Your Hungers Are Rewarded, You Are Going Home

The difference between Patrick’s magic and the magic of the druids is that in Patrick’s world all beings and events come from the hand of a good God, who loves human beings and wishes them success. And though that success is of an ultimate kind – and, therefore, does not preclude suffering – all nature, indeed the whole of the created universe, conspires to mankind’s good, teaching, succoring, and saving.

Patrick could speak convincingly of these things. He could assure you that all suffering, however dull and desperate, would come to its conclusion and would show itself to have been worthwhile. He could insist that, in the end, you too would hear the words “Your hungers are rewarded: you are going home. Look, your ship is ready.”

Cahill, How the Irish Saved Civilization, p. 131

A Song on the Coming Feast

My heart is regularly encouraged by meditating on the coming marriage feast of the lamb. Seeing this future event by faith – and the innumerable feasts that will follow it in eternity – has been a source of repeated help and hope for my family. The words of this song by Sandra McCracken have helped in this regard for a number of years now. The feel of McCracken’s original fits well with this age of suffering saints who await the feast.

Lo and behold, the song also now has a Christian Soul Cover – a style which, at least for me, feels like music that previews the joys of the feast arrived. I find I am helped by both styles, resonating as they do with the already/not yet nature of these promises. I’ve posted them both here for your consideration.

We will feast in the house of Zion 
We will sing with our hearts restored 
He has done great things we will say together 
We will feast and weep no more 

We will not be burned by the fire 
He is the Lord our God 
We are not consumed by the flood 
Upheld protected gathered up 

In the dark of night before the dawn 
My soul be not afraid 
For the promised morning oh how long 
Oh God of Jacob be my strength 

Every vow we’ve broken and betrayed 
You are the faithful one 
And from the garden to the grave 
Bind us together bring shalom

“We Will Feast in the House of Zion” by Sandra McCracken

So Much More Than a Shadowy Existence

… our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel, (2 Timothy 1:10 ESV)

2 Tim 1:10 brought life and immortality to light. First-century tomb epitaphs indicate that for most pagans, death was accepted (at best) with calm resignation. In traditional Greco-Roman religions, death was the end of everything. The best that could be hoped for was a shadowy existence in Hades, the realm of the dead. Paul contrasts this world of shadows with the light of immortality that faith in Christ brings.

ESV Archaeology Study Bible

What an interesting contrast between the shadows of the pagan afterlife and the shining glory of the biblical vision of paradise and resurrected bodies. I’ve said it before, but we should not be shy to sometimes speak of ourselves as those who humbly “seek for glory and honor and immortality” (Rom 2:7). Especially when contrasted with the inferior pagan visions of the afterlife. Nothingness? Loss of individuality as we’re assimilated into the Atman? Gardens and virgins? Clouds and baby cherubs? No thank you, we have been freely welcomed into something so much better. Superior glory and satisfaction awaits – a life and immortality of light.

Photo by Gian D. on Unsplash

Somewhere Green and Bright

Today marks twenty eight years since my dad unexpectedly passed away. Or, as my Central Asian neighbors put it, since he made the final migration and was shortly thereafter entrusted to the dirt – the mountain Melanesian dirt which he loved so much. He and my mom were three and a half years into their first term as missionaries when a morning jog brought on what we were later told was asthma-induced heart failure. I was almost five, and my older brothers were seven and nine.

Looking back, I’m extremely grateful for the dozen or so memories I have of my dad. Going to the little Korean trade store with him and drinking strawberry milk together. Riding on his shoulders as we played basketball with my brothers. Playing crab soccer in the yard of the mission house. Watching him teach in smoky village huts by the light of Coleman kerosene lantern, or pulling over to allow yet another villager to pile into the back of his Toyota pickup. He was a joyful visionary pioneer type, a natural people person and leader – and a great dad. I don’t feel like I was old enough to really know him, but the memories, the stories, and the echoes of his life are precious to me, and have served as a godly legacy in which I’ve sought to walk. A big reason I’m a missionary myself is because of my dad’s example of giving everything for Jesus.

