The Lone and Level Sands

Our corner of Central Asia is an ancient place. We had some first-time visitors with us this past week, and while traveling back from another city we took the opportunity to visit some very old ruins – old, as in circa 2,700 years ago. Remarkably, ancient carved script was still clear and legible on dozens of the large limestone blocks.

The few scholars that can read that script say that most of it is typical of the bragging monument-speak of ancient kings. “I’m the king of the world” and all that. If you’ve ever read the poem “Ozymandius” by Shelley, you’ll understand the sad irony felt when that kind of chiseled pride is contrasted with the desolation that inevitably comes with the passage of time – and with death.

I’m reminded of the time I visited the ruins of Ephesus. The site of the temple of Artemis only contained one pillar still standing – and that from a recent German reconstruction – and a whole bunch of grass and grazing sheep. So much for “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!” (Acts 19). The site in Central Asia we visited was similar. Broken beer bottles littered the site itself, and nearby were tents of nomads, their shuffling flocks, and a lazy guard dog. So much for “the king of the world.”

What’s left of the temple of the great Artemis of the Ephesians

However, I’ve also read that this particular monarch (later murdered by his own sons) may have been privately realistic when it came to his own mortality. In public he may have claimed to be a semi-divine global ruler who would live forever. But scholars say that on the underside of some stones, hidden for centuries, a very different kind of message has been discovered. It’s along the lines of “If you are reading this, then my kingdom has been destroyed, I am no more, and was a mere mortal after all.” That’s quite the time capsule message to leave buried beneath massive limestone blocks. And a rare example of realistic humility for ancient royalty, if these carvings were indeed commissioned by the king himself and not a sneaky dig made against him by the head stone chiseler.

The visitors and I had a great time exploring the site. It’s simply astounding that ruins like this exist and that they have lasted so long – especially the carved script itself. 2,700 years is no small achievement for an ancient mason or scribe shooting for quality work. It was an invigorating place because of the remarkable history, but also a humbling one. Our empires’ greatest public works will one day look just like it, if they even last half as long. A testimony in the desert to glory long gone. It makes one long for the city whose foundation blocks will never fall or waste away.

I found myself wishing the pompous autocrats and politicians of our contemporary scene could visit this historical site, and take away lessons on both the enduring legacy of bold projects and the importance of humility for any powerful – yet oh so temporary – leader. Yes, we may be “crowned with glory and honor” for a day, yet all too quickly it comes to an end. They, and we, would be wise to more often consider these things, and to heed the warnings of Psalm 2:10-12.

Now therefore, O kings, be wise; be warned, O rulers of the earth. Serve the LORD with fear, and rejoice with trembling. Kiss the Son, lest he be angry, and you perish in the way, for his wrath is quickly kindled. Blessed are all who take refuge in him.

Their glory and honor will fade. Only one ruler has a throne and a kingdom that will last forever. If they do not take refuge in him, if they do not give him the kiss of loyalty, they will fade into the sand, just like our local “king of the world.” Just like Ozymandius.

In case you haven’t read it before, here is “Ozymandius” by Shelley.

I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read

Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

“Ozymandius” by Shelley, from Poetry Foundation

Photo by Juli Kosolapova on Unsplash

A Hundredfold Homes Revisited

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. 

Photo by Alexandre Chambon on Unsplash

Why The Poet Said Cretans Were Liars

Remember that sweeping accusation from Titus 1:12-13, where Paul that all Cretans are “always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons?” Well, it’s actually a quotation. And that quotation has a known context, which I had never heard before. Turns out it’s a fight about whether or not the chief of the gods could be dead in a tomb. Paul – whether he’s alluding to this context or merely commandeering a well-known literary rebuke – agrees, following with quite the understatement. “This sentence is true” (v. 13). Clearly, Paul and the Holy Spirit weren’t messing around. This Cretan tendency toward empty and deceptive talk had gone far enough.

“Cretans are always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons. Paul quotes Epimenides, a Cretan poet from the sixth century BC. In his poem Cretica, Epimenides accuses the Cretans of being liars and evil beasts because they claim to host a tomb of Zeus, the chief of the gods. Since Zeus “lives and abides forever,” the Cretans must be liars. Paul quotes from this same poem in his sermon to the Areopagus in Acts 17:28. Crete also claimed to be the birthplace of Zeus, known in antiquity as the Dictaean Cave, which legend placed on the slopes of Mount Ida, Crete’s tallest mountain. Reputedly from Knossos, Epimenides was supposed to have the gift of prophecy, which was bestowed on him after he allegedly slept for 57 years in a cave sacred to Zeus.

