How to Sign Your Name Like a Central Asian Convict

This past week some colleagues were discussing certificate options with a local friend. As you might recall, certificates in this part of the world are taken very seriously. A training or class is often not considered respectable or even real if it comes with no certificate.

We were debating various formats for an upcoming certificate-giving ceremony and trying to fit spots for a couple of signatures, a seal, and a logo on the bottom portion of the paper. Initially, we only focused on the practicalities and aesthetics of the question when an old memory of signature placement and meaning suddenly came back to me.

Mr. Talent*, will it mean something bad in your culture if we go with this centered design and one signature line is placed above another signature line?”

Mr. Talent had to take a minute to understand what I was getting at.

“You know, your culture feels very strongly about the placement of signatures. One must not sign below their printed name, correct?”

Here I flashed back to my first landlord, a fiery older woman who scolded me when I signed below my printed name on our first rental contract, and indicated for her to do so also.

“Don’t put it there! That’s the way convicts sign things! We are most definitely not convicts!”

I remember being thoroughly confused. Was this true all across the culture or was this simply fiery old Aisha* who once told us she would absolutely go join the anti-government protesters – if only her legs were still strong enough to run when the bullets started flying.

Sure enough, as I asked around I found all my local friends somehow knew that to sign above the name meant you were a respectful person, and to sign below meant you were in prison. I have no idea where this came from, but contextualization means we make sure to remember to sign above that line.

Mr. Talent quickly understood what I was referring to. “Yes! Yes, that means you are a criminal!” he laughed deeply and gave me a kiss on the cheek.

“So then,” I continued, “If these signatures are stacked in the middle of the certificate, will that carry a similar negative meaning?”

Mr. Talent chewed on my question. He is most certainly a true local, but is in his early 30s and a member of what more traditional types call “the iPad generation.” He would be one to scoff at the concept of corpses being preserved through the local practice of avowal, for example.”

“No,” he then replied, “we should be good to stack them like this if we decide we like it.”

Mission accomplished. Having checked with a local about this particular interplay of form and meaning, we could now be sure that we wouldn’t be accidentally insulting our students in the very ceremony meant to honor them.

Living in a foreign culture is full of hidden landmines like this. You might be carrying on for years thinking you are being respectful only to realize you’ve been quietly insulting people the whole time. Having grown up in Melanesia, I found out the hard way that you’re only supposed to reply to polite letters written by single female peers if you have intentions of love and marriage. Back in the US, no one told me you’re supposed to tip your barber. I stumbled onto this after years of cheerfully waving goodbye to my barbers without leaving the expected cultural form of thank you. Here in Central Asia, it took five years for us to find out the proper way to not subtly insult gas station attendants.

This is what makes learning another culture so much fun – and so risky. Deep embarrassment is never far away, so it’s great for your humility – and for laughter. On the flip-side, when you learn or anticipate a new part of the cultural code, you get a very satisfying sense of a mystery now revealed.

So then, if you happen to be in our corner of Central Asia, don’t sign all over the place like some kind of careless celebrity. Keep your non-convict status and make sure to sign above that printed name.

*Names changed for security

Photo by Bermix Studio on Unsplash

Ottomans and Incarnation

My son and I were killing some time in a local mall when we entered a furniture store and happened upon a small ottoman-type foot rest. I had been keeping an eye out for one just like it, the kind of addition that would complete a great reading corner in our living room.

We called the salesperson over to ask if we could buy it and while discussing details he looked in confusion from my son to me. My son, blonde-haired and blue eyed, clearly looks like a Westerner. But locals aren’t always sure when it come to me since I have darker hair and features. In fact, the better our language gets, the more my wife and I get mistaken for locals. After many years of plodding language study and countless mistakes, we do enjoy these occasional instances of being viewed as not obviously foreigners. I always chuckle when the checkpoint police ask me, “What are doing with that foreigner there?”

This particular salesperson was really pleased that we could speak the local language, and turns out he himself was no local either, but a transplant from a neighboring country and from a sister people group – one we have no ability to access due to political difficulties.

As we moved toward the cashier I got to ask him questions about his people group and home city, a place with a storied past and a people known for their poetry, craftsmanship, and culture. For example, my particular old stone house was built by masons from his city back in the 1950s. The female cashier joined into our conversation as well, the only actual local among the three of us conversing.

“Are you a Christian or a Muslim?” They asked me.

“I’m a Christian, the type called Injili (Evangelical),” I told them.

