrific and evil thing. So many victims have died unjustly, and the bulk of them have been the attackers’ fellow countrymen and Muslims themselves. At the same time, I see God using even these dark and wicked events to slowly create cracks in the foundations of Islamic confidence. Others have pointed this out in the past, we have seen it playing out among our own friends, and I have no doubt this dynamic will continue for the foreseeable future.

9/11 is rightly a time to lament. And yet with our lamenting we also soberly watch the sovereignty of God play out. We pray the attacks will end. We pray that justice will come. And we pray that eyes will continue to be opened – and the cracks will continue to grow.

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A Troubling Lack of Martyrdom

And this lack of martyrdom troubled the Irish, to whom a glorious death by violence presented such an exciting finale. If all Ireland had received Christianity without a fight, the Irish would just have to think up some new form of martyrdom – something even more interesting than the wonderfully grisly stories they had begun to learn in the simple continental collections, called “martyrologies,” from which Patrick and his successors taught them to read.

The Irish of the late fifth and early sixth centuries soon found a solution, which they called the Green Martyrdom, opposing it to the conventional Red Martyrdom by blood. The Green Martyrs were those who, leaving behind the comforts of and pleasures of ordinary human society, retreated to the woods, or to a mountaintop, or to a lonely island – to one of the green no-man’s-lands outside tribal jurisdiction – there to study the scriptures and commune with God. For among the story collections Patrick gave them they found the examples of the anchorites of the Egyptian desert, who, also lacking the purification rite of persecution, had lately devised a new form of holiness by living alone in isolated hermitages, braving all kinds of physical and psychological adversity, and imposing on themselves the most heroic fasts and penances, all for the sake of drawing nearer to God.

Cahill, How the Irish Saved Civilization

I am more sympathetic to these monastics than I used to be. After all, the motive for many was to draw closer to God and to see more of his glory, misguided though they may have been in trying to accomplish this by retreating from the world. A far better “martyrdom” would have been to endure the sufferings implicit in taking the gospel to the pagan peoples which had not yet been reached – as the later Irish were indeed to do. This Green Martyrdom, then, was perhaps was the result of Patrick’s limited knowledge of the world. He believed he had brought the gospel to the end of the world, beyond which there was nowhere else left. Perhaps he taught this to his disciples, so they looked around at the newly Christianized Irish tribes, and retreated into the woods.

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Of Immersion and Umbilical Cords

Tonight we came to the end of a whirlwind eleven months. We’ll be heading out of the country for a few weeks of rest and family events. But what an ending it was.

This evening *Alan was baptized. He’s the new believer who recently came out of nowhere, having come to faith through YouTube videos while isolated from knowing any other believers.

The initial time of singing and exhortation tonight proved to be a very sweet time. Baptisms are always soul-stirring, but in this part of the world they feel especially weighty. The Islamic society here views going under the water as the point of no return. It means apostasy has been committed. Even though Alan had explored other religions before and even was an atheist for a season, his act of baptism will be viewed with a special kind of hatred by his Muslim friends and relatives.

For their part, the local believers were eager to follow up the exhortation from Romans 6 with their own personal encouragements. One word was regarding ongoing repentance. This prompted spontaneous and public repentance from two of the other brothers present – a particularly life-giving thing for me to witness having recently walked with them through the very messy conflict they were repenting of. This was a tremendous example for Alan to witness, the kind of thing that should be a regular part of a healthy church’s life together.

*Patti also spoke up, exhorting Alan to put off the culture he has known and to put on the new culture of Jesus Christ. Patti is the least-literate of the group of believers, so her clear and biblical contribution was especially meaningful.

Then we took a group photo together (only the one being baptized is allowed to request pictures and use their camera for this kind of event) and headed up to the roof where a kiddie pool was ready. One of us the expats and one of the local brothers flanked Alan as they stood together in the water. Not only does this two person dunking make the physical act of immersing the third person easier, it also helps avoid any false elevation of baptism-by-foreigner while still honoring the locals’ desire to respect us by having one one of us do the actual baptizing. Another local brother read the questions, received Alan’s affirmative replies, and then made the Trinitarian proclamation.

And Alan went under. All but the very tips of his knees. Total immersion continues to be quite hard to actually accomplish! Thankfully, this doesn’t mean he will be raised in the new heavens and new earth without any kneecaps.

