A Tale of Two Pythons

If you happen to be growing up in a place like Melanesia, then you want to have a mother as adventurous as mine. My mom allowed us to have all kinds of unique pets over the years, and enjoyed them right along with us. In addition to seasons with dogs and cats, we also at times cared for snakes, tree frogs, owls, parrots, tree kangaroos, rabbits, lizards, turtles, praying mantises, and a baby bat. I would bring my pets proudly to school for show and tell, where they would wow my classmates and inevitably manage to relieve themselves on the classroom floor. Only one pet (a tree kangaroo) ever bit a classmate. Poor guy’s parents made him get a rabies shot. Do tree kangaroos even get rabies? Anyway, I digress.

When I was in junior high we purchased* our first emerald tree python from a local who was selling him on the street of the small government town nearby our missionary compound. These snakes are beautiful creatures, sporting bright yellow scales when they are young, which fade to a bright emerald green as they mature. They are small to medium constrictor snakes that like to eat birds and small mammals when they are in the wild. While newspaper flashbacks to the mid-twentieth century regularly included reports of giant pythons dropping out of the trees to attack an unsuspecting villager, we never saw any get to that size – with the exception of one terrifying carcass I saw at the river where we regularly swam. But the pythons that we owned were still adolescents, so only about a meter long, with a body diameter about the size of the hole made by a finger and thumb making the OK sign.

The first snake was as friendly and gentle as you could hope for. He never tried to bite us, and he enjoyed coiling up on my oldest brother’s laptop or on our shoulders, nestling in to get access to body heat. I have no idea what happened to him earlier in his serpentine life to give him such a pleasant disposition, but he was great, a true pal. Unfortunately, he managed to escape one day. An enterprising local caught him nearby our property and tried to resell him to us, in spite of our insistance that we were the rightful owners. But finders-keepers prevailed and we decided on principle not to buy him back. This was probably the wrong decision.

Some time later we saw another similar-sized python for sale for a good price. Fresh off such a positive experience with our first snake, we decided to get him. Unfortunately, while the first snake was a kindly soul, the second python proved to be very mean and aggressive. I remember staring through the glass terrarium walls with my brothers as the angry thing repeatedly lunged at the glass, trying to bite our faces. He would even snap at us when we attempted to feed him. Whatever we had named him in the beginning, we began to call him Demon Snake. Needless to say, Demon Snake did not get any snuggle time on our shoulders. He did, however, also manage to escape.

In the end, this was probably the best outcome for all parties. Like many pets taken from the jungle after a certain age, our second snake was wild and unlikely to get accustomed to relationships with humans. He needed his freedom where he could live out his grumpy ways in peace. But it seemed he didn’t desire complete independence from humans. One day my mom walked out onto our downstairs patio area where we had clotheslines hung under the roof for when it rained. Above the lines on the wooden rafters lounged the python, snoozing and looking fatter than usual.

Our former pet had managed to find himself a pretty good living situation. The rafters from the patio disappeared into a gap in between the upper and lower floors – a gap that apparently made for nice snake lodging, and one where big rats also lived. It seemed that he had learned to spend his days hunting the scratching rodents in between the floors and then lounging on the patio rafters where he could soak up the heat from the corrugated metal roof directly above him. Not a bad gig.

We developed quite the complementary relationship in the end. We let him be, and attracted the rats – presumably just by living normal life and eating delicious food, like fried and salted Asian sweet potatoes. He in turn hunted and ate the ROUS’s* which we had been until that point largely unable to trap or catch. We actually grew quite comfortable seeing him up above our heads taking his naps, and just had to make sure he wasn’t around to create any surprise appearances when we were hosting locals, most of whom were completely petrified of snakes.

We moved on from snakes after this experience, purchasing instead a gorgeous green and red Eclectus parrot who was one of our longer-lasting pets, managing in the end to very effectively confuse passersby with the whistles and unique phrases he had learned in the voice of each member of the family.

I’m not sure what became of the Demon Snake python in the end. We came back to the US for furlough for my eight grade year and never heard of him again. But I am grateful for all those rats he ate. Melanesian rats are no joke. I hope he lived out the remainder of his snake days a happier serpent than he had been, full of rodent, warm from corrugated metal roofing, and free from any more missionary kids hoping to snuggle with him.

*Correction: My mom has informed me that we did not actually buy the first snake. He was given to us as a gift from a colleague who heard that our dad had wanted to get us one before he passed away. This then was a very kind gift of a very kind snake.

*For those who haven’t seen The Princess Bride, ROUS stands for Rodent of Unusual Size, which inhabit the Fire Swamp, as well as the walls of my childhood in Melanesia.

