Providence Showing Off

Most of my prayer walks in the bazaar are an exercise in being alone with God while being surrounded by other people. Strange as it may sound, I enjoy praying quietly to myself while flanked by other pedestrians on a bustling Central Asian sidewalk. I’ve not intentionally sought out opportunities to share the gospel while out praying and walking – that discipline is able to happen elsewhere. But neither am I opposed to hitting an evangelistic softball if one is thrown my way during the course of a walk.

An opportunity like this came along last week, and completely out of nowhere. It was a sunny mid-morning I was walking down a street full of small bakeries, fish stalls, chai houses, and watch repairers, when I decided on a whim to take a left down past the old post office. I had no particular reason for choosing this route, but at the moment of decision it simply felt like this would be a good way to go.

Two-thirds of the way down the post office street I spotted a man standing in front of me and looking at me oddly. Our eyes met.

“You are an English teacher, right?” he asked me.

“Well, I was for some years, yes.” I said as I wondered how he had pegged me so accurately.

“I am a legal translator. And I am stuck. I have been translating registration documents for a Christian organization.”

Internally, I quickly transitioned out of prayer/meditation mode and sought to focus on what was happening in front of me. The ingredients of this situation were not exactly common. I wondered if this might be a divinely-appointed interaction.

“There’s some religious language that I’m not familiar with,” he continued. “Some unique Christian terms that I haven’t heard before. I don’t know what to do…”

“Would you like me to come to your office and see if I can help?” I quickly offered.

“If it’s no trouble, my office is just across the street here,” he motioned to a nearby corner.

We walked over to his small translation shop and stepped inside. The legal translator motioned for me to take a seat, handing me the customary small bottle of cold water. Then he pulled out the documents he had been working on.

“Can you tell me what gospel identity means? And what about reconciliation?” the translator started off, furrowing his brow. “Look at this sentence where they use those terms. I can’t make any sense out of it. I’m a legal translator, not someone familiar with translating religious language.”

He handed me the registration documents and I perused them, smiling internally. The words the translator was the most stuck on were some of the best gospel bridges in the document.

As I read the document, one part of me rejoiced at the spiritual terms present, and another part of me shook my head at the unnecessarily complex language we Westerners tend to write in – and saddle our translators with. “The goal of good writing is to be clear, not impressive.” I don’t know how many times I have said this line while helping a local friend struggling to translate Christian material out of English and into our local language. The translatability of our writing is a virtue not spoken of often enough.

The legal translator and I went back and forth over a number of tough Christian words and phrases, a process which gave me several good opportunities to dive into biblical truth. I shared with him the basic definition of gospel – good news – and then described that good news as “God is holy, we are sinful, Christ is the sacrifice for our sins, and we must respond by repenting and believing in him.” We review this God, Man, Christ, Response outline as a church every time we gather for a service and I was grateful for the gospel fluency this longstanding practice has created, both for the local believers and for us.

We made some good progress on the document, but I could tell that the translation needs would require more time than I had to give that morning. Gospel comprehension would also require more time.

“I have an idea for you,” I shared after a while. “If you download the YouVersion Bible app, you can search for a Christian term and see how it is used in the Bible and see how it’s been translated by scholars into your own language. There’s this great parallel language function that I use all the time.”

“Really? That would be great!”

I showed him how to download the Bible app, search for a term, and compare languages side by side. I also gave him the number of a bilingual local believer in case he got stuck and needed some more assistance.

“You know, you remind me of someone I used to know,” the translator said. “A close friend named Joshua.”

“Joshua?” I smiled. I knew who he was talking about, a believing friend from college who had done a stint in this city of more than a million people a decade ago. I knew that Joshua would have shared the gospel with this man. And yet the lack of easy comprehension on the part of the translator showed that it had never really sunk in, even in terms of intellectual understanding. Or it had long since faded, suppressed by time and an unbelieving mind. Maybe Joshua was still praying for this man. Maybe that’s why we had run into each other on the sidewalk that day.

I took note of the translation office’s location, a spot I walk past most days. This shop would be one to come back to.