The rest of the evening was spent laughing and sharing chai and supper together. And yet in this season we can’t seem to stop uncovering deeply-ingrained aspects of culture that we’ve never heard of before, and which seem somewhat concerning. Sure enough, we had another surprising lesson waiting for us tonight.

During dinner, one of the local moms asked my wife if we could bring her daughter’s something back to the US with us. The word she used sounded an awful lot like belly button. Confused, my wife sought clarification. It wasn’t belly button, it was umbilical cord. She wanted us to bring her teenage daughter’s umbilical cord back to the US with us. If you are anything like us, at this point you’d be thinking, “Why on earth would we ever do such a thing?”

Apparently one of our regional cultures saves the baby’s umbilical cord and places it somewhere in the world that would portend a good future for that child, connected to that particular place. In our case, the mother wanted us to bring the remains of the umbilical cord in our luggage to the US and leave it there so that the power of the cord (?) would enable her daughter to reach the US and find success there.

My wife fumbled for words and reminded this sister of what we had been talking about earlier – that following Jesus means we put on a new redeemed culture. Plus, what in the world would we tell customs?

“Anything to declare?”

“Just our friends’ daughter’s umbilical cord.”

“Um… what?!”

Needless to say, we won’t be carrying any umbilical cords with us this time. Nor in the future, at least until we learn a lot more about what is actually going on with this local practice.

But it’s not just the Central Asians. This confused TCK also learned tonight that even some Westerners keep their child’s umbilical cord for sentimental reasons. Again, I had never heard of this before. Western friends, is this a thing? Culture is fascinating. And sometimes just downright strange.

But putting aside all talk of physical cords that have been cut and their reasons for global travel, Alan himself is very much now spiritually alive and part of the family. Though he started his walk with Jesus as an isolated young man watching apologetics videos, he has a community of brothers and sisters now. He will need them, and they will need him.

As for us, we need to get some sleep. Twenty hours of flight time with multiple small children awaits us. And though we’re getting on that plane tired and spent, we are also getting on it happy and thankful.

The church is repenting, new believers like Alan are taking costly steps of obedience, deeper worldview issues are coming out and getting addressed. He is working. Keep the prayers coming.

Photo by Egor Myznik on Unsplash

*Names changed for security

Discipleship Is a Type of Suffering

The normal work of discipleship is a type of suffering. This, according to Paul in 2nd Timothy 2:2-7.

[1] You then, my child, be strengthened by the grace that is in Christ Jesus, [2] and what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men, who will be able to teach others also. [3] Share in suffering as a good soldier of Christ Jesus. [4] No soldier gets entangled in civilian pursuits, since his aim is to please the one who enlisted him. [5] An athlete is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules. [6] It is the hard-working farmer who ought to have the first share of the crops. [7] Think over what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding in everything.

2 Timothy 2:2-7, ESV

Notice how verse two, which discusses the entrusting of Paul’s message to other faithful men, is immediately followed by an exhortation to share in the suffering of Christ. Along with the local brothers with whom I attended an exegesis and preaching workshop this week, I had been assuming this mention of suffering here referred to persecution. But our cohort leader helped us to see the kind of suffering meant here is illustrated by the three examples of soldier, athlete, and farmer – all examples which emphasize the costliness of hard work and discipline. The costliness of steady, focused, tough labor. Not the costliness of persecution. That was an eye-opener for me, and a timely word.

Yes, elsewhere in 2nd Timothy persecution is mentioned, but the immediate context of these verses suggests that Paul has the suffering of discipline in mind. The kind of discipline and hard work that comes with entrusting the gospel message to faithful men who will entrust it to others also. Like a faithful soldier, a disciplined athlete, a hardworking farmer. This is the suffering of sweat, long hours, and extended seasons of toil.

Why was this takeaway so helpful for me? Because I feel the costliness of trying to disciple others and trying to raise up local leaders. I feel it keenly. Even during the several days of this training, the conduct of the local believers was deeply disappointing. It was exhausting. And it wasn’t just this three-day workshop. It has been a long season of walking through one conflict after another with local believers. And I am tempted to feel like the difficulty, the sweat and fatigue of this season, means I am doing something wrong – or that I am simply not gifted enough for this kind of task.

It seems every time we are ready to extend greater trust and responsibility to locals, some petty conflict emerges (or rather, explodes), showing that the maturity piece just isn’t there yet. Crisis reveals character again and again, and yet again.

