The exchange between Patrick and his adopted people is marvelous to contemplate. In the overheated Irish cultural environment, mystical attitudes toward the world were taken for granted, as they had never been in the cooler, more rational Roman world. Despite its pagan darkness and shifting insubstantiality, this Irish environment was in the end a more comfortable one for the badly educated shepherd boy to whom God spoke directly. His original home in Roman Britain had become an alien place to him. But the Irish gave Patrick more than a home – they gave him a role, a meaning to his life. For only this former slave had the right instincts to impart to the Irish a New Story, one that made new sense of all their old stories and brought them a peace they had never known before.
Cahill, How the Irish Saved Civilization, pp. 147-148
This description of Patrick might resonate with many who have grown up as third-culture kids, those who are raised in a different culture than their parents’ native one and who develop their own “third” personal culture. Patrick’s story was somewhat different in that he was forced to become a third-culture kid when he was kidnapped and made a shepherd-slave. But many TCKs today will still resonate with the line, “his original home… had become an alien place to him.” Some might also recognize the strange discovery that this failure to fit in often points to a particular purpose elsewhere.
“We’ve got to move discipleship back an hour. It’s too early now!”
This was the claim of one of our local believers last month. As the days lengthen here, most families are eating later as well, pegging dinner time to the setting of the sun. Our local brother wanted to honor his parents by making sure he was there for dinner.
Of course, we support local believers honoring their families, but we had agreed upon a 7 pm start time for our weekly discipleship meeting and had had a good run of stable weekly meetings at that time. We weren’t super eager to change what had been working as a good schedule. Then there are the kids to think about. A meeting that starts at 8 pm means they’re not getting to sleep until after 10.
In our developed-world minds, the most natural thing is to peg a meeting to a certain time on the clock, regardless of what nature is doing. Then stick with it. But many locals find it more natural to live with the rhythms of the sun and the seasons. Islam also encourages this, tying the daily times of prayer to the position of the sun, not to a 24 hour clock.
We ended up shifting the meeting to 8 pm and deferring to this local preference. We’ll likely shift back to a 7 pm meeting in the middle of the fall as locals begin to feel that the deeper darkness that will then be present at 8 pm makes the meeting actually later.
Turns out our developed-world sense of late and early is tied to a fixed 24 hour clock and is not dependent primarily on actual light and darkness. Locals’ understanding of these terms prioritizes the light and the darkness over the clock. It’s a small thing, but it can make scheduling a little complicated!
I’m reminded of church services in Melanesia when I was a boy. If it was a cloudy day everyone knew that church would start late. A certain sensed brightness of the sunlight cued many of the locals there to start making their trek by foot to the church building. Hence the presence of clouds meant a “later” congregation. The Bible school-trained pastor would often scold the congregants for coming late, but in vain. They were comfortably convinced that they had arrived (like a wizard) precisely when they meant to.
It seems that we in the West have sought to become completely independent of nature when it comes to our methods of time management. We use man-made items like clocks, calendars, checklists, and technology to find a steadier time-trellis than we feel that nature provides. But many other cultures, including those in this corner of Central Asia, still approach time management the classic way – that is, by relying on the stimuli of nature and the power of the body’s internal memory.
Locals can tell you that when a certain star appears, that means the worst of the summer heat is over. They have taught us that the flowering of the almond tree means the very beginning of spring – and they know what kind of work needs to be done accordingly. Even in extreme weather, they build their houses and live their lives with a greater openness to the elements. As new apartment buildings go up, most locals still live lives considerably less cut off from nature than do their peers in the West. I wonder if this will change for those of the younger generation. But at least for those their thirties and their elders, living this way is just plain common sense. Their ability to live without an extra trellis for their brain on paper or on a screen truly amazes me. And sometimes stresses me out.
I do feel a certain sadness realizing how divorced from creation we in the developed world have become. Read older books and you’ll notice that the comments made about stars and trees assume a certain level of common knowledge about these things that we just don’t have anymore. I have an app on my phone that can show the names of the constellations, but I don’t know many by heart. This used to be a central part of any education worth its salt. Same goes for different kinds of trees. In this way we are different from most other generations of humanity.
