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)

Photo by Ezra Jeffrey-Comeau on Unsplash

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.

Photo by Sergiu Vălenaș on Unsplash

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

The Spiritual Uses of Eczema

For a while now I’ve had eczema outbreaks on my hands. It started in earnest after my daughter developed diabetes in the middle of spring 2020 Covid lockdowns. Which followed a decade of a pretty intense ministry lifestyle on my part. Apparently an auto-immune disease like eczema can develop in response to massive stress or experiencing trauma. These things don’t get fully dealt with and can come out in the body. Makes sense, given the season and background.

The eczema itself hasn’t been terrible, but along with some other small health things that won’t go away it has been a regular and sobering reminder of my own brokenness. A chance to lament with a deathbed line from M’Cheyne, that God gave me a message and a horse (a body). I have preached the message – and I have been killing the horse. My eczema reminds me that I am a limited creature, with a limited body and mind. When I push beyond the good boundaries baked into my created nature, things tend to break. And they might stay broken for a long time.

As such, eczema keeps me humble. It reminds me of the importance of living at a God-honoring pace. It itches and breaks open in seasons of increased stress. When it does, it reminds me of the ways my pride has contributed to that load of stress. God uses it as a kind reminder of hard truths that I am prone to ignore.

However, tonight I heard of a very different spiritual use of eczema. *Alan came for the first time to our discipleship meeting tonight in order to share his testimony with the other believing local men. He had shown up out of nowhere a couple weeks ago, professing faith and desiring baptism. Normally we’d be pretty skeptical, waiting for the tell-tale question about baptism certificates that indicates a young man is looking to “convert” in order to craft a religious persecution case for the UN. But Alan’s story was very different. After years of studying different religions, he had immersed himself in a study of Christianity during those same lockdowns of 2020. After many months and thousands of hours of study, he seems to have been born again, in isolation, this past January. And right around that time, God healed him of his severe eczema.

Alan had struggled all his life with terrible eczema on his arms, in spite of trying countless treatments. The dryness of our local climate, the severity of the sun, and the extent of his outbreaks meant arms bandaged up arms and plenty of limitations. Alan is also brilliant, training to be a doctor, with the mind of a young scholar. So a lack of research was not the problem.

But in the mysteries of God’s providence, right as Alan came under conviction that the gospel is true, his eczema completely disappeared. He is convinced it was a miracle of God’s healing power, one which emphasized God’s love and care for him personally. I am prone to believe him.

Just a couple weeks ago I was encouraging some new personnel as they shared about a friend who seems painfully close to faith, but who just won’t yet take the plunge. “I don’t understand. She sees and mentally agrees with the gospel when we study together, but she’s just not quite believing it yet,” my colleague said, shaking her head. I shared with her that this phase is not uncommon at all among our local friends. They come to the place where they know the gospel is true in their minds. But they often get stuck there, seeming unable or unwilling to fully believe it for a season. Those that make it through this season often do so because of a demonstration of spiritual power and/or presence.

I’m not talking about anything too crazy here. But to not notice this trend in the work here one would have to be willfully blind. The majority of our Muslim Central Asian friends who follow Jesus experience something like a dream, a healing, or a powerful indication of God’s care for them as one of their final steps towards believing (Yes, even those being led to faith by us Baptists). This event often confirms for them experientially the truths they’ve been seeing in God’s word. It’s so commonplace – especially dreams – that those who don’t experience one sometimes wonder if they’ve done something wrong. We of course assure them that they haven’t.

The salvation of an individual has been the same since the beginning – counted righteous by faith in God’s promises. Confirmation of the truth of the gospel or the new birth may vary considerably, and we are unwise if we get overly-narrow and demand the optional confirmatory workings of the Spirit look the same every time. No, keep it simple and biblical. A credible gospel profession with the mouth. A life that, even if only in seed-form, evidences the transforming power of the Spirit. After that, the Spirit is free to show off if and how He wants to. And yes, He tends to do so differently in fear/power and honor/shame cultures than he does in the cognitive West. If in doubt, please consult some classic missionary biographies. Or some of our local church members. Or 1st Corinthians chapter one. Greeks seek wisdom. Jews seek a sign. The Spirit saves both and demonstrates the gospel to be the true power and true wisdom of God.