ESV Archaeology Study Bible, Note on Titus 1:12-13

Ever feel offended by broad-brush statements of scripture like this? That feeling’s probably a good sign of an area where we are being shaped more by our culture’s mores than by God’s word. Anytime we feel that inner twitch – that’s a good place to pause and lean in. Why exactly does this rub me the wrong way? And what might that mean?

Photo by Victoria Strukovskaya on Unsplash

The Earliest Expression of European Vernacular Poetry

Even Patrick’s great prayer in Irish – sometimes called “Saint Patrick’s Breastplate” because it was thought to protect him from hostile powers, sometimes called “The Deer’s Cry” because it was thought to make him resemble a deer to the eyes of those seeking to do him harm – cannot be definitely ascribed to him. Characteristics of its language would assign it to the seventh, or even to the eighth, century. On the other hand, it is Patrician to its core, the first ringing assertion that the universe itself is the Great Sacrament, magically designed by its loving Creator to bless and succor human beings. The earliest expression of European vernacular poetry, it is, in attitude, the work of a Christian druid, a man of both faith and magic. Its feeling is entirely un-Augustinian; but it is this feeling that will go on to animate the best poetry of the Middle Ages. If Patrick did not write it (at least in its current form), it surely takes its inspiration from him. For in this cosmic incantation, the inarticulate outcast who wept for slaves, aided common men in difficulty, and loved sunrise and sea at last finds his voice. Appropriately, it is an Irish voice.

Cahill, How the Irish Saved Civilization, p. 116

Read St. Patrick’s Breastplate here.

Photo by Scott Carroll on Unsplash

A Song on the Wonder of Marriage

Take my hand 
I won’t let go 
We’ve waited so long 
And all my life 
I walked alone 
To you, my heart, my home 

Like the first man 
I was cut so deep by heaven’s knife 
When I awoke from my sleep 
Oh my Lord, she’s beautiful 
She’s a part of me 
She’s my wife 

Bound by love 
One flesh to be 
An unbroken ring 
And I lay down 
My life for thee 
In love we are free 

Like the first man 
I was cut so deep by heaven’s knife 
When I awoke from my sleep 
Oh my Lord, she’s beautiful 
Walking up to me 
Oh she’s wonderful, standing next to me 
Oh she’s all 
All that I could need, yeah 
She’s beautiful, she’s a part of me 
She’s my wife

“Heaven’s Knife” by Josh Garrels

A Song About the Only One to Conquer Death

Nero is dead, Constantine is dead
Genghis Khan and Attila the Hun are dead
Alexander the Great is dead - however
Jesus is Alive

Napoleon is dead, Lao Tzu is dead
Che Guevara and Henry VIII are dead
Saddam Hussein is dead - however
Jesus is Alive

Through faith in Christ, we've been saved from hell
Because He's risen, it means we'll be raised as well
In glorified bodies fit for the new earth
For now, we participate in the new birth
The universal reality of the true church
With resurrection power, watch the Spirit do work!
United with Christ, we reside in His light
Abide in His might, keep in stride as we fight
The pride in our life, the lies and the spite
We strive to be wise as He guides through the night

“Jesus is Alive” by Shai Linne

A Proverb About Home

The Levant is like sugar, but the homeland is sweeter still.

Local Oral Tradition

This proverb recalls a time before the Levant became a war zone, when it was a region full of lore and luxury. Many Middle Easterners and Central Asians from rugged and remote areas would travel there for business or while on pilgrimage. Yet even in the Levant, they still sensed that nowhere quite compares to home.

A Song that Glories in the Atonement

It’s hard to pick my favorite lines from this song. I love the coming together of deep theology, artful rhyme, and a beat that wakes my heart up.

Regeneration- the Holy Spirit’s true work in His love
To the elect, who receive new birth from above
Expiation- expiation means God’s removed my filthiness

The old testament type was the goat into the wilderness
Redemption- we’ve been freed from slavery to sin
And His very own blood is the price He paid, my friend
Propitiation- Propitiation means since the Lamb has died
His work is finished- God’s wrath is satisfied
Adoption- adoption means God is now my Father
I got the hottest Poppa and by the Spirit holler Abba
Reconciliation means there’s no more enmity
God is now a friend to me, we’re no longer enemies
Justification- God declares us righteous
Sanctification- we’re being made into His likeness
Glorification- that’s what happens at the finish
When God conforms believers perfectly to Christ’s image!

“Atonement Q&A” by Shai Linne

A Central Asian Proverb on Fair Weather Friends

As long as there were melons,
the relatives were score. 
But when the melons had run out,
The kinfolk were no more. 

-local oral tradition

In Central Asian culture, one’s extended family visits each other often and one’s closest friends can often be relatives. But alas, as in every culture, some of these prove to be only coming around for the metaphorical melons.

