Blame It On the Masons

A local friend today gave me a powerful example of how far we humans will go to excuse away shortcomings in our own tribe – something true Christians are not immune from either.

We were discussing the correct use of a new local proverb I had just learned. The proverb translates to something like, “your excuse is worse than your shameful action.” I thought it was to be used for a typical situation where someone does something disrespectful and then uses a lame excuse to defend themselves.

“No, no, no,” my friend insisted, “We use it when someone does something blatantly sinful and then right away tries to do something spiritual as if nothing had happened. Like someone boldly going to do Islamic prayers right away after doing something very shameful.”

This statement reminded me of a sad encounter I had a few years ago with a former English student. He had invited me to his workplace. While there we hung out with his coworkers. One of them, a middle aged woman, was in an unhappy marriage. To my dismay, as I sipped chai and ate the obligatory guest chocolate, I realized that my student was joyfully helping this woman set up secret social media accounts so that she could cheat on her husband. They were laughing and having a great time. I was grieved that this student would so willingly and openly participate in this kind of deceit and betrayal.

Then the call to prayer went off. There was a small mosque built right next to my coworker’s office. “Come! Let’s go pray!” He said to me. I let him know that I was content to sit at the back of the mosque while he prayed, but I wasn’t going to be joining in. One, I’m a follower of Jesus who believes in salvation by grace alone, and therefore can’t participate in a prayer ritual that is understood to count as merit that balances out sins committed. Two, I was not about to join this man in prayer after he had happily become an accomplice to adultery. I was angry inside at the blatant hypocrisy of my student, who then went on after prayers to extol to me the virtues of his religion.

I shared this situation with my friend today as we sat in the park, and he confirmed that this would be a very appropriate situation to use this proverb. But by bringing up this story, I had poked the honor-shame mechanism in my friend’s worldview, and even though he’s not a strict practicing Muslim, he felt obligated to defend his tribe.

“You know, my friend,” he began. “We have some people here, secretly among us.” I nodded. It’s Central Asia. There tend to be actual spies around, and basically everyone suspects everyone else of being some kind of spy for someone. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard that people think I’m a spy. “They are from our people, but they are supported by a group called the Masons. The Masons pay these people a salary and order them to do shameful things and then to go and do Islamic rituals also. In this way they hope to give foreigners like you a negative view of Islam. They hope to make Islam look two-faced, but we are on to them and their schemes.”

Now, lest you get the wrong idea, my local friend who told me this is extremely intelligent. He is a language teacher who is fluent in multiple languages with a sharp mind for cultural, historical, and political information. But as is often the case, intelligence is no match for the deeper impulse of defending the honor of one’s own tribe. The mind will quickly become the servant of the deep emotional need to find some kind of scapegoat or explanation so that shame is deflected – no matter how implausible that explanation is.

I have heard some wild explanations in my time from very dear and very intelligent friends (Central Asians and Westerners). But to hear that the Freemasons were paying locals to act like hypocritical Muslims so that foreigners like me would discount Islam? That’s, um, that’s quite the stretch.

Not really knowing what to do with that story, I moved the conversation on to other topics. But I found myself inwardly grateful for the simple honesty that following Jesus affords. We don’t have to latch on to elaborate stories to excuse away the actions of Christians who are not acting according to the Bible. We can simply say that their words and actions contradict God’s word – and that if they are true believers they will come to repent of them sooner or later. We don’t have to hide our own two-facedness, or that of our tribe. We can admit it, call it what it is, and bring it to the cross for forgiveness and change. After all, our good news begins with the bad news that we are all hypocrites desperately in need of being made clean and being made new.

Those most grounded in the gospel of Jesus Christ should be those most free from the lure of conspiracy theories. We simply don’t need them. We have plenty of clear reasons for what’s wrong with the world, starting with our own sin and brokenness. Thank God, there’s no need for tales of imaginary Masonic spies.

Photo by David Tip on Unsplash

Diabetes Is Not Forever: One Year Later

One year ago today we found out my six year old daughter had type 1 (childhood) diabetes. We had been at some organizational meetings in Europe in January, and as usual, a serious virus made the rounds among the kids. On the way home a security crisis canceled our flights and we were stuck in a layover city for several days. We were grateful for the unexpected rest, as my kids and wife were having the hardest time recovering from this strange virus, while I was strangely asymptomatic. Since then we’ve heard reports of Covid-19 being present in the country where our meetings were, even as early as January 2020. We can’t help but wonder if that’s what it was, since many of the symptoms line up.

We eventually made it made it back home and everyone slowly got healthy again. Or so we thought. After about a month we started noticing some strange things going on with our daughter. Two months after our trip the symptoms were increasing. She started wetting the bed at night when this had never before been a problem. She seemed to be looking unusually bony and skinny. She was waking up in the night extremely thirsty and and in the day eating and drinking large amounts, but without seeming to be able to quench her hunger or thirst. Her stomach started getting swollen and serious constipation developed. Eventually a rash appeared on her stomach and she started becoming lethargic and falling asleep in the middle of the floor at random times. Her normal state of 110% zest and energy was simply no longer there.

By this point we were several weeks into a strict Covid-19 lockdown. We were trying to treat our daughter’s symptoms, get remote medical advice, and wondering if being cooped up in the house without as much physical activity was partially to blame. But when I tried to have “gym class” at home, she was barely able to participate because of fatigue and discomfort. We were getting seriously worried when a doctor friend of our teammates suggested we check her blood sugar. Even though there was a history of diabetes in my wife’s family, we hadn’t thought to explore in this direction.

The police were mostly allowing civilian vehicles to drive around local neighborhoods, but not on the main city streets. So I was grateful that every local neighborhood in our corner of Central Asia contains several small but quality pharmacies – one of the ways the private sector here has responded to the broken government healthcare system.

It was a sunny late March afternoon when my daughter and I carefully drove to the far end of our neighborhood, making sure there weren’t new roadblocks and hoping that pharmacies would be open. As I recall, this was the first time she had to put on a mask to enter a building. She was really groggy and I remember encouraging her to try really hard not to fall asleep in the car. Deep down I was becoming afraid that falling asleep could be dangerous – though I couldn’t have said why.

We stopped in a local pharmacy and bought a blood testing kit, one of the kinds where you prick a finger and test a drop of blood through a special strip and small digital reader. The pharmacist conducted the test for us on the spot and as soon as the result showed, his brow furrowed. “They can’t show a blood sugar number if it’s above 400,” he said. “Let’s try again. If it’s still just showing ‘HIGH,’ then you’ll have to go to the hospital for a more detailed test.” Sure enough, the second test showed the same result. We would have to go to an ER – and that in the beginnings of the local Covid-19 outbreak.

I called my wife to update her that we might be out for a few more hours and to ask her to pray that the police would let us through the checkpoints. Thankfully, they did. All I had to do was tell them that my daughter was having a medical emergency and that we had to get to the hospital – fast. They would glance in the back seat, see how frail and sick she looked, and quickly wave us through. I was relieved it was this easy.