“There’s a lot of different groups in Christianity, just like in Islam,” the salesman said to the cashier.

“That’s right!” I jumped in. “Injilis are distinct for focusing so much on the sources, God’s written word, and prioritizing it over human tradition.”

“So, you actually think that Jesus is the Son of God, right?”

“Yes, that’s what he is called in the Scriptures. But the meaning is different than what people think. God has an eternal Word. His word became a man and dwelt among us. When his Word became a human he had a nature that was sinless, unlike ours, because he is actually God’s eternal Word. That’s an important part of what that title, ‘Son of God,’ means.

Their brows were furrowed as I spoke. It was clearly the first time they had ever heard this.

“It’s not a physical sonship as most Muslims think,” I continued. “It has a deeper spiritual meaning. Sometimes we also use ‘son’ in a different way. A man from this city might be called a son of the city, or a son of the mountains. Even the Qur’an has a term, ‘son of the road.'”

My new friends looked skeptical, but they let me keep going.

“At the same time, Adam is also called, ‘Son of God’ for having no earthly father, but being created directly by God. In a similar way, Jesus’ birth was a miraculous act of creation by God.”

“That’s right, because Mary was a pure virgin,” chimed in the cashier.

“Correct! So the title, ‘Son of God’ has important deeper meanings in the Scriptures that are not understood by those who are quick to claim it’s blasphemy.”

They chewed on this information and got back to processing my purchase.

“You know,” said the salesman, “That’s the one big difference between what we believe and what you believe.”

I surveyed the empty store and realized we had time for a little bit more conversation. My phone was buzzing. My wife was done grocery shopping and was likely calling to try and find us. I knew she would let me ignore this call for a few minutes because of the nature of the conversation.

“There’s another big difference,” I continued. “The question of how a person is saved.”

My friends’ eyebrows raised and they paused to listen.

“In Islam people believe that salvation is like a scale. If your good deeds outweigh your bad deeds, you can go to paradise. But God’s word – The Torah, the Psalms, the New Testament – disagrees with this idea. It teaches that we are so sinful that our bad will always outweigh good, and that even our good is mixed up with our pride. The scale system doesn’t work.”

They were still listening even after this controversial statement, so I kept going.

“Instead, God instituted a system of sacrifice and pardon. All of the prophets were commanded to do animal sacrifices, and through the blood of the sacrifice their sins could be forgiven. God gave these animal sacrifices as a prophecy about the life and death of Jesus. As the eternal Word of God, Jesus had no sin, and his purpose in coming was to be the final sacrifice for sins. The value of his blood was so great – and the power of his resurrection from the dead three days later – that anyone who stops believing in their own scale and in his sacrifice instead, will be forever pardoned, safe, and saved.”

At this point my wife was calling again and I needed to take it. My new friends handed me my change, passed me my ottoman in a shopping cart, and said goodbye. As I met the rest of my family outside the store I glanced back. The salesman and the cashier seemed stunned almost, still standing there, deep in thought.

Just that morning at our weekly service I had been discouraged about not having opportunities to share the gospel recently. Then out of nowhere, a random furniture store interaction about a footrest turned into sharing about the incarnation and how to be saved by faith in Jesus’ sacrifice.

First-time interactions like this seldom lead to immediate professions of faith – the message is so new and so different it takes time and lots of repetition for it to be truly comprehended. But these kind of conversations serve almost as a shock tactic – like an ancient Persian war elephant breaking up a group of Greek hoplite infantry so that the cavalry can come in afterward with devastating effect. In this case, the elephant is the fact that none of their teachers have ever shared these things with them or portrayed accurately what Christians actually believe. And now they are faced with a bunch of new ideas – from an actual Christian – that frame things in an entirely different light. This in itself creates doubt. It puts what the locals call, “a worm in their mind.” One that can someday lead to more questions and even to true spiritual hunger.

Whether I get to do the followup or someone else does many years down the road, I pray that the gospel truths dropped in that short conversation will have their effect. And that the salesman and the cashier will know God’s eternal Word – God’s Son – for themselves.

Photo by WeLoveBarcelona.de on Unsplash

Brothers Indeed

There’s a new believer in our church plant, a local man we’ll call Hank*. He’s from a very conservative Islamic city not too far from here, the kind of place known for its history, pomegranates, and the presence of radicals. As a friend of one of my colleagues, he’d heard the gospel often over the last five years. Something changed this year, however, and quiet and thoughtful Hank placed his faith in Christ.

