Somewhere Green and Bright

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by paul jespers on Unsplash

Love Bade Him Welcome

This is the story of how a friend came to faith. The same friend, *Aaron, that I had thought was being drawn three and a half years ago. At that time he had shown a strong resonance with the spiritual themes of a poetry group I was leading. But when we had finally connected, God surprised us by saving his best friend, *Darius, instead. And Aaron drifted away. We kept praying for him, but he went dark for two years. That is, until the last week of December, 2020.

My family and I were visiting our previous city for Christmas and were reveling in the chance to connect with believing local friends there. We had even been invited to spend Christmas night with some coworkers and a bunch of the local believers in a mountain picnic house – a fun if freezing time full of chai, conversation, music, and arguments about what kind of smoke is actually going to lead to carbon monoxide poisoning while we were sleeping. The matter was never decided regarding the danger of the wood fireplace vs. the kerosene heater, so one brother stayed up all night making calls to friends, just to make sure the rest of us would actually wake up in the morning. Personally, I was on the side of the kerosene fumes being the only ones worth worrying about! There’s a tale there for another time.

We wrapped up our time at the picnic house and, jet-lagged from the smoke and late night games and theology conversations, made our way back to the apartment where we’d stay for the rest of our time. It was that night that Darius reached out to me.

“I just heard from Aaron! He told me that he is struggling with a huge decision. That he cannot continue anymore without truly knowing God. But also that he is terrified.”

“Really? Aaron? Do you think he is wanting to become a believer?” I asked.

“I am not sure, but it sounds like maybe. Something has clearly changed since we last spoke. I told him that this was a great week to meet up because the three of us can get together again. Can you find time in your visit to meet with us?”

I enthusiastically agreed. One of the harder things about being a new team leader in a new city has been having fewer opportunities for evangelistic conversations like this. “You seemed especially alive when you got back from your trip,” a teammate told me last night. What happened with Aaron is a big reason why.

We met up in a cafe a couple nights after Darius asked. Aaron got right to the point.

“I used to think I was a good person. But I have lost myself. I know I am in the darkness and have been very depressed lately. I know I cannot continue without true faith. But I don’t know what to do. Can you tell me what I need to do? I told God this week I would do whatever is necessary. Since then I have been waiting to meet with you.”

Darius and I just stared at Aaron for a minute. With such a wide open question, where do you begin? Darius, growing by leaps and bounds since he had confessed his faith to his family, was clearly itching to open up the gospel fire hose. But being very kind and honoring, wanted me to start things off.

I’ve found we can never quite predict exactly where gospel conversations are going to start or end up. We rely on the guiding of the Spirit to help us take the same unchanging themes and with them to chart a path through the particular topics and passages needed for that unique context and person. This is exactly why Paul asks that we pray and speak graciously as evangelists, “so that you may know how you ought to to answer each person,” (Col 4:6).

We first encouraged Aaron that his feelings of separation from God and being lost are actually very much in line with the nature of our human situation. We are naturally separated from God, and we can’t shake that sense, no matter how hard we try. Then, because Aaron had said that he needed true faith, we started somewhere I don’t recall ever starting at before, the nature of true faith. We turned to Hebrews 11:1. True faith is simply believing the promises of God, even when we can’t see them. We looked at Abraham, the one counted righteous through believing God’s promises (Gen 15:6). Then we turned to Romans and started looking at how God now counts us righteous if we have faith in Jesus, the one whose death makes God both just and justifier of the unrighteous (Rom 3:23-26). We looked at how true faith is a gift, a free pardon, something given apart from works. How do we receive this gift? By confessing our sin and hopelessness and by confessing our faith in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Aaron was tracking and nodding with everything.

Darius, evidencing the solid discipleship he’s been getting from my coworkers, wanted to make sure that Aaron really understood himself to be a lost person, guilty and shameful and separated from God. This is wise because popular Islam treats sin as something like an excusable mistake. When we looked at Jesus as the good shepherd in John 10 and the parable of the lost sheep in Luke 15, we had our answer.

“That’s me!” Aaron said, “That’s exactly me! I’m the lost sheep. I’ve been so lost… and now Jesus is coming to find me, even though I don’t deserve it.”

Aaron continued, “What do I need to do now?”

We turned to look at Romans 10 and Aaron joyfully confessed the gospel with his mouth. We offered to pray for him and both in turn asked God to confirm and establish our friend’s brand new faith.

“How do you feel?” we asked, curious to see if Aaron was internally experiencing things that matched his words and the wonder in his eyes.

