A Path for Marrying and Burying

“If you let them give me an Islamic funeral, I’ll come back and haunt all of you!”

The room burst out in laughter as *Frank made his point with characteristic humor. The laughs came easily because of the heaviness of the gathering and the topic.

A core group of the local believers had gathered to take counsel with *Darius. A young relative had just committed suicide after her parents had refused the marriage proposal from the young man that she loved. Sadly, this type of suicide following an engagement denied is not uncommon in this culture. Darius was reeling, racked with sadness and guilt, wondering if he had somehow contributed to the death of his young cousin.

A little bit at a time, the kind questions of the believers drew the information out of Darius, and the group was able to provide comfort and reassurance for him. In spite of the feelings of guilt, nothing in God’s word suggested that Darius bore any responsibility in the situation. He had conducted himself faithfully. Was mourning appropriate? Yes. False guilt? No.

At some point Frank asked if he could present a related question toward us foreigners, specifically the two of us functioning as temporary elders for the church plant.

“If, God forbid, I die tomorrow, what will you do?”

We looked at the floor, knowing the complexity of the question being asked. Religion and ethnicity are baked into all aspects of culture and law here. To be born to a Muslim father means to be born a Muslim, to have a Muslim ID card, to have an Islamic wedding, to eventually have an Islamic funeral, and to be buried in the Islamic fashion, on a plot of land surrounded by other deceased Muslims.

There is no legal mechanism by which a local Muslim can break out of this track and join another. Minorities can officially become Muslims, but not the other way around. The government and the family insist on Islamic rites of passage for all who were born Muslims, even if that person has become an atheist – or a believer in Jesus. While there are rights of passage and cemeteries for other religious minorities, to qualify for them a person must have been born into that community.

We chewed on how to answer, and Frank followed up his question with his quip about coming back to haunt us. As the laughter died down, I ventured a response.

“The only thing we have the power to do right now is to give you a separate Christian funeral service in the church.”

Disappointed looks came from around the room.

“Things can change if we pray and work for other solutions… maybe in ten or twenty years. But today you can’t even get your government ID card changed. Let alone there being a plot of land for the burial of believers who used to be Muslims.”

“Ten or twenty years!” one believer protested. “Why can’t you change things sooner?”

I sighed. If only we could. Local believers often assume that we, as Westerners, have the ability to influence government policy toward them. The fact is we possess no such power, at least not those of us on the ground laboring to learn language and culture and plant healthy local churches. We are not well-connected, we don’t have the ear of the powerful, and we don’t have the kind of lobbying structures necessary to advocate for the passing of more just laws regarding religious liberty. There’s even a case to be made that the freedom we do possess to do our spiritual work comes from staying off the radar of the political elite.

Yet the long-term rites of passage and persecution issues of our local believing friends regularly reappear, calling for long-term structural change that we can’t help but long for. Freedom for local believers to have engagement and marriage ceremonies that are exclusively Christian, and don’t involve an Islamic mullah. Freedom to not have to put religion on the ID card of a newborn. Freedom for believers to be open about their faith without losing their jobs and their housing. Freedom to run when necessary and know that the government will support freedom of conscience against violent relatives. Freedom to not have to swear on the Qur’an in a court case. Freedom to have a funeral and burial according to the contextualized practices of the believing community.

We are deeply invested in a bottom-up model of change for these issues. Plant healthy churches, and thereby seed the society with change agents who will eventually influence reform. But there are times we wrestle with the deep costs borne by the first generations of believers. Should we also be working for top-down change? Is this kind of change a temptation or an opportunity? If we somehow did influence the government, would it end up being positive thing for the Church, like a Wilberforce? Or a negative thing, like a Constantine? Would we end up compromising our witness and access, or strengthening it? These are not simple issues in a region where our church planting work is technically illegal and only partially tolerated.

That evening we turned to prayer together, both for Darius and for the challenges facing all our local believing friends. Sometimes it is very tempting to go all American-problem-solver on these challenges that keep on rearing their heads. It feels as if someone will have to do some hard long-term work in order for the church to have enough societal oxygen to not suffocate and disappear when the missionaries inevitably leave. Yet we don’t know what God’s chosen solutions are to these stubborn obstacles, nor his timeline, nor his chosen change agents. So we turn to prayer, and we continue making disciples.

Yet the clock is ticking. Local believers will need to marry and bury one another before too long. We hope and pray and trust that when the time comes there will be a path – even if difficult – of clarity and faithfulness.

Photo by Stephen Leonardi on Unsplash

Providence Showing Off

Most of my prayer walks in the bazaar are an exercise in being alone with God while being surrounded by other people. Strange as it may sound, I enjoy praying quietly to myself while flanked by other pedestrians on a bustling Central Asian sidewalk. I’ve not intentionally sought out opportunities to share the gospel while out praying and walking – that discipline is able to happen elsewhere. But neither am I opposed to hitting an evangelistic softball if one is thrown my way during the course of a walk.

An opportunity like this came along last week, and completely out of nowhere. It was a sunny mid-morning I was walking down a street full of small bakeries, fish stalls, chai houses, and watch repairers, when I decided on a whim to take a left down past the old post office. I had no particular reason for choosing this route, but at the moment of decision it simply felt like this would be a good way to go.