When it was time for his baptism, the weather was still warm enough to drive to a nearby lake for a day of picnicking, swimming, fellowship, and celebrating Hank’s immersion. The rocky slope into the lake was quite steep and the men doing the dunking struggled to keep their balance. They wobbled, but put him under the water nonetheless. Our group cheered and yelled congratulations. Actually, the local phrase for “Congratulations!” directly translates, to “May it be holy!” – a very appropriate cheer indeed for a baptism. Other picnickers up on the slope eyed us curiously.

After he dried off, Hank was still quiet and thoughtful as usual, but his eyes were beaming.

A few weeks later he wanted to share a prayer request during our service prayer time. Since we are still a very small church, every service involves a time of prayer together. We regularly begin this time by asking if anyone has had a chance to share the gospel the previous week or if there’s a particular unbeliever on their heart they desire to share with. But it’s also a time for prayers of petition and thanksgiving.

Hank spoke up during this time, and with a shy smile began to tell us what had happened the previous week.

“I was on the phone with my brother who lives in Europe and I began to feel this desire to tell him about my new faith. But I was afraid to. So I started inching closer to the topic by talking about spiritual things and about Jesus. To my surprise, my brother was eager to talk with me about this. After a little while, he said to me, ‘If I tell you something, do you promise not to tell our family?’ I said yes. ‘I’ve been a believer in Jesus for a few years now,’ he said. Then he waited to hear what I would say, not knowing about my faith. ‘You too!?’ I answered. ‘I just became a believer in the last few months and just got baptized!’ We were so surprised and so happy to find out one another’s secrets. I was so afraid to tell my brother about my faith and he was afraid to tell me! But we were both already believers and didn’t know it. Isn’t that great?” Hank said, smiling and shaking his head.

We listened to Hank’s story and laughed and celebrated with him. It doesn’t often happen this way in this persecution-prone society, but every once in a while a dreaded conversation with a family member turns into a joyful revelation of long-kept secrets. “You too?!” takes a believer facing isolation from his biological family and shows him that God has already been at work, quietly saving those in his household without his knowing it. In a society where kinship is everything, this is a tremendous mercy.

A local proverb states, “When a brother backs a brother, barring catastrophe, they are divinely prospered.” Even from a distance, these two brothers can now back each other in their risky faith.

Hank and his brother were already brothers by blood. Praise God, now they are brothers indeed.

*Names changed for security

Photo by Scott Osborn on Unsplash

The Lone and Level Sands

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Ozymandius” by Shelley, from Poetry Foundation

Photo by Juli Kosolapova on Unsplash

Things Not to Do in Minefields

During my college gap year in the Middle East, I worked to secure a grant for a landmine removal organization. Part of this process included visiting a remote village where this organization was painstakingly working to remove mines that had been placed decades earlier.

One of the terrible things about landmines is how easy they are to deploy, yet how difficult they are to remove. There are still more landmines than people in that particular country, though many of them were placed decades ago. At the time of our visit to the village area, we were told that not a week went by that an animal or person didn’t get maimed or killed by stepping on a mine in the broader region. The mines were mostly American, Italian, and Chinese-made, a sad testimony to the global weapons trade. And though villagers often knew where the minefields were, sometimes mines could be washed down a hillside during heavy rains and end up on a path that had been previously safe.

We were given a very important tip that day for traversing territory where there might be mines: Follow the livestock trails. If walking through a field or on a mountainside in an area which has historically been mined, the safest bet is to look for the well-worn trails taken by goats, sheep, and their shepherds. In that part of the world these trails are very distinct, interweaving on dry mountainsides in a web that comes to resemble a kind of net pattern. Just in case you ever find yourself in this kind of territory, look for these animal trails. It just may save your limbs or life.

It was a sobering day trip, yet also encouraging to see the common-grace, painstaking work being done by international and local organizations to make mined areas safe again, one field at a time. It’s not a cause that gets a lot of press, but the world needs more people and organizations committed to mine removal. It’s dangerous and slow work, but vitally necessary.

That particular day trip wasn’t without a dose of humor, however. About an hour into the initial drive a colleague’s vehicle pulled off to the side of the road. It was the SUV directly in front of mine. *Greg, a short mustachioed colleague, had apparently had too much coffee to drink. He began wandering off into a field to “drain the radiator”, as they say in a certain Kentucky idiom. At that point in the drive, none of us foreigners really knew where we were. We simply assumed we were still in safe territory.