“I feel… amazing. Jesus is my shepherd now.”

We wrapped up shortly thereafter, after some initial advice on how to walk with Jesus as a new Christian. It was one of the most straightforward gospel conversations I’ve ever been a part of. I think Darius and I were both second guessing ourselves because it had been so easy. But Aaron was simply that ready.

The Spirit is full of surprises. Apparently, we had been wrong to think we were wrong that the Spirit had been drawing him three and a half years beforehand. It just wasn’t harvest time yet. Aaron had been the only one in that poetry group who had resonated with Herbert over Henley, Love III over Invictus, humility and grace over prideful self-autonomy. Turns out it really was a preview, just as we had desperately hoped, an initial flicker of the new life that would flood into his soul years later.

We said our goodbyes and I got back into my frigid car. After praising God for such an amazing evening, I sent a message and the text of George Herbert’s Love III to Darius and Aaron.

“Remember when we read this one and you really liked it? This poem is actually all about the gospel of Jesus. We have been praying for you ever since. Welcome to the family.”

Love bade me welcome. Yet my soul drew back
                              Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
                             From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning,
                             If I lacked any thing.

A guest, I answered, worthy to be here:
                             Love said, You shall be he.
I the unkind, ungrateful? Ah my dear,
                             I cannot look on thee.
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
                             Who made the eyes but I?

Truth Lord, but I have marred them: let my shame
                             Go where it doth deserve.
And know you not, says Love, who bore the blame?
                             My dear, then I will serve.
You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat:
                             So I did sit and eat.

Looking back, Aaron’s conduct in our meeting was one of the clearest embodiments of this poem I’ve yet seen. Knowingly undeserving and yet welcomed in regardless. The man knew he was lost and marveled that God would actually be so kind to him. Two weeks later, he publicly professed his faith in front of the small church of local believers.

Pray for Aaron, he may have a very hard road ahead of him. Grandpa is a mullah, an Islamic preacher/teacher, and his relatives are known for their hardcore devotion to Islam. This usually means new believers lose their housing, marriage prospects, and sometimes work. It can even mean physical attacks. As we parted, we emphasized to Aaron that the church is his new family now, no matter what his physical family tries to do to him. Pray that no matter what comes, Aaron will cling to Jesus and that the family of faith would be with him every step of the way.

*Names changed for security

Photo by Daniel MacDonald on Unsplash

When Systems Fry and Fail

Last week I wrote a post on the upsides of local houses. Well, there are downsides as well. The quality of the construction materials and infrastructure here in Central Asia means that things are regularly and unexpectedly breaking. “It takes forever just to get to zero here” is how one partner used to put it. In other words, by the time you’ve got your electricity working again, water back in your tanks, the squatty potty unblocked, and the cockroaches squashed, your energy and motivation to go out and invest in locals has taken a big hit. You’ve worn yourself out just getting to zero – and you haven’t actually done any “work” yet. Because of this, we’ve learned that part of living wisely in a place where things regularly break means having backups. And backups of those backups.

When a system we rely on breaks, that can throw a wrench in other very important plans. It can turn a day focused on good proactive work into a day consumed by reactive scrambling. It can also lead to a rush of stress and anxiety as we strive to fix said system ASAP while the children scream and the parents’ other tasks start piling on top of themselves. This kind of thing can be weathered occasionally, but no, it’s not sustainable. One of the reasons I’ve come to be a believer in backups (and backups of those) is because they simply allow my family to keep on humming along, even when we’ve somehow run out of water – again. Backups also crucially give me a bit more margin to fit in that repair or replacement without nuking my entire schedule. And I also find that I’m practically able to go about the logistics of the fix with a bit more patience, respect, and intentionality – in short, more like a Christian. Which is good, since I am a missionary, after all.

Two nights ago we got back from a Sabbath day excursion to the mountains. The real winter weather had finally arrived in our semi-desert city and I had left some small electric heaters on low so that the house would retain some of its heat while we were gone. The cement houses here quickly turn into iceboxes if their residents don’t vigilantly fight to maintain a low and steady heat inside. Well, we got back to see that our whole street had electricity, but our house alone was dark, as if we had tripped our power again. “Well,” I sighed to myself, “Here we go again!”

Our local electricity situation is quite complex. There is the dirt cheap national electricity which is very inconsistent, but almost unlimited in amount when it’s available. When it’s on, residents tend to binge use all their appliances at once. “Quick! Turn everything on before it goes away again!” When national electricity is off, each neighborhood uses its own private generator. Residents choose how many expensive amps they’d like to buy and can use only that amount of electricity when they’re running on neighborhood power. We buy just enough amps to be able to use one AC/Heat unit, plus a fridge and lights.