Two-thirds of the way down the post office street I spotted a man standing in front of me and looking at me oddly. Our eyes met.

“You are an English teacher, right?” he asked me.

“Well, I was for some years, yes.” I said as I wondered how he had pegged me so accurately.

“I am a legal translator. And I am stuck. I have been translating registration documents for a Christian organization.”

Internally, I quickly transitioned out of prayer/meditation mode and sought to focus on what was happening in front of me. The ingredients of this situation were not exactly common. I wondered if this might be a divinely-appointed interaction.

“There’s some religious language that I’m not familiar with,” he continued. “Some unique Christian terms that I haven’t heard before. I don’t know what to do…”

“Would you like me to come to your office and see if I can help?” I quickly offered.

“If it’s no trouble, my office is just across the street here,” he motioned to a nearby corner.

We walked over to his small translation shop and stepped inside. The legal translator motioned for me to take a seat, handing me the customary small bottle of cold water. Then he pulled out the documents he had been working on.

“Can you tell me what gospel identity means? And what about reconciliation?” the translator started off, furrowing his brow. “Look at this sentence where they use those terms. I can’t make any sense out of it. I’m a legal translator, not someone familiar with translating religious language.”

He handed me the registration documents and I perused them, smiling internally. The words the translator was the most stuck on were some of the best gospel bridges in the document.

As I read the document, one part of me rejoiced at the spiritual terms present, and another part of me shook my head at the unnecessarily complex language we Westerners tend to write in – and saddle our translators with. “The goal of good writing is to be clear, not impressive.” I don’t know how many times I have said this line while helping a local friend struggling to translate Christian material out of English and into our local language. The translatability of our writing is a virtue not spoken of often enough.

The legal translator and I went back and forth over a number of tough Christian words and phrases, a process which gave me several good opportunities to dive into biblical truth. I shared with him the basic definition of gospel – good news – and then described that good news as “God is holy, we are sinful, Christ is the sacrifice for our sins, and we must respond by repenting and believing in him.” We review this God, Man, Christ, Response outline as a church every time we gather for a service and I was grateful for the gospel fluency this longstanding practice has created, both for the local believers and for us.

We made some good progress on the document, but I could tell that the translation needs would require more time than I had to give that morning. Gospel comprehension would also require more time.

“I have an idea for you,” I shared after a while. “If you download the YouVersion Bible app, you can search for a Christian term and see how it is used in the Bible and see how it’s been translated by scholars into your own language. There’s this great parallel language function that I use all the time.”

“Really? That would be great!”

I showed him how to download the Bible app, search for a term, and compare languages side by side. I also gave him the number of a bilingual local believer in case he got stuck and needed some more assistance.

“You know, you remind me of someone I used to know,” the translator said. “A close friend named Joshua.”

“Joshua?” I smiled. I knew who he was talking about, a believing friend from college who had done a stint in this city of more than a million people a decade ago. I knew that Joshua would have shared the gospel with this man. And yet the lack of easy comprehension on the part of the translator showed that it had never really sunk in, even in terms of intellectual understanding. Or it had long since faded, suppressed by time and an unbelieving mind. Maybe Joshua was still praying for this man. Maybe that’s why we had run into each other on the sidewalk that day.

I took note of the translation office’s location, a spot I walk past most days. This shop would be one to come back to.

We said goodbye and I stepped out into the sunshine. I walked home, continuing to pray and encouraged by this unexpected chance to share the gospel. Even on a meandering prayer walk, there are no unplanned steps, no random encounters. I don’t always pick up on the providential designs beneath my daily encounters. But some days they’re simply on full display. Almost as if providence is showing off.

Photo by Ali Kokab on Unsplash

Scalable Platforms

Many missionaries in the 10/40 window live in what’s been called creative-access countries. In these countries there are no missionary or religious visas available to cross-cultural workers, so they need to have “platforms,” whether business or non-profit, in order to maintain legitimate access. I’ve written in the past about the importance of doing tent-maker/platform work that 1) results in an excellent product that brings value to the community and gives God glory and 2) leads to gospel opportunities and relationships with locals.

You want your platform to be strong and valuable enough to provide some cover when locals start coming to faith and others potentially start complaining about you. Of course we can’t guarantee we won’t get kicked out even if we have the ideal platform, but we should still do the best we can so as to protect access to the unreached.

Now that I’m some years into the creative-access gig and working under my fourth platform, one other very important principle is emerging – that of a platform’s scalability. This principle is important not because of dynamics among locals, but because of dynamics among us foreign workers.

Ours is a lifestyle of high and costly transition. We’ve recently been joking that we should give up on annual goals in favor of quarterly ones due to the sheer amount of transition that we experience. It feels like we are always saying goodbye to workers leaving the field, or welcoming new ones, adjusting to others who have left for furlough, or taking in the news that others will be significantly delayed in getting back to the field. This can make maintaining a solid core of platform workers quite difficult.