Greg found a spot in the field comfortably far away and began to relieve himself. Suddenly, the lead vehicle in the convoy screeched to a halt a ways up the road. The driver and copilot of that vehicle, local employees of the mine removal group, began running back toward us, waving their hands and shouting something.

We all strained to make out what they were saying and doing, since they were a good distance from us. Finally, we heard it.

“Mines! Mines! Mines!”

Suddenly, we all started waving our arms and yelling at Greg as well, “Greg! You can’t pee there! It’s a mine field! Get back, Greg! Mines, Greg, mines!”

Poor Greg was caught in between the will of his bladder and his will to survive. He began hopping sideways and backwards, earnestly trying to get out of that field while still preserving some dignity and fumbling to get his trousers fastened.

After a few nail-biting moments, Greg made it safely back to the road. The sprinting and yelling locals stopped and hunched over, hands on their knees, breathing hard and shaking their heads, perhaps regretting signing up for this little outing.

For our part, our crew of expats sat stunned for a minute, then burst out in peals of laughter, slapping Greg on the shoulder and shaking our heads as well. Since he was safe we were free to laugh about the whole incident. And for months we didn’t let him live it down.

There are many nuggets of wisdom I have picked up over the years while working in foreign contexts. Some are quite eloquent and inspiring. Others, well, they are a little more down to earth and practical, blatantly obvious and yet still needing to be said. This one is definitely the latter. Friends…. Don’t pee in minefields.

Photo by Robert Bye on Unsplash

*Names changed for security (and dignity!)

That Are Not of This Fold

Yesterday I got to preach to our small local church plant on John 10:16 – “And I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.”

We simply walked phrase by phrase through this verse, seeking to understand, wrestle with the importance, illustrate, and apply each line. The phrase that got the most audible reactions was “that are not of this fold.”

I shared with the attendees that Jesus was here communicating to the Jews that the people of God would be gathered from unexpected peoples and places – namely, the gentile nations. “Not of this fold” meant not of ethnic Israel. One of the great mysteries revealed in the New Testament is that God had chosen a holy spiritual nation, comprised of those from every nation, tribe, and tongue. Ethnic Israel wasn’t the ultimate Israel.

This part wasn’t very provocative. After all, my listeners were Central Asians, not first century Jews. However, we then discussed why this point is important for us today. We, like Jesus’ initial Jewish followers, tend to believe that there are certain types of people who believe, and certain types of people who really don’t. Those similar to us almost always fall into the category of “likely open to belief.” And groups we are naturally opposed to often end up in the category of “unlikely to believe.”

This has a practical effect on our evangelism. We end up sharing with those we have pre-filtered, and we remain tight-lipped with others. But what has occurred is that our own experience and cultural categories (or prejudice?) have become the filter, rather than the gospel message itself. Given the logic of Jesus in this passage, this is a mistake.

“If we see a person in Western clothes, young, and educated, we are likely to believe they’d be open to a spiritual conversation about the gospel,” I said to the group. “But if we see someone with a big Islamic beard and their pants cut short in the Salafi style, then we are likely to avoid speaking with them about Jesus, right?”

“Oh, for sure!” the group responded.

“And what do we do with the elderly, the tribal, the illiterate, members of enemy people groups, or our own relatives? Do we avoid sharing with groups like these also?”

“Yup, all of them!” the group responded. People were shaking their heads and laughing, but they were being very open and honest and genuinely wrestling with this difficult point of application.

“Friends,” I continued, “I think we need to repent. And seek to share the gospel even with those who seem like the type very unlikely to respond. Jesus has other sheep that are not of this fold.”

It was not lost on me that our small circle of local believers represented those that many in the West would categorize as “not the kind that believes in Jesus,” as I used to. All of the local believers present grew up as Central Asian Muslims. Their passports and physical features are of the sort that qualify them to get extra “random” screenings in Western airports. And yet here they were, now believing, wrestling with the same kind of temptation as they thought about categories of people they really didn’t believe could follow Jesus. It reminded me of the time a local brother was wrestling with “the man on the island” problem. “Brother,” we told him. “You literally are the man on the island!”

But I am just as guilty as any of these local followers in this regard. Too often I also have held back from sharing with that Salafi-looking man, that elderly local, or that secular Westerner. I have used my own filters instead of using the gospel message itself as the filter.

Thank God that the voice of the good Shepherd effectively calls those from among groups we are tempted to avoid. Thank God for his grace toward us weak evangelists with our own faulty assumptions.