We arrived at an urgent care type of facility and they ran some blood tests. By this point I was really hoping that we would be able to find some answers, even if it meant something like diabetes. Some kind of mistake was made and the first round of tests didn’t include checking for the blood sugar level. They almost sent us home, but I somehow caught the mistake. As soon as they checked the blood sugar, the tone of the medical staff changed. They communicated that our daughter’s blood glucose level was extremely high and that they would have to transfer us to a private hospital with one of the only local endocrinologists who had experience treating children. While type 2 diabetes is everywhere here (blame the rice, chai, and baklava), type 1 is almost unheard of. Type 2 is usually diet-related and emerges in adults. Type 1 requires a genetic predisposition and emerges in children in response to the body’s immune system attacking a virus – and the body’s own pancreas by mistake. When this happens the part of the pancreas that makes insulin gets mortally wounded, and eventually stops producing insulin altogether.

The next couple hours were a strange mixture of sitting around waiting and medical staff urgently coming in and out. I could tell that it was serious, but the doctor was only willing to say that he thought it was likely diabetes. We were transferred by ambulance to a private hospital and taken up to the third floor. As we approached the doors of the ICU, they rushed my daughter through and I was abruptly informed that I wasn’t allowed to come inside. I pushed back that this wasn’t an option, that I had to be there alongside my six year old daughter who they now poking with various needles – and who was now beginning to shriek in terror. She has always hated shots with a passion. And now she couldn’t even see her dad. While the hospital staff insisted that non-staff are never allowed in the ICU, my daughter was fighting them hard enough and I argued just strong enough to be given temporary access and the assurance that I could stay in a room just outside the ICU door. I decided to take these concessions and to wait to push more later.

I was able to have a few moments comforting my daughter as the nursing stuff buzzed around us and attached various wires and tubes to her frail body. Soon a doctor came in and the staff insisted that it was time for me to leave, but that I could get access to her a little bit later. I was not comfortable with this arrangement at all, but I tried to stay calm, and tried somehow to help my daughter not panic. On the way out I managed to see the paperwork of her blood tests.

Blood glucose level was 786. Normal is 80-180.

I quickly sat down on the small couch in my room, just outside the ICU doors and googled what a 786 blood sugar level meant. What I found froze me in my tracks. Diabetic coma. And other terrifying possibilities. I knew that something very serious was going on, but it wasn’t until that moment that I realized just how close we had gotten to losing our daughter. Sitting by myself in that room a sense of desperation overcame me and I pleaded with God for my daughter’s life. I realized that our hasty goodbye in the ICU could have been the last time we saw one another.

I don’t remember how long it took for a doctor to come and update me on the situation. Much of that time was spent frantically praying and sending out texts for prayer. I was also talking to my wife by phone. She was understandably furious that they had not allowed me to stay by our daughter’s side. I tried to reassure her that I would keep pushing for regular access, but that we didn’t have very many options and that fighting at that point wouldn’t get us more.

Eventually a young doctor came in my room. He told me that my daughter was experiencing something called diabetic ketoacidosis, a condition where the body’s cells have been unable to process the “food” they need due to lack of insulin, so the body has been attacking and consuming itself. This was what accounted for all of the strange symptoms she had been experiencing. She definitely had new onset type 1 diabetes. But she was going to make it. They would work to stabilize her and safely bring her blood sugar levels down. We would need to stay in the hospital for a week or so.

“Don’t consider it an illness. Consider it a gift!” he said with a flourish as he made his way out the door. While thankful for the intent, I clenched my teeth at these parting words. Not the right time, doc, not the right time.

Through the timely intervention of the hospital staff and the prayers of God’s people, everything got easier from that point on. Our daughter stabilized, although it took three days or so for her blood sugar levels to be safely brought down below 300. As the mostly foreign hospital staff realized I could get my daughter calm enough for her shots and urine tests, they began to invite me into the ICU more and more, and eventually just gave me the door code so I could come in whenever I wanted to.

The first 48 hour shift nurse assigned to our daughter was an Indian gal, and one who was connected to our international church. Turns out one of the Filipino doctors at the hospital was a believing member of our church. Other Pakistani fellow members walked from their neighborhood to bring me home-cooked pratha and omelettes. The wife of one of our pastors sent me an Aeropress coffee maker and some ground coffee. Most of our team lived a little too far from the hospital to be able to walk there, but they walked groceries to my wife and other two kids at home, and provided childcare so that my wife could begin to visit the hospital once we acquired a special letter for the checkpoints. One single teammate could make it to the hospital by foot, and he even learned to boil eggs just so that he could fulfill that particular request. To this day my daughter raves about those boiled eggs. As her cells began to be able to absorb nutrients again, she began to eat like a full grown man!

After three nights, our daughter was allowed to move into my room. This was a cause for celebration. We began having dance parties to try to bring her sugar down and experimenting with the random diabetic-friendly food items we could get from nearby stores. Lots of nuts and cheese and cucumbers. Not so much rice and bread, which was mostly what the hospital food consisted of.

It became a strangely joyful time in that bright little hospital room that smelled like Pakistani food and coffee. My daughter seems to remember mostly the sweet parts of our surreal hospital stay and to not recall the many scary parts. I am incredibly grateful for this.

As best we can figure, that virus that hit our family back in January 2020 is likely what caused my daughter’s immune system to misfire and handicap her pancreas. This led to the development of the ketoacidosis. Apparently type 1 diabetes is much more common among those of Northern European and specifically Scandinavian descent. Turns out our DNA has more of that heritage than we knew at the time. We really should have known that this was a possibility for our kids, since my wife’s two younger sisters also have type 1. These sisters have proved to be wonderfully helpful aunts to my daughter since they can identify with her experience so well. The experience that my wife had growing up with her sisters’ diabetes is likely why we were able to so quickly get back to a kind of normalcy – and why we continue to feel so grateful at the kind of diabetes management now available. God should get more glory for insulin pumps and continuous glucose monitors (we use the Omnipod and Dexcomm G6). These devices, sadly not available in this country, are stunning in how much freedom they give kids with type 1 and their parents. A disease that would have been fatal in 1921 barely slows down my now seven-year-old in 2021. We were able to get set up with these devices during five months of medical leave in the middle of last year.

We look back at what happened a year ago and we thank God and shudder. It was hard. We will be lamenting the presence of this disease in our family for the rest of our lives. Yet we also rejoice at God’s particular kindness to us through this whole experience. From the medical advice that came just in time to catching the blood tests done wrong to the unexpected presence of believers in the hospital, God was very much communicating his care for us. And there are many more details of things like this that I haven’t mentioned because this post is long enough already.

One year ago we discovered our daughter’s type 1 diabetes. It hasn’t been easy. But now, twelve months later, we know more of the kindness and care of our God.

And diabetes is not forever.

“I wonder,” I mused to my wife the other day, “If in heaven the lame walk, and the blind see… do you think perhaps Jesus greets those who had type-1 diabetes with a giant ice cream sundae? ‘Welcome home! Your disease is no more. Here, have all the ice cream you can handle!”

Photo by Sebastian Coman Photography on Unsplash

Now I Understand Why You Were Always Talking About Church

“Hey *Hama! I just came from the tea house. Your brother-in-law is in there telling everyone that you are a Christian and that he’s going to kill you!”

