I Look Forward to Drinking Chai With You in the New Jerusalem

For what is our hope or joy or crown of boasting before our Lord Jesus at his coming? 
Is it not you? 
For you are our glory and joy.

-1st Thessalonians 2:19-20

Over the past year or two I have been experiencing some kind of crisis of motivation. What had previously always come naturally – love, hope, energy for investing in our focus people group – this had seemingly dried up. It’s clear to me the initial cause of this loss of motivation. A couple years ago our team was betrayed by a local leader in training that we had loved dearly and invested in deeply. Seemingly for the sake of money and power he had secretly turned against us, dividing the fledgling church plant that had started, and scattering many of the new believers. Deceit, slander, and confusion bore terrible fruit and we saw firsthand the devastation that can be caused by the Titus 3:10 “divisive man.” Life since then has been mostly non-stop transition for my family with a steady series of smaller let-downs by other local believing friends. Praise be to God, the church plant survived and quietly continues. But we took a hit. One that went deeper than I think I expected.

For the past year or so I have been asking for prayer that God would restore to me motivation for ministry relationships with locals. I believe he is answering that prayer. Our return to Central Asia this past month has brought with it a fresh wave of energy for the intensity of local friendships and the sometimes OCD-seeming level of texting, calling, and checking in on one another. It’s a full-time job to just keep up friendly and honorable smartphone communication in Central Asia. But not only has God been giving the grace to respond and reach out to local friends, he has also been filling my heart again with faith and hope in his good plans for this people group. Yes, they are prone to petty betrayals and duplicity. Everyone who has served here long-term has had close friends turn on them. But Jesus has his remnant here and the gates of hell will not prevail. A steady and faithful core of local believers hints at the amazing future of the Church here.

One text that has been used recently to encourage my soul is 1st Thes 2:19-20, quoted above. As is so often the case, when I am prone to discouragement or depression, God uses a fresh vision of our future hope in Christ as the means to pull me out of it. Time and time again, meditating on the return of Christ, the resurrection, and the new heavens and new earth has served like a defibrillator for my weak heart, jolting me back to life and awakening me to beauty. This time the scene the scriptures paint brings together the return of Christ and our joy in those who are there with us, those that God has used us to reach.

Looking forward to the coming of Jesus, Paul calls the Thessalonian believers his hope, his joy, his crown of boasting, and his glory.

The Thessalonian believers are not Paul’s basis of acceptance on that day – that is the righteousness of Christ alone. Yet these messy new believers will be for Paul a source of incredible happiness and honor on that day. I once heard of a tribal missionary speaking of the jungle tribe they were able to reach with the gospel. He spoke of longing for the day when he might be able to present this tribe as a fragrant offering to Christ. I believe he was likely referring to this and similar passages. For all of us, our friends that we are able to lead to faith or disciple or gather into churches, they will be on that day a part of a remarkable triangle of glory and joy. Glory and joy will flow from Christ to us and we will exult and rejoice in reflection back to him. But there will also be a side-by-side glory and joy with fellow believers. In being there together we will (is it possible?) have even more glory and joy, honor and hope as we delight also in one another.

There is great practical help in envisioning that last day when we are struggling with other believers in the here and now. I am also finding that there is help in fixing my gaze there as I prepare to enter local relationships that could prove to be yet another disappointment or false start – and as I hope for future healthy churches among this people group. I am helped by envisioning a small crowd of local believers rejoicing together and for the first time standing before the throne, presenting one another to the king with laughter and tears. There is power in meditating on these things. And healing. We don’t speak enough to one another like that future life actually real and approaching.

My best friend in the US, himself a Central Asian who is now a follower of Jesus, wrote this in a card to me as we left for Central Asia a number of years ago: “I look forward to drinking chai with you in the New Jerusalem.” I’m pretty sure I had to find somewhere private to go cry after reading that. It’s part of our “inconsolable secret” that we all have as believers. We ache for that day when we are there in the presence of Christ – together with our brothers and sisters in the faith, side by side and at last fully alive. For those of us who are leading others, we long to be found faithful and to see those stewarded to us kept until the end, glorified, shining like stars forever and ever. Glorified, but also still ourselves, doing very human things like drinking chai together, reminiscing about God’s faithfulness, and getting ready to explore the new earth. Who knows? Maybe the marriage supper of the lamb, like a good Central-Asian feast, will be followed by a round of chai for all.