The good shepherd has been calling his sheep from other, unexpected, folds for 2,000 years now. My own Anglo-Saxon and Celtic genes are evidence of this. The hardest to reach demographics and people groups have and will continue to surrender a remnant at the power of the shepherd’s voice. The flock – in all its unexpected diversity – will be complete. “And there will be one flock, one shepherd.”

Photo by Samuel Toh on Unsplash

River Cliffs and Reformed Theology

The two of us walked, single file, through the coffee gardens. We were seventeen years old, barefoot, wearing swim trunks, and with inflated tire inner-tubes slung over our shoulders. The coffee cherries were ripening and we occasionally reached out, plucked one, and popped it in our mouths. The clear jelly between the red skin and the green coffee bean itself was deliciously sweet. Then the slippery bean itself could be pinched between forefinger and thumb, and launched at distant targets with surprising accuracy.

Tall sprawling trees spaced at regular intervals provided speckled shade for the short coffee trees below. We followed our dirt path naturally, having trekked it hundreds of times since we were in elementary school. We were, once again, on our way to inner-tube down the river. The horseshoe twists and turns of the main river of our Melanesian valley were such that we could walk ten minutes down trails on one side to a particular cliff to begin our trip, leisurely float down the river bends for forty five minutes, then get out at a different spot only five minutes from the compound where we lived. The trip included two sand bars, several set of rapids, two cliffs for jumping, whirlpools, deadwater, and the occasional abandoned raft made of banana tree stalks. One time we saw the carcass of a massive dead python. Thankfully, we never saw a live one.

Sometimes lots of missionaries and missionary kids would all take a big inner-tube trip together. Other times, groups of guys would go to make campfires on the sandbars and roast hot dogs, or challenge each other in “mud wars,” where soft clay harvested from the river banks was shaped into small round projectiles that splattered with satisfaction on your opponent’s torso (At which point he was temporarily “dead” and had to make his way back to wash in the river, hollering “I am a new man!!!” as he emerged from the water to enter the fray again.)

This particular sunny day it was just me and my close friend, *Calvin, going to float, talk, and perhaps pick up some hot fried skon flour balls on the way home. A simple river trip on a nice afternoon, like so many others. But our minds were not merely carefree that day, enjoying the familiar stroll through the coffee and banana gardens. Instead, they were chewing on some deep questions of the faith.

Calvin and I had been working out regularly together and while doing so, listening to John Piper sermons. Calvin had also been secretly devouring commentaries in our mission school library. While raised in dispensationalist circles, the two of us were beginning to wrestle earnestly with the claims of what was still a scary term for us: Calvinism. We were still in the early stages of our theological journeys, very much looking into something that we were sure couldn’t be true, but which had a much stronger case than we had ever realized.

The adult missionaries we spoke to about this particular theology generally discouraged us from looking into it. This of course only added fuel to the fire. We began to try to hash it out on our own, armed with CD sermons, library commentaries stealthily checked out, and our friendship. This river trip was one of many similar discussions we had during those final two years of high school.

This particular river trip stands out to me though. I remember it as a bit of a turning point, not because my convictions necessary changed that day, but because I admitted something out loud to myself for the first time. Something not contrary to, but consistent with, the God I knew from the Bible and my own experience – that if God is who he says he is, then in a contest of wills, He is the one who must ultimately win.

We had arrived at the small cliff that marked the point we embarked on our inner-tube journey, usually by jumping off of said cliff twenty feet into the river below. We sat down on the edge to survey the water, making sure we couldn’t spot any trees that had been pulled in during rains that might pose a hidden danger under the water. One of our schoolmates had a leg impaled one time jumping off this very cliff.

“So what do you think about irresistible grace?” I asked Calvin, as we scanned the brown water.

“Well, it seems like it would fit with passages like Romans 9 and Paul’s story, right? But I’m not sure, what about the passages that talk about people rejecting God? Doesn’t that count as resisting?”

“Yeah, like what Stephen says to the Jews before they kill him. They always resist the Spirit. How can you really name a point irresistible if there’s such clear examples of people in the Bible actually resisting?”

“Though actually,” Calvin countered, “As I remember, I don’t think it means we can’t ever resist, I think it might mean God will break that resistance for the ones he’s chosen.”

“Oh. But what does that mean, then our resistance isn’t real? That it’s a sham?”

“No, of course not, that would mean we couldn’t be responsible for unbelief, right?”

“Right…”

We sat in silence at the top of the small cliff, legs dangled over. I popped in one last coffee cherry I had saved, and spat out the skin.