The goal of our platforms is to serve the church planting strategy, not the other way around. But we have also experienced seasons where the needs of the platform are so demanding, often due to staffing shortages, that it very much feels like we are serving the platform – and the church planting work is taking a back seat. This is a tension we live in, hoping that a season of investing in a solid platform can later result in greater freedom for ministry. Sometimes you just have to hold the beachhead until reinforcements arrive.

However, what would happen if we built the reality of worker transience into our platforms from the very beginning? Rather than being blindsided by the next unexpected departure of our staff, what if we anticipating it and planned accordingly? For several years now I have been chewing on the idea of a platform designed to be scalable. On the one hand, one person working part-time could keep it running if he had to. On the other hand, it could scale up to accommodate a raft of new personnel who arrive in need of visas and a legitimate work identity. What kind of businesses and non-profit models might be this flexible?

My current non-profit platform serves as a potential example of this. For the past year we’ve been providing training several times a week to a small group of students. The teaching load is manageable because we have several staff who share the load. But it would be a lot for only one teacher. On the other hand, the group is too small to justify bringing on many more staff. However, this group of students recently graduated from the program and since then we’ve started experimenting with modular trainings in partnership with other organizations.

Now that we only have a few modular (1-3 day) trainings per month, we are finding ourselves really enjoying the increased time in our schedules for relationships and ministry. We have also stumbled into a model that is unusually scalable. If we have more colleagues join us, we can always increase the number and kind of modular trainings available. If everyone is gone or on furlough and only one worker is left, he can scale the trainings back to a pace that is realistic. This gives us hope for greater sustainability, even as the modular trainings give us access to a broader scope of the community.

Now, the content we are providing is masters-level stuff and our partners are able to gather decent crowds for our modular trainings, so that makes a pared-down schedule doable yet still very respectable. Not everyone will find themselves in this kind of situation.

Yet the transience factor is not going away. As missionaries, churches, and organizations wrestle with how to keep workers in creative-access contexts for the long-haul, the scalability of platforms should be considered. Scalability means sustainability, because the worker remaining on the field doesn’t have to be crushed by the platform work created by that recently departed or arrived coworker. The platform can grow or shrink according to the needs of personnel and the ministry.

That kind of flexibility may sound idealistic, but the potential is worthy of some experimentation. If platforms became more scalable, that would help assure that they are truly serving the missionaries, and not the other way around.

Photo by Brands&People on Unsplash

Not Alone When the Wolf Comes

We leaned over the railing, watching a group of ducks and geese in the park’s man-made lake. It was a warm winter afternoon. Some of the fowl lazily swam around, others took one-legged naps, and one goose attempted to intimidate us by hissing and exposing his strange tongue. My friend and I just laughed at him. *Harry, having grown up in a village, is no city boy, and is quite comfortable with animals and their strange ways.

“You know what we say for liquid soap like this?” he had asked me earlier when we stopped into a mosque to use the facilities (all mosques here offer public restrooms). “We call it cow drool, ha! You know how cows are always drooling, right? See the resemblance when I push the dispenser button?” Apparently the next time I’m in need of someone to hand me some soap from a push wall dispenser, I can simply say, “give me some cow drool, please.”

Harry is the one believer still a part of our church plant that was there at the very beginning, six years ago, when it all started with a Christmas party. For the first few years of the church plant, he was the most promising potential leader. Humble, teachable, and wise, Harry blended a rough tribal village upbringing with an engineer’s education and a surprising array of experiences traveling abroad via couchsurfing. He’s also from the most conservative and violent tribe of our city, but had managed to live out his faith carefully and faithfully.

However, when we were on our first furlough the church suffered its second major implosion at the same time that major persecution ramped up from Harry’s tribe and coworkers. In danger and experiencing severe discouragement, Harry isolated himself, vowing to never gather again with other local believers, only with foreigners (and even that a maybe). His departure was a severe blow to all of us. It took him two and half years to come back around – a return that was one of the miraculous answers to prayer we saw over this past year.

To be honest, both of us are still pursuing healing after the difficulty of the past few years. Another leader in training had betrayed us both during the first implosion. Others we had looked up to and depended on had left. When we had gone on furlough and committed to moving to a different city, we had only done so because we believed we could depend on Harry to persevere in his track of being our first local elder. Trust had been broken, on both sides. But the desire to rebuild is mutual, and we’ve been making some steady strides.

Our long walk together on this particular day through the bazaar and the park was our first chance in a while to deeply invest in each other and reaffirm our friendship.

“Harry,” I said to him, “Can you promise me something?”

Harry looked at me expectantly and nodded.

“The next time you are in trouble, would you tell us right away?”

Harry made a cautious grin. He knew what I was getting at. The fact that we had not done more to help him during his season of intense persecution still stung for him. For our part, we were not told right away what was actually happening, and every time we had asked to help, he had told us to keep our distance so as to not make things worse. We all look back on that season with regrets, though no one is sure what else could have been done.

Harry’s instincts are still to go quiet and isolate when things are hard, and to reemerge when he’s got them under control again. It had happened again with a recent car accident. So my question was to try and help him see the need for him to depend more on the body of Christ when he has problems – a nonnegotiable posture for a healthy church member, let alone a potential leader.