However, this neighborhood system still doesn’t equal 24-hour electricity. That’s led us to set up a battery-inverter system to run a few small things during the regular blackouts – things like internet, some light bulbs, and a sound machine for the kids. Beyond this, we have propane stoves and heaters, plus flashlights and candles. A family can actually hold out on battery and flame-powered devices for quite a while. This is what we end up doing when the neighborhood generator breaks down because of extreme temperatures or when the national electricity transformer at the end of our street gets fried by a very unlucky cat (true story). The longest we’ve gone without electricity here is about three days – not bad compared to the Melanesian village I lived in as child. But then again, there are no winters in Melanesia. Nor summers with 120 degree desert heat. In fact, the mountain valley I grew up in was known to have one of the most ideal climates in the world. But I digress.

When we got home from our mountain excursion we saw right away that we had no electricity. I first checked to see if we had tripped a breaker in our courtyard in a power surge. This sometimes happens when national electricity turns on. And it sometimes leads to 2 a.m. electrical fires (once again, true story). Nope, no tripped breaker evidencing a surge. Then I checked to see whether we were on the backup neighborhood generator. An indicator light told me that yes, we were supposed to be on neighborhood power. So I went out to another breaker we have up on a pole across the street to see if we had somehow tripped that one. Negative. Neighborhood power, our backup, wasn’t working for some reason. So I went inside and flipped the switch to the battery lights, our trusty backup of the backup, expecting the battery-wired bulbs to immediately flicker on. Still nothing. Here I started to get a bit concerned. The backup of the backup wasn’t working either. I remembered that a friend had just warned me that it was coming time to replace the huge battery we had bought four years ago for our inverter system. The aging battery must have run out of juice after running for several hours. Now it was completely dead.

I went upstairs to check yet another set of breakers (all fine) and then turned a propane heater in our central room on high. At least we would have some heat. Then I came down and started pulling out all our neglected flashlights and putting fresh batteries in them. With the aid of the flashlights, my ninja wife was able to get our campfire-scented children bathed. We praised God that hot water was left over in the boiler from earlier in the day. We had hot water, some propane left, batteries for the flashlights, and some candles. Not bad, actually. The backups of the backup of the backup were saving the evening. With these things my wife was able to move the kids toward bed (somewhat) as usual. And I was able to start problem-solving the situation, knowing my family wasn’t going to bed in a house that was completely cold and dark.

I quickly called up our neighborhood generator man. Someone else picked up and told me that the man I needed was actually asleep. However, they had another guy to send who promptly gave me a call. I asked him if he knew the house where the only Americans in the neighborhood lived. “Of course I know where your house is, it’s me, Muhammad!” Which Muhammad? I thought to myself. Most first-born males in our city are given that name, meaning the name alone doesn’t do much to call up a certain face. So we end up tagging them in our phones with some other descriptive – Security Muhammad, Baker Muhammad, Taxi Muhammad, Crazy Muhammad, etc. So with “Electrician Muhammad’s” help I learned that some kind of national power surge had indeed burned up the conductor unit next to our courtyard breaker switches. And this was preventing our neighborhood amps from getting through. Alas, that conductor had lasted a whole three months since we had installed it to replace the previous one – which had burned up after only three weeks.

With some skillful screwdriver work by Muhammad and only a couple quick runs down to the neighborhood bazaar, we had everything we needed. To my great satisfaction, after only an hour and $20, we were back up and running on neighborhood electricity. We were also good to go if national electricity decided to come back on, and our battery-inverter system was also getting recharged again (Which I actually had to use during a blackout as I wrote this post). Systems restored.

We then went on to finish a quiet Sabbath evening.

If anyone has made it this far, I’m impressed that you slogged through all of these details. What is my purpose in writing about all of this? Likely, the misadventures of our backups of backups might strike only a few as oddly interesting. But truth be told, over here we actually spend quite a lot of time thinking about, talking about, and fixing these kinds of issues. We don’t write home about them very much, but they are the day in and day out stuff of real life in this corner of the mission field.

“What did you do yesterday?”

“I spent all day recovering from an electrical fire. You?”

“Ran out of water again. Good times.”

For churches and supporters of missionaries, if you know workers on the field, it’s worth asking them if there’s any kind of backup system that they don’t have that could really serve them. Maybe something solar or battery-powered. Maybe a well or a generator. Sometimes we’re not sure if we’re supposed to spend money on things like this, even though we know there might be great practical payoff.