So, like Paul, let’s meditate on that coming scene. Let’s encourage one another in the coming reality of that day. “You, dear struggling friends, you are my hope and joy and glory and crown of boasting before the Lord Jesus at his coming.”

Photo by Mehrshad Rajabi on Unsplash

A Song on the Coming Dawn

A world away and still not far
Like fabric woven into ours
The dawn, it shot out through the night
And day is coming soon

The Kingdom of the Morning Star
Can pierce a cold and stony heart
Its grace went through me like a sword
And came out like a song
Now I’m just waiting for the day
In the shadows of the dawn

But I won’t wait resting my bones
I’ll take these foolishness roads of grace
And run toward the dawn
And when I rise and dawn turns to day
I’ll shine as bright as the sun
And these roads that I’ve run, will be wise

It’s veiled and stands behind the shroud
The final day when trumpets sound
Sometimes I glimpse into the fog
And listen for the song
Til then I’m waiting for the day
In the shadows of the dawn

“Shadows of the Dawn” by the Gray Havens

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 Philly Diner and the New Jerusalem

In spite of the late March date, there was a blizzard in Philadelphia. My brothers and I, seeing one another and our families for the first time in two years, had rented an Airbnb together and were spending a few days catching up. On this late morning, it was just the three of us brothers, walking through the snow together to a local diner.

“Three of youz guyz? Right this way, tuhts,” the older waitress said in a classic Philly dialect.

We took our seats in a booth and settled into sipping diner coffee and enjoying breakfast for lunch. Since my family serves in a Muslim country, I of course ordered extra bacon.

I didn’t expect the conversation to take the turn that it did. We ended up talking about home, that elusive concept that haunts missionary kids and others who have grown up in a lifestyle of transition. G.K. Chesterton once said, “After I became a Christian, I understood why I’ve been homesick at home.” MKs are particularly aware of that homesickness, though it’s more often that they’ve been homesick in spite of never being able to define what home is.

One brother had recently bought a house, the first to do so in our family, and discussed the rootlessness of our upbringing, the absence of a settled place, and how even in his thirties, he was still coming to terms with it. His desire was to move toward greater rootedness. As he spoke, I felt that same desire – for roots, for a house, for land, for community and memory – flicker in my soul.

I of course had embraced the nomadic missions lifestyle of our parents and was coming toward the end of my family’s first term on the field in Central Asia. Exciting things were afoot, a church plant that had just begun, friends coming to faith, new potential leaders being trained. As I shared about our experiences my brothers felt that old desire awakened in their souls also, perhaps even some guilt about not being overseas themselves.

I realized afresh in that conversation that my brothers (also believers) and I need each other. Because I have been called to the unsettled life of a missionary, I need them to “hold the ropes” for me in a particular, settled way. And I’m not just talking about having a place to crash when we’re in the US or being present to care for aging grandparents – important though these things are. I’m talking about having a place to channel that desire for rootedness. I can find some level of satisfaction to that desire by praying for my brothers and supporting them in the rooted lifestyle that God has given them – buying houses, investing in a neighborhood, serving at one local church, knowing which Philly diner we should go to in a blizzard. My brothers, in turn, can channel that desire to be overseas into their prayers and support for my family as we live and serve in Central Asia. Their kids can FaceTime with mine and they can even come for visits. We can, in a way, live vicariously through one another, since we must choose one calling or the other. In this way, we can practically fight for contentment as we lean on one another, as we grapple with our lingering sense of homesickness and wonder if we are being faithful.

I really do believe these are different ministry callings – toward rootedness or toward rootlessness. Consider Paul’s exhortation to the believers in Ephesus to pray that they might live “a peaceful and quiet life, dignified in every way” (1 Tim 2:2 ESV). Then consider that Paul did not live this way at all, but instead, “To the present hour we hunger and thirst, we are poorly dressed and buffeted and homeless… like the scum of the world (1 Cor 4:11,13).”