And it’s not just stars and trees. We have been living with cheap lighting for a couple centuries now, and this has changed our collective sleep habits drastically. Consider the disappearance of the term “second sleep” from our cultural vocabulary. What is second sleep? You know, that time in the middle of the night when everyone goes back to sleep after waking up for an hour or two, doing some work, eating a snack, praying, etc. Wait, what?
I am mostly for the extra efficiency and productivity that has come from having a stable 24 hour clock. I can’t imagine global logistics really working any other way. But I can’t help but wonder, were we supposed to do it this way? Or are the relative “hours” of the sundial actually healthier for us? Could God have designed us with a need for shorter hours for part of the year and longer hours for another part?
I never would have even pondered these questions had it not been for the cross-cultural differences we’ve encountered regarding time. This is one of the reasons I love living in a different culture. I’m regularly confronted with different life assumptions than my own. Often, that means fertile ground for chewing and imagining. Sometimes it even leads to wisdom. New alternatives can cause us to question whether the way we’ve done it is the only way, or the best way. They can lead us into new expressions of faithfulness. God’s truth is universal and timeless. It seems that the shades of it’s applications are endless.
These differences display a multifaceted glory – that of the image of God in human beings and their societies. Look at how the West has crafted such powerful systems to manage and redeem time! Look at how Central Asia lives so intuitively in touch with God’s creation! Look at the grace of God on display for those of us floundering in the intersection of time cultures!
Speaking of grace, I have a long way to go still in really understanding how locals think about time management. But I am an eager student. These places of culture clash are, in fact, goldmines. And because Revelation 7:9 points to the preservation of visible cultural differences in eternity, we will have all the time we need to explore them.
“You see those peacock doors?” my friend asked as we drove along a major road in our new neighborhood. “That’s where The Sheikh lives. He is super rich from all the people that come to him for – what do you call it in English? You know, when someone uses paper and verses from the Qur’an to curse someone’s enemies?”
“You mean spells?”
“Yes! Spells. He charges $35 for a basic spell – and dozens of people come to him every day. So many women come to curse families that they are fighting with. And he’s been doing it for decades.”
“Is that legal? Does the whole city know about him?” I asked.
“Ha! Yes, the government won’t stop it. And he’s super famous. Everyone knows what he does.”
“So do people come to him for blessing spells as well? Like if they want their child to recover from an illness?”
“Oh yes, that too. Spells for cursing and for blessing. And $35 is only for the most basic ones. He charges a lot more for the bigger jobs.”
“It’s just like Melanesia,” I said, shaking my head. “Every village had a man called a sangumaman, and he was basically the village witch doctor, cursing and blessing (for the right price), helping people try to manipulate the spirits.”
We drove along and passed a shiny new shopping mall, a place seemingly proclaiming the triumph of globalized commercialism over the superstitions of the past. It felt a world away from the strange peacock doors we had passed just a few minutes beforehand. I remembered again the subtle trap of believing that modernization in terms of businesses and other external infrastructure was actually changing the inner worldview of the culture. It isn’t – or at least it isn’t any time soon. What do they do when their child is deathly sick? That was always an important test in Melanesia for locals and professing believers. I didn’t expect it to have such a direct parallel here in Central Asia. Apparently folk Islam is still alive and well and running a profit right under our noses.
“You know,” I said to my friend, “someday one of us believers might need to challenge The Sheikh, and tell him that his most powerful spells can’t affect a faithful believer who’s got the Holy Spirit living inside of them. Now that would be an interesting contest. And when his curse failed, then I bet the whole city would know about it.”
“I’m down bro, when do we do it? He has destroyed so many families. Let’s take him down!”
I smiled at my friend’s enthusiasm. That day could very well come. But we certainly won’t go searching out that kind of confrontation. If the Lord clearly asked us to confront him, we would. I’ve read enough missionary biographies to know that the witch doctor has real power – but that he doesn’t stand a chance against the Holy Spirit. And though we are planning for a subtler route for gospel impact, sometimes that kind of direct confrontation is exactly what is needed for breakthrough.
I am reminded one of the main points of Sinclair Ferguson’s book, The Holy Spirit. That point is simply that over and over again when the Holy Spirit appears in the Old Testament, it it for this purpose: to go to war. Sooner or later, He will come for The Sheikh. And on that day all The Sheikh’s little spells will fail him.
A few weeks ago we were asked by some future teammates if there is anything they can do to prepare for the mission field during their last few months in the US. I said something to them that I had not previously mentioned in these types of conversations.