For any future missionaries out there, you may want to seriously consider investing in some basic handyman skills. And also know that it’s not overkill to spend some cash on good backup systems – and on backups of those backups. There may be those days where being able to fall back on that backup will enable you or your family to keep humming along, hopefully at a pace and posture more conducive to spontaneous ministry and steady faithfulness.

After all, when you’re hosting a local and getting close to sharing the gospel, and the power or water or something else goes, it’s wonderfully practical to simply fall back on the backup system, knowing that you can fix the other stuff tomorrow. Turn on the the battery lights. Fire up the propane heater. Bring in some water from that extra tank to flush the toilet. Make a good-natured joke about things falling apart. And then keep on sharing the gospel as if you never missed a beat.

Photo by Michal Matlon on Unsplash

Literally The Man on the Island

A few years back we ran an experimental outreach with some local friends. We were having an awfully hard time getting locals (believers and nonbelievers) to commit to weekly Bible studies in our homes, but we were always being hounded by friends wanting to practice their English with us in cafes. So we decided to start a cafe book group with locals where we would read, in English, Timothy Keller’s The Prodigal God.

The goals of this time were multiple. See if locals would commit to anything on a weekly schedule. See what kind of buy-in we got by combining a desire to improve English with a desire to learn more about the message of Jesus. See if we ourselves could get some rich technical and theological vocabulary in the local language as the group worked through the advanced English of The Prodigal God. And above all, give our local friends the chance to soak for a good long time in the message of the gospel of God’s grace. Turns out all of these good things would come out of this very simple book group. But not without a good deal of surprises along the way.

One of the local men who became a regular at this group was a professing new believer. One week we were discussing some aspect of the gospel in detail when out of his mouth came the classic “man on the island” objection. “But what about the good person who died in a remote place (like India) without hearing this good news about Jesus? Does God really still send them to hell? And what about my ancestors? How is that just?”

The irony of the situation was not lost on us. Here was a man who had been in almost this very same situation. He was literally the man on the island!* He was living in a remote part of the world with much less gospel access than India. And yet the gospel had reached him. But here he was, wrestling with the very same question that so many have in the West. Accordingly, our first response was to have him look in the mirror. “Consider all of the millions of things required for the gospel to have reached you. Jesus has his sheep and they will hear his voice. He will get his gospel to his chosen ones no matter the obstacles. Just as he reached you.”

We next pointed him to the related point that the gospel had gone forth through much of the world in previous centuries. In his own homeland the Church had been established very early on in Christian history, even though it had eventually died out. How many of his ancestors had heard the message and believed or rejected it? We won’t know until heaven. The ancient church took the gospel as far as Ethiopia, Socotra, India, China, and even Korea – all places in which the modern church renewed the witness that had been there but died out long ago. And this is only from the small evidence that remains from those extinct Christian communities. What might have been lost? We shouldn’t be too hasty to assume that any part of the Eurasian-African landmass has had no Christian witness at some point predating the modern missions movement. After all, there’s even a possibility that early medieval Irish monks reached North America!

However, in addition to these historical points, we also pointed him to the sober but consistent logic of the scriptures. The command of Jesus is to preach the gospel to all nations (Matt 28:19, Luke 24:47). If people are safe without hearing the gospel and condemned only if they reject it, how does this command make sense? In fact, we are not condemned only after rejecting the gospel. We were condemned already by rejecting all of the light that we had by virtue of nature and conscience and religion (Rom 2:15). We always resist the Holy Spirit (Acts 7:51), we consistently suppress the truth in unrighteousness (Rom 1:8), without exception. We are guilty because of who we are – in Adam’s race – and we are guilty because we go on and rebel just as our first father did, without exception and as soon as we are morally able to do so (Rom 5:12).

These things are true of everyone in the world. There are no “Holy Indian Uncles” who are somehow different from we are (Rom 3:23). Again, we should look in the mirror. Deep down our conscience confirms that we have failed even our own broken standards, let alone God’s – we know this in the core of our being. And every other human in the world is just. like. us.

Our local friends chewed on these responses as they simultaneously chewed on pieces from the fancy fruit plate we typically ordered at the cafe where we met. I sipped my bitter Americano and also pondered. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been that surprised that my friend would ask “the man on the island” question. Ultimately, it turns out that objections to the gospel really are quite universal. There is a certain logic of the lost mind that doesn’t change that much from New York to Kabul, Mumbai to Paris. We naturally just don’t like the justice and the grace of God – whatever our religious and cultural background. And without the word of God to enlighten our fallen minds and hearts, we never would have chosen for him to apply justice and grace in the somewhat offensive ways that he has. We come to the Word of God. We are offended. We are then either humbled, or hardened. Such is the effect of confronting the prodigal love of the just Father.