We said goodbye and I stepped out into the sunshine. I walked home, continuing to pray and encouraged by this unexpected chance to share the gospel. Even on a meandering prayer walk, there are no unplanned steps, no random encounters. I don’t always pick up on the providential designs beneath my daily encounters. But some days they’re simply on full display. Almost as if providence is showing off.

Photo by Ali Kokab on Unsplash

The Hazards of Second Language Sermons

Today I preached to our local church plant from John 12:44-50, a passage often titled “Jesus Has Come to Save the World.” Preaching today meant that yesterday I sat down with a local believer, *Harry, to go over the sermon manuscript, checking for language mistakes and smoothing out the grammar. For the dozens and dozens of times that I have now preached in the local language, God has never failed to provide me a local brother to help with this important prep work – and every time that local brother manages to save me from at least a couple proverbial foot-in-mouth situations. Last night was no exception.

“Jesus teaches us here that it is his words that will judge us on the last day,” I read out loud.

“When?” my friend asked, raising an eyebrow.

“The last day,” I repeated.

“A.W.,” Harry continued, “in our language ‘the last day’ means Friday, not the final day of judgement. To communicate your meaning you have to say ‘at the final age.'”

“Ohhh, thank you. I’m definitely not trying to say that Jesus’ words will judge us on Friday!”

“And when you say ‘the final age’ don’t forget that short vowel in the first syllable of ‘age.’ If you forget it you will be saying ‘at the final tongue!'”

We laughed, sipped our hot drinks, and continued. A little later my friend put up his hand again for me to pause.

“Stop,” he said, “Read ‘Jesus Messiah’ out loud for me again.”

“Jesus Messiah,” I repeated.

Harry shook his head. You are saying it too fast and skipping over the final throaty H in Messiah. When you said it just now, it sounded like you were instead saying ‘Jesus of the squeegee.'”

I chuckled. This was not the first time I had made this kind of mistake. Preaching through Ephesians years ago I had publicly proclaimed, “The Squeegee is our peace!” instead of my intended meaning, which was “The Messiah is our peace.” That tricky throaty H is one of the old nemeses of us English speakers attempting to learn this particular Central Asian tongue.

Idioms especially can be like hidden bombs, ambushing the innocent speaker who is merely attempting to speak in literal and clear ways. Just a couple weeks ago I was doing sermon checking with *Darius when I learned that I can’t say “the person and work of Christ” in that simple form.

“‘Person and work of’ together like that,” he told me, “is always an idiom for someone’s closest circle of relatives. You don’t mean to say that we are saved by the relatives of Jesus Christ, am I right?” He laughed. “That sounds kind of Catholic!”

Then there’s those tricky words that are spelled the same and sound the same, but differ in meaning based on the context and construction of the sentence. This kind of similarity between the local words for canary and shore led to one of my more famous blunders, when teaching through the parables of the Kingdom in Matthew.

“And then Jesus sat down in the boat, next to the canary, and began to teach about the kingdom of God.”

The local believers leaned into their Bibles trying to figure out where the song bird I was referencing had suddenly come into the text.

Last night Harry and I finished our editing work together around 9 p.m. I thanked him sincerely for his help, knowing that his investment of a couple hours with me would mean greater clarity for the rest of the church on the following day, Friday, when our church plant is able to meet.

As we parted ways I shook his hand and said to him, “See you on the last day, brother!”

“What?” he said back.

“Tomorrow is Friday. You know, the last day.”

Harry laughed and shook his head. “Right! See you on the last day indeed.”

*Names changed for security

Photo by Angélica Ribeiro on Unsplash

Worth Some Frozen Pipes

“But you have not answered my question,” the workman said as he ate the lunch we had provided of takeout kabab (It’s expected in this culture to provide lunch when workmen are at your house all day). “What do you think of Islam? Is it good or bad?”

I had just concluded sharing how Islam teaches salvation by works – salvation through the scale of good deeds – while the Bible teaches salvation by faith in the sacrifice of Jesus alone. But my friend wasn’t going to let me get away with indirectly pointing out how my faith directly contradicts Islam. The workman and his colleague looked at me expectantly.

“Islam teaches that a man can save himself by his good works,” I said, “so it is bad. Because it is impossible for a man to save himself in this way. It sets men up for despair, or worse.”