“Try to go deeper in knowing yourselves. Ask your mentors, friends, and family for feedback on your strengths and weaknesses. Come to the field ready to be honest about those things and knowing how you will need to lean on others on your team. If you have a better understanding of who you are, you will be better able to understand your teammates – and you’ll be less likely to fall into unnecessary conflict.”
I said this because I am slowly coming to the conviction that a lack of self-awareness and a lack of holy imagination are at the root of much team conflict. And the two are related. Regarding self awareness, it simply takes a long time to truly see ourselves in relation to others. Most of us start off kind of ignorant of what we’re actually like, thinking that we are the definition of normal, balanced, and gifted, and that the world would be a better place if everyone else were more like us. It’s often after a long process of clashing and bonding with others who are very different from us that we really learn to live in a robust theology of the body of Christ – that there are all kinds of differences among the members and that this is actually worthy of celebration. We as individuals have some real gifts and strengths, and a unique slew of corresponding weaknesses. But the body of Christ working together is beautiful in how the members complement one another.
We need to get better at knowing ourselves – learning our own personal culture, as I like to think of it. But we also need to pursue growth in putting ourselves in someone else’s shoes – in what has been called holy imagination. I recently listened to an interview where professor Karen Swallow Prior was advocating for Christians to read more good literature – like Frankenstein. Her argument was a new one for me. She said that God has given us imaginations, and we will engage them somewhere. If we don’t engage them in healthy ways (like fiction books), then we will be more drawn to unhealthy things like conspiracy theories. Yikes. An underdeveloped imagination is also likely to lead to ugly conflict with others as we fail to exercise our imagination in interpreting their words charitably. For exhibit A, log on to Christian Twitter.
Yes, believers say things that seem hurtful or offensive all the time. But can we interpret those words in the broader context of our relationship? Can we understand why they would feel that way and speak that way given their history and their personality? Can we see things from their perspective? Feel things even from their perspective? This is what I mean by holy imagination. The Scriptures say that love bears and believes all things. Well, one way to practically apply that is to say that love puts itself in someone else’s shoes. When we consciously put ourselves in someone else’s situation and worldview, we end up more compassionate, patient – and better able to bear with their brokenness and their sin. And turns out this also makes us better at addressing their brokenness and sin.
Why are we so bad at doing this? I think I have more guesses than answers at this point. Though we are very strong in God’s book of revealed Scripture, I wonder why my tribe of reformed evangelicals is not particularly strong at reading God’s book of Nature – which includes things like culture, personality, and history. We are God-centered, but somehow not God-centered enough to study the complexity of God’s creation. We pride ourselves in knowing Paul’s logic in Romans, but for some reason use that as an excuse to not engage poetry as Paul did. Perhaps KSP is right, and we don’t engage our holy imaginations enough in things like literature and art. Is there something we are afraid of there? Or are we simply too busy doing ministry? Has anyone else ever found it ironic that the most influential fiction writers among evangelicals – Tolkien and Lewis – were themselves not evangelicals, but a Catholic and an Anglican?
As locals say when something doesn’t sit right, “there’s a hair in that yogurt.” Missionaries on the field are simply a reflection of our churches back home. And we are not very good at knowing ourselves and in our use of compassionate imagination. These are areas where we many of us need to pursue proactive growth – and I include myself in this.
So, to anyone reading this who is heading to the mission field, please do some hard work understanding yourself before you land on the field and join an already stressed-out team. Bring a metaphorical mirror to the field. It will really help. And please, bring your holy imagination.
I finally did it. I caved and purchased a pretty phone number for around $30.
As cross-cultural workers, there are some aspects of the culture that we are eager to put on. “Wow, the locals are so good at generous hospitality!”
There are other aspects that as Christians we will never put on, such as the shamefulness and suspicion attached to adoption among locals.
Then there are issues of preference in the culture that for one reason or another we just don’t care to put on. The fact that locals spend money to buy phone numbers that are deemed more beautiful? I just haven’t found that very important. Rather, in the age of smart phones it’s just felt kind of vain and goofy. Who cares about phone numbers anymore?
