Involuntarily Sent

One crisis of this past spring hit our small local church particularly hard. Frank and Patty*, after five years of living in our city as asylum-seekers, were finally kicked out for good. They always had a tenuous set up here, patching together a life with the partial legality of official UN documents that said their case was in process. But five years of UN stalling, under pressure from the local government, itself under pressure from the powerful regime of the country next door, had never produced the official refugee status that international law promises.

What this meant was five years of not being able to legally rent a house, work a job, or send their daughter to school. Like many asylum seekers, they were able to achieve these things sometimes through the connections or goodwill of others, and mostly under the table. But several attempts to secure these basics of life legally also led to attempted deportations, sometimes barely averted by the last minute intervention of UN lawyers. It was not uncommon for us to plan church picnics outside the city accordingly, making plans to minimize the possibility of Patty and Frank getting arrested at government checkpoints on the road. The reality was and is that returning to their country of origin means certain imprisonment, and possibly worse. This is, sadly, normal for many Central Asian believers, the cost of following Jesus in a region where they are a tiny minority.

The final deportation came after Frank and Patty tried to legally rent a different house. The house they had been renting was suffering from rot in the ceiling plaster, which kept collapsing unexpectedly in various rooms. This was both messy and dangerous and the church offered to set up a workday where we’d chip all the plaster off the underside of the cement roof. But Frank and Patty were confident that this time they could get the coveted official permission. In fact they made it to the very last step of security police approval when everything went wrong. Someone high up in the local security apparatus must have had it out for them. A week of encouraging approvals led only to a sudden rejection – and a letter of deportation. “We are deporting this family on suspicion of being spies,” read one not very promising line of this letter.

Another lawyer scramble bought them a week and an option to flee to a neighboring province, to a city in the plains where we had lived for a period prior to moving back here to the mountains. We were actually out of the country at the time of their deportation so it fell to the rest of our team and the church to care for them in this crisis. Goods were sold off at great loss, many tears were shed, emotional discussions took place regarding how much of the church funds should be sent with them. Our role from a distance was to work our connections in our previous city to try to find some kind of a landing place while they waited, once again, to receive legal permission to rent their own place. Wonderfully, it worked out to have them stay with one of the pastors of the international church in that city.

So, Patty and Frank, the only believing local household in our church, the most consistent at attending, central pillars of our fledgling spiritual family, left. They had come to faith and been baptized in our church. We had labored to disciple them faithfully through the messy toddler years of being new believers. They had, at times, made us want to pull our hair out. Yet they had also enriched us greatly. Frank kept us laughing, fixed our electricity, and often led our church in prayer and Bible distribution. Patty served the church tirelessly, often hosting believers with a feast they really couldn’t afford, and she labored hard to memorize Bible verses in spite of being barely literate. Their teenage daughter taught our kids the local language and was one of the most articulate believers when it came to gospel clarity.

We had seen much transformation take place in their lives, but when the final abrupt departure came, it felt too soon. We were hoping they would be much further along in their spiritual maturity before having to leave. But all of the sudden, our time was up. We entrusted them to God and to the community of believers in their new city – and of course, promised to visit often.

Their four months of living with the pastor’s family were akin to Elijah being fed by ravens in the wilderness. God unmistakably provided for them through the sacrificial hospitality extended by this family. And the life-on-life discipleship that took place in those months of living together was worth its weight in gold. Still, they lived in limbo, in a wilderness of not knowing how the UN and the local government would decide, not knowing if in the end they would still end up being trucked across the border and promptly arrested. In the anxiety of this waiting and the trauma of yet another deportation close call, their faith was pressed to the limit, with Patty often expressing despair in tearful calls to my wife. Yet they clung to God and to their new community of believers, until one day the news finally came. They had been granted legal permission to stay.

We recently visited Patty and Frank, a week or two after they had moved into their new legally-rented house. The abundance of answered prayer was unmistakable. In addition to their new rental home, all three had found good work. They had recently become members of the international church and once again served as a pillar household around which other locals were able to gather in the new local-language service/church plant. Frank had begun sharing the local-language preaching load with the pastor they had lived with, who also headed up this ministry. And now their biggest concerns were what to do with all these immature local believers they were meeting!

