Tolkien and Lloyd Jones on Spiritual Homesickness

We all long for [Eden], and we are constantly glimpsing it: our whole nature at its best and least corrupted, its gentlest and most humane, is still soaked with the sense of ‘exile’. If you come to think of it, your (very just) horror at the stupid murder of the hawk, and your obstinate memory of this ‘home’ of yours in an idyllic hour (when often there is an illusion of the stay of time and decay and a sense of gentle peace) are derived from Eden.

J.R.R. Tolkien, The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, 110.

“it is difficult to define hiraeth, but to me it means the consciousness of man being out of his home area and that which is dear to him. That is why it can be felt even among a host of peoples amidst nature’s beauty; like a Christian yearning for heaven.”

D. Martyn Lloyd Jones

Photo by Derek Mack on Unsplash

Seven Factors for Missionary Homes

Whenever new personnel come to the field, we end up discussing the pros and cons of the housing that’s been chosen for them. Usually there’s some concern that it’s too nice compared to how locals live, but sometimes there are concerns that the place is not nice enough. I try to encourage them to settle in to the place they’ve been provided, and to keep their eyes open for the various ways in which locals and foreigners live here. “In a couple years,” I encourage them, “you’ll be in a great spot to find your own posture as far as housing and standard of living.” As we’ve given our colleagues here eventual freedom to choose to live in more modern or traditional places, they’ve felt better able to find their own personal fit regarding this very practical question.

A word of advice to team leaders or church planters out there: insisting on one rigid standard of living for your team doesn’t tend to work out that well. Rather, letting people wrestle with the following factors helps them to balance the different aspects involved, and make a decision with deeper buy-in. We don’t have to all live the same way on the mission field. A variety of housing lifestyles is healthy even for local believers to see. This is another area where we need to be careful not to create laws, even if we have personal convictions regarding what kind of housing is truly strategic.

  1. Access. The most important factor for missionary housing is access. Can workers who live in this house or apartment easily access the people group or the area they are called to focus on? We want to redeem the time and not live in a house that bogs us down in transit or isolation unnecessarily. We are also all creatures who struggle with motivation. When that culture shock is running you over, you want access to your people group to be there with as little resistance as possible. Living next door to (or on top of) your focus people group provides gospel opportunities, even when you might not want them. Easy access is not always possible, but when it is an option, it’s an extremely important factor.
  2. Hospitality. Does that potential home lend itself to gospel hospitality? Will locals feel comfortable visiting you when you invite them? Does your wife find the hosting space efficient or frustrating? Socioeconomic dynamics can have an effect here. If your house seems too fancy or too rough, locals may not feel free to visit you. In our context where apartment towers are a very new thing, many locals are afraid of high buildings, and might not be able to visit an apartment on the 20th floor.
  3. Relatability. Does your house or apartment and the way you live have much overlap with the way that locals live? Or is your house laid out in a foreign way, or lacking important items that locals believe should be in every home (like bathroom shoes)? It’s usually not wise for foreigners to try to live exactly as the locals do, but we should aim for healthy overlap. There should be ways in which our homes feel local, and ways in which they feel Western – especially for rest needs. Our first house in Central Asia was very nice, a surprising step up from where we had been living in refugee apartments in the US. Our second house ended up being a little too small and rough for our family and ministry needs. Our third house? Hoping for the right balance.
  4. Longevity. Is your home restful for you, your roommates, or your family? After spending yourself in local ministry, is your home a place where you’re actually able to recharge? If your house is the biggest cause of stress you have, you likely need to move. Some of our colleagues have moved into communities with 24-hour electricity and have experienced a major decrease in their stress levels now that they don’t have to juggle various fragile electricity systems. Many of us have also lived in homes without adequate natural light, and have learned to prioritize this as a practical way to fight discouragement. My family has moved into an old stone house, but one with green trees and lots of dirt and easy access to the bazaar. Why? Because green and dirt and walking the bazaar are life-giving for us. And it all adds up when it comes to longevity – the ability for workers to actually stay on the field.
  5. Team. Are you close enough to your teammates to be able to function as a healthy team, with regular rhythms of meeting, eating, and working together? One of the costs of our current house is that it is a 30 minute drive from our teammates. But for our first two years on the field, we were neighbors with one set of teammates and lived just up the hill from others. This easy access was crucial in those early days. Sometimes we can prioritize strategy over team and community, and only later realize the deficit that’s been building.
  6. Life Stage. Are you married with small children? Apartment living might not be the best choice, unless you can find a place on the ground floor. You probably don’t want to tell your kids to hush all the time. Are you living in a Muslim context but have teenage daughters? A house in a conservative neighborhood could end up severely limiting your girls’ freedom and end up leading to bitterness. Health problems can also mean needing to live somewhere newer with better utilities. Singles may also not be permitted to live in some neighborhoods because of honor/shame or safety issues. Access to schooling can also be one of the most important factors here.
  7. Beauty. This has been a growing category for me personally. In the past, beauty would not have registered as an important aspect of which house to live in. But we are creators by nature and even in this unstable age we are called to plant gardens in Babylon as it were. Once again, everything adds up when it comes to longevity. Access to beauty at home, or the potential to create beauty by moving into a fixer-upper – these things could actually make the difference in whether or not that internal stress cauldron boils over or not. My mom used to garden in Melanesia. For years I never understood what the point was. Now I am starting to get it. Our lives are supposed to be little previews of the new heavens and the new earth. Splashes of beauty in or around our physical domiciles contribute to that overall foretaste that we hope to give our local friends. In one sense, investing in the beauty of our homes on the mission field doesn’t feel like a very “pilgrim” thing to do. But we are not merely utilitarian beings, laser-focused on the spiritual while ignoring the physical creation around us. We were gardeners in the beginning. We will one day be part of an eternal garden city. Therefore, as “pilgrim gardeners” we are not foolish to hint at these realities in the here and now, even as we admit that these good previews might be here today and gone tomorrow.