This past week I was sharing with a former Marine and friend here how God had used my dad’s time in the US Marines to draw him to Christ. My dad had grown up in a working-class, unchurched home. His dad was a Philly truck driver and his mom was from a coal mining community in the mountains of West Virginia. He knew very little about Jesus or the gospel, even though he had grown up in the Philadelphia area in the 60’s and 70’s. After high school he joined the Marines and was trained to be a combat photographer, stationed in Yuma, Arizona.

One day while on base, he met some helicopter pilots and they hit it off. As often happened with my dad, he made friends quickly with these men and they were soon joking and laughing together. Later on in the day, their twin-rotor military helicopter took off from the base. A short distance away, one of the rotors somehow came off the helicopter, causing it to crash in the desert. Everyone on board was killed. My dad, being a photographer, was told to go photograph the crash scene – and the bodies of the friends he had just made. For the first time in his life he asked in desperation, “God, where are my friends now? They’re gone, but to where? And are you real?”

These questions drove him to find answers from his chaplain, from a Christian book store, and eventually, from the church my mom was attending. He fell in love with Jesus and fell in love with my mom. It took her quite a bit longer to be convinced, but his dogged persistence eventually charmed her.

As a brand new Christian, there were plenty of bumps along the way. When my mom first told my dad that she was called to be a missionary, he had never heard that term before. He thought she meant a mercenary. His response? “OK! I’ll follow you anywhere in the world you want to go.” Later on he himself would be called to the nations, to a particular Melanesian nation where his extroverted Philly personality would win him countless friends among the tribal highlanders.

Twenty eight years. It’s been a slow grieving realized over time. Late high school and early college were the hardest for me. Yet it has been a grieving also intermingled with gratitude, joy, and longing.

I’ve only ever had one dream in which I was with my dad. It was at a time when secret adultery was exposed among the members of a small group I was newly leading. I was profoundly discouraged and felt way in over my head as our little group of messy new believers reeled from the destruction caused. The night I found out I fell asleep exhausted after hours of damage control. As I slept, I dreamed I was walking with my dad, somewhere green and bright. I felt full of peace and joy just to be in my dad’s presence. He was delighted to be with me as well. At one point I remembered to ask him, “Where have you been all this time?” I don’t recall him answering. Yet it was fine that he didn’t. His smile was enough. I eventually awoke, now profoundly encouraged. However it is that the Holy Spirit works or doesn’t work through dreams, that one couldn’t have come at a better time.

I love our local-language phrase, entrusted to the dirt, because it speaks of death in a way that hints of resurrection. To entrust something or someone can imply an expected return. There’s a little missionary graveyard on a hillside in Melanesia. That’s where my dad was buried, entrusted. That burial service was the first time I heard the hymn Be Thou My Vision, sung by another missionary – also passed away now – the dad of a friend who now serves among our same people group, further up in the mountains. I still can’t hear that song without remembering that day, and the sudden relevance of the line, “Thou my true father and I thy true son.”

Twenty eight years ago my dad was entrusted to that hillside, and to the presence of God. But only for a season. Sooner or later the dirt – and heaven – will give back its trust, better even than it was before.

And then we’ll get to live out that dream, walking together in the new heavens and new earth. Somewhere green and bright.

Photo by paul jespers on Unsplash

Walking the Graveyards

But why go to the other side of the world when there are so many lost people right here in the homeland?

It’s a valid question, and one that feels weightier the more post-Christian the West becomes. Before we moved overseas as a family, we used to share an image to answer this objection.

Imagine a huge and ancient graveyard, full of wooded hills which are covered with thousands of tombstones. But the graveyard is not completely still and silent. Here and there individuals and small groups make their way from one grave to another, pausing to push one or several seeds into the grassy earth. They might move on quickly or linger at a certain grave for some time. Usually nothing happens right away. But sometimes a sudden flash of light occurs, and the one who was dead emerges completely alive and made new. This newly living one (after a period of understandable disorientation and celebration) then joins the others in their methodical and mysterious work of seed-pushing.