It’s rare that I drop that bomb so early in a conversation. Usually if I attack Islam directly early on, then the honor/shame defense mechanisms kick in and the conversation stops being productive. I’ve learned that most of our locals will let me critique Islam in a hundred indirect ways and keep talking with me, all the while increasingly understanding my position that what they believe about ultimate reality is wrong. However, the response from the head workman to my blunt reply was more positive than I had been expecting.

“Good job!” he said. “I think Islam is bad too. For me, humanity is everything. And I can’t stand how we mix Islam with politics all over this region.”

I hadn’t seen this coming. These workmen were from a town four hours to our south, members of one of our unengaged people groups. An unreached unengaged people group (UUPG) is a people group that has no known Christians working to reach it with the gospel. The particular group these men belonged to may be around one million strong, with its own distinct language and identity – and zero known believers or churches. They live in a politically tense area that is hard to access and are so obscure as to barely show up on the unreached people group mapping sites.

Given this background, my assumption was that these men would be rather devout. I had assumed wrong. Sitting in front of me were men whose people group have never had a Christian missionary, but who had already been “converted” away from their native religion and into the lure of an easy humanism. They were Muslims in name only, but in reality would share much in common with progressive Westerners. The difficulty in these kinds of conversations is helping these locals see that the gospel is not just an equivalent religious system to Islam (and therefore to be dismissed as outdated), but to show them that many of the values they so admire in Western humanism – such as human rights and freedom of religion – come from biblical principles – and that these values alone are not enough.

I was encouraged over the course of two lunches to get to share the gospel, the goodness of religious liberty, and a biblical sexual ethic. We agreed to meet up for dinner soon where we’d have lots of time to talk at length about these things.

These lunch break conversations were an encouraging providence in a tough week of frozen pipes, gas shortages, sickness, and below freezing temperatures. Some weeks we spend so much time just staying functional that it can feel like we have nothing left over for the actual work of the ministry. It is especially encouraging then, when the life maintenance brings the ministry conversations to us.

This time we got to share the gospel with UUPG men who have never heard it before. That’s worth some frozen pipes.

Photo by Nadiia Ganzhyi on Unsplash

When the Cows Attacked at Dawn

I grew up as a missionary kid (MK*) in Melanesia, where we lived in a large highland valley where the tall grass and coffee grew well. This valley had just the right elevation to keep pretty ideal temperatures all year round. Go further up and you would hit mountain rain forest, with its mists, moss, and deep shades of blue-green. Go further down and you would come to lowland rain forest, bright green and humid, full of chocolate brown rivers and palm trees. Our valley, however, looked more like pictures you might see of Africa than like a Melanesian island country – this was due to the tall and broad trees that periodically dotted the hilly landscape of shoulder high grass.

As I said, this kind of valley was perfect for growing coffee. It was also good for raising cattle. Many of my adventures growing up happened in the coffee gardens, the hills where the cows roamed, or in the mountains that bordered our valley.

In high school a bunch of us guys started regularly camping out overnight in the grassland areas. A short half hour walk could take us from our compound, past the nearest village, and into the open country only populated by cattle. There we would camp out, sometimes on a hilltop, sometimes beneath a defunct electricity tower, sometimes stringing our camping hammocks in the small groves of trees.

We would stay up late, talking around the fire and cooking hot dogs or munching on beef crackers and tea biscuits. The conversation would inevitably turn to the current crushes we had. But the Spirit was also moving powerfully in my MK school during those years, and many nights we would sit under the stars and have deep conversation about spiritual things – following Jesus, fighting for purity, becoming godly men. Sometimes we would discuss theology such as end the times, spiritual gifts, or Calvinism.

It wasn’t all serious though. Sometimes groups of guys would pretend they couldn’t come on the overnight and then sneak up and prank the campsite. We got very good at making “cough bombs” out of cotton balls and chili peppers, which, if sneakily tossed into a fire, could clear a campsite in minutes. But even with no pranks the conversation would often turn toward the ridiculous.

Some nights we got rained out and had to trudge back home at 2 a.m. through the mud. I’ll never forget the feeling of laying in a soaked sleeping bag hoping against hope that the rain would stop. We didn’t ever bring tents with us, instead trying to predict by the clearness of the night sky whether rain was likely.