Photo by David Clode on Unsplash

Waiting For the Ice to Melt

Back in 2007 I was a student in Minneapolis and able to attend the Desiring God Pastors Conference. William Mackenzie, the director of Christian Focus Publications, was one of the speakers that year. During one of the sessions he shared an analogy that has continued to be of help to me over the years. To preface his illustration, this question was asked: What are we doing when we share biblical truth with our unbelieving children? If they do not have hearts of flesh, but hearts of stone, are our efforts to teach them the truth of the Bible pointless or making them hypocrites?

Then he shared this image, which I have recounted here in paraphrase:

Imagine a frozen lake [which was not very hard to do in Minneapolis in January]. When we teach our children God’s truth, it’s like we are sliding frozen rocks out onto the ice. True, we have no power to break the ice ourselves, but we slide the rocks out onto the ice nonetheless. We know that when the sun eventually melts the ice, all those rocks will sink all the way to the bottom of the lake. The sun is the Holy Spirit. When he melts the ice of our children’s hearts, all of those lessons we have imparted will sink in. It will not have been in vain.

As a father of three now, I’ve often remembered this image as we plod through yet another bedtime routine of reading the word, singing, and prayer. Will my children ever have soft hearts to these things that we have shared with them a thousand times? It’s not uncommon for these times to feel like we are spinning our wheels, or for homeschooling to be the most stressful and frustrating part of my wife’s day.

We also have Central Asian friends like this. The sheer amount of believing friends and gospel conversations these individuals have had is, frankly, ridiculous. We keep bringing up Jesus to them, they keep not becoming believers, yet they keep coming around. What should we do with these types of friends? We need to prioritize those who are open to the gospel, yet we also don’t want to cut off these relationships, unresponsive though they seem. We hold out hope that in some way, if we keep sharing the gospel with them and they keep being open to our friendship, then they may be open to Jesus after all. Our practice has usually been to have some kind of regular communal/relational time where we can invite friends like this. That way we can prioritize meeting with those who are responding to the word throughout the week, but still stay in touch with those whose metaphorical lakes are still frozen, yet brimming with rocks. “I’m sorry this week I’m so busy, but why don’t you come to this open meal/coffee-tea gathering we have every week? I’d love to see you there and catch up.”

My dad came to faith as an adult and he used to tell us how grateful he was that we were being raised in a Christian home. “You’ll be so much further along than I was.” My dad was raised almost completely unchurched and I think he was getting at the dynamics I’m discussing here. He longed for his children to be raised knowing the word of God. True, we do not know when (or ultimately, if) the wind of the Spirit will blow and produce the miracle of the new birth. But when the word of God has been relentlessly imparted to the children or friends of believers, it waits, dormant and ready for the life-giving touch of the Spirit, like some kind of sleeper cell, waiting for the signal to overthrow the corrupt illegitimate tyrant with a new government of justice and truth – with the true king returned.

What are we to do with the hard hearts in our children or unbelieving friends? Keep teaching and keep praying. Keep sliding those rocks. We keep going in patience and faith, believing that the spring sun will come and melt the ice, sooner or later. And when he does, it is our intention for those frozen lakes to be positively covered with rocks.

Photo by Michael Aleo on Unsplash

A Second Verse to The Gospel Song

My family, like so many others, are indebted to Drew Jones, Bob Kauflin, and Sovereign Grace Music for “The Gospel Song.” It was the first song our firstborn learned to sing and it has been a steady gospel presence in our family times of worship for the past eight years. There is tremendous power in simple memorable songs that can be sung anytime, anywhere, and without musical accompaniment. If you are not familiar with the lyrics, here they are:

Holy God in love become
Perfect man to bear my blame 
On the cross he took my sin
By his death I live again 

Many a bedtime in Central Asia we have sung this song with our kids, sometimes alongside of Central Asian friends who were visiting when it was time for our kids to hit the hay. As an aside, bedtime bible reading, songs, and prayer as a family present a great chance to model family worship for new believers or to proclaim the gospel to unbelieving friends. Most who have joined us for this time have expressed that it was the first time they had seen something like it. And our family rhythm of read, sing, pray is very simple… and sometimes a little chaotic now that we have three kids.

Over time we desired to incorporate the resurrection of Jesus also into “The Gospel Song.” So we wrote a second verse for our kids and it stuck. Here it is:

On the third day he arose
Christ defeated all our foes
Satan, sin, and death can't win
By his life I die to sin

We wanted to stick to the song’s original AA BB rhyme as well as include the life/death contrast in the final line. In terms of content, we wanted to include Christ’s victory over our enemies through the cross and resurrection as important aspects of the gospel that go hand-in-hand with Christ being our sin-bearer. Growing up in tribal Melanesia, I remember the radical power of the idea that Jesus has defeated Satan, so we no longer have to be afraid of the spirits. As a young man fighting lust, I clung to the truth that I was now dead to sin through Jesus. I remember also being a pastor in the US and seeing that most prospective members of our church forgot to mention the resurrection of Jesus when asked to share what the gospel is. Now we serve in Central Asia, where the fear of persecution and death often cripple local believers from faithful obedience. These and many other reasons are why we want to build in wherever we can a steady emphasis on the resurrection alongside of our emphasis on the cross, for our kids and for our lost friends.