It’s not predictable when and where the seeds that are planted will bloom in an explosion of light and dirt and life. Sometimes there are weeks and months with nothing. Other times multiple dead ones suddenly come to life simultaneously. The only trend the planters have been able to gather is that the more graves that receive planted seeds, the more resurrections tend to take place. The planters go about their work steadily, but they are greatly outnumbered by the number of graves, somewhere in the ratio of ten thousand to one.

One day one of the planters climbs a cemetery ridge to conduct his work. From the top of that ridge he can for the first time make out the existence of another graveyard, just within eyesight. It’s even bigger than the one he and his friends have been working in. Yet strain as he might he’s unable to see any movement within that graveyard. There are no planters to been seen anywhere. The reality dawns on him that there are none to walk that graveyard. None to sow the seeds that can raise the dead. The graves there will never stir nor give up their bones.

Gradually he comes under conviction that he must go and be the first planter to walk that graveyard, though the ratio be as bad as one to ten million. It’s not right that all the planters (small in number though they are) be concentrated in one graveyard when there are other cemeteries with just as much potential for resurrection that have no one to sow the seeds.

Everywhere that seeds have been planted, sooner or later, the dirt gives up its dead, who in turn become faithful living workers. Everywhere. So he goes. It’s not a matter of the absence of need in the first graveyard, it’s the presence of such disproportionate need in the faraway graveyard which has no planters. And perhaps one day that graveyard will give birth to enough of its own workers to be able to send some back to lend a hand in the first one. Or perhaps from that vantage point they will see yet another graveyard further away, itself also lacking even one to plant seeds of hope in the dirt of its ancient graves.

This image helps to explain why we came to Central Asia when there is so much good gospel work that needs doing in our homeland. Though the work is daunting, our home “graveyard” has many more workers who are going to keep doing the work faithfully. But our corner of Central Asia? There are towns and villages that we have visited that have no known believers. Places where we may have been the first to ever share the gospel of Jesus Christ. And we’re not even as remote as some of our colleagues are. Many over here are working at a ratio of a million to one. A million graves for every seed pusher. That would be like having only three hundred people to reach the entire population of the US with the gospel. In God’s miraculous power, it’s possible. But man, someone please send those people some reinforcements!

Are there dead people in the homeland? Absolutely. But are there also crews of faithful seed pushers? Yes. That’s why we left. And why we’ve come to another graveyard with just as many dead, but with precious few planters.

Photo by Elizabeth Jamieson on Unsplash

Ripping Open the Inconsolable Secret

As I continue this week of posting articles that have been particularly influential for me, tonight I post one which has almost become cliche in the Reformed blogosphere – to which I say, “Praise God!” The Weight of Glory is a sermon by C.S. Lewis that has been called by John Piper one the most influential pieces of writing he’s ever read. This sermon for Piper was key in his discovering for himself what he would later call Christian Hedonism.

For me, this Lewis sermon has been influential in a related, yet distinct way. When I first read it, my heart blazed. But this was because the sermon spoke so plainly of my inconsolable secret.

In speaking of this desire for our own faroff country, which we find in ourselves even now, I feel a certain shyness. I am almost committing an indecency. I am trying to rip open the inconsolable secret in each one of you—the secret which hurts so much that you take your revenge on it by calling it names like Nostalgia and Romanticism and Adolescence; the secret also which pierces with such sweetness that when, in very intimate conversation, the mention of it becomes imminent, we grow awkward and affect to laugh at ourselves; the secret we cannot hide and cannot tell, though we desire to do both. We cannot tell it because it is a desire for something that has never actually appeared in our experience. We cannot hide it because our experience is constantly suggesting it, and we betray ourselves like lovers at the mention of a name. Our commonest expedient is to call it beauty and behave as if that had settled the matter. Wordsworth’s expedient was to identify it with certain moments in his own past. But all this is a cheat. If Wordsworth had gone back to those moments in the past, he would not have found the thing itself, but only the reminder of it; what he remembered would turn out to be itself a remembering. The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.