If God indeed miraculously healed Alan’s eczema, what might be the point of that particular healing? If we study the ways the Holy Spirit has tended to work here, it would likely have to do with the category of confirmation and assurance. Yes, you are about to go against your entire society and follow Jesus, but this is not just some philosophy, this is actually and powerfully true. Yes, your body may be broken someday by persecution, but resurrection is coming – and here is a little preview of death working in reverse. Take courage. Yes, your relatives might call you an unclean infidel, but you have found the source of true cleansing. Everything that Jesus touches becomes clean.

For another reason I am very thankful for this experience that Alan has had. He is very intellectually-wired and has already consumed thousands of hours of YouTube apologetics. There is great danger that his heady faith will misfire if not grounded in experience, affection, and a messy local church. Brilliant minds like his can be shaken by subtle or powerful anti-gospel arguments and they can fall into a continual search for truth, one which never ultimately lands anywhere. But what about the eczema? What scholarly argument could convince him that that never happened, that the timing was purely coincidental? It may serve as a safeguard in the future when his faith is shaken, as experiences of God’s faithful kindness serve to stabilize so many of us when we begin to doubt.

If Alan is right, and this was a healing, then how very fitting it is. That Jesus might make someone clean from a skin disease as a metaphor for what he is doing to their very nature.

Regardless, Jesus has truly reached out and touched this young man’s unclean soul. And once again, Jesus did not become unclean. Instead, Alan is now truly and forever healed and whole.

And us? We are making plans for a baptism.

*names changed for security

Photo by Bogomil Mihaylov on Unsplash

A Day in My Life in Central Asia

Ever wondered what a typical day looks like for missionaries like us serving in places like Central Asia? I can’t exactly say what a “normal” day is, since life here tends to be pretty fluid and not super structured, both due to the culture and the nature of our role. But as I thought through this particular day which is now wrapping up, I realized many of its parts give a window into key themes and challenges of this season of ministry. So, here it is. A day in the life of this particular cross-cultural church planter.

Today I slept past my alarm.

Drank coffee and read 30 minutes in a book about power and abuse in the Church.

Tried to counsel my seven-year-old through a bad attitude about her homeschool work.

Messed for a while with the internet only to realize the government had shut if off again to prevent cheating during university exams. Mobile data as well.

Listened to an audiobook while I got ready in order to keep preparing for the fall semester at the NGO where I teach part-time as my platform work.

Went for an hour prayer walk in the bazaar and stayed in the shade as much as possible.

Stopped for a cold blended melon drink on my way back to catch up on some texts. Updated colleagues on crisis counseling happening among local believing friends.

Went to the vet for tick medicine, and then back at home removed about 40 ticks off my poor dog. Drowned them in apple cider vinegar. Ordered a flea and tick collar from the US so that I never have to do that again.

Lunch with the family on the floor together, local style.

Talked with a student about a picnic house which he saw for rent. We are trying to find better local options for rest and sabbath.

Set up a friend who came to finish an overdue house project.

Led an update call with several coworkers in other cities.

Wrote out an English outline of the message this Friday and began the local language manuscript.

Made plans to go to a believing friend’s picnic house tomorrow night so my wife can connect with some of his unbelieving female coworkers who are also coming.

Dinner on the floor with the family.

Attended an engagement party for a believing attendee of our church plant who went against counsel and got engaged to an unbeliever. There was the normal line dancing but also a traditional dance involving a large knife.

Got my sleepy and sugar-crashing family back home, watered the garden trees, and threw away a pigeon carcass. Made plans for checking the local language sermon manuscript, sometime tomorrow.

Getting to bed probably around 1 a.m.

There it is. One random day in my life here. Overall not too abnormal, other than the tick apocalypse (grimacing even now as I recall it). During my prayer walk I was meditating on the end of the book of Jude, particularly verse 21, “keep yourselves in the love of God, waiting for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ that leads to eternal life.”