Hama and I were hanging out at his favorite intersection in the bazaar when his friend came up and made this announcement.

“Hama?” I asked, “What’s he talking about?”

Hama went on to fill me in on the situation. By this point he and his wife had both been believers for eight years, and were getting serious about their faith again after some years of struggle without steady discipleship. I had been gone in the US finishing up school and starting a family, but a year before our return I had visited and connected them with a new missionary family. This discipleship from these workers – who would later become dear teammates – was bearing good fruit.

As one simple expression of their faith, that year they had put up a Christmas tree, and their six-year-old son had made a cross ornament. However, a photo of him smiling in front of the tree with his ornament had made the rounds among *Tara’s family, Hama’s wife. Her relations, I came to learn, were by far the more conservative and Islamic side. We had made it through the round of persecution brought by Hama’s family eight years previous. Now it was her family’s turn. Far from the somewhat sincere six month shunning that Hama experienced, this persecution would get very serious very fast. It would ultimately lead to them having to flee the country.

The open death threat made that day was a turning point. The same man who had made this threat was a known killer, having murdered prisoners and political opponents in crimes that were documented online by Amnesty International. Usually Hama laughed off threats. But now that his wife’s older brother, a killer, was making them, he was visibly worried.

A few weeks later they were taken to court. Conversion from Islam to Christianity is illegal in our country and the family had accused Hama of forcing his wife to convert. They begged for prayer. To our amazement, the judge sided with them, believed their stories of genuine conversion to Christianity, and even let them swear on a Bible – in fact this was his idea. “They are Christians, didn’t you hear their confession? Show some respect and get these people a Bible to swear by!” Afterward Hama called me in tears from a police station, believing that even with the favorable judge, he was about to be hauled off to prison. Minutes later, he was let go as a free man. We celebrated God’s favor on them in this very scary situation.

But the harassment and threats continued. Tara’s brother showed up drunk one day and destroyed their kitchen, attacking Hama as well. Plans were being hatched to take their son away from them so he could be “raised right.” Our team grew nervous as a video circulated of Tara’s brother bragging about his past murders and making threats against Hama – and anyone connected to him.

To make matters worse, Hama was out of a job. The foreign company he had worked for had departed in scandal and debt, leaving Hama to clean up the mess. The financial pressure added to the persecution to make him feel like there was no way out. Hama began to sink into some dangerous depression.

So many of our locals who claim faith then quickly flee to the West, claiming persecution. Many of them are making up or inflating these claims. Our team was desperate not to contribute to the “faith-drain” that had become a regular fixture of the work in our area. But we were coming to terms with a very complex and potentially dangerous situation – and Hama and Tara were out of options. One night we asked them to pray for absolute clarity on whether the Spirit was indicating they should stay or flee, since both are biblical options. They came back with their answer. It was time to flee.

We started reaching out to friends and organizations that work with the persecuted. The responses were less than encouraging. “We don’t have an avenue for situations like this for your country. We thought your organization would have something in place.” Thankfully, a plan was eventually patched together for a visa, emergency tickets, housing in a neighboring country, and a basic budget for necessities. We might never be able to pull it off again, but at least for this dear family, God had provided a good plan of escape.

Unfortunately, Hama and Tara were only able to experience our initial attempts at gathering a new church plant together. In fact, we had been hoping they’d be one of our anchor families. But they had never quite understood why we kept emphasizing church and the gathering of believers so much. They had not committed and shown up as we had been desperately praying they would. This was typical for local believers, but extra tragic in their situation because it meant there were so few they could rely on when their natural support network turned against them.

Our teammates were the ones to drive them to the airport. I was grateful they were carrying out this last step, heartbroken as I was that my best friend was now leaving. On the way to the airport they shared this:

“Now we understand why you were always talking about church. Our physical family has abandoned us and attacked us. We were alone, except for you all, our believing friends. What would we have done without our believing family? This must be why church is needed.”

I grieved when I heard these words reported. Hama and Tara had largely missed out on what could have been theirs if they had been able to understand sooner why church is so important. But at least at the eleventh hour they had understood.

This realization made all the difference in their temporary country of asylum. They plugged into a good church and for two solid years experienced the joys of spiritual family – they really got it, and on telephone conversations they would actually scold us for not pushing our local friends more when it came to prioritizing the church! For our part, we would just listen, shake our heads, and smile.

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

*Names changed for security

Photo by Grant Durr on Unsplash

Two Iranians and a Missionary Kid Walk Into an All-Night Diner

We were a strange crowd, to be sure. My two Iranian friends and I, along with a cowboy hat-wearing older veteran, walked into a twenty-four-hour diner. It was the kind of local place that was local before local became hip and trendy. Squat and grimy, the building sat an intersection just across from a liquor store. It’s had probably passed its prime sometime in the 1960s. However, this particular restaurant was just down the hill from our first apartment, and it had served us well during my wife’s first pregnancy. Middle of the night burger or omelet cravings had gotten me in the door, and my nonconformist tendencies kept me occasionally going back.

One of the differences between the Middle East/Central Asia and the West is the availability of decent middle of the night restaurants. It’s quite easy here in our adopted part of the world to head out with friends at midnight to find somewhere to get shwarma or tea. But in the US, things tend to shut down long before midnight. This is a minor but legitimate cause of sadness among those who have experienced the vibrant (and family-friendly) night culture of the so-called Muslim world.

It was past 11 pm and our crew was hungry. *Chris had been hanging out with us all evening. He had come to faith recently while in prison and was now a struggling new believer. He was an Air Force veteran who wore cowboy hats, yet carried a secret affinity for the Turkish language and Middle Eastern culture from his many years of being stationed there. He had met the three of us at church, and my Iranian friends, *Reza and *Saul, hit it off with him right away. They, like many Iranian refugees, had spent years as refugees in Turkey, and they spoke Turkish well. Reza’s English was decent, but Saul’s wasn’t. So Chris took to energetically interpreting the Sunday sermon into Turkish the back row on Saul’s behalf. Yes, it was a little distracting, but I was thrilled to see Chris find a meaningful way to serve when the body gathered for worship.

Together we ambled down the hill toward the diner, conversing in a mixture of English, Turkish, Farsi, and the Farsi-related minority language I had studied. The ladies (my wife and Reza’s new girlfriend) were going to follow us after a few minutes. I led the way as we strode into the diner.

Immediately upon entering we felt the atmosphere of the place tense up. Like in some kind of classic Western, the elderly men sitting at the bar turned and stared. The elderly waitresses paused their dish drying and egg frying and raised their eyebrows. The music from the jukebox was the only thing that made any noise for one very pregnant moment.

Being a young white student with dark brown hair, I was only occasionally mistaken for being of some other ethnicity. Even though I had received lots of stares overseas, I hadn’t experienced this kind of welcome in the US before. But side by side with my Iranian friends, with their darker olive skin and jet black hair, for a second I experienced what it was like to be scanned as an outsider by a small crowd of older majority-culture Americans. It was sobering. I’m not sure what they did with Chris. He actually fit in there quite well, given the cowboy hat and tucked in plaid shirt.