“Friends,” we began again, “One more point. This topic is why you must, even now, look up and see the darkness around you, and in many other parts of the world. So many have never heard this message of Jesus. Right now, even though the gospel is brand new to you and to your people, you should begin to pray and to dream of sending the gospel to those who might never hear otherwise. It’s really good that you’re disturbed that many have had no opportunity to hear. But what should we do about the person with no access to the gospel? Pray. And do everything we can to get it to them. Jesus will find his sheep. But your prayers and your witness is his means by which he does that.”

And with that, someone asked a question about what Keller meant by the word bohemian, and the study moved on.

*For any who might object to my use of literally whereas historical usage requires the use of figuratively, rest assured, I feel your pain. Alas, the meanings of words change by popular usage and that of literally has literally come to mean its opposite of figuratively. Figuratively the man on the island just doesn’t sound quite the same!

*In this kind of discussion I often find it helpful to also point out that the perfect justice of God is not without perfect nuance. Even though we all reject the light that we have, we have evidence in the scriptures that a greater degree of condemnation is deserved by those with greater access to the light, such as Capernaum vs. Sodom and Gomorrah (Matt 11:23-24). God’s justice will perfectly account for these differences.

Photo by Tom Winckels on Unsplash

Steps, Stitches, and the Blood Ward

It was late January or early February and we had only just arrived on the field. We were scrambling to get our two toddlers out the door for our weekly team fellowship. This week it was being held at the home of some teammates just down the hill. It was a sunny, but chilly winter morning. We ambled down the hill, arms stuffed with Bibles, kids’ bags, and a guitar, trying to remember which street was the right one. Our kids were thrilled to be outside and excitedly ran ahead of us, pulling off some pungent leaves from the eucalyptus trees that grew on the side of the road.

We turned onto what we thought was the correct street and walked down until we recognized the familiar cement, plaster, and tile construction style of our teammates’ home. Like so many young parents on a church morning, we took a deep breath before we entered, trying to purge some of the stress that had accumulated from the mere effort to make it mostly on time.

Our three-year-old son, excited to be at our destination, stepped ahead of us up onto the stairs – and slipped. His forehead met the front edge of a step, a nice sharp corner where tile met tile – which is typical for Central Asia. So many sharp edges and corners everywhere, be they tile, cement, or metal. The roundness, bluntness, and general kid-friendliness of Western furniture and home interiors have never had greater fans than Western parents who live in Central Asia. Don’t be too alarmed if you invite us over and we admire how toddler-friendly the corners of your coffee table are. Such are the unintended effects of life on the mission field.

Anyway, our son’s forehead met the tile edge of the step and as foreheads are wont to do, blood started instantly gushing everywhere. As he screamed, we scrambled to pick him up and do damage control. I quickly grabbed one of my winter gloves, wadded it up, and pressed it against the wound. Our one year old daughter was screaming by now as well and my wife was bleeding also, having reopened a previous kitchen wound as she reflexively reached out to grab our son. Being in such a state, the rest of us remained perched on the steps as my wife ran inside to alert our teammates.

She burst into the kitchen, yelling, in search of our friends. But no one was there. Looking around, the kitchen seemed very different. I wonder if they’ve reorganized things? She thought to herself. Not missing a beat, she moved around the kitchen until she saw a roll of toilet paper and grabbed it, rushing back outside to try and help with all the blood. Why was the house so quiet when our whole team was supposedly already there for worship?

Moments later a local woman appeared at the kitchen door – looking extremely confused. We were confused as well. Neither of us could quite understand what this local woman was doing at our friends’ house so early on a sleepy Friday morning (the first day of the weekend here). Now, we knew very little of the local language at this point, but my wife knew enough to yell, “My son! My son!” as we wildly gesticulated at his bleeding forehead. The local woman squinted and stared, trying to make sense of this bizarre scene.

All of the sudden, it dawned on both my wife and me that this was not our friends’ house at all. My wife had barged into the kitchen of a total stranger, stolen their toilet paper, and woken them up. My son’s bleeding had been stopped by now, but we had by this point collectively bled all over their steps. Now mortified, my wife handed the roll of TP back to the local woman, who was still standing there befuddled and confused. She looked at the toilet paper, looked at us, looked at the TP again, and then slowly handed it back with a muted but polite phrase which roughly translates to, “Please, go ahead.”