My wife and I sat at their table nodding as they described their concerns for how few of the local believers they had met knew their Bibles or knew the gospel clearly, and how many seemed mostly interested in money or visas. They expressed concern that the load of discipling so many would be too much for the pastor and his wife. We encouraged them to take responsibility themselves for the discipleship of the other locals around them.

“But it will take years for them to grow as much as they need to! Can’t it happen faster?” Patty exclaimed at one point. I shot my wife a knowing glance, which Frank caught.

“Patty, dear,” he said, laughing, “how long has it taken us to get to where we are? Five years! Let’s not complain about others being slow to grow.”

“That’s not a bad point,” said Patty, thoughtfully.

This perspective was of great encouragement to us. Along with the sweetness of seeing how God works even the hardest seasons of our lives for good. Our two years spent in that city on the plains were not easy ones. Team conflict, culture shock, new-onset diabetes, Covid-19 lockdowns, and a premature departure had all left their mark on us. Yet God had used the love developed between us and other expat believers in that city to create a landing place for Frank and Patty. And more than a landing place. A healthy international church in process of planting a healthy indigenous one. Our seasons of suffering were bearing sweet fruit, as Frank and Patty’s were beginning to also.

As we prepared to leave, Patty and Frank offered to host us for the night, even though they had no extra mattresses. We graciously declined, prayed with them, and pulled our kids away from their 7th episode of Shaun the Sheep – a treat uncle Frank is always happy to bestow, getting a kick as he does from how much our kids cackle at the slapstick humor of claymation farm animals.

Patty and Frank’s departure had left a gaping hole in our small church plant. They will always be a central part of the story of these formative early years. Now they get to be a central part of the formation of another local church. They have, in one sense, been unexpectedly sent. Through their painful deportation they have been called to build up the church in their new city. And they are answering that call. May God grant faithfulness to them, and to any of us who likewise end up suddenly uprooted, involuntarily sent.

Photo by S. Tsuchiya on Unsplash

*names changed for security

A Path for Marrying and Burying

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Disappointed looks came from around the room.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by Stephen Leonardi on Unsplash

Not Alone When the Wolf Comes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Harry looked at me expectantly and nodded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Harry nodded.

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

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

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

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

“No, they are safe here,” Harry said.

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

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

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

*Names changed for security

Photo by Milo Weiler on Unsplash

Brothers Indeed

There’s a new believer in our church plant, a local man we’ll call Hank*. He’s from a very conservative Islamic city not too far from here, the kind of place known for its history, pomegranates, and the presence of radicals. As a friend of one of my colleagues, he’d heard the gospel often over the last five years. Something changed this year, however, and quiet and thoughtful Hank placed his faith in Christ.

When it was time for his baptism, the weather was still warm enough to drive to a nearby lake for a day of picnicking, swimming, fellowship, and celebrating Hank’s immersion. The rocky slope into the lake was quite steep and the men doing the dunking struggled to keep their balance. They wobbled, but put him under the water nonetheless. Our group cheered and yelled congratulations. Actually, the local phrase for “Congratulations!” directly translates, to “May it be holy!” – a very appropriate cheer indeed for a baptism. Other picnickers up on the slope eyed us curiously.

After he dried off, Hank was still quiet and thoughtful as usual, but his eyes were beaming.

A few weeks later he wanted to share a prayer request during our service prayer time. Since we are still a very small church, every service involves a time of prayer together. We regularly begin this time by asking if anyone has had a chance to share the gospel the previous week or if there’s a particular unbeliever on their heart they desire to share with. But it’s also a time for prayers of petition and thanksgiving.

Hank spoke up during this time, and with a shy smile began to tell us what had happened the previous week.

“I was on the phone with my brother who lives in Europe and I began to feel this desire to tell him about my new faith. But I was afraid to. So I started inching closer to the topic by talking about spiritual things and about Jesus. To my surprise, my brother was eager to talk with me about this. After a little while, he said to me, ‘If I tell you something, do you promise not to tell our family?’ I said yes. ‘I’ve been a believer in Jesus for a few years now,’ he said. Then he waited to hear what I would say, not knowing about my faith. ‘You too!?’ I answered. ‘I just became a believer in the last few months and just got baptized!’ We were so surprised and so happy to find out one another’s secrets. I was so afraid to tell my brother about my faith and he was afraid to tell me! But we were both already believers and didn’t know it. Isn’t that great?” Hank said, smiling and shaking his head.