How long, O Lord, until your word and your Spirit do their work of making our friends trustworthy and faithful? Will we ever see elder-qualified men emerge in this context?

And yet here in 2nd Timothy 2, I have been given a timely word. The work of discipleship is a kind of suffering. It’s not just me. Even a sharing in the suffering of Christ himself. What an honor! Paul found a Timothy, Timothy found other faithful men, they taught others also. If not, the gospel would have never come down to me, and to my local friends. This work is not impossible. To feel like a weary soldier, a tired athlete, a sore farmer, this is exactly how I am supposed to feel.

Dwelling on this truth these last several days has steadied my soul. Unlike how many missions trainers use verse two to advocate for rapid multiplication of disciples, this context shows us the work is long-term, tough, and yes, even a form of suffering.

That is not bad news at all. For weary workers like myself, it is in fact very good news. It means we are not off-track and unfit simply because the work often feels like working cursed soil in a desolate land. No, this is the nature of the work itself. Deprivation before honor. Sweat before victory. Toil before the harvest feast.

That is the kind of suffering that leads to faithful men who teach others also.

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North Korea, Persecution, and Insider Movements

I listened to this podcast while driving to another city yesterday in order to attend a training. I thought it looked good. I had no idea just how good it would prove to be. Without exaggerating, this is one of the most thought-provoking, emboldening, and sobering things I have listened to all year.

Turns out the history of missions and the Church in Korea has a lot of lessons for those seeking to plant churches among unreached Muslim people groups today. James Cha, the man interviewed, himself draws these connections regarding compromise, persecution, and God’s purposes in even the worst kinds of suffering.

My American parents were supported by the second largest church in Korea when they went to the mission field in 1989. At that time, the pastor of that huge church told them that Koreans were not quite ready yet to send their own cross-cultural workers. But they were praying in order to get ready. Now, in 2021, they have over 16,000 foreign missionaries on the field. Listening to their spiritual heritage gives me a deeper appreciation for how God has worked to reach that nation, and how he is now using them to reach so many others. What a legacy. And what a tragedy considering the ongoing suffering of North Koreans. May God be merciful and grant the reunification of the North and South so long prayed for.

Could it be that my persecuted minority focus group might some day respond to the gospel and be a huge sending force like the Koreans are? May it be.

Listen to the podcast here.

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The Apostle of Mesopotamia

The Syrian acts of Mar Mari, from the sixth/seventh century… credit Mar Mari with the first complete evangelization of Mesopotamia. He serves as the apostle to Mesopotamia, whose two major rivers, the Euphrates and the Tigris, according the Genesis, flowed out of paradise (Gen 2:14) According to the acts, Mar Addai sent him from Edessa to the east. He first taught in Nisibis and then moved on the Arbil, the capital of the principality of Adiabene in modern Iraqi Kurdistan, where he cured the king of leprosy and cast out a demon the from the son of an officer. On the way south, he, like Jesus, healed the afflicted, cast demons out of the possessed and even raised the dead. In Seleucia-Ctesiphon he encountered resistance; the citizens wanted nothing of the Good News. Only a successful demonstration of divine judgement, in which the apostle remained unharmed in a blazing fire, enabled a few conversions, after which Mari destroyed a pagan temple and erected atop its ruins a chapel – the future cathedral of Kokhe. He then followed the Tigris south, reached present-day Basra and concluded his journey in Khuzistan and the province of Persia. The acts close with the extolling of Mari, who, like a ‘pillar of fire’, led believers through the desert of ignorance into the kingdom of the Gospel.

Baumer, The Church of the East, pp. 19-20

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He Would Have Come With Me

The summer after my freshman year of college I moved back to the Philadelphia area in order to work and save up for a gap year in Central Asia.

I ended up finding steady part-time work with an elderly cancer patient named Mr. Joe. Because of his age and the weakness brought on by chemotherapy, Mr. Joe needed a lot of help around his suburban property. He paid me a very generous hourly wage to help him with random projects, even paying me for the time it took to go to long lunches with him at a local Jewish diner. He also loaned me one of his cars so that I could easily commute to his place from the mission house where my mom and I were living at that point.