Harry shared some of the reasons he’s afraid to depend on other believers, reasons which are very understandable given his story. He also expressed to me the need for us to have a plan in place before the persecution ramps up. I agreed. This ideal is one we keep bringing up, but given its complexity it has proven remarkably difficult to put any legs to it. I suggested a monthly meeting where we get together to work on it. Harry seemed encouraged by this idea.

“Do you remember what you told me years ago about what your father said about the wolves?” I said, referencing a story Harry had once relayed to me about his upbringing. “He told you that if you were out with the sheep and a wolf came, you were not to run for help. Why?”

“Because by the time I got back with help all the sheep would be dead.”

“Yes, so he told you that you had to stay and fight the wolf alone.”

Harry nodded.

“Well,” I continued, “I want you to know that’s not your situation anymore. Now, it’s like you have a mobile phone on you. When the wolf comes, you can call right away, and we will come and help you fight him. You don’t have to face your difficulties alone anymore.”

Harry looked out at the lake and thought about what I said. I prayed that he would actually believe me.

“You know,” he said, “I have friends who sometimes buy ducks and geese in the market and bring them here. They save them from slaughter and give them freedom.”

“And no one comes and steals them from this park?”

“No, they are safe here,” Harry said.

We turned away from the lake and walked on in the warm winter afternoon sun. I thought of all the difficulties Harry has faced – and will face – as a persecuted believer. His future looks bleak from a human perspective. Who will he marry? Will his tribe let him continue to be publicly known as an infidel? Will he be able to keep his government job? I know he longs to follow Jesus, but he also longs for safety, for marriage, for stability and a life without a crisis always threatened just around the corner.

Yet when Harry has been offered the chance to live in Europe, he has refused to do so. In spite of opportunities to marry Muslim girls, he is still single. In spite of failing and others failing him, he is still persevering in his faith, sharing the gospel, and following Jesus. The new heart in him and the presence of the Spirit keep him coming back, risking again for the sake of Jesus and in the hope of healthy churches someday taking root here.

I am sure that the wolf will come again for Harry. Yet Christ will stand with him, just as he did last time. We know that without a doubt. Our vision is that, somehow, the body of Christ will stand with him also. And that Harry would let us. Pray to this end.

*Names changed for security

Photo by Milo Weiler on Unsplash

The Hazards of Second Language Sermons

Today I preached to our local church plant from John 12:44-50, a passage often titled “Jesus Has Come to Save the World.” Preaching today meant that yesterday I sat down with a local believer, *Harry, to go over the sermon manuscript, checking for language mistakes and smoothing out the grammar. For the dozens and dozens of times that I have now preached in the local language, God has never failed to provide me a local brother to help with this important prep work – and every time that local brother manages to save me from at least a couple proverbial foot-in-mouth situations. Last night was no exception.

“Jesus teaches us here that it is his words that will judge us on the last day,” I read out loud.

“When?” my friend asked, raising an eyebrow.

“The last day,” I repeated.

“A.W.,” Harry continued, “in our language ‘the last day’ means Friday, not the final day of judgement. To communicate your meaning you have to say ‘at the final age.'”

“Ohhh, thank you. I’m definitely not trying to say that Jesus’ words will judge us on Friday!”

“And when you say ‘the final age’ don’t forget that short vowel in the first syllable of ‘age.’ If you forget it you will be saying ‘at the final tongue!'”

We laughed, sipped our hot drinks, and continued. A little later my friend put up his hand again for me to pause.

“Stop,” he said, “Read ‘Jesus Messiah’ out loud for me again.”

“Jesus Messiah,” I repeated.

Harry shook his head. You are saying it too fast and skipping over the final throaty H in Messiah. When you said it just now, it sounded like you were instead saying ‘Jesus of the squeegee.'”

I chuckled. This was not the first time I had made this kind of mistake. Preaching through Ephesians years ago I had publicly proclaimed, “The Squeegee is our peace!” instead of my intended meaning, which was “The Messiah is our peace.” That tricky throaty H is one of the old nemeses of us English speakers attempting to learn this particular Central Asian tongue.

Idioms especially can be like hidden bombs, ambushing the innocent speaker who is merely attempting to speak in literal and clear ways. Just a couple weeks ago I was doing sermon checking with *Darius when I learned that I can’t say “the person and work of Christ” in that simple form.

“‘Person and work of’ together like that,” he told me, “is always an idiom for someone’s closest circle of relatives. You don’t mean to say that we are saved by the relatives of Jesus Christ, am I right?” He laughed. “That sounds kind of Catholic!”

Then there’s those tricky words that are spelled the same and sound the same, but differ in meaning based on the context and construction of the sentence. This kind of similarity between the local words for canary and shore led to one of my more famous blunders, when teaching through the parables of the Kingdom in Matthew.

“And then Jesus sat down in the boat, next to the canary, and began to teach about the kingdom of God.”

The local believers leaned into their Bibles trying to figure out where the song bird I was referencing had suddenly come into the text.

Last night Harry and I finished our editing work together around 9 p.m. I thanked him sincerely for his help, knowing that his investment of a couple hours with me would mean greater clarity for the rest of the church on the following day, Friday, when our church plant is able to meet.

As we parted ways I shook his hand and said to him, “See you on the last day, brother!”