However, acting as if nothing had happened, we made our way over to a booth and sat down, translating the menu for our friends. If you’ve never introduced Iranians to the concept of hash browns, french toast, and grits before, you’re in for a fun challenge. We ordered some breakfast plates with plenty of bacon (as a practical celebration of Jesus’ declaring all foods clean) and settled in for some more conversation and hot drinks.

The ladies soon arrived as well and sat down at the booth behind us. I noticed that the serving staff were eyeing us as we leaned over the bench and talked and laughed with ladies’ table. When the waitress came to take their order, she leaned over and asked my wife, “These men bothering you, hun?”

“No. Thank you,” said my wife with a smile. “This is my husband. These are our dear friends.”

The elderly waitress raised her eyebrows and shot us a skeptical glance, and went back to the griddle.

Turns out the only way Chris knew how to speak Turkish was loud. And before long you could tell the few regulars at the bar were twitching a little bit. I encouraged Chris and my friends to keep it down a little. But we were having a good conversation about their testimonies, and it was hard to contain their excitement.

I felt stuck. I didn’t want to make these older locals uncomfortable, but I was bothered as well by what looked like textbook prejudice against language and skin color. One man made his way out the door – maybe because of us. The ironic thing was that my friends might look like intimidating foreigners, but they were actually very respectful and peace-loving, sitting and smiling and talking about Jesus. The others in the diner might relax considerably if they could somehow know this.

It was then Chris pulled a bold and shrewd move. When the waitress came to refill our coffee mugs, he turned to her and asked in a voice loud enough for the whole place to hear.

“Can you believe it?! This man (Saul) was put in prison in Iran because he chose to believe in Jesus! Can you imagine what it would be like to be arrested for being a Christian? Wow. I’m so glad I know him. Give ’em some more coffee, will ya? Incredible, right?”

The waitress took a moment to process this unexpected information. And just like that, some kind of bubble burst. The waitress relaxed. The whole place seemed to change as Chris’ outburst registered. Surprised myself, I took note that Chris had managed to overcome an atmosphere of prejudice by announcing Saul’s experience of persecution as a Christian. The unfamiliarity and suspicion – and perhaps racism – had been undermined by connecting these strangers to something that ran deep in those older white Americans’ worldview – a valuing of Christianity, at the very least on a cultural identity level.

As I think back on this event, it’s a small echo of other occasions where we’ve seen political, racial, or ethnic suspicion quietly undermined as we’ve been able to share with traditional Westerners about how Jesus is saving Muslims. Yes, cultural and nationalistic Christianity which views “the other” as the enemy runs deep. Every culture has its own equivalent of this, so it’s not just a Western problem. Move overseas and you’ll see what I mean. The good news is that there are some back doors that can surprisingly undermine this common sin among professing Christians, in the West or elsewhere.

Yes, even many true believers feel threatened by those different from them. But for those who are indeed believers, their love for Jesus – and often missions as well – really does ultimately run deeper than this fear or pride. This is simply one of the effects of having a new heart. Their own “Iranians” may have previously been thought of as the enemy, but hearing testimonies of God’s grace from these same enemies tends to break categories for these demographics in fascinating ways. Hearts warm as the common ground of being forgiven sinners is built, and brows furrow trying to figure out how to square this affection with previous attitudes. A good slow thaw is underway.

To this day, 30-something Reza continues to attend a senior men’s bible study – at a diner – leveraging this same dynamic in a way that challenges these grey-haired men and turns them into adopted grandpa-types. He has even started visiting country churches on a rotation in order to serve Jesus in this way! He shows up, turns heads, makes friends, shares about his background and how wonderful Jesus is, and people end up feeling differently about those Far-iners.

We live in an age aflame with controversy about race, immigration, and culture. How are we to help those who are older or more traditional, and who tend to be swept up in the particular prejudicial temptations of this globalizing age? How can we transform the atmosphere of racist diners – or churches – such that there is room for conversation and relationship that leads to dignity and love?

Perhaps by aiming boldly for the love that, for true believers, always runs deeper than love of nation, language, and heritage. Invite missionaries to share at churches struggling with these issues about the mighty things God is doing among those considered political or cultural enemies. Have believers from diverse “other” backgrounds share their own stories of God’s grace. This is in one sense a Trojan horse. It is a tactical, indirect move to tap into a deeper affection that will over time undermine other anti-gospel affections that might seem to dominate a person’s worldview or social media account.

Our world tries to deal with prejudice-prone people by either excusing them or by writing them off as racists and publicly shaming them. There is a better way. Let’s strive for creatively and shrewdly aiming for the deepest affections, and see what miracles God might work.

…and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator. Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all. (Colossians 3:10-11 ESV)

*names changed for security

Photo by Ricky Singh on Unsplash

The Hot Tub Philosopher

I’m not one of those people who likes to dunk on seminaries. By this point I’ve heard the publically-spoken question, “Why didn’t they teach me this in seminary?” to the point of nausea. Come on, brother, you really expected the seminary to have specialized classes in your niche ministry and specific problem-people? There’s a reason I never had a class in how to draw on a Melanesian MK upbringing to deal with a Central Asian wolf in sheep’s clothing in whose house we had just planted a church together with our Mexican partners (true story). There is no seminary professor who could or should teach that kind of specific material. Rather, professors should teach the theology and principles that equip diverse ministers of the gospel to apply God’s truth to infinitely varied ministry contexts around the globe.

My pro-seminary posture is also because I live in a part of the world where there is no access to theological training in the languages of people groups that are millions strong. It’s easy to take pot-shots at seminaries when they’ve been around forever and are taken for granted among your people group. I also don’t buy the whole “they’re not reproducible” line so popular in missiology. If they’re not reproducible, why have thousands of them taken root all around the world, even in ancient times and places like Sassanian Gondishapur where Christians were a persecuted minority? Perhaps there is a bit of a hidden and arbitrary definition to that term “reproducible” that so often functions as a trump card in discussions of methodology.

But it’s also easy to forget their weaknesses with the rose-tinted glasses that can come with distance. Some of the critiques do stick. God has given humans a remarkable ability to find patterns in things. And one of those unfortunate but true patterns is represented by the awkward and out-of-touch seminarian who struggles to notice the real people around him. There is a great need for those studying at seminary to accompany their classroom training with down-to-earth mentoring in people skills. Local church relationships that model for seminary students wise and practical ministry intuition and care are crucial for keeping these students effective in the real and messy world of actual people.

I’ll never forget the time I took my wife on a date during a particularly exhausting period of our newborn days. We were broke, had an infant with sleep issues, and were trying to mentor new believers and share the gospel with refugees. And we were desperately in need of an affordable date. I had the idea of going out to a discounted dinner and then making use of our free alumni access to the seminary pool and hot tub. My wife agreed to the plan and we were off in our beat up ’95 Honda Civic our Iraqi friends had christened Baby Camel because of its fantastic gas mileage and minuscule size.