We listened to Hank’s story and laughed and celebrated with him. It doesn’t often happen this way in this persecution-prone society, but every once in a while a dreaded conversation with a family member turns into a joyful revelation of long-kept secrets. “You too?!” takes a believer facing isolation from his biological family and shows him that God has already been at work, quietly saving those in his household without his knowing it. In a society where kinship is everything, this is a tremendous mercy.

A local proverb states, “When a brother backs a brother, barring catastrophe, they are divinely prospered.” Even from a distance, these two brothers can now back each other in their risky faith.

Hank and his brother were already brothers by blood. Praise God, now they are brothers indeed.

*Names changed for security

Photo by Scott Osborn on Unsplash

The Right Words For Airport Security

Our trip back to the US a few days ago went pretty well. The security personnel at our Central Asian city’s airport gave us some trouble due to our daughter’s diabetic supplies and devices. But it wasn’t too bad. I was reminded of the last time we had flown out of that same airport. That time I had a suitcase full of Bibles in the local language.

There’s a city in the US which contains a large immigrant population of our focus people group. A new church plant had been started there among them, the first one in all of North America that we are aware of. But they couldn’t get ahold of Bibles in the correct language. The updated Bible translation had recently been printed in Korea and the only available copies were now stored and distributed in our corner of Central Asia. Hence the request for us to bring back a suitcase full of Bibles.

We made it through a couple layers of security without any trouble, but at the final suitcase scanner I got nervous. The officer had indicated that I was to open the particular bag full of Bibles and a few homeschool books. And while it’s not illegal to possess Bibles in the local language or to distribute them in some limited ways, the laws are vague enough that an Islamic – or simply grumpy – official could decide on a whim to confiscate them or to get us in trouble.

“What are these?” the officer asked me, making a sweeping gesture at the large pile of books in the suitcase.

I chuckled nervously, “We love books, as you can see… Um, these are books for our kids’ education… and… those… are Bibles in your language.” There was no hiding it. He could clearly see the dozens of books with Holy Injil (Gospel) printed on their spines.

I held my breath as the official picked up one of the Bibles and flipped through it. I couldn’t read his expression.

Suddenly, I blurted out, “You want to know something crazy? We’re traveling to America and bringing all these Bibles from here to there. The members of your people group there who want to find them or buy them there can’t find any at all – they’re simply not available anywhere! So we’re hauling all these over to help them. Isn’t that crazy that you can’t find a Bible in your language in America? That’s not right. Thankfully we can get them here and can help them out by bringing these to them.”

The officer grunted and nodded, setting the Bible back in the suitcase.

“You tell them when you get to America,” he said in a serious tone and with a look of conviction, “you tell them that that’s not right. They should be printing and selling these Bibles there as well! Bless your hands for carrying these over to our people there. Can you believe that, guys?” He said, shifting from me to his colleagues. “You can’t buy these Bibles in America, so we have to send them from here over to there. What a world!”

And with that he motioned for me to zip up the suitcase and be on our way.

We gathered up our various bags and children and made our way to the check-in counter. I was relieved that security hadn’t give us any real trouble. I reflected on the conversation and smiled. How kind of the Lord to put those particular comments into my brain at just the right time. The conversation could have gone very differently. I only regretted forgetting to offer a Bible to the security officer on the spot.

In passages like Matthew 10:16-20, Jesus promises that we shouldn’t be anxious about what we’ll say when we’re dragged before governors and kings for his sake – that the Holy Spirit would give us the words to say. I haven’t yet had to go before governors or kings for Jesus’ sake. But I do wonder about conversations like that one with the airport security officer. The right words came at just the right time, without planning beforehand what I would say. Perhaps this was a small taste of the Holy Spirit’s particular help in these kinds of situations.

I tend to get very nervous while speaking under pressure. So this promise from Matthew 10 is very relevant for me. My natural self under questioning is likely to kick into fight, flight, or freeze mode – most likely the latter two. The color will drain from my face and the language part of my brain is likely to shut down. And yet I won’t have to rely on my natural self if I am ever brought in front of the authorities for questioning. The Holy Spirit will give me the words to say. He will give my local brothers and sisters the words to say.

What an encouraging and practical promise.

Photo by Tomek Baginski on Unsplash

North Korea, Persecution, and Insider Movements

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

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

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

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

Listen to the podcast here.