Paul exhorts the Thessalonians to “aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we instructed you, so that you may walk properly before outsiders and be dependent on no one (1 Thess 4:11-12).” But Paul was often dependent on the generosity and households of others. Yet he also honored those who risked their necks (and their stable life) for the sake of the gospel, like Prisca and Aquila and Epaphroditus (Rom 16:11, Phil 3:25).

So which is it, Paul? Are believers called to a radical apostolic lifestyle or to a more ordinary, pastoral lifestyle? A pastor friend recently pointed out to me that some, like Philip the evangelist, may be called to both in different seasons. After Philip’s early itinerant ministry, at some point he settled down, got a house and had a bunch of daughters (Acts 21:8-9).

It seems that most of us will be called primarily to one of these callings instead of the other – some to rootlessness for the sake of the gospel, others to rootedness for the same cause. This harmony of the so-called radical and the so-called ordinary shows up all over the New Testament and throughout church history. William Carey could have never done what he did without Andrew Fuller and the support of the English Baptists. The Judsons were utterly dependent on the ministry of Luther Rice back in the US, mobilizing the rooted churches. For every one family like us on the mission field, we need at least a dozen families who decide to stay home, work, pray, give, welcome us back when we are burnt out, and disciple their own kids and neighbors to themselves go to the nations.

But it’s not only in relation to this world that these callings work together, it’s also in relation to the next. I believe every Christian is meant to foreshadow the new heavens and new earth by the way they live now. For most, it will be a foreshadowing of degree. “Our family has lived in this house for forty years, in this city for eighty. Those trees were planted by my grandfather. But these seemingly stable roots, this place of home, cannot be compared to the true home and the true stability that is coming. Is this wonderful? Yes, and temporary, even if it endures for a thousand years. Let the lesser joy be a path to hoping in the greater. This country is good, but the country of the king will be even better.”

For others, it will be a foreshadowing of contrast. “You know how we have lived in fourteen houses in the last eight years. You know how we do not own, but only rent. Transition is our constant reality. We live like nomadic pastoralists, like Abraham, because a promised land is also coming for us. In the resurrection, each of us will have his own vine and his own fig tree and will find rest because he will have found his place. Here we have no country… but we will find our true home in the country of the King.”

We should feel no superiority to others if we are called primarily to a foreshadowing of degree or a foreshadowing of contrast. Both callings reflect the coming resurrection. Both can become idols or sources of bitterness when divorced from their good and temporary roles as previews of the coming Zion. Both are dependent on one another in this age. The senders are encouraged in their difficult jobs because they know have a vital part in the spread of the gospel to the nations. The goers are encouraged in their difficult roles because they know their work is also an investment in the sending church and its rooted impact in its neighborhood.

Acknowledging the goodness of both lifestyles can free us from false guilt as well. Are you a tired missionary, worn down by the cost of transition and longing for a stable home? It’s OK, the resurrection is coming. Lament and rejoice. Are you a tired church member or pastor worn down by the tedium and heartbreak of a rooted life, where the growth seems ever so slow? It’s OK, the life of the New World is upon us, it’s just around the corner. Lament and rejoice. Everyone is grappling with spiritual homesickness to one degree or another.

Your calling, whichever it is, is a good one. You get to point others toward our eternal hope, life forever in the presence of the King. Toward Home.

Photo by Lee Cartledge on Unsplash

Dead As In All the Way

I’m reading through Jonah this week and came across this interesting note on the importance of three days and three nights in ancient near eastern mythology and culture. It seems to be understood as period of time that indicated a death that there was no coming back from – as in not mostly dead, which according to the austere religious scholar, Miracle Max, “is still slightly alive.” In the ancient near east, if you journeyed into the world of the dead there was hope – if you made it out before the third day. This ancient understanding of being utterly dead could also provide historical context for Lazarus and Jesus’ periods in the grave as well (four and three days respectively).

three days and three nights. This would have been equated with certain death; for example, in the Mesopotamian Descent of Inanna [a mythological text], the title goddess commands her servant to lament for her if she does not return to the earth within three days.