I do not know when it started, but as a child or teenager I began to experience a profound longing for something which I could not quite describe. I did not know what to call it. This longing came through nature, missionary biographies, late afternoon sunshine and wind, times of corporate worship, holidays, and times of private prayer. It was a longing for the new heavens and new earth, a longing for the resurrection, a longing to see the face of God. Lewis diagnoses this as a longing for glory, which is both honor and light, recognition from God and the chance to actually become a part of the eternal beauty.

This promise of resurrection glory continues to be one of the major themes which dominates my spiritual life, pulling me out of discouraging seasons time and again. If you are a believer who has never read The Weight of Glory, you can do so here. Or even if it’s just been a while, do your soul a favor. Stir up those bittersweet longings for another world that you can never quite shake nor suppress. Then rejoice that they are not empty longings. They are, for us believers, prophetic echoes of our future and true home.

Making The Best of Imperfect Systems

Want to know one of the seldom-mentioned keys to staying healthy on the mission field? The ability to make the best of imperfect systems. A kind of practical trust in God’s sovereignty that results in patience, kindness, and flexibility when confronted by broken, different, or merely imperfect systems. These systems might be local ones. Or they might be the systems of your team or organization. Regardless, none of them are perfect. Some of them are frankly bad, and even the good ones can have glitches – just enough to send you over the edge on a day when your culture shocking is beginning to smell like a 110 volt appliance plugged into a surging 220 volt outlet. Is something burning?

Since our return to Central Asia we’ve spent abundant time in government and private offices as we’ve sought to renew our visas and lease as well as help teammates with their own paperwork. These systems and processes are not very efficient. They don’t always seem logical. They are unpredictable in a hurry up and wait kind of way. If we let them, they could be a considerable source of stress and anxiety.

But how exactly am I advancing the kingdom of God if I let the frustrations of these systems send me into a rage, or even into a judgmental smolder? If the Central Asians are even frustrated by the system, wouldn’t it better commend Christ if I can model a radical patience, joy, and cooperativeness in these sorts of situations? But these blasted local bureaucrats are keeping me from being able to do the ministry work! I know these thoughts well. But what if the open door to do the work will actually come through my membership in the new humanity being on display in the midst of a creaking and broken system?

Sometimes we make it through the local systems admirably, not only holding it together, but even displaying Christ-like kindness and patience. But it takes a toll. Then we get that email from a coworker. Someone at the home office requests something that feels out of touch or unreasonable to us. They should know better, those blasted Christian Westerners! Can’t they see this is so inefficient or redundant? Turns out we can spend all our grace on our local friends, and then become downright curmudgeons with our teammates and organization. We vent our wrath at the language system, the mentoring system, the financial system, the lack of a system, etc., etc.

We live in a broken world, full of broken systems. How are we to do God’s work in this kind of place?

And we urge you, brothers, admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all. See that no one repays anyone evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to everyone. Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. (1 Thessalonians 5:14–18, ESV)

Yikes. Not my natural response to imperfect systems, but absolutely what it is needed. But where does the power to live like this come from, to actually be patient with them all and give thanks in all circumstances?

And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified. (Romans 8:28–30 ESV)

Imperfect systems, even broken systems, are encompassed by the phrase “all things.” Even they are a part of God’s good plan for your day, for your ministry – for your glorification. A practical trust in God’s sovereignty means that when you spend an hour to get across town in traffic and the office manager is randomly not in today, or it’s some obscure holiday no one told you about, or your water tanks at home are inexplicably empty, that you lean into that frustrating situation as a good gift from your father. Practicing sovereignty means you are gracious and flexible when the organization’s deadline is not a good fit for your unique situation. It means these frustrations are melted away by the warmth that comes from meditating on our eternal brotherhood with Jesus, or the unbreakable chain of God’s good plan for us in our salvation (foreknown, predestined, called, justified, glorified). These kinds of meditations will not only power healthier responses. They are the only effective fuel for healthy system reform.