“What?” he said back.

“Tomorrow is Friday. You know, the last day.”

Harry laughed and shook his head. “Right! See you on the last day indeed.”

*Names changed for security

Photo by Angélica Ribeiro on Unsplash

Worth Some Frozen Pipes

“But you have not answered my question,” the workman said as he ate the lunch we had provided of takeout kabab (It’s expected in this culture to provide lunch when workmen are at your house all day). “What do you think of Islam? Is it good or bad?”

I had just concluded sharing how Islam teaches salvation by works – salvation through the scale of good deeds – while the Bible teaches salvation by faith in the sacrifice of Jesus alone. But my friend wasn’t going to let me get away with indirectly pointing out how my faith directly contradicts Islam. The workman and his colleague looked at me expectantly.

“Islam teaches that a man can save himself by his good works,” I said, “so it is bad. Because it is impossible for a man to save himself in this way. It sets men up for despair, or worse.”

It’s rare that I drop that bomb so early in a conversation. Usually if I attack Islam directly early on, then the honor/shame defense mechanisms kick in and the conversation stops being productive. I’ve learned that most of our locals will let me critique Islam in a hundred indirect ways and keep talking with me, all the while increasingly understanding my position that what they believe about ultimate reality is wrong. However, the response from the head workman to my blunt reply was more positive than I had been expecting.

“Good job!” he said. “I think Islam is bad too. For me, humanity is everything. And I can’t stand how we mix Islam with politics all over this region.”

I hadn’t seen this coming. These workmen were from a town four hours to our south, members of one of our unengaged people groups. An unreached unengaged people group (UUPG) is a people group that has no known Christians working to reach it with the gospel. The particular group these men belonged to may be around one million strong, with its own distinct language and identity – and zero known believers or churches. They live in a politically tense area that is hard to access and are so obscure as to barely show up on the unreached people group mapping sites.

Given this background, my assumption was that these men would be rather devout. I had assumed wrong. Sitting in front of me were men whose people group have never had a Christian missionary, but who had already been “converted” away from their native religion and into the lure of an easy humanism. They were Muslims in name only, but in reality would share much in common with progressive Westerners. The difficulty in these kinds of conversations is helping these locals see that the gospel is not just an equivalent religious system to Islam (and therefore to be dismissed as outdated), but to show them that many of the values they so admire in Western humanism – such as human rights and freedom of religion – come from biblical principles – and that these values alone are not enough.

I was encouraged over the course of two lunches to get to share the gospel, the goodness of religious liberty, and a biblical sexual ethic. We agreed to meet up for dinner soon where we’d have lots of time to talk at length about these things.

These lunch break conversations were an encouraging providence in a tough week of frozen pipes, gas shortages, sickness, and below freezing temperatures. Some weeks we spend so much time just staying functional that it can feel like we have nothing left over for the actual work of the ministry. It is especially encouraging then, when the life maintenance brings the ministry conversations to us.

This time we got to share the gospel with UUPG men who have never heard it before. That’s worth some frozen pipes.

Photo by Nadiia Ganzhyi on Unsplash

Seven Factors for Missionary Homes

Whenever new personnel come to the field, we end up discussing the pros and cons of the housing that’s been chosen for them. Usually there’s some concern that it’s too nice compared to how locals live, but sometimes there are concerns that the place is not nice enough. I try to encourage them to settle in to the place they’ve been provided, and to keep their eyes open for the various ways in which locals and foreigners live here. “In a couple years,” I encourage them, “you’ll be in a great spot to find your own posture as far as housing and standard of living.” As we’ve given our colleagues here eventual freedom to choose to live in more modern or traditional places, they’ve felt better able to find their own personal fit regarding this very practical question.

A word of advice to team leaders or church planters out there: insisting on one rigid standard of living for your team doesn’t tend to work out that well. Rather, letting people wrestle with the following factors helps them to balance the different aspects involved, and make a decision with deeper buy-in. We don’t have to all live the same way on the mission field. A variety of housing lifestyles is healthy even for local believers to see. This is another area where we need to be careful not to create laws, even if we have personal convictions regarding what kind of housing is truly strategic.