ESV Archaeology Study Bible, p. 1280

The scriptures are indicating that Jonah was as good as dead. Lazarus was more than dead. And Jesus was dead – as in all the way.

Photo by Christophe Maertens on Unsplash

A Song on the Death of Death

Though I’ve been listening to this song for years, I’m still struck by imagery of Jesus Christ laying death in his grave. Some select lyrics from this song:

So three days in darkness slept
The morning sun of righteousness
But rose to shame the throws of death
And overturn his rule
Now daughters and the sons of men
Would not pay their dues again
The debt of blood they owed was rent
When the day rolled anew

On Friday a thief
On Sunday a king
Laid down in grief
But woke with the keys
To hell on that day
First born of the slain
The man Jesus Christ laid
Death in his grave

“Death in His Grave” by Sojourn Music

Eternal Glory is Better

I am tempted to become bitter with God over the ongoing trials that he has not removed.

There are certain forms of chronic suffering and weakness that I have brought before his throne for years. And still, no deliverance. Sometimes, the suffering and weakness seems to be getting worse. I have been able to freely give big tragedy to God, accepting his good sovereignty through suffering. But it’s the mid-grade stuff that’s gets me, the embarrassing, annoying, hindering kind of suffering and shame that hovers like a cloud of mosquitoes on a tropical night – especially when that suffering seems to make me unable to do the work that God has called me to do.

If God has called me to a certain kind of life and ministry, then why won’t he remove these weaknesses that keep me from the kind of Spirit-empowered freedom that I know is possible? I’ve learned this question is dangerous enough that it needs an answer. If left unanswered, the belief slowly starts to grow that God is holding out on me. If that belief grows, I begin to try holding out on him, not slackening in my obedience necessarily, but at least holding my heart back from intimacy with him. I feel as if he is hurting me and I don’t understand how that fits with his professed love for me. So I keep myself at a safe distance. That, over time, is deadly.

I’m sure that others are familiar with this dynamic.

The phrase that I have been turning to recently in this struggle is that Eternal Glory is Better. It comes from 2nd Corinthians 4, where Paul is describing the suffering encountered in his ministry. He is honest about the real toll it is taking. Our outer self is wasting away (4:16). Yet Paul doesn’t stop there.

[16] So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. [17] For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, (2 Corinthians 4:16–17 ESV)

Paul acknowledges that an inner renewal is taking place simultaneous to the external wasting away. God is working this for good in Paul’s character in the here and now. But then he pivots to focus on the eternal. He claims that the suffering we experience as believers is actually for an additional purpose: to prepare for us an eternal weight of glory.

Why does our eternal weight of glory matter? Well, deep down we are all made for it. We are made to glorify God and enjoy him forever. Yes, but as we do that we will actually be entering into his glory, taking on his glory, ourselves becoming glorified. We ache for this.

The promise of glory is the promise, almost incredible and only possible by the work of Christ, that some of us, that any of us who really chooses, shall actually survive that examination, shall find approval, shall please God. To please God…to be a real ingredient in the divine happiness…to be loved by God, not merely pitied, but delighted in as an artist delights in his work or a father in a son—it seems impossible, a weight or burden of glory which our thoughts can hardly sustain. But so it is... We should hardly dare to ask that any notice be taken of ourselves. But we pine. The sense that in this universe we are treated as strangers, the longing to be acknowledged, to meet with some response, to bridge some chasm that yawns between us and reality, is part of our inconsolable secret. And surely, from this point of view, the promise of glory, in the sense described, becomes highly relevant to our deep desire. For glory meant good report with God, acceptance by God, response, acknowledgment, and welcome into the heart of things. The door on which we have been knocking all our lives will open at last.

This is C.S. Lewis, exploring this longing for glory in his sermon, The Weight of Glory. If you’ve managed to never read this piece by Lewis, please take the time to think over this short sermon. Key to our understanding the coming resurrection is that we understand how we are to hope in the revelation of God’s glory – yes, and also hope in the revelation of our own glory (Rom 8:23). When we are resurrected, we will be honored by God and we will ourselves somehow shine with the glory of God, like stars in the heavens (Dan 12:3).