I look back on a normal day like this one and am honestly a bit daunted by the trials and dubious of my ability to keep myself in the love of God. Keep myself? But that next line gives me courage. I am called to do this by waiting on Jesus’ mercy. Ok. Waiting. I think I can do that. I might not always have the faith to laugh at the future when there are some really hard things going on in the present. But I do have faith that He can help me wait. I trust that he will, one day at a time.

Photo by Boudewijn Huysmans on Unsplash

Why True Faith Is and Is Not Like Sheikhood

We are teaching through the book of John at our small local church plant. This past week we were looking at chapter 8:31-38, a section often summarized as “The Truth Will Set You Free.” A couple of the local believing men came by earlier in the week to study through the passage with me and we spent an hour or so asking interpretive questions of the text and making observations. What a help it is as a teacher to meet with other men with their own eyes and their own insights into the text.

One of the final questions I like to ask in these study sessions is, “What connections does this passage have to your culture? Any proverbs, customs, or history that can serve to illustrate the truth that we see here?” This time around we couldn’t think of much that connected with the major themes of freedom, slavery, and truth. I decided to shelve the question and try to come back to it when I was crafting the sermon later. I was writing out my local language manuscript the next day when it came to me – sheikhood might work.

The local concept of sheikhood could serve as a negative illustration of true faith held out in this passage of John. In this passage, Jesus has proclaimed that true disciples are those who abide in his word, who know the truth, and who are set free by the truth (v. 31-32). In protest, the Jewish audience balks, responding that they are free, that they have never been slaves of anyone, because they are children of Abraham (v. 33). Jesus goes on to spell out their slavery to sin and their need to be set free from the temporary and dangerous situation of the slave, and into the eternal freedom of the son and his house (v. 34-36).

One of the main points of the sermon was that only the truth of Jesus can set us free – our physical lineage cannot. This is where sheikhood comes in. Locals believe that an Islamic holy man, a sheikh, passes on his title, his prestige, and to some extent his holiness automatically to his biological male descendants. This is regardless of the actual character or life of said male descendant. He might not pray, he might be a drinker, or he might even be an atheist, and many would still call him “Dear Sheikh So-And-So.” Locals freely acknowledge this, and see the inconsistency in it, but it continues to happen nonetheless. We even had a fun surprise during all this, discovering that one of our own believing members, *Darius, is technically a sheikh in this regard (Given the fun-loving nature of our church plant, we are sure to have a good time teasing Darius with this newfound knowledge).

My point in bringing up sheikhood was to compare it with the Jews’ misplaced faith in their physical descent from Abraham and to contrast it to the true faith that is experienced by the individual who is set free by the truth of Jesus alone. True faith is not like sheikhood. It is not passed automatically from father to son, merely downloaded through physical descent. This view of faith-by-blood is a real danger in this part of the world, one which can destroy gospel clarity in as little as one generation. Local believers begin with the assumption that their physical children are automatically born with the same faith as their father. However, instead of this we should not trust in our parents, our people, our supposed descent from holy men, or anything else. We should trust in Christ alone and continue abiding in his word.

It resonated. The believers knew what I was talking about when I made the connection in the sermon, and they seemed to grasp the contrast presented by the illustration from their own world.

Later on, a few of us were at lunch together, enjoying some good rice, lamb, soups, and flatbread. Our summer volunteer turned to Mr *Talent and asked him what he had learned from the sermon that day. Mr. Talent swallowed his mouthful of flatbread and rice, and furrowed his brow.

“Well, the point about sheikhood was a powerful one for me.”

I nodded, thinking I knew where he was going. Instead, he took it in a different direction.

“Just as sheikhood is given from father to son without the son doing anything, so God the father gives us the eternal freedom of Jesus apart from our good works, and we thus also become sons of God.”

I smiled to myself. How many times had I heard other teachers and preachers recount how some the most powerful takeaways from their messages were not actually connections they had made at all? And yet it was not an improper connection to make. The eternal freedom of the Son is indeed given to us freely, not entirely unlike how the honor of a practicing sheikh is given (imputed) also to his irreligious son. How interesting that Mr. Talent put the pieces together in this way.