“I dunno though,” I continued. “Something tells me that if my will and God’s will gets into a contest, God should be the one who wins. God should win. I don’t know how exactly that’s right with free will and all, but that’s what seems right in this universe. He should win in any contest against a little human like me… shouldn’t he?”

We sat and looked out over the river and the banana gardens on the other side of it. The question lingered. The cicadas hummed their rhythms in the trees.

We both sensed it was time to get moving. We spun our T-shirts and tied them around our foreheads like bandanas, preparing for the cliff jump. Throwing our inner-tubes off the cliff we made a running start for the edge, hollering as we jumped off, and plunged into the chocolately-brown jungle water below.

I didn’t realize it as I hit the water that day, but the Calvins had led me to admit an important point. God wins. He overcomes our resistance whenever he wants to. My mind wasn’t ready to concede that fully yet, but deep down inside, I knew it.

*this is his real name, and a fitting one for the topic of our discussion that day

Photo by Andres Hernandez on Unsplash

The Right Words For Airport Security

Our trip back to the US a few days ago went pretty well. The security personnel at our Central Asian city’s airport gave us some trouble due to our daughter’s diabetic supplies and devices. But it wasn’t too bad. I was reminded of the last time we had flown out of that same airport. That time I had a suitcase full of Bibles in the local language.

There’s a city in the US which contains a large immigrant population of our focus people group. A new church plant had been started there among them, the first one in all of North America that we are aware of. But they couldn’t get ahold of Bibles in the correct language. The updated Bible translation had recently been printed in Korea and the only available copies were now stored and distributed in our corner of Central Asia. Hence the request for us to bring back a suitcase full of Bibles.

We made it through a couple layers of security without any trouble, but at the final suitcase scanner I got nervous. The officer had indicated that I was to open the particular bag full of Bibles and a few homeschool books. And while it’s not illegal to possess Bibles in the local language or to distribute them in some limited ways, the laws are vague enough that an Islamic – or simply grumpy – official could decide on a whim to confiscate them or to get us in trouble.

“What are these?” the officer asked me, making a sweeping gesture at the large pile of books in the suitcase.

I chuckled nervously, “We love books, as you can see… Um, these are books for our kids’ education… and… those… are Bibles in your language.” There was no hiding it. He could clearly see the dozens of books with Holy Injil (Gospel) printed on their spines.

I held my breath as the official picked up one of the Bibles and flipped through it. I couldn’t read his expression.

Suddenly, I blurted out, “You want to know something crazy? We’re traveling to America and bringing all these Bibles from here to there. The members of your people group there who want to find them or buy them there can’t find any at all – they’re simply not available anywhere! So we’re hauling all these over to help them. Isn’t that crazy that you can’t find a Bible in your language in America? That’s not right. Thankfully we can get them here and can help them out by bringing these to them.”

The officer grunted and nodded, setting the Bible back in the suitcase.

“You tell them when you get to America,” he said in a serious tone and with a look of conviction, “you tell them that that’s not right. They should be printing and selling these Bibles there as well! Bless your hands for carrying these over to our people there. Can you believe that, guys?” He said, shifting from me to his colleagues. “You can’t buy these Bibles in America, so we have to send them from here over to there. What a world!”

And with that he motioned for me to zip up the suitcase and be on our way.

We gathered up our various bags and children and made our way to the check-in counter. I was relieved that security hadn’t give us any real trouble. I reflected on the conversation and smiled. How kind of the Lord to put those particular comments into my brain at just the right time. The conversation could have gone very differently. I only regretted forgetting to offer a Bible to the security officer on the spot.

In passages like Matthew 10:16-20, Jesus promises that we shouldn’t be anxious about what we’ll say when we’re dragged before governors and kings for his sake – that the Holy Spirit would give us the words to say. I haven’t yet had to go before governors or kings for Jesus’ sake. But I do wonder about conversations like that one with the airport security officer. The right words came at just the right time, without planning beforehand what I would say. Perhaps this was a small taste of the Holy Spirit’s particular help in these kinds of situations.

I tend to get very nervous while speaking under pressure. So this promise from Matthew 10 is very relevant for me. My natural self under questioning is likely to kick into fight, flight, or freeze mode – most likely the latter two. The color will drain from my face and the language part of my brain is likely to shut down. And yet I won’t have to rely on my natural self if I am ever brought in front of the authorities for questioning. The Holy Spirit will give me the words to say. He will give my local brothers and sisters the words to say.

What an encouraging and practical promise.