But what about pride and our human desire to steal glory from God? Well, on the day that our glory is revealed we will also have been set finally free from the presence of sin. We will be free then to delight in our own glory and in God’s without any sin whatsoever. It will all be in line with love.

So then, according to 2nd Corinthians 4, my suffering is producing eternal glory for me, more eternal glory than would have been mine otherwise. That is its outcome, its purpose. I desperately want God to remove the trial, but if he doesn’t, then I don’t have to give in to bitterness or shame. Instead, I can rest, knowing that its purpose for me is good. Its purpose is to give me more eternal glory – in all its tantalizing mystery – and that means its purpose is clearly in line with love and a kind father who doesn’t deny the best gifts to his children. Though he does at times deny the lesser in order to give the greater.

Eternal glory is better. Better than the freedom that would come from having my trial taken away now. Better than the absence of suffering. Better than my own visions of free and powerful ministry done for Christ.

Eternal glory is better. It’s a simple line, but I am finding it helpful as I fight for faith in God’s goodness when that weakness emerges again. God is not holding out on me. He is for me, just as he always has been.

Photo by Denis Degioanni on Unsplash

How to Boast in Our Humiliation

It is not uncommon for Western missionaries to be considered wealthy by the locals where they serve. This is certainly true in tribal contexts. Even in developing regions like Central Asia, Westerners are assumed to be fabulously wealthy. Many locals where we serve own decent homes and buy nice cars. They probably have more cash (or gold) reserves than we do. Central Asians and Middle Easterners value bling and have an uncanny ability to amass concrete wealth even in the midst of ongoing political crises.

And yet we are wealthier than they are in many ways. We are wealthy in our overall finances, compared to many. While we may not have much cash on hand, we have a steady income, generous health insurance, savings, and a retirement plan. We have access to lots of easy credit on reasonable terms. We have powerful credit cards that reward us with free rewards just for using them because we have been deemed a “safe risk” by our credit rating.

We are wealthy in our ability to travel on our blue passport (well, before the pandemic anyway). Our organization flies us out of our host country once or twice a year for meetings or trainings, providing us the opportunity to affordably attach a few days or a week of vacation to these trips. We tend to pay for these times of rest by using our credit card points and some leftover cash.

We are wealthy in our education. Whether we were home-schooled or went to a public or private school, the quality of our K-12 education outpaces anything available to our Central Asian friends. Our bachelors and masters degrees from accredited American universities are powerful for acquiring credibility and employment. We have the ability to find and win scholarships if we desire to get more education. Some universities will give amazing discounts to our children because they are MKs.

We are wealthy in our connections. Even though we come from a society based more on merit than relationships, we know so many people who can point us toward the information we need to advance in a given area. We know how to network globally and how to leverage the internet and the English language to get the knowledge we need. Even in the West, who you know still matters for giving your resume that extra shine if competing with others with similar qualifications.

We are wealthy in our Christian heritage. We have been raised to know so much about the Bible and about Church history. We have countless resources for studying the Bible and history in our language and within reach (often for free) on our smart devices.

If we compare ourselves to other Westerners, we feel we are normal and perhaps less wealthy than most. But when we compare ourselves to our Central Asian friends and the majority world population, we see that we are actually in the category of the rich.

This means that James 1:9-11 is speaking to us when it addresses the rich.

[9] Let the lowly brother boast in his exaltation, [10] and the rich in his humiliation, because like a flower of the grass he will pass away. [11] For the sun rises with its scorching heat and withers the grass; its flower falls, and its beauty perishes. So also will the rich man fade away in the midst of his pursuits. (ESV)

Clearly, the rich are called to boast in their humiliation. So how should we missionaries do this? What does this mean?

It’s not uncommon for local believers to bring up our wealth (real or imagined) eventually. It might be when we’re speaking about enduring persecution and they say that it’s different for us because we have a blue passport and can leave anytime. Or it might be when we are we speaking of putting the kingdom of God ahead of politics and they say that it’s different for us because we actually have a nation-state for our people. We speak about being willing to risk our lives for Jesus and the pushback we receive is that if anything happens our Western families will be provided for by our sending churches, but theirs will be alone and abandoned in a hostile environment.