And yet every transition is another chance to reexamine our posture toward local culture and to take some additional steps so that we ourselves might seem less weird and goofy to the locals. This time around, my new platform manager joked that I should get a pretty phone number for my new business cards being made. We laughed about it, but the comment made me realize I was no longer absolutely closed to the idea, and it might be an experiment worth trying. After all, locals have been asking me about my ugly phone numbers for years. So I took the plunge and got a pretty phone number.
The first local friend I gave it to was *Frank, himself a very practical man more concerned with things working than with beauty. But sure enough, even Frank lit up. “Wow! Where did you get such a pretty mobile number?”
I just laughed to myself and then awkwardly told him how much I paid for it.
Locals can’t always put their finger on it, but they sense when cross-cultural workers are doing what they can to put on the local culture. It is meaningful because it is not absolutely necessary. “Why would you willingly change preferential things that you have grown up with in order to live more like we do?”
It’s not that a small step like this will make all the difference in becoming all things to all men. I remember being at an evangelism methods debate years ago where a white American brother proclaimed, “I do not need to learn how to shake hands like a black man in order to share the gospel with black men!” A Bolivian brother and I who were part of the discussion just kind of grimaced. Of course, this comment is correct on one level. We don’t need to learn culture as a precondition to sharing the gospel. The gospel itself qualifies us to share it across cultural lines. However, if step by step we also gradually reduce the cultural barriers that might be there, then we often find the cumulative effect to be a more attentive ear – and yes, a more skillful evangelist. The fact is, as an evangelist I have to drop some very hard truths on you regarding eternal damnation. So why not try to remove things that could tempt you to write off my message as for only my type of people?
We have learned that these kinds of shifts are just one more practical way to show love. This is true of any culture. But when foreign workers come from more dominant cultures and then willingly choose to identify with hidden or oppressed cultures, these small steps can mean even more. I can’t tell you how big the smiles get when we drop a few phrases in a minority tongue that no foreigner is supposed to know.
Yes, I am fully within my rights to continue living in the culture of my own heritage. It’s just as much a good culture as the local one, fully equal in its dignity and its brokenness. My parents’ culture is not inferior just because it is Western and has been very influential for a while. To act like it is is to fall into a different kind of error. However, when I willingly lay down my rights for the sake of love, when I take steps to identify just a little bit more with locals – just one more nod toward the honor and dignity embedded in their heritage that still endures even given all the fallenness and sin – this can open remarkable doors.
A pretty phone number will not be the straw that breaks the camel’s back and ushers in revival. But perhaps it will add to the stack! And thus it is an experiment worth attempting.
Tonight we had dinner with *Frank and *Patti, two dear local believers that I’ve written about before. We had a wonderful time eating and joking together and being introduced to their new poultry micro-business they’re operating from their roof. I must say – the roosters in this part of the world are positively huge.
Frank, in his mid 40s, is already sporting a full head of silvery hair. During our visit tonight I was reminded of the time three years ago when Frank shared his testimony publicly for the first time. We had asked four of the believers in the church plant to share a basic story of what their life was like before Jesus, how they had heard the gospel, the content of the gospel, and then how their life has changed since following Jesus.
When Frank’s turn to share had come, he stuck to this basic outline, but also included a bit of a detour explaining how Islam had always motivated him by fear, whereas the gospel motivated him now by better motives – love, gratitude, and glory. To illustrate, he surprised us by quoting Proverbs 16:31, “Gray hair is a crown of glory; it is gained in a righteous life.”
“I first heard this verse when sister Sister Workman shared it with me,” Frank said.
My wife looked up, surprised. She had shared this verse with Frank largely in jest and not ever thinking that anything would come of it.
“I heard this verse,” Frank continued, “and it struck me as a good example of how very different the gospel is from Islam.”
We cocked our heads and listened. This should be interesting.
“When I was a Muslim I was told that I shouldn’t dye my hair black to cover up these emerging gray hairs. To do so would be a terrible sin and contribute to my condemnation. But I have dyed my hair many times, because this motivation by fear wasn’t enough to control my desire to look good in front of others. But then after I believed, I heard this verse from the proverbs of Solomon, and it introduced a very different motivation to this issue. It told me that gray hair is a crown of glory. It motivated me to obedience with something better and stronger than fear, it motivated me through something beautiful, through glory.”