Photo by Jongsun Lee on Unsplash

A Proverb on Central Asian Friendship

The first day we are friends, the second day we are brothers.

Afghan Oral Tradition

This proverb comes from Afghanistan. I came upon it years ago in a book by Dr. Christy Wilson, and I’ve never forgotten it. It resonates with my own experiences with Central Asians, who have often stunned me with their sacrificial hospitality and friendship.

My family does not live in Afghanistan. But tonight, as the capital, Kabul, falls to the Taliban, we are grieving for what this will mean for the local believers there – indeed what is has already meant for them and for many faithful gospel workers who have invested so much in that land.

Regimes will fall. Evil may temporarily win. But true gospel friendship – and the friendship of Christ himself – will outlast all of it. And every ounce of suffering for Christ will count, will be remembered, and will result in an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison.

On the other hand, every action taken by the Taliban against an Afghan believer is an action taken against a friend of God, a brother or sister of the Messiah himself. He sees it all. And sooner or later, his justice is coming.

Photo by The Chuqur Studio on Unsplash

Now I Understand Why You Were Always Talking About Church

“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.

That’s what we’ve been trying to say all along.

*Names changed for security

Photo by Grant Durr on Unsplash

Answered Prayers and Their Reckoning

There are many countries in the world that do not grant missionary visas. To be a missionary in these “creative access” countries, you must possess some other kind of visa – work, education, business, NGO, tourist, etc. This is our situation here in our corner of Central Asia. Cross-cultural workers like us end up with a complex identity – albeit one with a very long tradition in Christian history – where we are indeed teachers, NGO workers, or businesspeople, but we are these things in this place because they are our platform by which we gain access for ministry among unreached peoples and in unreached places. We have a multi-layered identity. And many of us work very hard to walk this tightrope well. Yet it is a tightrope.

We are followers of Jesus, and so we seek to be always truthful with our public identities. I must be able to have an identity that makes sense when the questions come – and to be able to lean into that public identity when necessary. And I need to be doing good work in that official role so that I’m not empowering the persecutor needlessly. There are real wolves out here in the mountains, seeking to devour us and our local friends. As an English teacher, having actual classes and flesh-and-blood students who are learning English from me is crucial. It provides them, me, and the local authorities more room to sidestep the attacks when the conversations about Jesus happen and the accusations come.

None of this has to be driven by fear. In fact, if it driven by fear, then that’s cause for reexamination. Instead, it should be driven by wisdom – shrewdness even – the kind that Jesus attributes to snakes of all things (Matt 10:16). This, right as he also calls us to be innocent as doves. Yes, that is quite the balance to try and strike. Pray for your missionary friends in creative-access countries.

Some leave the field after long years of struggling with the complexities of this kind of identity. They are tired of feeling schizophrenic, and from dealing with doubts about the integrity of their lifestyle. To be honest, we all feel like this sometimes. Others lean too far into making their public identity watertight. There seems to be an unspoken belief that “If I just can just strike the perfectly secure identity, then all our ministry dreams will come true and I won’t get kicked out of the country.” However, research has demonstrated that it’s actually the creative-access teams that are suspected by the local community of being missionaries are more likely to see churches planted. And then there’s also the new believers to take into account.

No matter how finely crafted your platform identity is, and how shrewdly you wear your different hats, your local friend who just came to faith can very easily blow it all up in one day – out of his love for Jesus, no less! Once those years of prayer are actually answered and locals come to faith, the unreached community around you is faced with some blunt facts. Their family or friends used to be Muslims (in my context anyway). Now they have apostatized. The channel for that was clearly their friendship with you, a foreigner. These blunt facts are present even if your newly believing friend strikes the perfect balance of boldness and wisdom as a new witness for Christ. But let’s be honest, what brand new believer doesn’t fall either too much on the side of fear or too much on the side of boldness? The bold ones in particular tend to provoke quite the blowback. They might lead dozens to faith! And in the process destroy years of careful visa and identity work.

Will we be OK with this bittersweet collateral damage that comes with a new creation? Is it worth it to get kicked out of a country because our evangelism has actually born fruit? When does access become an idol which we must protect at all costs? These are questions that are easy to answer from the clean categories of a training classroom. But they become a little bit harder to wrestle with once the costs of yet another transition has affected your family’s health, once you’ve finally gotten to a certain language level, and once you’ve spent blood, sweat, and tears in labyrinthine government offices setting up that business, institute, or NGO.