Things were going swimmingly. We made it to the seminary, the pool area was nice and quiet, and the hot tub was empty – perfect! So we got in and began to have a good conversation, sharing our hearts with each other. But before long, a student and acquaintance from church entered the pool area. We waved and said a friendly hello, and strategically mentioned that we were on a date together. I turned back to my wife to continue our conversation. But the man plopped down in the hot tub next to me, eager for discussion.

Internally, I winced. How did he not pick up on the dynamics of this situation? But, resolving to be kind and hospitable, I turned and engaged him in friendly conversation. My wife had a not-so-subtle expression on her face, but held her tongue. The man didn’t seem to notice. Were I older and wiser, I would have said something direct about my wife and I needing this time so that we could connect in our sleep-deprived state and care for each other. Instead, I kept trying to drop hints in the conversation and with my body language to get the brother to move along to splashing in the pool or something.

But my talkative friend was not going anywhere. Instead, he stretched out his arms and relaxed and considered this the ideal moment to get into the depths of why he was actually a Thomist when it came to philosophy instead of a Van Tilian Preuppositionalist. I had only had one or two philosophy classes, so I knew just enough of this topic to drop a semi-informed comment here and there. But eventually I just stopped speaking to see how long the monologue would go. It kept going, and going, for quite an impressive length of time. I was perplexed. Why oh why did he feel like this particular conversation was at all fitting for this context? I shot a look back at my wife whose face conveyed a look of incredulity at what was going on in front of her.

“Can we go?” She mouthed in my direction. I nodded. Things had finally gotten awkwardly silent. It was time for a tactical retreat. We said our goodbyes to the hot tub philosopher and made our way back to the locker rooms.

I thought of my seminary – and of myself. The dangers of getting lost in the world of the mind and losing touch with practical kindness and social skills are real. I’ve felt the pull of these things when I get a little too excited about sharing about something I’m learning, only to realize those I’m sitting with have gone quiet and are fidgeting a bit. My brain can run away from me and I can stop tracking with the emotional state of those I’m supposedly conversing with. At that point I’m not really conversing with them in a loving way at all. I’m merely on a monologue.

While not neglecting the life of the mind, we must learn to ground it with an understanding of our flesh and blood neighbor. Yes, we must study the books. But we must also be students of people. We must be those who can get taken in by the beauty of an idea while still being conscious enough of the present to sense the body language of our hearers. What if, like me, the life of the mind comes more naturally than people intuition? How do we learn to study people? We can start by praying regularly that we will grow in this area. We can make a careful effort to study what God’s word says about the way people act and think. We can read great literature – after all, it’s great because it has been proven to be a window into human nature across many generations. We can read up on ways that hard-to-see things like cultures and personalities have been mapped and categorized by others. Finally, we can get some good feedback and tools on our particular God-given wiring. After all, if we don’t really understand ourselves, we won’t be great at understanding others either.

I would be remiss not to also mention what can be learned by shadowing those who are pastors in the truest sense of that term. Much skill in this area must be caught, rather than taught. And catching it often means accompanying those older and more experienced than we are, observing how they wisely interact with these wonderfully complex and broken beings called humans. Watching how and when an experienced pastor says, “I’m so sorry” can be a powerful lesson in what effective empathy actually looks like.

Plus, mentors like this also tell us when something is simply awkward or weird – like climbing in the hot tub with a couple on a date in order to talk Thomist philosophy. We all need someone in our life who will put their arm around us and simply say, “Brother, that’s weird. Don’t do that.”

A Trombone Instead of Heroin

My Iranian refugee friend, *Reza, had come to faith. It had felt like a long road for him, but there was now clear evidence of the new birth in his life. After lots of struggle and discussion about baptism and church membership, he had taken the plunge. My wife and I began dreaming about seeing a group of Middle Eastern refugees in our American city come to faith. Who knew? Maybe this new believer would result in a church plant that strategically focused on this diverse and overlooked community.

Initially, we did have some traction with some of his Middle Eastern contacts. But through his friendships as an employee at Walmart, my friend started befriending and reaching out to a very different community – struggling Kentuckians. He befriended a single mom who had had a very broken past and was in need of a lot of help. Our community group rallied, helping her with practical needs and sharing the gospel with her. We helped her walk away from a false church with cult-like tendencies. It was encouraging to see my friend’s new faith resulting in mercy ministry. But I was a little uneasy with this direction things were taking. My vision was reaching Middle Eastern refugees. Mercy ministry with local Americans was a good thing, but very time-consuming. And it was something there were many churches already doing.

Things got more complicated with this single mom and she ended up moving in with us temporarily while we searched for a safe living situation. She seemed to be close to coming to faith. Then we found out there was romantic interest there as well between her and Reza. Two baby believers with very complicated pasts were now interested in one another. We had only been married a year ourselves and had a newborn. We were in over our heads, but kept trying to plug our friends in to good opportunities for growth with us. So Reza started attending a Perspectives class with us. If you haven’t heard of Perspectives on the World Christian Movement, it’s a class offered in many places in the West that focuses on global missions and includes a lot of church history. If you want to wake a local church up to God’s heart for the nations and their part in that, hosting a Perspectives class can be a great way to begin. It’s not really designed for brand new believers, but we were hoping to get missions DNA into our Iranian friend from the get-go.

Then we learned about his girlfriend’s brother, *Akin. Out of the blue he had reached out to his estranged sister, asking for help and telling her that he had finally burned all his bridges in the city where he lived. He had been addicted to heroin for three years. I didn’t know very much about drug addiction, but my friends who did told me to be extra careful with heroin users. “They’ll rob their own mothers,” is the sentence that I remember. Reza told me they were going to go pick him up and have him move into his sister’s new place, an apartment we had just been able to find in a sketchy refugee apartment complex we would later live in ourselves.

“Absolutely not,” I told him. “That is a really bad idea. I have been told to be super careful with heroin users, so you should not let him move in with his sister who just escaped a dangerous living situation. Just give me a couple days to work something out with the homeless center that we’re connected with. They should be able to get him a good option that’s also safe. Just whatever you do, don’t go get him tonight.”

He ignored me.

The Perspectives class was just starting when Reza called me. “I’ve got the brother. We’ll be with you in class shortly.”

“What?!” I asked, “You went and got him? Bro, I told you not to!”

“It’s OK, I’ll take responsibility for him. See you soon.” And he hung up. I looked around the room, wondering what to do with the unfolding situation. I decided there was nothing really to be done. Not for the last time I shook my head at the stubbornness of Iranians.

After a short time, they arrived. My short and mustachioed Iranian friend walked into the room with a pale, skeletal American guy. He looked to be about my age, had scruffy facial hair, sunken eyes, and didn’t look completely aware of his surroundings. They came and sat at our table and we did some hushed introductions as the class was now underway. But I was frustrated. Why wouldn’t my friend trust me and listen to me? Why would he complicate our already complicated situation like this when we had so much else that we needed to sort out? Couldn’t he have waited just a couple days and not brought this guy to a missions class? I sighed. I was supposed to spending my time doing relational evangelism with Middle Eastern refugees, not doing emergency ministry triage for these messy Americans. I could see glances being exchanged by different class facilitators as they took stock of the situation also.