Frank then made the connection to the heart of the gospel. “The gospel of Jesus Christ doesn’t try change us by merely threatening condemnation, like the religion I grew up with. Instead, we are forgiven through the sacrifice of Jesus, since he took our condemnation for us, and then we are free to obey because of reasons like love and glory… So, I don’t have to dye my hair anymore! You’ll see me getting quite gray here very soon!
And Frank began to laugh his contagious and joyful laugh.
Tonight I smiled at Frank and his gray hair of glory as he proudly showed me his newly hatched chicks and goofy adolescent chickens with their feathered feet. I mused to myself about the potential for mini poultry businesses like this to support believers who lose their jobs because of their faith. Apparently you can buy a baby Turkey locally for $7, and sell it full-grown for $70 – and raise it almost for free on table scraps. Not bad!
Like my local friends, all of us can fall into obeying in order to try and secure God’s favor and appease him. While the Scriptures are full of grace-motivated obedience, we often miss it. What a joy then it is to walk with believers from other cultures who spot gospel motivation in the text in places we never even would have thought to look.
I am myself sprouting quite a few gray hairs these days. I hope to follow Frank, as he follows Solomon (and the true and better Solomon). Gray hairs don’t have to be a shameful thing we try to hide. Instead, they can be a mark of glory, and even a reminder of the gospel itself.
This week we have been house hunting. Unpredictable, exciting, disappointing, stressful, and even fun. We are moving back to the mountain city where we spent our first term as a family, and where I first served as a single twelve years ago. This was the city where I first felt the strangest sense of fit. As an American TCK (third culture kid) who was raised in Melanesia, I didn’t expect to find myself so alive in a place like this – a cultured mountain city of Central Asia. It still surprises me. I can’t really explain it, but the mountains, the locals, the culture, it all seems to enliven my soul such that I’m better able to do ministry in the power and joy of the Holy Spirit.
Should a geographic locale have that kind of effect on a Christian? I’m not quite sure. The idealist in me says no. I should be just as free to minister in another city and culture as I am in this one… right? And yet I can’t escape the repeated experience. When I’m in this city, I come more fully alive. I have more openings to share the gospel. Those gospel conversations seem to bear better fruit. This is all very subjective, but it’s so prevalent that even locals and foreigners have commented on it. “You are meant for this place,” seems to be the steady feedback we get.
Leaving this city two and a half years ago was one of the hardest things we’ve ever done. A local church plant had been established. Dear local believers were growing in their faith. We had solid teammates and partners with whom we had walked through fiery trials. We ourselves had loved and been deeply shaped by this context. But a critical leadership need in another city emerged, and we felt that God would be honored if we moved in order to serve that team and work. We left, we grieved, and we tried to do good work. Two and a half years later, another critical leadership need has called for us to return. It’s as if the beloved city and people we had given up for Jesus were now being given back to us in a way we never expected. It has felt very much like coming home, after we had been called to give up home for the sake of the gospel. Well, we say to ourselves, I guessnow we know it’s not an idol. We gave it up for Jesus. Now he is graciously giving it back. And we are at times afraid to believe that it’s actually happening.
Christian, pay attention to the desires that won’t go away. In previous years I had a wonderful job as a missions pastor at a healthy sending church. On paper it seemed to be the perfect fit. But every time I took a short-term trip overseas, I felt the desires to return and minister in this type of missions context growing stronger and stronger. I experienced a similar dynamic over the last two and a half years. Try to suppress it as I might, stubborn desires for a very specific kind of place and ministry simply would not leave me alone. I have learned that those stubborn and good desires that won’t go away – especially on the good days – are often indications of the Spirit’s leading. As those who are indwelt by the Holy Spirit, deep repeated desires for good things are often right and godly. We have new hearts, and this means He often leads us through his gift of specific and long-term desires. “If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task” (1 Tim 3:1).
But isn’t this selfish? What about duty and honor and loyalty to the greater good? These virtues are all weighty and important. But to wisely and patiently respond to the strong and biblical desires given by the Holy Spirit is not selfish, it is in fact obedience, walking in step with the Spirit. In fact, the desires are often present because of some providential need you don’t know about at the time, but which you are meant to fill.
Don’t give too much weight to the strong desires that emerge occasionally and only on the bad days. But those good desires that come back again and again, even on the best of days? Lean into those. It’s there you’ll likely find your calling – and some of your deepest joys.