We should be careful not to create laws about missionary housing that stem more from preference than sound principles. These seven factors, however, are worth considering as church planters, missionaries, or really any Christian wrestles with how to live on mission in this needy world. There is no perfectly balanced place to live this side of heaven. But by being intentional in where we choose to live, we can have a home that is an aid to our mission, rather than a hindrance.

Photo by Marko Beljan on Unsplash

The Source of a Leader’s Character

I recently had the honor of speaking to a number of my colleagues on the importance of character in leadership development. The following is from the beginning of that talk, from the section focusing on the source of a leader’s character. Today, as we reflect on what we are thankful for, I am thankful for these truths, that we have a sure and steady eternal source for godly character – and because of that we have hope in the often long and painstaking work of leadership development, and hope for our own slow character growth as well.

“As we begin today, we need to step back and look at the source of a leader’s character. How, given the history of fallen man, how is it even possible that a man would have godly character? How can this be when the image of God in was shattered in Adam and we continue to smash it through our own sin?

2nd Peter 1:4 says – scandalously – that we become partakers of the divine nature – sharers in the divine character. Well, what changed to make that possible? What happened to ‘They have all turned aside; together they have become corrupt; there is none who does good, not even one?’ (Ps 14:3)

Well, the character of God was restored to humanity in the coming of Jesus Christ. God’s eternal word, the eternal Son, became a human, became a servant in human form (Phil 2), and thereby smuggled in divine character behind enemy lines. Through his coming, his life, death, resurrection, and ascension, he has now made a way for any who believe to share in the nature of the god-man, Jesus Christ. This has been accomplished in the past.

Now, in the present, those who repent and believe experience two stunning realities – the new birth and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.

‘If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come’ (2 Cor 5:17).

The miracle of the new birth makes us a new creation, we get a new heart and a new Spirit, a new core and a new nature – a godly one. As we live in the present this is who we are!

Further, Romans 8:15 says that we have received the Spirit of adoption as sons by whom we cry, ‘Abba, Father!’ This Spirit bears witness in the present that we are children of God. And he also bears fruit in us – the fruit of the Spirit from Galatians 5, a portrait of godly character: Love, Joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self control.

But the source of a leader’s character is not just located in the past and the present. It’s located in the future too – the coming resurrection.

Again, Romans 8. ‘And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first-fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved’ (v. 23-24).

Or, take 1st Cor 15:52-54 ‘We will not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality.’

Every day, we are moving closer to this coming transformation, when the character of Christ in us will be perfected. The source of a leader’s character is also this coming resurrection hope, just as it is the present new birth and indwelling of the Spirit, and the past work of Christ.

Why does it matter that we know the source of a leader’s character? Why spend all this time talking about the past, present, and future? So that we will know where to ground our hope in the difficult and slow task of character development.

We have a small core of guys in our church plant that we have been walking with for years now. And to be honest, we had hoped that some of them would be a whole lot further along by this point. Many times we’ve started the conversation on our team about moving some of them into more leadership. And then something happens that shows us that their character is not yet ready.