Sooner or later everyone in contexts like ours who shares the gospel faithfully will get into trouble for it. The local authorities may wink and turn a blind eye, wagering that the benefit you’re bringing to the community outweighs the cost of a few apostates. Or they may feel hoodwinked and in a supposed zeal for God kick out these “corrupters of the faithful.” The strange thing is that every prayer made for locals to come to faith and churches to be planted pushes workers like us closer to that day when our public identity is destroyed and a new narrative takes its place – a day closer to the reckoning of answered prayers. They were missionaries all along! If God answers our prayers, then this reckoning is, frankly, unavoidable.

As for my family, we’ve decided that if we indeed get kicked out someday, that will be God signalling us that it’s time to get a lot louder and lot more public in our proclamation of the gospel. Instead of being Christian professionals by day and missionary-church planters in the shadows, we’ll seize the chance to work openly among the diaspora and make YouTube videos in our target language entitled, “Here’s the message so dangerous your government kicked us out for sharing it.” As Nik Ripken helpfully points out, the goal of persecution is to stop the proclamation of the message. So, that means an appropriate response to persecution means a ramping up of the proclamation, not a quieting down.

If you asked us today if we could handle another transition, we would honestly have to say no. We have worked so hard to try and get traction in our new city over the past couple years and are just now seeing some (hopefully) promising developments. Yet we live at the mercy of our king. If it is his good pleasure to see us kicked out for sharing the gospel with the “wrong” person, then so be it. His plans will, in the end, lead to greater beauty and life. In the meantime they may feel like death. And those who have been kicked out and placed on blacklists testify to it very much being a kind of death.

Let’s not stop praying for breakthrough, even if it leads to a reckoning and the destruction of our laboriously-crafted identities. Let it all fall apart – if only we have the joy of seeing those from our people group with us in eternity.

Photo by Darius Bashar on Unsplash

Love Bade Him Welcome

This is the story of how a friend came to faith. The same friend, *Aaron, that I had thought was being drawn three and a half years ago. At that time he had shown a strong resonance with the spiritual themes of a poetry group I was leading. But when we had finally connected, God surprised us by saving his best friend, *Darius, instead. And Aaron drifted away. We kept praying for him, but he went dark for two years. That is, until the last week of December, 2020.

My family and I were visiting our previous city for Christmas and were reveling in the chance to connect with believing local friends there. We had even been invited to spend Christmas night with some coworkers and a bunch of the local believers in a mountain picnic house – a fun if freezing time full of chai, conversation, music, and arguments about what kind of smoke is actually going to lead to carbon monoxide poisoning while we were sleeping. The matter was never decided regarding the danger of the wood fireplace vs. the kerosene heater, so one brother stayed up all night making calls to friends, just to make sure the rest of us would actually wake up in the morning. Personally, I was on the side of the kerosene fumes being the only ones worth worrying about! There’s a tale there for another time.

We wrapped up our time at the picnic house and, jet-lagged from the smoke and late night games and theology conversations, made our way back to the apartment where we’d stay for the rest of our time. It was that night that Darius reached out to me.

“I just heard from Aaron! He told me that he is struggling with a huge decision. That he cannot continue anymore without truly knowing God. But also that he is terrified.”

“Really? Aaron? Do you think he is wanting to become a believer?” I asked.

“I am not sure, but it sounds like maybe. Something has clearly changed since we last spoke. I told him that this was a great week to meet up because the three of us can get together again. Can you find time in your visit to meet with us?”

I enthusiastically agreed. One of the harder things about being a new team leader in a new city has been having fewer opportunities for evangelistic conversations like this. “You seemed especially alive when you got back from your trip,” a teammate told me last night. What happened with Aaron is a big reason why.

We met up in a cafe a couple nights after Darius asked. Aaron got right to the point.

“I used to think I was a good person. But I have lost myself. I know I am in the darkness and have been very depressed lately. I know I cannot continue without true faith. But I don’t know what to do. Can you tell me what I need to do? I told God this week I would do whatever is necessary. Since then I have been waiting to meet with you.”

Darius and I just stared at Aaron for a minute. With such a wide open question, where do you begin? Darius, growing by leaps and bounds since he had confessed his faith to his family, was clearly itching to open up the gospel fire hose. But being very kind and honoring, wanted me to start things off.