Photo by Kenny Timmeron Unsplash

When God Saved the Guy Next to the Guy I Was Trying to Reach

The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit. (John 3:8 ESV)

In the summer of 2017 I hosted an experimental English poetry group in my living room. I’ve written previously about how my Central Asian students were asked to wrestle with the messages of Herbert and Henley, among other famous English poets. Some students showed up for the English practice, but dramatically bemoaned the fact that we had to study poems. One older man came primarily to demonstrate his skill at pulling secret and hidden meanings out of poems, like so many rabbits out of a hat. When this happened the rest of us were typically left scratching our heads and trying to graciously move the discussion on. But one student in particular continuously responded well to the poems and questions that drove at biblical themes. His name was *Aaron, and by the end of the summer I knew if I followed up with any of my students, it should be this guy. He showed a resonance with the humility of Herbert’s Love III, the mortality of Shelley’s Ozymandias, and the questions of missed opportunities and fate raised by Frost’s The Road Not Taken. But after our poetry group disbanded and normal English classes began again, Aaron disappeared. Still, I waited and wondered what might come of the stirrings I thought I saw in his eyes when we had discussed poems like The Universe As Primal Scream. Could the Spirit be working in his heart, preparing him to keep following these themes into a study of the Bible?

One year later, Aaron unexpectedly reappeared. He was a student in one of my colleague’s classes, but he mentioned how much he had enjoyed the poetry cohort the year before. He invited me to spend time with him and his group of friends. Eager to see if my sense of Aaron’s spiritual sensitivity was accurate, I readily agreed on the plan. I wondered if he had been chewing on some of the topics we had discussed in the months that had passed since our poetry group disbanded.

Not long into the visit, however, I was disappointed. Aaron and his two college friends were very kind and hospitable, but just didn’t seem to want to take the conversation in more serious directions whenever I tried to do so. The conversation was fun and pleasant, but not what I was hoping it would be. I wondered if we were just hanging out so that they could sharpen their English skills, nothing more. As I had done so many times before, I prayed. “Lord, if you will turn the conversation and open the door, I will step through it.” The evening hours passed, we grilled chicken, ate sunflower seeds, and enjoyed the cool air of Aaron’s family’s picnic house (nestled into a cooler neighboring valley). But the conversation about spiritual things wasn’t happening.

I had already given up the evening as lost regarding gospel conversation when we transitioned inside because the night was getting chilly. Some nights you just trust in the sovereignty of God that the relationship-building will somehow be a part of eventual fruit, even if you didn’t get to share much truth. Then, out of nowhere, sometime around 12:30 a.m., Aaron’s friends started talking about the things in Islam that really frustrated them. Aaron joined in, though not as enthusiastically as his friends. They asked me my opinion about the topics they were discussing and what exactly it was that I believed. I quickly tried to rally my thoughts. Here, unexpectedly, was the open door.

I remember sharing with Aaron and his friends in detail about the difference between gospel and religion, a major theme when I find myself sharing with Muslims. Whereas Islam and all other religions promise salvation if you’ve done good enough and your good has outweighed your bad, the good news of Jesus promises salvation based on what Jesus has already accomplished for us in his death and resurrection. It is the contrast of a paycheck vs. a gift, a contract vs. a covenant, an employee vs. a son, a conditional salvation vs. a salvation safe and guaranteed by God’s own promise of pardon.

As I dug into these topics I noticed that Aaron wasn’t really interested. Maybe I had misjudged what was going on in his heart – it would certainly not be the first time that had happened. Aaron’s second friend by this point had actually fallen asleep. Too much chicken and not enough chai. But the other young man, *Darius, was sitting, mouth wide open and eyes transfixed. He was tracking every single word I said. I started focusing more on Darius, sharing more and more aspects of the gospel and what it means to be a follower of Jesus. He had very few questions, but it was clear the wheels of his mind were turning. Later, Darius shared with me that he knew that evening that his search was over. God had confirmed in his heart that whatever this following Jesus thing meant, he needed to do it.

We hung out several times more, but Aaron and the second friend slowly drifted away, while Darius kept coming back for more and more conversation. He started visiting our fledgling church plant and again, sat mouth agape, stunned by this small circle of locals and foreigners worshiping Jesus together and studying the Word.

Trying to discern how the Holy Spirit is moving is a tricky business, not unlike trying to see the wind. The man I was so convinced was the one being drawn was actually not interested at the end of the day. But his best friend was. At some point around 1 a.m., at a picnic house in the mountains, the Holy Spirit landed in power and arrested Darius where he sat, munching on sunflower seeds. I’m not sure at what point exactly he came to faith, but a few months later it was crystal clear. Darius was a new creation. God saved the guy next to the guy that I was focused on. Maybe the whole poetry group a year before was just so that I would get the chance to meet Darius. How strange and wonderful.

Darius continues to grow in his faith to this day.

Photo by Dlanor S on Unsplash