  1. Access. The most important factor for missionary housing is access. Can workers who live in this house or apartment easily access the people group or the area they are called to focus on? We want to redeem the time and not live in a house that bogs us down in transit or isolation unnecessarily. We are also all creatures who struggle with motivation. When that culture shock is running you over, you want access to your people group to be there with as little resistance as possible. Living next door to (or on top of) your focus people group provides gospel opportunities, even when you might not want them. Easy access is not always possible, but when it is an option, it’s an extremely important factor.
  2. Hospitality. Does that potential home lend itself to gospel hospitality? Will locals feel comfortable visiting you when you invite them? Does your wife find the hosting space efficient or frustrating? Socioeconomic dynamics can have an effect here. If your house seems too fancy or too rough, locals may not feel free to visit you. In our context where apartment towers are a very new thing, many locals are afraid of high buildings, and might not be able to visit an apartment on the 20th floor.
  3. Relatability. Does your house or apartment and the way you live have much overlap with the way that locals live? Or is your house laid out in a foreign way, or lacking important items that locals believe should be in every home (like bathroom shoes)? It’s usually not wise for foreigners to try to live exactly as the locals do, but we should aim for healthy overlap. There should be ways in which our homes feel local, and ways in which they feel Western – especially for rest needs. Our first house in Central Asia was very nice, a surprising step up from where we had been living in refugee apartments in the US. Our second house ended up being a little too small and rough for our family and ministry needs. Our third house? Hoping for the right balance.
  4. Longevity. Is your home restful for you, your roommates, or your family? After spending yourself in local ministry, is your home a place where you’re actually able to recharge? If your house is the biggest cause of stress you have, you likely need to move. Some of our colleagues have moved into communities with 24-hour electricity and have experienced a major decrease in their stress levels now that they don’t have to juggle various fragile electricity systems. Many of us have also lived in homes without adequate natural light, and have learned to prioritize this as a practical way to fight discouragement. My family has moved into an old stone house, but one with green trees and lots of dirt and easy access to the bazaar. Why? Because green and dirt and walking the bazaar are life-giving for us. And it all adds up when it comes to longevity – the ability for workers to actually stay on the field.
  5. Team. Are you close enough to your teammates to be able to function as a healthy team, with regular rhythms of meeting, eating, and working together? One of the costs of our current house is that it is a 30 minute drive from our teammates. But for our first two years on the field, we were neighbors with one set of teammates and lived just up the hill from others. This easy access was crucial in those early days. Sometimes we can prioritize strategy over team and community, and only later realize the deficit that’s been building.
  6. Life Stage. Are you married with small children? Apartment living might not be the best choice, unless you can find a place on the ground floor. You probably don’t want to tell your kids to hush all the time. Are you living in a Muslim context but have teenage daughters? A house in a conservative neighborhood could end up severely limiting your girls’ freedom and end up leading to bitterness. Health problems can also mean needing to live somewhere newer with better utilities. Singles may also not be permitted to live in some neighborhoods because of honor/shame or safety issues. Access to schooling can also be one of the most important factors here.
  7. Beauty. This has been a growing category for me personally. In the past, beauty would not have registered as an important aspect of which house to live in. But we are creators by nature and even in this unstable age we are called to plant gardens in Babylon as it were. Once again, everything adds up when it comes to longevity. Access to beauty at home, or the potential to create beauty by moving into a fixer-upper – these things could actually make the difference in whether or not that internal stress cauldron boils over or not. My mom used to garden in Melanesia. For years I never understood what the point was. Now I am starting to get it. Our lives are supposed to be little previews of the new heavens and the new earth. Splashes of beauty in or around our physical domiciles contribute to that overall foretaste that we hope to give our local friends. In one sense, investing in the beauty of our homes on the mission field doesn’t feel like a very “pilgrim” thing to do. But we are not merely utilitarian beings, laser-focused on the spiritual while ignoring the physical creation around us. We were gardeners in the beginning. We will one day be part of an eternal garden city. Therefore, as “pilgrim gardeners” we are not foolish to hint at these realities in the here and now, even as we admit that these good previews might be here today and gone tomorrow.

We should be careful not to create laws about missionary housing that stem more from preference than sound principles. These seven factors, however, are worth considering as church planters, missionaries, or really any Christian wrestles with how to live on mission in this needy world. There is no perfectly balanced place to live this side of heaven. But by being intentional in where we choose to live, we can have a home that is an aid to our mission, rather than a hindrance.

Photo by Marko Beljan on Unsplash

Only Begotten Brother

At lunch yesterday with some colleagues and local believers, Mr. Talent used a unique phrase to call the waiter.

“Only begotten brother! We’d like some more fermented yogurt water!”

Since it was my first time to hear this particular title, I wasn’t sure if I had heard right. Sure enough, he continued to use it to hail our waiter.

The phrase seems to come from the local word for brother combined with a word that we don’t have in English, which means something like “only child” but can also be applied to an only son in a family of daughters, or vice versa. I can use it for my only daughter, but I can’t use it for my sons. Our King James phrase, “Only begotten” is not too far off, and indeed, this is the local word our language’s translation uses for God’s only Son in John 3:16.

This word also carries with it a sense of special honor and affection. Since it’s organized along male kinship lines, it’s not surprising that our Central Asian culture would bestow this kind of title onto an only son, but I’ve been encouraged to see that this unique honor and affection can also be extended to only daughters. These “only begottens” might even end up a little spoiled.

But I had never heard this kind of special familial term extended in this way to someone like a waiter in a restaurant. It was a perfect example of how honorable titles here are regularly proclaimed onto others in the course of daily business and interactions.

“My flower”

“My soul”

“My lion brother”

“My liver”

“My beautiful son”

“My eyes”

“My dear uncle on my mother’s side!”

I’m only scratching the surface here when it comes to the titles that men can use to refer to their neighbors, friends, and shopkeepers.

One of the hardest things for us to learn as Westerners is this constant art of blessing or honorable proclamation – even after we get up the courage to call a man our flower while kissing his cheeks. I still catch myself mumbling respectful phrases when I should be projecting them confidently. At least that seems to be what Central Asian fathers teach their sons, since they all grow up really good at the art of bold title bestowing.