The next part of the class was the part where we would pray at our tables for an unreached people group. That night, it was a people group in India and we were instructed to pray in pairs with the person next to us. My assigned partner was Akin. Well, I thought to myself, at least I can pray the gospel as we pray for this people group. Oh, the strange situations I keep finding myself in. I’m prayer partners with an unbelieving heroin addict, praying for a group of unreached Hindus in India!

I can’t say that it was the most faith-filled prayer I’ve ever prayed. Internally I was all over the place. But we made it through the prayer and through the class. Akin, to my surprise, listened intensely to the speaker’s presentation, which contained a lot of gospel. Somewhere in the middle of class, I looked over and noticed how calm he had become. Other facilitators also told me afterward that something had visibly changed about Akin over the course of the class. He borrowed a copy of Ragamuffin Gospel from somewhere, moved in with his sister, and was nursed through a month of detox by my Iranian friend. He started coming to church with us right away and plugged in to our community group of messy young believers and young seminary families. Soon he had an interview with one of our pastors where they dug into the gospel and the changes taking place in Akin’s life.

I caught him in the church sanctuary after the interview and asked him how it went.

“It went well. I’m so encouraged that the pastor has a past of drug addiction too! He pushed me real hard on some things, but I didn’t back down. I’m not going back to heroin. I believe in Jesus now.”

“Really?” I asked. “What do you mean by that?”

Akin went on to explain the gospel and his trust in it. And how he had begun to experience dramatic internal changes – starting from when I had prayed with him for that random Indian people group.

“What?! You think that’s when God might have saved you? That first night when we hadn’t even had a chance to talk yet?”

“Hard to say, but something changed during that prayer. Then I kept reading and praying when I was doing detox, and studying the Bible with Reza. Yep! I think God’s made new.”

God had indeed made him new. Whenever the specific act of regeneration had occurred, God had used our strange circumstances – and my Iranian disciple’s ignoring of wise advice – to save Akin. Mysterious and ironic. I did not feel called to work with Kentuckians like Akin, but that wasn’t going to stop God. He was out to save Akin and his sister anyway.

It wasn’t long before we noticed things coming full circle. Akin started counseling a Middle Eastern refugee who was struggling with drug addiction and was a resident at our partner homeless center. I had assumed that investing in this broken American family was something apart from the particular ministry God had called us to. I didn’t realize that God was going to use us Americans to reach a Middle Easterner, who would himself reach some Americans, who would then go on to in turn serve Middle Easterners. It was, for me, a particular lesson in providence.

Akin would go on to get baptized and become a member of our church, to marry a godly woman – a marriage ceremony I had the great joy to officiate – and to eventually become a faithful deacon at that church. These days it’s not uncommon for him to be caught scheming with the other deacons about how to bless others through mercy ministry, playing his trombone for the worship team, or busy on the phone with his Iranian brother-in-law, planning when to play basketball with the nephews. During our last visit together they hosted us for some sublime barbecued pork – a particular kind of mercy ministry for people like us who work in Islamic countries.

Whenever I encounter those struggling with substance addictions, I think of Akin. I’ll never forget the first time I saw him playing trombone with the worship team in a powerful rendition of “Absent from Flesh.” Everything God had saved him from hit me afresh. God doesn’t always instantly heal addictions. But sometimes he does. I’ve got a deacon to prove it.

*Names changed for security

Photo by Rich Smith on Unsplash

Will You Consider Hosting Refugees When Normal Returns?

Yesterday a local friend was helping me move a big mattress for a teammate. In between waddling and heaving the awkward thing, we somehow got into a conversation about how hard it is for many Middle Eastern and Central Asian refugees who are resettled in the West.

“My living room in the US was often visited by refugee friends,” I told him. “They would sit, drink chai, and lament about how there were no people out on the streets, no people mixing in public, no equivalent of the tea house or the bazaar. Just work, more work, then car, home, TV, and repeat it all again. It’s a hard life in the West.”

I remember being puzzled at how often the comment about “no people on the streets” was repeated. This ache for living somewhere with more human interaction was a constant theme that came out as we sat together and kept the dark black tea spiced with cinnamon and cardamom (and plenty of sugar) flowing. The desire to simply see more people on the sidewalks and in public hinted at a much deeper sadness – the absence of true friendship for most of my refugee friends in America. Having lost their natural relationship networks back in their homeland, they now found themselves in a land that felt utterly starved of community – even without the language and culture barrier they had to contend with.

During that season of our lives we lived in an apartment complex where many refugees were resettled. We used to open up our apartment and the one across the hall for a weekly community potluck-style meal and text all our international friends to come and join us. Once a month we would also turn the green lawn in front of our apartment building into a “Community Cafe.” We would set up a small canopy, get some tea and coffee brewing, set out some chairs, put up a sign, and invite anyone who walked by.

I remember one autumn day sitting down in our “cafe” next to a Saudi student and looking around at the various groups of people chatting. Iranian men – Persian, Azeri, Kurdish, Luri – were gathered in one corner. A couple Iraqi Arab friends had also come by and were dumping incredible amounts of sugar in their tea. The ladies were busy getting to know some Eritrean women. And a Nepalese believer was energetically connecting with a Hazara friend from Afghanistan. Strange as our pop-up cafe was for their cultures and for ours, it was proving to be an encouraging environment for our international friends. It was leading to conversation and friendship, and our friends were soaking it in like a Somali refugee in the Minnesota winter huddles in the heat lamp at the bus stops. What a kindness simple conversation and friendship can be to the lonely and those far from home. How their eyes light up when someone really wants to know their story and to learn about their culture.

It also doesn’t have to stop at tea and friendship. Friendship can lead to sharing the gospel, Bible studies, and new believers. And though we didn’t get this far, it can even lead to a new church plant. Oh for a thousand new church plants to be formed in the West because believers showed simple kindness and hospitality to the refugees, asylum seekers, and internationals who now live in so many of our urban areas. They are a field ripe for the harvest. And once they come to faith, they are a powerful force for a jaded post-Christian West to reckon with. I may be dismissed as just another white Evangelical trying to proselytize, but when my generously-bearded Iranian friend starts sharing why he became a follower of Jesus, all my secular countrymen don’t quite know what to do with it. So they listen.

Our time in that particular refugee community came to an end about six or seven years ago. Today it’s 2021, and there’s talk of Western nations returning to some level normalcy this summer. A change of administrations in the US also means the numbers of refugees received there will be increased ten-fold. Believers will be emerging from this strange pandemic time-warp eager to gather physically with the body of Christ – and hopefully – eager to engage the lost face to face again.

As many Western nations plan to reopen this year, will you consider hosting and befriending some refugees that live in your community? It’s not that hard. Volunteer as an English tutor at TESOL programs in your city. Choose to buy your tea and hummus from halal markets in your area (google it and you may be surprised), and while there make some friends. Open up your home for regular meals where you invite international students and others – most of whom never get invited for dinner in a Westerner’s home. Especially consider how you can host gatherings around the holidays. Repeatedly offer to help your immigrant neighbors with any tasks they might be confused about – court documents, mail forms, bills, homework, etc. Realize that most refugees, asylees, and internationals don’t have any good friends who are natives of their new host country. Choose to step into that role, even if only for one family.