So in the end, it seems that we could say that sheikhood is and sheikhood is not like true faith. We are not saved by being part of anyone’s physical line. But we are saved by being part of a certain spiritual line, that of Christ. And in this line we become so much more than mere sheikhs, with their false genetic titles and holiness. We become free indeed, eternal residents of the house of God himself.

Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

He Really is On the Move

“So we’re the first Christians that you have met in person?”

“That’s right,” our new friend replied.

“And how long has it been since you believed in Jesus?” I asked.

“Since January… I had been studying the Bible and listening to theology and apologetics for six hours every day. Before that I had been searching for the truth for years. My family is Muslim, but I became an atheist, then a Buddhist. But none of them had answers for suffering, nor for my desire to be loved by God.”

We sipped our coffees and chai in the mall food court and marveled at what this young man was telling us in his near-fluent English. He continued.

“But now I know it’s not a weakness to desire to be loved by God, as all my friends say it is. It is the Holy Spirit who was working in me.”

“You know,” we told him, “there are several small churches of believers in this city from your people group. We’re so glad you were able to find us.”

“I thought I was alone,” he said shaking his head. “I would really like to meet other believers like me, from a Muslim background. If I don’t come to your meeting tomorrow, I will definitely be there next week.”

I recalled my recent desperate prayer. Please show us that you are indeed working here. It feels like strife and failure everywhere we turn. Where is the power of the truth?

Then all of the sudden, today I am introduced to a new believer brought to faith completely in isolation, through the witness of YouTube apologetics channels and a few good books like Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus. None of us were involved whatsoever. And yet now we get to introduce him to the body and bride of Christ, the local church.

Yes, I know in my head that the Spirit must be working here in countless ways we cannot see. But oh what it does for the heart when this secret work is revealed. He really is here. He really is on the move. It really isn’t dependent on us.

It really isn’t dependent on us. What a truth to rest in.

And I have other sheep that are not of this fold; I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. John 10:16

Photo by Azamat E on Unsplash

He Gave Gifts So That We Will Not Die

We recently had a mini team retreat where we looked into the spiritual gifting and personality wiring of the different members on our team. At one point, one of my teammates quoted me as once telling him, “You have the strengths you do for a good reason. Sooner or later, they will save the day. We need your gifts, honestly, so that we won’t die!”

While we had a good laugh together about this particular melodramatic wording, I honestly stand by these words. Not only do I recognize the goodness of the diverse natural and spiritual gifts on my team, I need them. Even if we weren’t engaged in church planting somewhere like Central Asia. My belief in the sovereignty of God is such that I know that he has brought these particular teammates, for this particular season, because their gifts and strengths will be the key to making it through tricky and terrible situations. When I will not know how to thread the needle, when I simply won’t know what to do or what to say – somehow, one of them will. And it will make all the difference.

Consider this quote by Corrie Ten Boom: “This is what the past is for! Every experience God gives us, every person He puts in our lives is the perfect preparation for the future that only He can see.”

I don’t think this is only true for experience and persons in our lives, but also for the natural personalities that God has given us as well as the supernatural gifts he has bestowed.

This is nothing other than a practical outworking of the sovereignty of God and theology of spiritual gifts. This is “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” meets “all things work together for good” (1 Cor 12:7, Rom 8:28).

Persecution is coming. Wolves in sheep’s clothing are coming. Suffering, awakening, complexity, breakthrough. How can I wish that you be just like me when I know that our differences are divinely ordained in order that we might face these challenges faithfully?

No, if everyone on my team was wired just like me, we would all die prematurely – metaphorically, and perhaps even literally.

This is true in general, but also true of my specific wiring. I have been created an ideas/vision guy. My brain gets flooded with hundreds of possible futures for the work here, most of which we can never pursue, and some that should never pursue. The problem is, in the beginning all of these ideas make a stunning and powerful rush on my brain, as if dazzlingly bright and accompanied by the Hallelujah chorus and rows of Central Asian picnic line dancers. And yet, they often turn out to be duds, or at least to be decent ideas that have not yet found their proper time. (Idea people out there, please find a place to store your ideas so that you can manage this issue, for everyone’s sake. I use the app, Trello. Time to marinate is key here.)