Mr. Joe was a character. He spoke with a New York accent, loved to tell long funny stories, and could never seem to actually finish a project – or even let the young guy working for him finish one. This understandably drove his wife crazy. The yard especially was a minefield of almost-finished projects that Mr. Joe had moved on from. She did her best to keep the house inside well kept-up as her refuge from the various project zones. Alas, at this she was only moderately successful. May God reward her faithful endurance with a project-free abode in the age to come.

“He’s payin’ you to be his friend and listen to bad jokes, tuhts!” his wife would sometimes say, laughing. This wasn’t entirely untrue.

Mr. Joe and his wife knew my parents from years ago where they had overlapped at the same church. This was the church where my dad had come to faith, married my mom, served as an associate pastor, and was eventually sent to the mission field. Mr. Joe and his wife were part of a large contingent that eventually left the church after a long and fruitful season, “the glory years,” came to an end with a pastoral leadership transition that never seemed to stop transitioning. What had been a strong and more traditional Baptist church led by a gifted pastor through the 80’s and 90’s later struggled in the confused church growth movement of the late 90’s and early 2000s.

I hope that Mr. Joe indeed had genuine faith, and he particularly emphasized the importance of finding joy in God. But he was also a contrarian who enjoyed theological provocation, so he would say lots of edgy things to get a rise out of people – or at least to get a laugh. He was originally from a Catholic background, as many of the evangelicals in that part of the Philly area tend to be. But like many from our former church, he never settled again in one local church after the transition fallout.

In one way Mr. Joe was a very traditional older white American man of the mid-2000s. He despised Muslims. And for the life of him he could not wrap his mind around why I wanted to move to Central Asia in order to befriend Muslims and share the gospel with them. The question would come up over and over again as we sat down and enjoyed hoagies, reuben sandwiches, and coffee at his favorite Jewish diner. Why would you ever want to give your life for them?

We had countless conversations over the course of that summer where Mr. Joe tried to square what I was sharing with him about God’s heart for Muslims with what he was watching on TV and reading from the “Clash of Civilizations” literature of that period. To be honest, I didn’t think these talks – heavily interspersed with Mr. Joe’s rabbit trails and stories – were having any effect on him. I was, after all, a 19-year-old kid who hadn’t even grown up in the US, an idealist who could talk a lot about reformed theology and missions but who couldn’t seem to stop ruining Mr. Joe’s yard and doing my fair share of botching his admittedly quixotic list of projects. He was about 50 years my senior. And we had frankly lived in very different worlds.

At that point I was fresh from a year of studying at Bethlehem, John Piper’s church, so we found some common ground when discussing the pleasures of walking with God. And of course we developed other common ground as I learned about the pleasures of long lunches at Jewish diners. But Mr. Joe knew that I was saving the money he paid me so that I could afford my year overseas in Central Asia. And from the beginning he told me he was absolutely against the idea of me going – and that he thought I was crazy and foolish. Apparently his need for help was greater than his opposition to what I planned to do with the money.

But God was at work over the course of those several months where we started countless projects together and even managed to finish a few. As summer transitioned to fall, one day we went out for a final lunch together at his favorite diner. And there Mr. Joe, with tears in his eyes, told me something I will never forget.

“A.W., you know I think you’re crazy for wanting to go over there. But I’ll tell ya what, if I were a younger man and weren’t about to die from cancer, I’d go with ya… You be safe over there and ya tell them about Jesus and how he loves ’em.”

I nearly choked on my cottage cheese.

It was, for me, one of the more miraculous heart changes I had ever seen. I remember thinking to myself, “If God can change this old man’s hatred toward Muslims, and replace it with love, well then maybe I’m not crazy for thinking God can change Muslims’ hearts as well.”

Mr. Joe sent me off with a very generous gift of financial support, asked to be on my update list, and that was the last we ever saw of each other. He passed away shortly thereafter from cancer.

God changes hearts. He did it for me. He did it for Mr. Joe. He can do it for any person in our lives who seems absolutely unchangeable.

The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the LORD; he turns it wherever he will.

(Proverbs 21:1 ESV)

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The First Literates

For it was Patrick’s Christian mission that nurtured Irish scholarship into blossom. Patrick, the incomplete Roman, nevertheless understood that, though Christianity was not inextricably wedded to Roman custom, it could not survive without Roman literacy. And so the first Irish Christians also became the first Irish literates.