The missing piece for so many refugees is relationship with trustworthy locals. Government and social programs might abound, but the crucial ingredient for refugee success in their new society is friendship. And as it turns out, friendship is also the key for some very compelling evangelism. Sure, you’ll make plenty of mistakes. That’s par for the course in any kind of cross-cultural ministry. But you might also make some surprising best friends – as I have – and then get to watch them lead your own Western neighbors to faith! Now that is worth a little bit of risky hospitality.

Photo by Amirhossein Bararsani on Unsplash

A Local’s First Visit to the International Church

A local friend of mine recently visited our international church for the first time. A teacher, and a somewhat traditional man, I was curious to see what his impressions would be. After the service I asked him about it.

“I’m amazed at all of the small children here!” he said. “You don’t see any small children at the mosque.”

“Really?” I asked. “Is that not normal?”

“No, we don’t let any children under six come. But not only are families with small children here, their children are sitting quietly and listening! This is amazing.”

In response to this, I was able to share the story with my friend of Jesus encouraging the little children to be brought to him, from Matthew 19. It was likely the first time he had ever heard it. I also assured him that the small children (such as ours) definitely do not always sit quietly. But persevering parents who aren’t afraid of giving ten thousand reminders make a big difference.

He was also amazed by the diversity. Being an international church, we have members and attendees from twenty countries or so.

“I haven’t seen anywhere like this in our city before. So many people from Asia and Africa and Europe. Look at this man! I wonder where he is from?”

My friend kept on commenting in this vein, seemingly unable to stop, eyes wide at the fascinating mosaic of human skin and culture in front of him. I just smiled. The ethnic diversity of our church family is indeed a powerful witness.

“Was there anything else you noticed? Do you have any other questions?” I asked.

“Yes, your services… are they always this long? It was very long.”

I just laughed. “Yes, it’s a little long. But I’m so glad you got to be part of it.”

Little children and people from lots of different ethnicities, all worshiping Jesus together in a very long service. Not at all a bad first introduction to the local church.

Photo by Sam Balye on Unsplash

The Bearded Robber

I was fifteen. My friend’s dad, uncle John, had just invited me to join them on an overnight hike to a mountain waterfall. We would be a party of four, one near-deaf missionary uncle and three scrawny high school kids. This particular hike was to prove fun, scary, and shaping. It was shaping in that being invited into the accessible adventure of the mountains around our missionary school compound in Melanesia launched me into dozens of hikes over the next few years. Hiking would become a place where I could try my hand at manly things like risk, endurance, sleeping in the rain, and eating cold hot dogs because the matches were too wet to get the fire lit. But this hike was the first one, so I was green and a bit nervous, though excited as well.

Uncle John’s hearing had slowly diminished due to tinnitus, the same condition my dad had had before he had passed away. By the time of our trek into the mountains, he had completely lost hearing in one ear and could only partially hear with his other ear with the aid of a hearing aid. He relied heavily on lip reading and was overall very quiet, though always very kind to me. He has since gotten cochlear implants. I’m told after having his hearing implants he became a man transformed.

This particular hike was nothing too challenging. Initially there was about forty five minutes of trekking, first down a paved road, then on some muddy ones flanked by high grass, then over a river on a swinging wire bridge, then on muddy footpaths into the foothills. There were a few villages we would pass through in the foothills before we started climbing the grassy and wooded slopes in earnest. In all it was about two and a half hours to our destination, a waterfall and swimming hole that lay between two steep spurs of the mountain.

The afternoon was sunny and we made good headway, somewhat bemused and embarrassed by the village grandmothers’ excited offering their granddaughters to us in marriage. At last we made it up and down several small ridges and to the waterfall. We swam and cooked dinner, and by the heat of our campfire somehow managed to provoke the emergence of thousands of small black beetles from the earth, which promptly overwhelmed our campsite. Still, the beans from a can were good (food always tastes better on a hike) and after the beetles dispersed we had a pleasant evening sitting around the fire and listening to the sound of the waterfall. Sleepiness came on fast and we all passed out in the tent without too much trouble. Cicadas and waterfalls make for good background noise.

I woke up in the middle of the night, startled. By the shadows on the wall of the tent and the rustling sounds, I knew that someone was shuffling around our campsite. We knew that we were running a slight risk of being robbed by going on this hike. Opportunistic local men were known to sometime accost foreign hikers and to rob them while threatening them with machetes, and sometimes homemade shotguns. But knowing the local language and carrying very little cash and flashy gear on us, we weren’t sending the kind of signals that might normally entice a robbery. We were almost locals ourselves, living down in the valley. And many women from the villages we had passed through were employed as household helpers on the missionary compound. Still, someone was definitely moving around the campsite. It did seem we were about to be robbed.

Perhaps they would just take the gear around the fire and leave us alone? I prayed. Then the zipper on the tent started moving. And my heart leapt into my throat. The tent door slowly unzipped, zzzzziiiiizzzz, opened, and in the deep darkness I saw the silhouette of a bearded man (most locals wore beards). He was looking right at me. He silently pointed at me with his hand and made the motion for me to roll over. He seemed to be telling me to lie down and not make any unnecessary noise. I didn’t know what to do. The others in the tent seemed to be fast asleep, so I started to roll over, but also started to try to reason in the local language with this criminal about the shamefulness of his actions.

“What you are doing is bad and shameful.”

“We don’t have any money on us.”

“We’re just here to respectfully spend the night in this good place.”

“We’re not rich tourists, we’re just missionaries that live down in the valley.”

“Do you not see that this is shameful? It’s very shameful. It will bring shame on your village and your people and no one will come to see your beautiful land!”

He wasn’t even acknowledging that I was speaking. What to do? I shot a glance over to uncle John’s sleeping bag. Suddenly I realized that it was empty. I gasped. They took uncle John! And he’s completely deaf at night without his hearing aid. Things were seeming much worse than I thought. Violent crime was indeed increasing in the culture. Was this going to turn into a hostage taking?

Heart pounding, I ventured a peek outside the tent door flap. The figure was crouched by the fire, messing with it. Suddenly a flame jumped up. And in the light of the fire I saw that the criminal I was desperately reasoning with was… bearded uncle John. Stirring a can of beans. Relief and embarrassment swept over me. Oh no, he had heard all my desperate negotiating! But wait, had he? No, impossible, his hearing aids were out. He hadn’t heard a thing! And that’s why he hadn’t responded. I began to laugh at myself and settled back into my sleeping bag for the rest of the night.

At breakfast I shared the story of “the robbery” with the rest of our little hiking crew and we all had a good laugh together. Apparently uncle John had woken up in the middle of the night and couldn’t sleep. But what was he doing staring me down and ordering me to roll over like that? Turns out he was trying to indicate that I could move over and use his inflatable sleeping mat. But in the midnight blackness I thought he was a robber, and he must have thought I was at least a little daft myself. Why is this kid staring unresponsive at me like that? My wife still tells me that I’m the worst at lip-reading, so there’s that.