The ability to make the best of imperfect systems. Not in some positive-thinking shallow way. But the kind of flexibility that’s rooted in God’s sovereignty and spilling over in patience and thanks – this can save us from burnout, or worse. It’s a seldom spoken of virtue of those who last overseas in a long-term and healthy way. For those of us on the field, we need prayer to grow in this way. For any considering missions, begin praying this way for yourself. There are many things I’m learning about lasting on the field and what makes a healthy team. This one, simple as it may seem, is growing year by year in its practical weight and implications.

Show me a worker who is able to make the best of imperfect systems, and I believe you will have shown me a person who deeply understands the grace and patience of God.

Photo by Ruben Mishchuk on Unsplash

Cracking Tails, Roasted Hearts, and Resurrection

While walking in a park yesterday, a friend and I spotted a bird with a long blue/black fan tail. My friend wasn’t sure what it was called in the local language. Apparently, it doesn’t show itself very often in the city. I shared with him that it reminded me of a bird we had in Melanesia called the Willy Wagtail. As I explained to him what wag means in English, and how we use it for the tail of a dog, he exclaimed, “Oh! That’s what we call tail cracking! Like when you crack your knuckles. We use the same verb for both situations because it’s like the animal is cracking it’s tail.”

One of the great joys of language learning is stumbling onto new ways in which to describe reality and connect its different parts. I never would have seen a connection before between the wagging of a dog’s tail and a person cracking their neck or their knuckles. But my Central Asian friends have seen it and reflected it in their language. I guess when a happy dog is next to a door, there is a rhythmic crack crack crack as his tail repeatedly hits the surface. Perhaps this is where it came from. Or just the swaying action looks similar to a human trying to stretch back and forth in search of a refreshing series of pops. This crack/pop verb is also the same one used for the firing of a gun and related to the word used for the explosion of a bomb. Indeed, the more you chew on it, the more you can see the common thread tying these things together.

Later in the afternoon we had a language lesson. As we studied a regional folktale together, our tutor pointed out the phrase used when a character suddenly fell in love – her heart was roasted. The same verb used to roast something in the oven, which is also used in adjective form for a rotisserie chicken. Not too distant from certain poetic ways the English language speaks of love, such as being inflamed or burning with desire. But roasted? What an interesting way to conceptualize having a serious crush on someone. It carries with it a certain completeness in the effect of the emotion upon the heart, deeper than you might get from the mere idea of a flickering flame.

As we discussed folktales and oral tradition, we learned that the phrase used to describe how a story is passed from father to son is that it has come from chest to chest. This is because the historic understanding here was that memory was located in the chest, the core of the person. So, naturally, something which is memorized by one generation and then passed on to be memorized by the next is understood as passing from chest to chest. I really like this one. It reminds me of 2nd Timothy 2:2, “and what you have heard from me, entrust to faithful men, who will be able to teach others also.” Pass it on from chest to chest, dear Timothy.

Speaking of entrusted, the very name of this blog comes from discovering a new way to speak of death in our local language, that a person is entrusted to the dirt. A dear friend told me last week that the name of this blog sounds to him like Lamentations, like a “face in the dust.” While my title does certainly reference death and its connection to the dirt, I actually chose it because of the subtle hint of resurrection implied by the word entrusted. When something is entrusted, it has not been lost or abandoned. There is a certain stewardship implied, a certain aim, perhaps even a return. Like 2 Tim 2:2, that aim might be faithful preservation and multiplication of a body of teaching. In the case of believers’ bodies and the soil, it is a trust given anticipating a glorious return. “What is sown is perishable; what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor; it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness; it is raised in power. It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body” (1 Cor 15:42-44). We entrust our dear ones to the soil and we eventually entrust ourselves, knowing by faith that glory and resurrection will be the sure and unstoppable outcome. It’s still dirt, it is still death, it’s still not the way things are supposed to be. But that’s not the end of the story. The dirt holds a mighty secret. All of creation whispers that resurrection is coming. And so our tears are mingled with a certain flicker of joy.