Should we quietly develop a legal network of friendly lawyers and judges in anticipation of coming persecution? Yes. Good idea, but premature timing. We don’t have the capacity or know-how yet for this. Should we start an illegal pork-smuggling operation in order to support local believers who have lost their jobs? Um… better take that one back to the drawing board.

My team (and my spouse) are my invaluable friends who help me know how to wisely move forward, in all kinds of situations, because Christ has ascended and has given them gifts (Eph 4:8).

Whatever our cooperative situation with other believers – be it church membership, ministry, the workplace, the family – let’s strive to more often view others through the lenses of sovereign gifts that might at some point save the day.

And who knows? Perhaps even our very lives.

Photo by Spencer Davis on Unsplash

Respecting Gas Station Attendants and The Importance of Toilet Shoes

I’ve been spending a lot of time this summer with *Darius, one of the faithful local men who is a part of our church plant. Darius has a wonderful gifting – that of a person who is becoming truly bicultural. People like him are able to function well in two or more very different cultural settings without rejecting either culture. They make great students if their teacher is, like me, from another culture. They also make wonderful teachers themselves, since they still deeply value their home culture and are willing to explain it. It’s no coincidence that 1st Corinthians 9, “becoming all things to all men” has been a passage Darius keeps coming back to lately. All this has made him a lifesaver when it comes to the holes in our cultural knowledge that we still have, even as we approach six years in this context. Here are some of the things we’ve recently learned from him.

Gas Station Attendants. In order to display respect to gas station attendants, it’s honorable for the driver to disembark from his vehicle while being served. Here it’s still the norm for gas station employees to pump the vehicle fuel, not the driver. But to remain seated in the cab is apparently to communicate a certain sense of one’s own superiority over the man pumping the gas. So, just as men should get up (or attempt a half-stand) when another man enters the room, so a driver should get down from his seat and stand on an equal level with the attendant. It’s a small thing, one that we would have likely never spotted had Darius not mentioned it to us. But now that we know we have one more area of daily conduct in which we can act respectfully.

Toilet Shoes. The grossest thing in the world to a local is a home bathroom that has no toilet shoes. These are rubbery slip-on sandals that are worn by locals when they visit the W.C. In order to be a good host, these slippers must always be available, conveniently lined up outside the toilet area. Do they ever get washed? Not that I’ve ever seen. But wearing these toilet slippers communicates cleanliness to locals, and to approach a bathroom while barefoot (outside shoes are never worn indoors) is to be faced with deep horror and dismay. We already had bathroom shoes available most of the time for our guests, but now we have become hyper-vigilant to make sure we always have them at the ready.

Shaving Armpits. And speaking of personal cleanliness, Darius and the other local believers were recently scandalized to learn that Western men don’t shave their armpits on the regular. We foreigners were somewhat shocked to hear that local men do shave their armpits, and that they find it to be a cornerstone of regular personal hygiene. “In our culture that’s really dirty!” our local friends said to us. “In our culture that’s kind of unmanly!” we said to them. Who knew? Apparently we had not gone swimming together quite enough to notice this crucial difference in approaches to body hair. Needless to say, neither side has acted yet on this newfound cross-cultural difference.

If you ever serve cross-culturally, pray for a friend like Darius. Little tips like these are immensely practical as we seek to avoid needless offense and to little-by-little put on the local culture and lifestyle. We won’t always choose to practice these kinds of things ourselves. Local men find it unmanly to wash the dishes, for example. But if we don’t know what the differences are, then we are not free to choose which behavior will best commend ourselves and our message to our local friends.

Sometimes we will not put on the local culture, so as to drive home an important contrast. I will most certainly wash the dishes for my wife, regardless of the locals who might snicker. But most often, we will put on the local culture (and yes, the toilet shoes). This is to be like Paul, so that by any means, we “might save some.”

Photo by John Tuesday on Unsplash

*Names changed for security

Not Burning the Wet Wood With the Dry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by Timon Wanner on Unsplash