The hike wrapped up without any further incidents and for the three of us skinny MK’s, we had been initiated into the sore and muddy joys of hiking. It was a small thing for uncle John to do that with us high school guys. Just a quick overnight hike. But for me, it turned out to be much more meaningful than either of us could have known at that time. As the youngest sibling of a single-mom household, there just weren’t very many men who invited me to do things with them when I was growing up. Ministry men are busy with ministry. And I was shy. In spite of good intentions, invitations like this hike were seldom extended. I had lots of great role models from a distance to watch, but precious few opportunities to have an adult man show me how to do something adventurous or practical so that I could then do it on my own.

But this hike to the waterfall was easy enough to be repeated – and built on. My buddies and I were soon hiking to the top of the ridge and beyond – eventually summitting the three highest peaks in the country. Uncle John had set some time aside from his ministry responsibilities and shown us some fatherly kindness, and this one gesture had unlocked a world of adventure that was just plain good for us hormonal teenage boys. We needed to test our limits, to risk, to have some adventure. We needed to get arrested by tribal war parties (as would later take place) and learn the hard way the value of having a rain plan – a soaking wet sleeping bag in a patch of jungle on top of a mountain is a very effective tutor! We needed to learn that continuing on in the fog and the dark at 14,000 feet when your guide has left due to altitude sickness is a very bad idea. And learn we did, through many misadventures and near-misses. It was wonderful. We muddled along on our disastrous hikes and somehow learned some good lessons about what it meant to be Christian men.

The year my son was born, 2012, was notable for a tragic reason. It was the year that children born outside of wedlock in the US surpassed those born within it. The doctors in our Louisville, KY, hospital already at that point didn’t quite know what to do with a husband who was there for all the appointments and for the birth itself. They awkwardly tried to address only my wife, not sure if they were supposed to acknowledge me as well. From that year on, the majority of children in my homeland have been raised in single-parent or broken households.

This creates a great need. So many boys are growing up without dads (and daughters, too). Now that I’m a dad I remember the kindness uncle John showed me by inviting me along on that hike. Even one gesture like that was potentially life-changing for me. Men of the Church, let’s lift up our eyes and look around us. Are there any boys growing up without dads that we can sometimes invite into our lives? I’m sure they would love to learn a practical life skill, to go on an adventure, or to just spend time with a kind man who is already an adult. Even if we only have time for this every once in a while, we might be surprised at what might come of it.

Whether they show it or not, I can tell you this, they’ll be grateful for an invite.

Photo by Derek Owens on Unsplash

How the Baby Turned

We were on a short family getaway, staying three days at a spot where our Central Asian mountains meet a lake. It was early Autumn, still warm enough to swim during the day, but getting chilly at night. The pleasant winds of the fall were coming off the mountains, complementing the September sun which shone off the lake and the yellow-brown mountains. I’ve always loved the feel of fall in this part of the world – brief and subtle though it is. It seems to only last two weeks – a calm golden respite in between the burning summer and the freezing winter.

My wife was seven months pregnant with our third child – and the little guy was facing the wrong direction. He was breech. We were hoping to have the baby in-country, and to have a natural birth, uncommon though that is for most of the local doctors. So we were praying hard for him to turn, as it would too risky to proceed if he stayed head-up. We were also coming close to the deadline by which my wife wouldn’t be allowed to fly, so it was getting a bit urgent.

On the last full day of our time away, I decided it would be fun to do some multitasking. I had fond memories of swimming in this same lake in years past, but on the other side of the mountain from where we were staying. I recalled a place that even felt kind of like a beach. But to find it, we’d have to do some exploring. The multitasking was that we were in need of finding a new baptism spot for our local friends. A dunking was fast approaching, and just like every other time, we found ourselves wishing we had thought more ahead about finding a spot with just the right combination of privacy, publicity, deep enough water, and natural beauty. This particular kind of spot continued to elude us. And while kiddie pools have their own advantages, we were hoping for some better options.

For some reason I majored on the baptism piece when proposing the day’s plans to my wife and forgot to really major on the beach-with-the-kids part. She wasn’t thrilled with our family rest time being taken over in this way, but kept these thoughts mostly to herself. So we started off, winding around the switchbacks of the nearby mountain. After fifteen minutes we made it to the top with its stunning views of the lake and other peaks, then began the descent down again. My wife was already regretting having agreed to this plan. Mountain switchbacks are not particularly compatible with being in the third trimester.

Once we reached the bottom of the mountain, I found a dirt road that looked like it went toward the lakeside. But it dead-ended in a village, with curious goats and village children looking bewildered at our presence there. So we turned around and bumped back down the track toward the main paved road. Once again we found another dirt road that looked promising, but this one also dead-ended, disappearing into a pasture filled with boulders. We stopped to reassess and listened to the lowing of the cows and the grumbling of our children. By this point I could tell the physical discomfort and frustration of my wife at this misadventure was reaching a critical point.

“Let me try just one more road,” I said with a hopeful grimace. We found a gravel road this time that looked much more promising. I turned off the main road, hoping that this artery would be the one that got us to the shore. Then, amid the rumbling and vibrating of the car, we began to rumble ourselves and argue about what exactly we were doing on this misadventure.

As it turns out, I had (not for the first time) managed to synthesize several ideas in my own mind, and forgotten to kindly spell those things out for my wife. She was, understandably, frustrated by what this optional ministry jaunt was turning into. Breakthrough came when she realized that I was also really hoping for a special time as a family at this elusive beach, and wasn’t just out on a work task – and after I apologized and owned that I had failed to share as openly as I should have.

Then suddenly she gasped.

“What is it?!” I asked.

My wife’s eyes were wide and she had a curious look on her face.

“I don’t know, I just felt the strangest thing in my stomach… I think the baby turned!”

“Really?!” I asked.

“Yes, I’m pretty sure he just did a flip. I’ve never felt anything quite like that before. Must have been all the bumpy roads! Ha!”

The car continued to shake as we drove along and we began to laugh at ourselves. Of course God would answer our prayer right in a moment where we were feeling significant marital tension, out in the middle of nowhere on a misadventure.

All of the sudden, the road turned and crested a hill, and there below us was a muddy and rocky shore, sloping down toward the water’s edge.

“We found it!” And there was much rejoicing in our by-now-very-dusty SUV.

We proceeded to spend a sweet time together, swimming in the warm water, building castles out of rocks, and getting grossed out at the mud suction that pulled us in halfway up to our knees. Plus we had brought a picnic blanket and chocolate, which makes everything more pleasant. It turned out to be an afternoon full of good memories, after all.

Our third-born did indeed flip around that day, in an answer to prayer. An ultrasound later confirmed this. Though given unforeseen complications, he actually ended up being born through a C-section, an adventure of its own. But those bumpy roads and the baby flipping enabled us to move towards the birth with greater confidence that we were indeed supposed to stay in our country for the delivery, in spite of the unknowns.

We chuckle now as we remember this particular answer to prayer. Our God’s ways of answering his people’s prayers will never cease to amaze – and sometimes, even to amuse.

Photo by Erik Mclean on Unsplash