We now did our level best to apologize in every language that we could and slowly backed away down from the doorway. Our family hobbled down the street and turned the corner. I was hunched over, still pressing the glove against my son’s head as we went one street down. Then we spotted it, the correct house. It was the same design except for the color of the decorative tiles. Blasted orange tiles instead of purple!

We burst into the house – this time it looked exactly as we expected it to – and announced that we needed to get our son to the hospital right away. Stitches were definitely going to be needed. Our team leader got on it right away, loading us all into his SUV and speeding off to the government emergency hospital.

At that point, this free hospital was the only place open on a Friday morning. And, grateful that there was a place open at all, we didn’t stop to ask any questions we normally might have of this particular kind of facility, which we would later come to call “The Blood Ward.” We called it this because there was blood everywhere, puddles of blood in the corners, smears of blood on the beds, and against the wall, a man washing his bleeding head in a sink. Quick action by my wife meant the sheet was adjusted just in time so that my son wasn’t laid on top of the previous patient’s blood (likely belonging to the man at the sink).

Because it was winter, the hospital was freezing. An electric heater, shaped like a standing fan, radiated heat close to the top of the bed where we all huddled, holding my shrieking son down so that the doctor could get to work on the stitches. He went right at it in a manner that showed great skill in stitching and an almost complete disregard that he was actually stitching the skin on the face of a human. We had to make sure the cloth on my son’s face left room for breathing and also had to remove the doctor’s elbow from my son’s eye at one point.

My team leader was doing his best to maintain morale, sharing their own stitches stories from Latin America and snapping photos of the event for posterity. I was watching the needle weaving in and out, a little too closely as it turns out, as I soon realized that I was on the edge of fainting from the concentration of heat, blood, and needle. I moved toward the wall to sit down before it was too late.

“Don’t sit there! That’s a puddle of blood!” my wife hollered.

I scooted over a couple feet and squatted down in an action learned from the muddy earth of Melanesian villages. Sometimes you really shouldn’t sit all the way down. So God in his kindness made us able to squat. Slowly the clouds began to lift.

“Come on, brother!” my team leader yelled, “Do America proud! Don’t faint on us now!”

I smiled and waved and tried to shake off the wooziness. By this point the doctor had finished. He had done an amazing job on the stitches themselves. And my son had stopped shrieking like a nazgul, which helped things calm down a good deal also (I would have shrieked too, if I were in his place!). We were ushered toward a window where we were given a prescription, which we filled at another window for the equivalent of three US dollars. That was it. No other charges at all. Not bad for a procedure that would have cost at least a hundred dollars back in the states! Still, I would have gladly paid ten times the amount we did if it would have helped clean up some of the blood puddles.

To this day my son still has an impressive scar in the middle of his forehead that he can be proud of. What a champ. And we regale friends with the story of how my wife broke into a stranger’s home to steal their TP as my son was bleeding all over their steps. We like to hope that it also makes for a good story for the poor local woman who witnessed our frantic intrusion that quiet winter morning.

“Hey Auntie, tell us the one about those foreigners who were bleeding all over your steps and broke into your house!”

“Well, it was a quiet morning and I was just waking up when I heard the sound… someone was rifling around in my kitchen! I emerged and what did I find? … A strange foreign woman shouting gibberish and stealing my toilet paper!”

Photo by Claire Mueller on Unsplash

Closer to Islam than to Liberal Christianity

When I was twenty one, *Henry, a good friend from the Middle East, came to the US on a summer exchange program. I was excited to see him again and eager to see how he was doing in his young and still mostly-secret faith. He had not been willing to gather with other believers yet, which was disappointing, and he was terrified to tell his family. Still, like a Nicodemus or Joseph of Arimathea, his faith had continued. I was relieved when we met up and he was eager to pull me aside to talk in hushed tones about spiritual things.

His hosting situation was a peculiar one. He was staying with an elderly couple, the husband a retired pastor in a liberal mainline denomination. Another student, a conservative Muslim from Egypt, was also staying there. This Egyptian student was eager to ply the elderly pastor with hard questions about Christianity. His host was mostly willing to engage his questions, but with an inclusivist air that made the answers quite disappointing for the Egyptian – and for me. Now, this elderly couple was wonderfully kind and hospitable, admirably so, hosting two young Muslims (or so they thought) during the height of the War on Terror. But having had very little interaction with liberal American Christianity, I found myself growing more and more concerned that his answers were so, well, squishy. Did this man actually believe that Christianity was true? If so, where was his backbone, where was his conviction, where was his Bible? The Egyptian’s bias against Christianity was only being confirmed by this man’s very NPR-style politically correct responses. Henry, for his part, was not going to jump in and risk revealing to his Muslim Brotherhood-influenced roommate that he himself had apostatized.