I’ve found we can never quite predict exactly where gospel conversations are going to start or end up. We rely on the guiding of the Spirit to help us take the same unchanging themes and with them to chart a path through the particular topics and passages needed for that unique context and person. This is exactly why Paul asks that we pray and speak graciously as evangelists, “so that you may know how you ought to to answer each person,” (Col 4:6).

We first encouraged Aaron that his feelings of separation from God and being lost are actually very much in line with the nature of our human situation. We are naturally separated from God, and we can’t shake that sense, no matter how hard we try. Then, because Aaron had said that he needed true faith, we started somewhere I don’t recall ever starting at before, the nature of true faith. We turned to Hebrews 11:1. True faith is simply believing the promises of God, even when we can’t see them. We looked at Abraham, the one counted righteous through believing God’s promises (Gen 15:6). Then we turned to Romans and started looking at how God now counts us righteous if we have faith in Jesus, the one whose death makes God both just and justifier of the unrighteous (Rom 3:23-26). We looked at how true faith is a gift, a free pardon, something given apart from works. How do we receive this gift? By confessing our sin and hopelessness and by confessing our faith in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Aaron was tracking and nodding with everything.

Darius, evidencing the solid discipleship he’s been getting from my coworkers, wanted to make sure that Aaron really understood himself to be a lost person, guilty and shameful and separated from God. This is wise because popular Islam treats sin as something like an excusable mistake. When we looked at Jesus as the good shepherd in John 10 and the parable of the lost sheep in Luke 15, we had our answer.

“That’s me!” Aaron said, “That’s exactly me! I’m the lost sheep. I’ve been so lost… and now Jesus is coming to find me, even though I don’t deserve it.”

Aaron continued, “What do I need to do now?”

We turned to look at Romans 10 and Aaron joyfully confessed the gospel with his mouth. We offered to pray for him and both in turn asked God to confirm and establish our friend’s brand new faith.

“How do you feel?” we asked, curious to see if Aaron was internally experiencing things that matched his words and the wonder in his eyes.

“I feel… amazing. Jesus is my shepherd now.”

We wrapped up shortly thereafter, after some initial advice on how to walk with Jesus as a new Christian. It was one of the most straightforward gospel conversations I’ve ever been a part of. I think Darius and I were both second guessing ourselves because it had been so easy. But Aaron was simply that ready.

The Spirit is full of surprises. Apparently, we had been wrong to think we were wrong that the Spirit had been drawing him three and a half years beforehand. It just wasn’t harvest time yet. Aaron had been the only one in that poetry group who had resonated with Herbert over Henley, Love III over Invictus, humility and grace over prideful self-autonomy. Turns out it really was a preview, just as we had desperately hoped, an initial flicker of the new life that would flood into his soul years later.

We said our goodbyes and I got back into my frigid car. After praising God for such an amazing evening, I sent a message and the text of George Herbert’s Love III to Darius and Aaron.

“Remember when we read this one and you really liked it? This poem is actually all about the gospel of Jesus. We have been praying for you ever since. Welcome to the family.”

Love bade me welcome. Yet my soul drew back
                              Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
                             From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning,
                             If I lacked any thing.

A guest, I answered, worthy to be here:
                             Love said, You shall be he.
I the unkind, ungrateful? Ah my dear,
                             I cannot look on thee.
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
                             Who made the eyes but I?

Truth Lord, but I have marred them: let my shame
                             Go where it doth deserve.
And know you not, says Love, who bore the blame?
                             My dear, then I will serve.
You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat:
                             So I did sit and eat.

Looking back, Aaron’s conduct in our meeting was one of the clearest embodiments of this poem I’ve yet seen. Knowingly undeserving and yet welcomed in regardless. The man knew he was lost and marveled that God would actually be so kind to him. Two weeks later, he publicly professed his faith in front of the small church of local believers.

Pray for Aaron, he may have a very hard road ahead of him. Grandpa is a mullah, an Islamic preacher/teacher, and his relatives are known for their hardcore devotion to Islam. This usually means new believers lose their housing, marriage prospects, and sometimes work. It can even mean physical attacks. As we parted, we emphasized to Aaron that the church is his new family now, no matter what his physical family tries to do to him. Pray that no matter what comes, Aaron will cling to Jesus and that the family of faith would be with him every step of the way.

*Names changed for security

Photo by Daniel MacDonald on Unsplash