The cows in these grasslands almost always kept a respectful distance. They wouldn’t bother us, but would sometimes come right up to the edge of the circle of firelight and stare. This usually wasn’t a problem. A well-aimed piece of firewood would scare them off if they started getting too friendly. One cow in particular got a reputation for being a little threatening. He was a massive black bull with imposing horns and eyes that glowed red in the firelight. Because of his regular visits to the edge of the campfire and seeming ill-intent, he got appropriately nicknamed “Satan.” I recall once throwing some firewood at Satan and not being quite sure that he wouldn’t simply deflect it and charge down this skinny kid who foolishly thought he could scare him off.

There was one time, however, when the cows trespassed the mutually understood borders. I was a junior and had gone on an overnight with two of my senior friends, Jordan and Kees. My two friends had brought a tarp for the ground and two sleeping bags. I had brought a hammock, so we picked a spot close to a few small trees and they set up on the ground nearby.

That night the cows visited the edge of the firelight as usual, but nothing seemed out of the ordinary. We stayed up late into the night, talking and cooking and having a good time. I think this may have been the last time I camped out with these close friends before they graduated and left the country.

That night I had very vivid dreams about cows. Unusually vivid. I recall hearing the sounds of their chewing as if it were real life.

Suddenly my eyes shot open. Cows had entered the camp – and were right on top of us. That chewing sound was not merely in my dream, but was coming from a cow eating the foot of Jordan’s sleeping bag – while he was happily sleeping inside it. I realized I was the only one awake.

“Jordan!” I hissed. “There’s a cow… eating your sleeping bag! Jordan!… Wake up!”

Jordan’s eyes slowly opened. In an instant they turned from relaxed to alarmed as he looked down and saw a cow about to chew on his toes. He sprang into action, leaping out of his sleeping bag and grabbing the nearest projectile at hand – an aluminum camping pot. Jordan, the pitcher for our high school team, then hurled that camping pot with remarkable speed and accuracy for it being so early in the morning.

The pot hit the cow square between the eyes with a metallic clang, then ricocheted off. The cow’s eyes went wide as he reared back from his fabric meal and let out an impassioned “Moooeeoooo!”

The strike was effective. All the cows made a quick exit from our campsite. Jordan stood stunned and Kees and I still lay peeking out from behind our sleeping bags. My hammock swayed in the wind.

What had induced these cows to try to eat us? Or at least to eat our sleeping bags? Had their imposing leader, “Satan” the black bull, put them up to it? Had we somehow violated the terms of our uneasy coexistence? Perhaps they were after our beef-flavored crackers? Did that make them cannibalistic?

Jordan picked up the aluminum pot, now with a large indention in its rim and side. And we began to laugh. We restarted the fire and made some tea. The early morning sun was shining, not yet blocked by the mist that would rise with the warming temperature.

We knew that we wouldn’t get to enjoy misadventures like this together for too much longer. The inevitable goodbyes were coming, when we would graduate and scatter all over the globe, as MKs tend to do. We knew we would dearly miss that place, yes, even miss “Satan” the cow and his brooding stare. We knew – despite what people said back in our passport countries – that we were blessed to get to grow up in that Melanesian country.

I remember times like this when I wonder about the things my own kids are missing by growing up overseas themselves, though in a very different part of the world. I pray they when they grow up, despite the hard things, they will look back with gratefulness at their own misadventures. It may not be grassland campouts and voracious cows, perhaps it will be sketchy border crossings and crabby hedgehogs.

Yes, there is a cost to growing up a MK, but there is also gain. Strange and unexpected gain, but gain nonetheless. I can’t wait to hear the stories they will someday tell.

*When I write I use both the MK and TCK abbreviations. They stand for Missionary Kid and Third-Culture Kid, respectively. Technically, a MK is a type of TCK. TCKs are those who have grown up in a foreign culture different from their parents’. Because of this, they end up developing their own, “third” personal culture. TCKs can also be military kids or the children of other types of expats or migrants. TCKs usually click the best with other TCKs, even if they have grown up in very different parts of the world.

Photo by Daniel Lloyd Blunk-Fernández on Unsplash

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