We go to a training conference and they fight like middle-schoolers. We try to plan a baptism picnic and they fight some more. Persecution ramps up, an alleged spy enters the group, and some disappear. Or hidden dynamics at home emerge that show the good theology hasn’t been translating into being a godly husband.

It gets discouraging. When will they be ready and our consciences permit us to entrust them with leading God’s church? We must regularly remind ourselves of the source of a leader’s character if we are to persevere in this long-term work that tends to go in fits and starts.

Remember that the work of Christ is accomplished and sure for that struggling local brother, remember that it is a new heart that beats within him, the Holy Spirit that indwells him and won’t let him go. Picture that brother one day, resurrected, free from sin, shining in eternal glory.

‘It’s a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses,’ as C.S. Lewis puts it, ‘to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to [or that struggling local leader in training] may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship.’

Friends, remembering their future resurrection helps us persevere in the messy present.

Remembering the source of a leader’s character keeps hope alive in the long task of character development.”

Photo by Joshua Woroniecki on Unsplash

A Song on the End of the World

We don’t have very many contemporary songs written about the end of the age. I appreciate this one by Jess Ray, which combines serious references to Christ’s return with mentions of zombies and EMPs – and puts it all to a driving folk melody.

Select Lyrics:

Will there be zombies? 
Fires and floods? 
Will there be an EMP? 
Moons turned to blood?

Blessed is the man 
If he knows the lamb when he sees him
Cursed is the man who has money and food
And a place to hide
And a head full of knowledge 
And a heart full of pride
Cursed is the man if he does not know the lamb

“There’s Still Time” by Jess Ray

When the Beauty Never Leaves

I love our local bazaar in the fall. A gentle and steady wind blows down from the mountains, stirring the tree branches and their yellowing leaves. The summer heat has passed, and the buildings, the people, and earth itself seem to sigh contentedly in the cooler weather. Some trees and plants even celebrate the lower temps with a second, mini Spring. Pomegranates are ripe, piled high on carts, red and crunchy. Olives are ripening also. The autumn sun, lower and playfully angled to the south, shines through the swaying branches. Street musicians play classic melodies on stringed instruments and traditional flutes.

Every believer likely has certain places where they feel eternity bleeding through into the present. Places where the beauty of this world awaken some kind of deep memory – or prophecy – of another world. Eden that was lost, or Eden to be remade. These longings, as Lewis pointed out, can be sweeter than the deepest pleasures realized in this life. As penned by The Gray Havens, we “can’t find something better than this ache.”

I wonder what kinds of scenes awaken this inner longing for eternity in other believers. Is it something we all experience? Are some of us for some reason particularly haunted by these tantalizing flashes and whispers? If so, then it is a good haunting. Even if at times it leads to tears.

For me, it’s often angled, gentle sun. The wind and the branches softly dancing together. The happy sounds of a bazaar in Autumn. A warmth in my chest and an echo of a memory in my mind of something wonderful and somehow also painful.

I’ve felt it elsewhere also. When sun flicked the waves as the seagulls dove and cried and our ferry made its way across the Bosphorus. Or when we waded into an ancient river barefoot during a summer sunset. Watching a Melanesian island sunrise as the waves smash the coral shores. A silent snowfall over a lamp-lit Minneapolis footbridge. An orchestra playing Handel’s Elijah. A particularly sweet conversation with a local believer over a cup of chai. A moment of Edenic intimacy with my wife.

These echoes, these previews, remind me that I am not yet fully alive. But that one day I will be. The groaning creation will then be set free into the freedom of the glory of the children of God (Romans 8:21). Its resurrection will follow ours, just as its fall followed ours. No more hints, previews and echoes on that day. But face to face, unveiled glory. The creation, the resurrected ones, the king himself.

Sometimes all of this really is present in an afternoon moment in a Central Asian bazaar. It comes, it sings, it fades again. Eternity has bled through once again. And I am left behind. Yet not forever.

Steady on, my soul. One day the beauty will come – and it will never leave.

Photo by Ali Kokab on Unsplash

Jesus Spoke a Persian Word From the Cross

One way to distinguish Central Asia as a region is to say that it is the part of the world dominated by Turkic or Persian-related languages. When it comes to Persian-related languages, we’re talking groups like the Dari, Tajik, Kurdish, Luri, and Balochi. There are hundreds of millions of people who speak Persian itself (also known as Farsi) or languages closely related to it.