Each language is like a unique form of poetry, all of them attempting to describe creation as God has allowed us to experience it. As such, there is fascination and even delight to be found in the ways other tongues speak of things like tails wagging, hearts burning, stories passed on – and even of death itself. Take heart, weary language learners out there. There is more wonder in the end than there is drudgery. One of the things I’m looking forward to in the New Heavens and New Earth? Being with believers speaking thousands of complex and poetic languages – and all the time we need to learn each and every one of them.

Plus a resurrected brain with which to learn them. Let’s not forget about that part.

Photo by Wikimedia Commons

Those Who Seize the Everlasting Kingdom

However blind his British contemporaries may have been to it, the greatness of Patrick is beyond dispute: the first human being in the history of the world to speak out unequivocally against slavery, Nor will any voice as strong as his be heard again till the seventeenth century. In his own time, only Irish appreciated him for who he was; beyond their borders he was as little known as Augustine was in Ireland. Patrick himself probably never heard of Augustine, who died two years before Patrick set sail as bishop; and if he did hear of him he undoubtedly never read him. In those days, news could take a year to travel from one end of the crumbling empire to the other; books could take a decade or two – or even half a century. But Patrick shows us that he understood the dual concept of the City of Man and the City of God as well as Augustine himself when he derides Coroticus and his men as “dogs and sorcerers and murderers, and liars and false swearers… who distribute baptized girls for a price, and that for the sake of a miserable temporal kingdom which truly passes away in a moment like a cloud or smoke that is scattered by the wind.” But of his beloved, slaughtered warrior children: “O most dear ones… I can see you, beginning the journey to the land where there is no night nor sorrow nor death… You shall reign with the apostles and prophets and martyrs. You shall seize the everlasting kingdoms, as he himself promised, when he said: ‘they shall come from the east and the west and shall sit down with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven.”

Cahill, How the Irish Saved Civilization, pp. 114-115

Photo by Gregory DALLEAU on Unsplash

But When Will I Be a Man, Sir?

Twelve years ago I was standing just outside a stationary store near the center of the bazaar. The owner engaged me in conversation, curious as to where I was from. He eventually asked me how old I was, and I responded accordingly, being a twenty-year-old at the time.

“You’re still a child!” the man exclaimed.

I smiled and gave a respectful nod – it was not the first time I had heard that one, and certainly not the last. At thirty two, I’m still getting it.

“But when will I be a man, sir?” I asked.

The man lifted his index finger in the same manner a local teacher would, squinted one eye at me and said, “Son, when you have a wife, a son, and a mustache… then you will be a man!”

I pondered this response and thanked the shop owner for his helpful advice. Interesting ingredients for basic manhood, not too shocking, but a bit different than manhood might be parsed in other cultures. Especially the mustache. This was a few years before they made a comeback in the global hipster movement.

In our Central Asian culture there is no initiation-into-manhood ceremony, unlike many of the tribes in Melanesia. Marriage practically serves as the most commonly accepted threshold. But many locals would probably agree with the shop owner’s traditional response. Like most Westerners, I can’t really tell you when my culture actually decides that a boy has become a man. Is it the driver’s license at sixteen? The right to vote and join the military at eighteen? Becoming of legal drinking age at twenty one? My year as a single overseas, for me, served as the clearest point of entering “manhood” with its responsibilities and shift of perspective. The head of my org even pronounced me a man after I had completed my year and joined him for a coffee back in the US. Not a bad way to do it, taking a gap year to share the gospel among an unreached Muslim people group. There have certainly been worse ways to be initiated.