Cahill, How the Irish Saved Civilization, pp. 150-151

And this continues to be the case. I remember my mother teaching literacy classes in the woven reed huts of Melanesia. Friends in Cameroon are teaching others to read and write for the first time. And even here in Central Asia, literacy and eventually scholarship goes hand in hand with gospel advance. Just this week I helped pay for some seminary books in one of our languages and wrote someone else asking them to consider coming and investing in one of our many unengaged minority language groups. They (or you) could be the first Christian and outsider ever to learn one of these tongues and preach the gospel in it.

Is it pragmatic to teach indigenous peoples how to read and write so that the faith might survive and advance? Sure, but I believe it’s more than that. Christians have always been people of the book. We are lovers of language who truly delight to see the worship of God breaking into more and more mother-tongues.

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The Deeper Beliefs Begin to Come Out

This past week we received some timely encouragement from veteran workers.

“Don’t be discouraged by the messiness of the situations you’re facing in local discipleship. That messiness is actually evidence of arriving at a place in language and culture where the deeper beliefs are starting to come out. It wasn’t until we had been in Africa for five years that we started to discover some of the deeper hidden and very problematic parts of believers’ worldviews.”

This was indeed a timely word. The messy revelations that have been occurring in the lives our local believers are quite discouraging. It can feel like the years of steady teaching and discipleship have failed to trickle down into the places of the soul where it really counts. Are the basic means of grace actually enough to transform these people? is a question I find myself wrestling with.

One fresh example from just a few hours ago. I went walking in the bazaar with a local believer caught up in a complex plot against him involving a broken engagement, stolen money, alleged death threats, accusers and police who are related to each other, and a judge who became livid and vindictive when our friend refused to swear on the Qur’an. Toward the end of our conversation, we sat down to have some melon juice together.

“You know how if you bury a body, but you will need to rebury it somewhere else, you can tell the ground that it’s Avowal, and the body won’t decompose for the length of time you set?” asked my friend.

“Wait… what? What’s that word, Avowal? I’ve never heard of this before,” I responded.

“Yes, like if you need to take a body back to America. You can bury it in the ground and instead of the flesh decomposing in a matter of weeks, it will remain until you come back to get it – as long as you tell the ground it is Avowal, it will respect this word.”

I was trying to piece together this brand new concept my believing friend was sharing with me.

“Hm, interesting. Is this something from your previous religion or your culture?” I asked.

“No, this is something that is. The ground respects that word.”

I realized that this was not something my friend – a college-educated believer of six years – was presenting as a mere tradition of his culture. He was presenting this to me as reality. Avowal (a rough translation, to be sure) is something that my friend is convinced has power in the real physical world.

He went on to clarify that he used this word in the context of his legal problems, initially giving money to someone else in the category of Avowal. He fully expected them to not misuse this money, but instead, to honor the weight of this word.

Apparently you can use Avowal to entrust someone else with anything precious that you need to be kept safe and protected at all costs – such as a child or gold. And the expectation is that they will honor this sacred word, just as the ground does for a corpse. If they don’t, they are counted as the most despicable of persons.

A couple other local believers came over to my house this afternoon. Curious, I ran this concept by them. The younger, more progressive one, readily spoke of Avowal being used as the strongest kind of promise regarding safekeeping. But he balked at the idea of it being used for burial and reburial. The other believer, ten years his senior, not only said that he had heard of Avowal being used for the dead, but he had seen it work with his own eyes, many years ago.

What, exactly, are we to do when we come across something like this? Much of today I’ve been thinking about this new discovery and trying to find a category for it. I think we’ve found one: white magic.

What else would you call a specific word that is used to keep the earth from decomposing a corpse as it is naturally meant to do? Sure, it’s for a good motive, preserving the body so that it can be honorably buried elsewhere. But it is more or less a verbal spell used to manipulate the created world and get it to do something different. It’s white magic. As such it is out of bounds for those who are now indwelt by the Holy Spirit and reconciled to the Lord of creation.

I have to think more about the uses of Avowal when it comes to entrusting offspring or treasure to others for safe keeping. Could there even be possible positive connections to the woefully underdeveloped local concept of covenant? It’s worth looking into for culture where jihad is the only real known covenant and everything else is just a contract – yes, that includes even salvation and marriage.

But at least when it comes to its usage regarding the dead, Avowal is a concept we’re going to have to revisit as part of a practical discipleship. Just as the believers in Ephesus burnt their books of magic, so we’ll need our local friends to in fact disavow their practice of graveside Avowal.

Photo by Julia Kadel on Unsplash