I find myself a little unsure. “What if they don’t want to be called my lion brother?” But my local friends don’t seem plagued by this doubt. It doesn’t seem that the qualification for the title resides in the recipient, but rather in the will of the one bestowing it. Central Asian men are going to call you that honorable thing whether you feel like they should or not.

In this I see a small window into the nature of God, hidden away in our broken local culture. Does God not also proclaim honorable titles over his children, friends, and enemies dependent only on his divine pleasure? And does he not keep on proclaiming them whether we feel worthy of them or not, whether we want them or not on a given day?

“See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are.” 1st John 3:1

“No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends…” John 15:15

I want to get better at proclaiming respectful titles over my friends and acquaintances here – and not just so that I can become a Central Asian for the sake of reaching Central Asians. I want to become more like God.

In this culture awash with honorable pleasantries, it is not the most skillful orator who will be noticed, but the one whose honorable blessings actually come from the heart. In this case there will be some who truly come to fulfill these titles, to surpass them even. How? As they hear the gospel and are transformed from one degree of glory to another, for all eternity.

Photo by juan pablo rodriguez on Unsplash

Winter Lessons

When you move houses in our region, you have to live through all four seasons in order to find all the new place’s quirks and needed repairs. We are in our first winter in our old stone house and the quirks and issues have certainly kept us busy. As I write this, our house’s conductor for national electricity has burnt up, leaving us without power all day. Hopefully that will be remedied before sundown! The following is a list of lessons I’ve been learning while living through our first winter in this old stone house in the bazaar.

Rats. Rats apparently live in the old underground pipes, and they want to come inside in the winter and they love dry dog food. Not long ago we realized they were getting into the bag of dog food under our sink. Since we plugged all the holes in the walls (we think) they must have come through the kitchen drain. Upon inspection, we found that they had chewed through thick plastic piping in order to get to their coveted doggy chow. Thankfully, they have the same live rat cage-traps here that they had in Melanesia. And dog food proved to be the perfect bait. We caught two monstrous Rattigans and proceeded to dispose of them by drowning them in a bucket. The covering for our drain is now metal, so hopefully that keeps them out going forward.

Mice. We also caught a very cute little mouse. Unfortunately when guests unexpectedly came over, we put the toddler-named “Gus-gus” out on the roof in the cage-trap which caught him. It was a winter rain storm at the time and the little guy didn’t make it because of the wet and the cold, much to my kids’ sadness (and perhaps my wife’s relief).

Drains. The winter rains also cause the drains to stink like soggy-rodent-meets-rotten-eggs. Still working on a permanent fix for this one. Perhaps S-trap piping under the sinks will work.

Natural Gas. We are going through a regional natural gas shortage, which is what locals and we use for cooking and heaters. I realized too late that our neighborhood doesn’t have a good gas bottle exchange system and that we were almost out. In most neighborhoods, gas trucks roam slowly while playing ice cream truck melodies. But these trucks are very rare right now, even in the other neighborhoods where they ply their trade. One of the only remedies is to show up at certain gas supply stores at 6 a.m. to wait with a huge crowd of other men to get one small tank exchanged. I’m no good at the Central Asian crowd shoving thing and I covet my quiet mornings so I haven’t gone to do this yet, but may have to grit my teeth and bear it if our supply runs out before the shortage ends.

Oak Wood, TP, and Silicone. We bought a small aluminum barrel stove for burning wood for $12 so that we could heat a room in the evenings and stretch the natural gas further. We have had big piles of wood in our yard from tree trimmings and other projects. But what the locals say is definitely true. The wood of our mountain scrub oaks burns hotter and way longer than other types of wood. Get yourself some oak wood for your fireplaces, it’s great stuff. Also, stuffing TP rolls with dryer lint makes for a great fire starter! Who knew? However, you can’t seal your village stove chimney pipes with normal silicone. If you do, the whole room will be filled with smoke from the melting silicone, as happened to us on Christmas morning.

Backups of Backups. As I’m reminded every winter, it’s very wise to have backups of backups – and perhaps backups of those. This is because the government cuts way back on electricity in the winter amid the cold and the load put on the system by electric heaters. When national electricity is on, we can run as much as we need to. When it’s off, our neighborhood generator (available 1pm – 1am) is our backup. We can run 16 amps on that. When both are off or broken we have a battery-inverter system for some lights and internet (up to 1 amp). Our gas heaters serve as our back up for heat, and now our wood stove is our backup for when there’s no gas. I’m currently chewing on a backup system for hot water as the electricity hasn’t been enough for hot water in the evenings. The goal is to have enough backup systems so that when things break (as they regularly do) you can schedule a repair, carry on with your work, and it doesn’t have to destroy your schedule or cause much stress.

Long Johns and Thermal Socks. Man, do these make a difference in a Central Asian house in winter! When I first moved to this country with 120 degree F (48 C) summers, I scoffed at the suggestions I got to bring this kind of winter gear. But I have since repented of my youthful folly. I recently had a team bring over some new thermal socks, and my feet are very grateful as they walk on the cold tile.