I appreciated John Piper’s recent answer to this tough question. His last couple paragraphs sum up his argument.
Look, he’s God. He’s God! It is just like God to bless his mission-minded followers with the desires of their heart. God knows what we need. God is good. God is wise. God is sovereign. God is able to do what seems impossible for man to do.
So, I return to my wife’s first thought: How serious and how deep and how confident is this sense of calling in this young woman? Because if it is serious and deep, then probably she should set her face, her heart, to pursue it and trust God that, on that path, she will find her greatest joy and do the world the greatest good and bring Christ the greatest honor.
We simply don’t know what God has in store. If God has been clear and given a calling to go to the nations, and then along comes a potential spouse who is not interested in that kind of life of service, then wisdom would seem to suggest either converting them to missions (as my mom did to my dad), or leaving that potential spouse behind. When God has been clear, we need to move on that clarity – and trust him with the fallout. When we do, we will often find the desires of our hearts met in unexpected ways.
This is a bigger risk for single women than it is for single men. Single men are outnumbered overseas by single women by a scandalous ratio something like of ten to one. For any godly ministry-minded man who is wondering where all the amazing women of God are – get thee to the mission field! Wonderful single missionary ladies are out here, serving faithfully and risking much. But even for single ladies who feel called to both missions and marriage, many faithful brothers are out here too. For both men and women, let us also not discount the goodness of cross-cultural marriages. Some of our closest friends in the US are a formerly single missionary who fell in love with a godly Middle Eastern brother. And let us also not discount the goodness of godly celibacy. Our evangelical culture still tends to not celebrate this as much as the Scriptures do.
We cannot promise one another anything – only God knows the future. Some find spouses on the mission field. Some live lives of devoted singleness. Some lose their spouses on the mission field. My parents went to the mission field together, only for my mom to become a widow three and a half years later. She later continued on the field as a single mom for 7 years.
The key is walking in obedience to the Holy Spirit. Has he unmistakably called you to the nations? Then go. And trust God with the consequences. He is worthy of this. Those who risk their deepest desires for him are never put to shame. Somehow, in some unexpected way, he will give them back better things than those sacrificed – even a hundredfold – and in the age to come, will give eternal life.
This week we’ve been packing up for yet another move. My wife came across this poem I wrote for her a couple years ago, which I had posted at the very beginning of starting this blog. She requested that I post it again. And, seeing that she is a very wise and intuitive woman, I am happy to do so. I hope it can serve as one window into how those of us who embrace semi-nomadic missions lifestyles for the sake of the gospel wrestle with the costs – and hope in the world to come.
Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life. (Mark 10:29-30 ESV)
A Hundredfold Homes
We have lived with rich and poor
In places some will not or can’t.
And found there joy, and doors
To life, and friends, and won’t
Forget the promise, one hundred-fold.
We need it dearly every time
We move again and say goodbye
And home becomes a house – again.
We do it all for Him.
True, we know the cost is real,
That mingled joy of rootlessness.
But I have heard the king has rooms
And rooms and rooms and worlds.
Perhaps a place where mountains meet
The sea, a house with orchards on a hill.
With pen and table, porch and sky
And paper and books, maybe some tea.
A pipe! And fire.
Yes, room to host and reminisce
(With friends and of course the King himself)
The glory that we saw
In our hundred fleeting homes.
Children born and born again,
The needy fed, the lost redeemed,
The straying won, the faithful trained.
A hundred tents of light
Soon dismantled yet again.
For the world was ours, but not quite yet.
We don’t yet know the fullness of
The joy, although we know the taste.
For each new place a portion sings
And each new move the old refrain:
The promises are coming true
Before our eyes – a hundred-fold!
And new creation, forever home.
Is coming, coming, like the dawn.
So let us drink and to the full
The joy of each new set of walls.
For they are fleeting like the fall
And shine unique, eternal.
Remember the talk of camels and tents?
And Shelby Park, and Kingston’s rooms
And Sarkenar or St James Court?
Yes, more to come, if grace allows
And we shall thank the king for each,
With faith and joy await to see
The next of our one hundred homes
That really are not ours at all.
The glory – they are forever ours,
And really are not ours at all.
“Hey *Hama! I just came from the tea house. Your brother-in-law is in there telling everyone that you are a Christian and that he’s going to kill you!”