Photo by Tomek Baginski on Unsplash

Of Immersion and Umbilical Cords

Tonight we came to the end of a whirlwind eleven months. We’ll be heading out of the country for a few weeks of rest and family events. But what an ending it was.

This evening *Alan was baptized. He’s the new believer who recently came out of nowhere, having come to faith through YouTube videos while isolated from knowing any other believers.

The initial time of singing and exhortation tonight proved to be a very sweet time. Baptisms are always soul-stirring, but in this part of the world they feel especially weighty. The Islamic society here views going under the water as the point of no return. It means apostasy has been committed. Even though Alan had explored other religions before and even was an atheist for a season, his act of baptism will be viewed with a special kind of hatred by his Muslim friends and relatives.

For their part, the local believers were eager to follow up the exhortation from Romans 6 with their own personal encouragements. One word was regarding ongoing repentance. This prompted spontaneous and public repentance from two of the other brothers present – a particularly life-giving thing for me to witness having recently walked with them through the very messy conflict they were repenting of. This was a tremendous example for Alan to witness, the kind of thing that should be a regular part of a healthy church’s life together.

*Patti also spoke up, exhorting Alan to put off the culture he has known and to put on the new culture of Jesus Christ. Patti is the least-literate of the group of believers, so her clear and biblical contribution was especially meaningful.

Then we took a group photo together (only the one being baptized is allowed to request pictures and use their camera for this kind of event) and headed up to the roof where a kiddie pool was ready. One of us the expats and one of the local brothers flanked Alan as they stood together in the water. Not only does this two person dunking make the physical act of immersing the third person easier, it also helps avoid any false elevation of baptism-by-foreigner while still honoring the locals’ desire to respect us by having one one of us do the actual baptizing. Another local brother read the questions, received Alan’s affirmative replies, and then made the Trinitarian proclamation.

And Alan went under. All but the very tips of his knees. Total immersion continues to be quite hard to actually accomplish! Thankfully, this doesn’t mean he will be raised in the new heavens and new earth without any kneecaps.

The rest of the evening was spent laughing and sharing chai and supper together. And yet in this season we can’t seem to stop uncovering deeply-ingrained aspects of culture that we’ve never heard of before, and which seem somewhat concerning. Sure enough, we had another surprising lesson waiting for us tonight.

During dinner, one of the local moms asked my wife if we could bring her daughter’s something back to the US with us. The word she used sounded an awful lot like belly button. Confused, my wife sought clarification. It wasn’t belly button, it was umbilical cord. She wanted us to bring her teenage daughter’s umbilical cord back to the US with us. If you are anything like us, at this point you’d be thinking, “Why on earth would we ever do such a thing?”

Apparently one of our regional cultures saves the baby’s umbilical cord and places it somewhere in the world that would portend a good future for that child, connected to that particular place. In our case, the mother wanted us to bring the remains of the umbilical cord in our luggage to the US and leave it there so that the power of the cord (?) would enable her daughter to reach the US and find success there.

My wife fumbled for words and reminded this sister of what we had been talking about earlier – that following Jesus means we put on a new redeemed culture. Plus, what in the world would we tell customs?

“Anything to declare?”

“Just our friends’ daughter’s umbilical cord.”

“Um… what?!”

Needless to say, we won’t be carrying any umbilical cords with us this time. Nor in the future, at least until we learn a lot more about what is actually going on with this local practice.

But it’s not just the Central Asians. This confused TCK also learned tonight that even some Westerners keep their child’s umbilical cord for sentimental reasons. Again, I had never heard of this before. Western friends, is this a thing? Culture is fascinating. And sometimes just downright strange.

But putting aside all talk of physical cords that have been cut and their reasons for global travel, Alan himself is very much now spiritually alive and part of the family. Though he started his walk with Jesus as an isolated young man watching apologetics videos, he has a community of brothers and sisters now. He will need them, and they will need him.

As for us, we need to get some sleep. Twenty hours of flight time with multiple small children awaits us. And though we’re getting on that plane tired and spent, we are also getting on it happy and thankful.

The church is repenting, new believers like Alan are taking costly steps of obedience, deeper worldview issues are coming out and getting addressed. He is working. Keep the prayers coming.

Photo by Egor Myznik on Unsplash

*Names changed for security

He Would Have Come With Me

The summer after my freshman year of college I moved back to the Philadelphia area in order to work and save up for a gap year in Central Asia.