Sooner or later the differences in our wealth that we have been trying to play down will enter into our conversation with local believers. They see us as rich and see themselves as poor. They are, to some extent, ashamed of their lowly position. Perhaps also envious of ours. And the enemy wants to use these differences to sow division between us and our local friends.

The answer is not usually to erase all distinctions of wealth between us. There is much wisdom in living a simpler lifestyle that does not cause a hindrance to local believers. We Westerners give up our comforts too slowly. But I cannot undo my education, nor should I throw away my life insurance nor my knowledge of the Bible. The kind of wealth that God has given us must be tested by 1st Corinthians 13 – can it be leveraged for the sake of love? If the answer is yes, then we do more for the kingdom by leveraging these things for others than by discarding them. And if we discard, we must also ensure that it is done for the sake of love – not for pride or for mere appearances.

Here is where James 1 can be so helpful to us. We don’t have to pretend that the difference in wealth is not there. We don’t have to awkwardly change the topic when it comes up. Instead, we have the opportunity to turn worldly thinking on its head and to glory in the effects of the gospel. There is a particular way in which the poor in the world’s eyes are supposed to boast in the gospel. And there is a particular boast also for those whom the world calls rich.

Let the lowly brother boast in his exaltation, [10] and the rich in his humiliation

The good news of Jesus Christ exalts those called poor by this world. It takes the poor and it makes them sons and daughters of king, the heirs of all creation, citizens of heaven, the recipients of infinite wisdom, the possessors of eternal glory and honor – those who sit on the throne of Christ himself. They may be despised in this world, but now in Jesus their true spiritual identity is one of honor and spiritual riches – Even if their position in this world doesn’t change.

The gospel also brings down the rich. Those honored and praised by the world are reminded that they are just as worthy of hell as everyone else, that they mere slaves of Christ, that they will fade and die like all others. No amount of wealth or power will be able undo the great leveling of sin and death. They are saved by becoming spiritual beggars, just like everyone else. God shows no partiality.

Someone could push back and say that everything in both paragraphs above is true of all believers, whether they are rich or poor. And that would be correct. And yet isn’t it interesting that James commands a specifically different focus for the poor and the wealthy? Yes, I am a spiritual beggar and a spiritual billionaire at the same time. And yet because I am rich in this world, James would have me focus on how the gospel brings me down, how it humiliates me – especially if I am in fellowship with those who are poor in this life.

This is practical! Instead of trying to ignore our difference in wealth, I can now turn my conversation with local believers to this truth. Yes, I am a US citizen, but in Jesus I have become a spiritual pilgrim and wanderer, counting as loss the worldly honor I get from being born in the land of the so-called superpower. Yes, my friend is a member of a persecuted ethnic minority, enduring the shame of having no homeland. But in Jesus he is given a passport even better than the strongest in this world. God has given him a better and an enduring homeland, and proclaimed him fit to judge angels.

God does not see me as more honorable than my local believing friend, even if his culture wants to place me above him as his patron. God sees us, yes, as equals in Christ, but as both unique recipients of the great reversal – he has been brought up, and I have been brought down.

We need to learn how to boast and glory in this. I believe that when we and our local friends truly believe these things in our hearts we will have dealt a deadly blow against sinful comparison, partiality, and shame. And in this world of screaming inequalities, we will be in the place to powerfully share the gospel.

Photo by Lee yan on Unsplash

A Song of Rest and New Creation

I love how this song connects God’s rest on the seventh day with Jesus’ rest in the tomb on the seventh day. God rested after accomplishing creation; Jesus rests after accomplishing new creation. Some of my favorite lines:

So they laid their hopes away
They buried all their dreams
About the Kingdom He proclaimed
And they sealed them in the grave
As a holy silence fell on all Jerusalem

And the Pharisees were restless
Pilate had no peace
Peter's heart was reckless
Mary couldn't sleep
But God rested

Six days shall you labor, the seventh is the Lord's
In six, He made the earth and all the heavens
But He rested on the the seventh
God rested
He worked till it was finished and the seventh day He blessed it
He said that it was good
And the seventh day, He blessed it
God rested

-“God Rested” by Andrew Peterson