Hama and I were hanging out at his favorite intersection in the bazaar when his friend came up and made this announcement.
“Hama?” I asked, “What’s he talking about?”
Hama went on to fill me in on the situation. By this point he and his wife had both been believers for eight years, and were getting serious about their faith again after some years of struggle without steady discipleship. I had been gone in the US finishing up school and starting a family, but a year before our return I had visited and connected them with a new missionary family. This discipleship from these workers – who would later become dear teammates – was bearing good fruit.
As one simple expression of their faith, that year they had put up a Christmas tree, and their six-year-old son had made a cross ornament. However, a photo of him smiling in front of the tree with his ornament had made the rounds among *Tara’s family, Hama’s wife. Her relations, I came to learn, were by far the more conservative and Islamic side. We had made it through the round of persecution brought by Hama’s family eight years previous. Now it was her family’s turn. Far from the somewhat sincere six month shunning that Hama experienced, this persecution would get very serious very fast. It would ultimately lead to them having to flee the country.
The open death threat made that day was a turning point. The same man who had made this threat was a known killer, having murdered prisoners and political opponents in crimes that were documented online by Amnesty International. Usually Hama laughed off threats. But now that his wife’s older brother, a killer, was making them, he was visibly worried.
A few weeks later they were taken to court. Conversion from Islam to Christianity is illegal in our country and the family had accused Hama of forcing his wife to convert. They begged for prayer. To our amazement, the judge sided with them, believed their stories of genuine conversion to Christianity, and even let them swear on a Bible – in fact this was his idea. “They are Christians, didn’t you hear their confession? Show some respect and get these people a Bible to swear by!” Afterward Hama called me in tears from a police station, believing that even with the favorable judge, he was about to be hauled off to prison. Minutes later, he was let go as a free man. We celebrated God’s favor on them in this very scary situation.
But the harassment and threats continued. Tara’s brother showed up drunk one day and destroyed their kitchen, attacking Hama as well. Plans were being hatched to take their son away from them so he could be “raised right.” Our team grew nervous as a video circulated of Tara’s brother bragging about his past murders and making threats against Hama – and anyone connected to him.
To make matters worse, Hama was out of a job. The foreign company he had worked for had departed in scandal and debt, leaving Hama to clean up the mess. The financial pressure added to the persecution to make him feel like there was no way out. Hama began to sink into some dangerous depression.
So many of our locals who claim faith then quickly flee to the West, claiming persecution. Many of them are making up or inflating these claims. Our team was desperate not to contribute to the “faith-drain” that had become a regular fixture of the work in our area. But we were coming to terms with a very complex and potentially dangerous situation – and Hama and Tara were out of options. One night we asked them to pray for absolute clarity on whether the Spirit was indicating they should stay or flee, since both are biblical options. They came back with their answer. It was time to flee.
We started reaching out to friends and organizations that work with the persecuted. The responses were less than encouraging. “We don’t have an avenue for situations like this for your country. We thought your organization would have something in place.” Thankfully, a plan was eventually patched together for a visa, emergency tickets, housing in a neighboring country, and a basic budget for necessities. We might never be able to pull it off again, but at least for this dear family, God had provided a good plan of escape.
Unfortunately, Hama and Tara were only able to experience our initial attempts at gathering a new church plant together. In fact, we had been hoping they’d be one of our anchor families. But they had never quite understood why we kept emphasizing church and the gathering of believers so much. They had not committed and shown up as we had been desperately praying they would. This was typical for local believers, but extra tragic in their situation because it meant there were so few they could rely on when their natural support network turned against them.
Our teammates were the ones to drive them to the airport. I was grateful they were carrying out this last step, heartbroken as I was that my best friend was now leaving. On the way to the airport they shared this:
“Now we understand why you were always talking about church. Our physical family has abandoned us and attacked us. We were alone, except for you all, our believing friends. What would we have done without our believing family? This must be why church is needed.”
I grieved when I heard these words reported. Hama and Tara had largely missed out on what could have been theirs if they had been able to understand sooner why church is so important. But at least at the eleventh hour they had understood.
This realization made all the difference in their temporary country of asylum. They plugged into a good church and for two solid years experienced the joys of spiritual family – they really got it, and on telephone conversations they would actually scold us for not pushing our local friends more when it came to prioritizing the church! For our part, we would just listen, shake our heads, and smile.