I ended up finding steady part-time work with an elderly cancer patient named Mr. Joe. Because of his age and the weakness brought on by chemotherapy, Mr. Joe needed a lot of help around his suburban property. He paid me a very generous hourly wage to help him with random projects, even paying me for the time it took to go to long lunches with him at a local Jewish diner. He also loaned me one of his cars so that I could easily commute to his place from the mission house where my mom and I were living at that point.

Mr. Joe was a character. He spoke with a New York accent, loved to tell long funny stories, and could never seem to actually finish a project – or even let the young guy working for him finish one. This understandably drove his wife crazy. The yard especially was a minefield of almost-finished projects that Mr. Joe had moved on from. She did her best to keep the house inside well kept-up as her refuge from the various project zones. Alas, at this she was only moderately successful. May God reward her faithful endurance with a project-free abode in the age to come.

“He’s payin’ you to be his friend and listen to bad jokes, tuhts!” his wife would sometimes say, laughing. This wasn’t entirely untrue.

Mr. Joe and his wife knew my parents from years ago where they had overlapped at the same church. This was the church where my dad had come to faith, married my mom, served as an associate pastor, and was eventually sent to the mission field. Mr. Joe and his wife were part of a large contingent that eventually left the church after a long and fruitful season, “the glory years,” came to an end with a pastoral leadership transition that never seemed to stop transitioning. What had been a strong and more traditional Baptist church led by a gifted pastor through the 80’s and 90’s later struggled in the confused church growth movement of the late 90’s and early 2000s.

I hope that Mr. Joe indeed had genuine faith, and he particularly emphasized the importance of finding joy in God. But he was also a contrarian who enjoyed theological provocation, so he would say lots of edgy things to get a rise out of people – or at least to get a laugh. He was originally from a Catholic background, as many of the evangelicals in that part of the Philly area tend to be. But like many from our former church, he never settled again in one local church after the transition fallout.

In one way Mr. Joe was a very traditional older white American man of the mid-2000s. He despised Muslims. And for the life of him he could not wrap his mind around why I wanted to move to Central Asia in order to befriend Muslims and share the gospel with them. The question would come up over and over again as we sat down and enjoyed hoagies, reuben sandwiches, and coffee at his favorite Jewish diner. Why would you ever want to give your life for them?

We had countless conversations over the course of that summer where Mr. Joe tried to square what I was sharing with him about God’s heart for Muslims with what he was watching on TV and reading from the “Clash of Civilizations” literature of that period. To be honest, I didn’t think these talks – heavily interspersed with Mr. Joe’s rabbit trails and stories – were having any effect on him. I was, after all, a 19-year-old kid who hadn’t even grown up in the US, an idealist who could talk a lot about reformed theology and missions but who couldn’t seem to stop ruining Mr. Joe’s yard and doing my fair share of botching his admittedly quixotic list of projects. He was about 50 years my senior. And we had frankly lived in very different worlds.

At that point I was fresh from a year of studying at Bethlehem, John Piper’s church, so we found some common ground when discussing the pleasures of walking with God. And of course we developed other common ground as I learned about the pleasures of long lunches at Jewish diners. But Mr. Joe knew that I was saving the money he paid me so that I could afford my year overseas in Central Asia. And from the beginning he told me he was absolutely against the idea of me going – and that he thought I was crazy and foolish. Apparently his need for help was greater than his opposition to what I planned to do with the money.

But God was at work over the course of those several months where we started countless projects together and even managed to finish a few. As summer transitioned to fall, one day we went out for a final lunch together at his favorite diner. And there Mr. Joe, with tears in his eyes, told me something I will never forget.

“A.W., you know I think you’re crazy for wanting to go over there. But I’ll tell ya what, if I were a younger man and weren’t about to die from cancer, I’d go with ya… You be safe over there and ya tell them about Jesus and how he loves ’em.”

I nearly choked on my cottage cheese.

It was, for me, one of the more miraculous heart changes I had ever seen. I remember thinking to myself, “If God can change this old man’s hatred toward Muslims, and replace it with love, well then maybe I’m not crazy for thinking God can change Muslims’ hearts as well.”

Mr. Joe sent me off with a very generous gift of financial support, asked to be on my update list, and that was the last we ever saw of each other. He passed away shortly thereafter from cancer.

God changes hearts. He did it for me. He did it for Mr. Joe. He can do it for any person in our lives who seems absolutely unchangeable.

The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the LORD; he turns it wherever he will.

(Proverbs 21:1 ESV)

Photo by Ezra Jeffrey-Comeau on Unsplash