I listened respectfully to their conversation, observing the retired pastor with a good deal of inner astonishment – and hoped that Henry would not be led astray by this well-meaning but watered-down Christianity. And I prayed for a chance to get to talk with the Egyptian myself. Thankfully, after a pleasant dinner and evening together, we got our chance as the three of us ended up bunking in the same room. Out came the polemics. The Bible has been changed. Christians Believe in three gods. Jesus never claimed to be the Son of God. The Bible prophesies Mohammad. And finally, out came the Bibles.

We discussed Christianity and Islam late into the night, open Bibles in front of us. Even Henry got into it, making some good points here and there while never quite revealing his own faith. Long after midnight we got into the concept of the Trinity. It was a rousing debate. Both the Egyptian and I loved it. We loved it because, young though we were, we both knew that truth matters. We both knew that Islam and Christianity make exclusive truth claims. We both believed that an honorable believer doesn’t insult his opponent by pretending that the differences aren’t real. We knew that the promises of squishy humanism were coming up empty. Somehow, strangely, we knew we were “older” than our elders and that we must muddle forward together in the pursuit of absolute truth. We debated and muddled until we finally called it a night around 2 a.m. To my great joy, Henry’s heart was freshly encouraged in the gospel.

The next morning we attended the mainline church where our hosts were members. Having grown up a Baptist in Melanesia and having recently been part of underground house churches in the Middle East, it was just as much a cultural spectacle for me as it was for my Middle Eastern friends. I had never been part of a liberal mainline service before. I was encouraged that so much truth was still remnant in the liturgy, but discouraged that no one seemed to take it seriously, not even the female pastor. At the end of the service, she called us up to the front. She wanted to welcome us as guests and to present the three of us to the elderly congregation. She let us introduce ourselves and when we were finished, turned to the congregation.

“Pastor *Smith,” she said with a smile, “who is hosting these young men, tells me they were up until 2 a.m. discussing, of all things… the Trinity!”

The congregation erupted into chortles of laughter and knowing smiles. The pastor egged them on.

Well, boys, when you’ve figured it out, be sure to come and let us know!” More laughter. More respectable snickering.

There we were – the secret young believer, the Egyptian who would later become a mullah, the young American missionary – the brunt of a joke because we took the Trinity seriously.

We stood there awkwardly as the laughter died away. I looked at Henry and at my new Egyptian friend, realizing in that moment that we had more in common with one another than we did with all these chuckling church-goers. In fact, we lived in a different world. As a believer, I had more in common with my Muslim friends like this Egyptian than I did with many of my own countrymen who claimed to be Christians. What a strange and tragic thing.

There have been few moments where I’ve been more ashamed of Christianity in my homeland than I was that day. Though as Machen rightly maintained in Christianity and Liberalism, it was not Christianity at all, but a new religion entirely, gutted of the gospel. What would these cultural Christians say if Henry’s family found out about his faith and kicked him out, or tried to kill him? Would they try to comfort him by telling him that “We all really believe the same thing, after all?” What would they say to my other Middle Eastern friends who had lost everything for the sake of Jesus, for holding to beliefs that these wealthy westerners had long ago dismissed as intolerant or not progressive enough? For all of the residue of truth that clung to that church because of its once-faithful tradition, it had become a community impotent. Impotent to represent Jesus to serious Muslim theists, and even more impotent to mentor those who could lose their lives for their faith. Just a shell of what is was supposed to be, full of nice and polite grey-haired members who chuckled at the silly young men who thought it was worth it to stay up late and debate the nature of God.

It’s not always easy to live among Muslims. Sometimes we want to pull out our hair in frustration at how illogical Islamic belief and practice are. But there are many times when we actually find ourselves strange bedfellows with our Muslim neighbors, scratching our heads side by side at the absurd but confident assertions of Western modernity. It’s frankly refreshing to live in a society where the existence of God is strongly believed by most, where male and female still mean male and female, and where the question most wrestle with is What is the truth? rather than What is truth?

My neighbors largely believe that God exists, that he created the world, that he sent prophets and holy books, that heaven and hell are real, and that we should strive to live according to God’s will. This is not a bad theistic starting point, even given all of the distortions that Islam introduces. For many Muslims, like Henry, they are not far from the kingdom of God. They need a friend. One who will tell them of Jesus, open the Bible with them, and pray until the miracle of the new birth crashes in and changes everything.