Well, there’s my list of current winter lessons I’m learning (or relearning). We don’t usually put stuff like this in our prayer letters. And yet depending on the season these kinds of life logistics can end up being a very big part of our lives. Talk with missionaries all over the world and you’ll hear similar stories. One trip to the market is an all-day affair. One simple repair project consumes multiple days. The quest for working systems at home can be all-consuming.

It’s not glorious, but it is one important part of maintaining access and presence among our focus people groups or cities. And though I’m not exactly sure how, even dealing with rodents and the fried electricity boxes will somehow count for all eternity.

Photo by Joshua J. Cotten on Unsplash

Like a Hand With Five Thumbs

If I have the option to join a church overseas made up only of other missionaries or to join with a local or international church, I will choose the latter options every time.

It’s not that I don’t enjoy worshiping and fellowshipping with other cross-cultural workers. I enjoy it very much and the spiritual friendship is often rich. We share so much in common – gifting, calling, passion, interests, etc. These people are very much my tribe. But therein lies the problem. We are so remarkably similar.

Imagine a hand that has five thumbs. Sure, it may come with certain advantages, but it wouldn’t be digit-diverse in the way that hands were created to be. It would be lopsided, unnatural, out of balance.

This is how it feels when I do house church with only other missionaries. In spite of our diversity of personality and background, we are like a hand of thumbs only. Crucial strengths – and weaknesses – that would be present in a more diverse church are missing. This leaves us in danger of serious blindspots, and in danger of being an incomplete portrait of the body of Christ for a world that desperately needs to be exposed to such a community.

Cross-cultural church planters tend to be strong in certain giftings – evangelism, faith, vision, knowledge, strategy. We tend to be from well-educated middle-class backgrounds. We are part of the demographic that has benefited from globalization. We live a transient life by choice, renting and not owning, traveling back and forth from our places of service to our home countries. We do the work of ministry full-time or, like me, have only part-time platform jobs. We deeply feel the need for contextualization and reproducibility and often don’t deeply feel the need for tradition or organization.

Contrast this to an international church I was a part of in a previous city. The elders were from multiple nations and continents. The attendees were migrant laborers from South Asia, refugees from neighbor countries, businessmen from all over, a few locals with good English, and some Western missionaries like us. While this particular international church had a strong vision for local church planting (which is not always the case), they were also able to provide a very different – and grounding – perspective on our cross-cultural work. They didn’t have the same hangups that people like us did, nor did they have the same blind-spots. It was strange – and refreshing.

I am all for devoting my life and my heart to my focus people group. But there was something very healthy about showing up to a service and being greeted by brothers and sisters from very different people groups and walks of life whose language and culture I am not devoted to learning. It was a humbling reminder that our responsibility to be spiritual family in the body of Christ is broader than our individual callings. It was like being stretched on a weekly basis and thrust out of my ministry bubble into a much bigger one, one which had some very different questions, needs, and concerns – one where I was worshiping side by side with believers from “enemy” people groups. I found it profoundly helpful.

Many missionaries around the world have no choice but to worship only with others like them. There are no international churches where they live, and the local churches they seek to plant don’t exist yet. Sometimes the only churches present are false churches or profoundly unhealthy. I have been in similar situations myself. But many missionaries choose to worship exclusively with others like them in an effort to stay focused on their strategy and task. While I understand where they are coming from, I believe they are missing out.

Thumbs need pinky fingers. And missionaries need regular contact with other diverse members of the body of Christ. Whatever you make of the controversies that have swirled in missions in recent decades – insider movements, Muslim idiom translations, movement methodology – each represents perspectives that spread with broad acceptance in the missions community only to later encounter fierce resistance from pastors and theologians.

In our zeal to reach the nations, sometimes we missionaries come up with – or spread – dangerous stuff. If the only input we are getting is from other cross-cultural types, then we are likely to miss the danger and join in on the excitement. And it makes sense that this is the case. We cross-cultural workers are shaped by similar forces. However, were we to run new and exciting methods by wise pastors, brows might quickly furrow.

Pastors tend to think differently than missionaries do. And this is a good thing. We need one another’s perspective. Sometimes the local church gets stuck and needs a missions perspective in order to break out of old wineskins. Sometimes missionaries go off the deep end and need the church to wisely call them back to solid ground.

We also need the perspective of the poor migrant worker, the persecuted and struggling believer, or the man or woman holding down an average career who owns an average home. These “inconvenient” or “not sold out” believers are just as valuable in the eyes of Christ as we are – even if they never plant a church or multiply disciples. To sidestep them is to rob ourselves of sharing in some of the deepest riches of the church. If we isolate ourselves in churches full of only similar type giftings, then our churches are highly likely to be less healthy and less compelling.

Time is a challenge, I get it. The nations desperately need to be reached and very few of us are devoted to the hard work of learning the languages and cultures of unreached people groups. It’s very difficult to be meaningfully involved in one church while trying to plant another one at the same time. The kids can only take so much running around.

Yet we must not forget that missions is not an end-justifies-the-means endeavor. The end of all nations worshiping Christ must happen via the biblical means. That means is the local church, messy, diverse, slow – and beautiful. Full of all members of the body, not just thumbs.

Photo by Muhammad Rizki on Unsplash