These hundreds of millions of people are overwhelmingly Muslim – and they might be surprised to hear that Jesus spoke a word from their ancestral language while on the cross.

That word is what we know as paradise. I won’t get into the details of the etymology, but this ancient Persian word for walled enclosure and garden came into many of the languages of the ancient world, including Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic forms. No doubt the Jewish community living under Persian rule is where much of this linguistic influence came from. Plus, the Persians were the superpower of the region for quite some time. The vocab of the superpower tends to spread, just as here the local Central Asian form of laptop is, well, laptop (but said with an “ah” and an “oh”).

The old Persian term’s connection to a garden is what linked it with Eden, and thus with our concept of paradise – not only Eden lost, but heaven as well, and Eden one day restored.

And he said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23:43 ESV)

These are the words Jesus spoke to the dying thief on the cross who simply asked to be remembered. In this saying Jesus uses the word paradise to refer to having died and being welcomed into the presence and rest of God – Abraham’s bosom as it were.

This is not the only Persian loan word in the Bible. There are dozens of them. Somewhere around eighty in the book of Daniel alone. Yet Jesus’ words on the cross are coming at the very climax of redemptive history. And one of them is Persian. I find this fascinating. Iranians I’ve shared this with are struck as well. It’s one more example of the capacity for any human tongue to be redeemed and used in the service of God.

And what a great opening to go on and share the gospel.

A Song for Struggling Saints

I love this song. I find it to be a good example of using holy imagination to explore true themes that resonate with Scripture and the experience of believers. In it the songwriters craft a fictional conversation between a struggling saint and Jesus. Notice the desperation of the saint, “the devil; Rides on my back every mile; And he won’t take his claws out of my skin; I’m sorry if I’m bleedin'” This broken saint is met by a laughing and welcoming savior, who engages him and then lavishes on him a tour of biblical history and the created universe. The song contains a promise that the struggling saint will be singing with Christ and the angels when “the army comes marching right down from the sky” and that “All of this is Mine! And yours too.” This saint is so beat up he is apologizing to Jesus for bleeding and doesn’t even know how to ask for help. But Christ laughs kindly because the the reality he knows is one in which this struggling saint is the heir of the universe. I love the line, “stuck our tongues out at the earth and slowed its rotation.” Ha! I guess that’s one way to demonstrate being a true heir of the world. The interwoven melody of the older song, “When the Saints Come Marching In,” is great as well. Lyrics below.

He said to me where is your halo
Where are your wings your black book bible
I’ve lost them all but you know it’s not your fault
He asked me how I said 'the devil
Rides on my back every mile
And he won’t take his claws out of my skin I’m sorry if I’m bleeding'

He bent down and wrote it in the sand
Made a wave and spelled it out in the ocean
Said we’ll be singing those angel hymns all together
When the army comes marching right down from the sky

'I can help' is what came from His mouth
I’d yell yes please but I’ve never spoken to the clouds
The weight it grows everyday ever hour second and eternity
He laughed out loud and asked me to explain
Forever, no-end, death, and being born again
If it’s the universe you want to see, come and take a walk with Me

I told myself son you better listen...

And we went into the garden and saw Adam die alone
Saw a baby in the water floating to a safer home
Saw the walls fall to the trumpeters then to Gilead we ran
By the time we made it to the top we were out of breath again
Then we stood on the moon, moved the craters to make faces
Stuck our tongues out at the earth then slowed it’s rotation
It was July in the winter before we moved it back to June
Passed the speed of sound, the speed of light and the speed of time too and he said,
'All of this is Mine, and yours too'

“Saints” by Poor Bishop Hooper

A Song For Mourning Turned to Gladness

“Gone are the Days” by the Gray Havens and Julie Odnoralov

I’ve posted the original version of this song in the past, but I really enjoy this remix as well. The lyrics look back, post-death, to the sufferings of this life and the new reality of sorrow turned to gladness.

It is a fitting song for today, when I get to attend a very special wedding. My mom, widowed twenty eight years, is getting remarried. Her new husband is himself a widower, and one of his daughters one of my classmates and friends from high school in Melanesia. As such, it is a very different kind of wedding, where everyone’s thoughts are not only on the bride and groom, but also on the parents and spouses who have departed and gone to be with Jesus. There has been great loss, but there is also new joy.

He makes all things new. This song, and this wedding, provide me glimpses of how he will do this for all eternity.