Though I am no songwriter by by trade, nor the son of a songwriter, I humbly commend this unofficial second verse of “The Gospel Song” to any families or teachers out there that may find it helpful.

Wisdom Was There Before the Fall

One of the many benefits of reading scripture with your kids? Dad learns new things as well. Last night we were reading through the Proverbs and were forced to rub our chins and wrestle with this question: What does it matter that wisdom was there for the creation of the world? Well, here’s one powerful possibility. In these broken times, this truth reminds us that wisdom was there in the very beginning, before the fall, before the curse. If, therefore, we desire to return to Eden, to let the wisdom of God’s good creation bleed into our world of broken creation, then we should listen very carefully to God’s wisdom and seek it out as one seeks for hidden treasure. Finding it, we just may end up seeing previews of the new Eden coming to life around us.

            [23] Ages ago I was set up,
                        at the first, before the beginning of the earth.
            [24] When there were no depths I was brought forth,
                        when there were no springs abounding with water.
            [25] Before the mountains had been shaped,
                        before the hills, I was brought forth,
            [26] before he had made the earth with its fields,
                        or the first of the dust of the world.
            [27] When he established the heavens, I was there;
                        when he drew a circle on the face of the deep,
            [28] when he made firm the skies above,
                        when he established the fountains of the deep,
            [29] when he assigned to the sea its limit,
                        so that the waters might not transgress his command,
            when he marked out the foundations of the earth,
            [30]      then I was beside him, like a master workman,
            and I was daily his delight,
                        rejoicing before him always,
            [31] rejoicing in his inhabited world
                        and delighting in the children of man. (ESV)

Proverbs 8:23-31

Photo by Graham Holtshausen on Unsplash

But What Would Happen to my Family if I Died?

Photo by Kenny Orr on Unsplash

This is a common question Christian men wrestle with when considering cross-cultural missions. It’s not a bad question. God has called us men to protect and provide for our families. Yet might provision and protection look differently for those upon whom the end of the ages has come?

[3] Greet Prisca and Aquila, my fellow workers in Christ Jesus, [4] who risked their necks for my life, to whom not only I give thanks but all the churches of the Gentiles give thanks as well. [5] Greet also the church in their house. -Romans 16:3-5 ESV

Come on, Aquila, you risked your own life and the life of your wife for the sake of Paul? What would have become of Prisca had you died, a widow from a persecuted minority in a pagan society? Is this not a failure of biblical manhood? What about your priorities as one called to be a husband?

Wait a second, Paul is commending these actions… and calling for the global church to give thanks for what Aquila and Prisca have done. Apparently, there is something deeper going on here that makes risking one’s life (and the life of one’s spouse) worth it, if done for the sake of the gospel.

This question hits close to home. My own father died on the mission field when I was a four-year-old, leaving my mom a widow and me and my siblings to be raised without a dad. Was this incredibly hard at times? Yes. A core part of grieving seems to come from the bereaved imagining life without their loved one. I was young enough that I was not able to do much of this at the time of my dad’s death. Instead, the grieving happened slowly over time, one quiet blow after another as the realization landed yet again: this is what it means to not have a dad.

But that was not the only realization that sunk deep into my soul. The other was this: this is how God keeps his promises and takes care of the fatherless. Over and over again I saw God’s faithfulness to take care of my family. It was unmistakeable. His hand to bless us through the suffering and to help us was apparent everywhere. Friends even came to faith because my dad died. Because of this, I was raised with the truth of God’s sovereignty in suffering deeply rooted in my experience and also staring up at me from the pages of Scripture. So when I first stumbled onto Piper sermons in high school, I leaned in. This man preached the God I knew. A God big enough to turn even death for good.

My wife and I now serve in a part of Central Asia that has some serious security concerns. We have three small children. The recurring conversations about whether or not to evacuate our area has led us to joke that our team’s theme song should be The Clash’s Should I Stay or Should I Go. For now, however, our local area continues to be a pocket of remarkable stability in a very volatile region. Still, there are rumors of terrorist sleeper cells around and I have the same health condition that took my dad’s life. What would happen to my family if I were to die? The very same thing that happened to my mom, my siblings, and myself – God would keep his promises and take care of them.

I’m not advocating any glib risk-taking here. I know all too well the painful cost. Any risk for the sake of the gospel needs to be exactly that – risk for the sake of the gospel. Total unity between spouses is also key in deciding what risks to take. Yet I am wanting to exhort my peers, dads of young families, who might struggle with fear as they wrestle with a call to the nations. Surprisingly, and by the grace of God, it is because my dad died that I was freed to take my family to risky places.

Perhaps your death, or merely your willingness to risk for the sake of Jesus, will be what frees your children to also serve Jesus in risky places.

[24] Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. [25] Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. -John 12:24-25 ESV