I agree with many that a biblical anthropology is the need of the hour for the Western world – a solid understanding of what the bible says about men and women, their differences and their similarities. What is the core of biblical manhood according to the scriptures? And what is the core of biblical womanhood? These are not small questions. They are questions my wife and I wrestle with as we raise two sons and one daughter in between a Central Asian culture with very restrictive gender roles and a home country that has seemingly smoked something awful and sailed off the edge of the world when it comes to sex and gender.

In Central Asia, because of what we believe about the equal worth and dignity of men and women (Gen 1:27), we are considered feminists. In the US, because of what the Bible teaches about natural distinctions in the roles and wiring of men and women (1 Tim 2:12-13), many would consider us backward-thinking misogynists. We live in between, trying to challenge both and carve out a healthy biblical path.

This is a huge subject, so I want to merely make a few general points, in the hopes of returning to each in more detail in the future.

First, we need to acknowledge that the Bible really does speak to a certain universality of femininity and masculinity. There is a core there that does not change from age to age or culture to culture. If biblical manhood and womanhood are like two huge oak trees, we need to take note of the fixed roots and trunk.

Second, we need to be honest about what the Bible does not say regarding the practical expressions of masculinity and femininity. For example, there is no biblically prescribed initiation into manhood or womanhood, despite what certain books in the Christian bookstore might say. Like so many other areas, we have biblical principles and we must work to faithfully express them in our unique contexts and cultures. We also need to study the cultures the Bible was written in. Some of the commands and examples in the scriptures are rooted in the created natures of men and women (and are thus universal, like 1 Tim 2:12-13) and some were applications of these deeper realities meant only for a given context (like the head coverings in 1st Cor 11). Returning to our two oak trees, we need to look up and acknowledge that when the wind blows the branches do actually have quite a bit of sway. Solid, fixed roots and swaying branches can coexist as part of the same healthy tree. The roots and trunk are our principles, the branches the healthy expressions.

Third, we need the global church. This is because we are all so prone to confuse our principles with our own cultural expressions. Being a man in America means I don’t hold another man’s hand, whereas I might be expected to in Melanesia or Central Asia. Manliness is often communicated in the West as a rough, unkempt sort of look, whereas Central Asian manly men are into immaculate grooming, poetry, flowers, and drinking tea from small dainty glass cups. Be careful if you laugh though, they all know how to jerry-rig the electricity as well as shoot an AK-47. Yes, while also wearing skinny jeans. Melanesian manly men weep severely and publicly, while Western manly men tend to keep their grief more private. Why the differences? Are they all equally valid or unequally skewed? Too often the biblical manhood camp in the West (of which I’m a part) has confused biblical manhood with things that are just frontier manhood – things like camping, steel-toed boots, radical individualism, guns, and cigars. Those are sometimes fine expressions of manhood, but they are also merely one culture’s unique expression of biblical principles such as courage (1 Cor 16:13) and subduing the earth (Gen 1:28). Exposure to the global (and historical) church will help us as we seek to get clarity on the faithful range of expressions of biblical manhood and womanhood. Those who have the privilege of international travel or living nearby internationals will have a practical advantage in this effort. Those who don’t resonate as well with their culture’s preferred expressions may find surprising help there as well. And for anyone who reads, the global church is increasingly accessible!

When did I become a man? It probably had very little to do with a mustache. Rather, it must have been at some point when the Lord acknowledged the growing presence of core things like servant leadership, courage, costly obedience, faithful work, and gentle strength. Ultimately it was in relation to him, and not some cultural ceremony, where the true shift of identity must have taken place. For what is biblical manhood or womanhood except coming to increasingly reflect the image of God according to our unique male and female creation? In that sense I have crossed a threshold and become a man. And yet eternity bears on this also. Having become a man, turns out I will never actually stop becoming one. Eternity means there’s always room to grow more like the infinite glory that manhood and womanhood together reflect.

Photo by Josh Rocklage on Unsplash