Woe to the many respectable, progressive, and nice church-goers of the West. For while they chuckle and exchange the power of the gospel for niceness, it is the scrappy Middle Easterners who will get into the kingdom of Heaven before they do.

Photo by Alexis Mette on Unsplash

*Names changed for security

Satanists and Sovereignty

I continue to be amazed at the means by which Jesus draws his lost sheep to himself.

We have been getting to know a young believing couple. The wife is from our city and the husband of the same people group, but from the country next door. They came over last night and combined a family visit with some crucial help for me. Every time I teach or preach in the local language, I try to follow a pretty laborious method of preparation. I’ve learned the payoff in terms of clarity and language growth is worth it in spite of how time-intensive this method is. First, I study the text. Second, I write out an English manuscript. Third, I translate that manuscript on my own into own best attempt of the local language. Fourth, I invite a local believer to walk through my local language manuscript with me to iron out the different grammar mistakes and to help me achieve more indigenous phrasing. Fifth, I review the local language manuscript multiple times so that come time to teach, I’m not overly tied to it and have some freedom for spontaneous elaboration. I’m still not as free as I’d like to be when I teach in the local language, but I try to be as clear as possible.

I can’t overstate how helpful step four has been for me, reviewing my local language manuscript with local brothers. And how kind God has been to provide someone for me every single time I have taught over the last several years. Sometimes it’s come down to the wire, but God has always provided me with this kind help. The feedback has at times been hilarious (“Did you mean to say salvation donkey?”) and at other times saved me from very embarrassing mistakes (“Yeah, that’s a sexual innuendo here, please change that sentence!”). My new friend was gracious to come by last night and provide this crucial service for me and for the group of believers I’ll be teaching Christmas night. My hope in this lesson is to encourage them that just as the presence of God as Immanuel came into this world unconditionally, in the same way the presence of God remains with us believers unconditionally. It’s too easy for us believers, after being saved by grace, to think that we now must earn God’s presence and love through our good performance. And this keeps us from healing and growth and change as we pretend that we must be worthy of God’s favor by working on our sin enough or by ignoring our own brokenness. On the contrary, it is his unconditional presence with us that enables us to heal, to change, and to grow.

But I digress. The main point of this post is to share one of the more unusual ways that I’ve heard of the Spirit drawing someone to himself. Namely, by using a Satanist. My friend who helped me with my lesson was drafted into the military as a young man. Previously, he had had some religious questions. But as usual, the mullahs discouraged him from asking the hard questions of Islam. He was then placed in a military unit where his bunk-mate was a former Muslim and now practicing Satanist. Though a bit alarmed at this kind of roommate, my friend’s curiosity was piqued. Here was someone who had asked lots of hard questions and had left the religion of his birth to follow a very different path. This particular Satanist proved to be very knowledgeable in comparative religion and was the first person who explained many biblical truths and stories to my friend. But he had a particular vehement hatred of Christianity and wore an upside down cross necklace.

One day my friend asked him why he hated Christianity so much when he had grown up in Islam and had abandoned that religion. Wouldn’t it be most natural to hate the religion which you yourself rejected, not a religion of foreigners? After all, Islam claims to be an Abrahamic religion in the same line as Judaism and Christianity. His answer disturbed my friend deeply.

“We don’t worry about Islam because it’s just another religion invented by men. We hate Christianity because Jesus Christ and his power are real and he is our true enemy.”

This led to many conversations where this man was able to convincingly demonstrate his claim that Islam was just another man-made religion. Though my friend didn’t become a believer for a number of years more, he was deeply impacted by these conversations with his Satanist roommate. It gave him a deep hunger to find a Bible for himself and read it. But the fact that it was illegal made finding one quite a challenge. You can’t just go around casually asking store keepers if they are selling contraband. That’s a good way to get an appointment with the secret police. He finally found a Bible and got in contact with some local believers here in our country, coming to faith about a year and a half ago.

As I reflect on his story, I see once again how resourceful and creative the Spirit is in what he uses to draw Jesus’ lost sheep. One of my friends was deeply impacted by watching a cartoon version of Les Miserables as a child. It was the Muslim dictator’s favorite novel, so he approved some TV versions. Another saw the Jesus film on television, which a local political party was airing as a thank you for the support of the ethnic Christian minority. Yet another friend stumbled on K-Love Christian radio online and was first wowed by their production quality, and then eventually began to be moved by the message of the songs. Others even had bible-verse quoting Jesus action figures as part of their story. But a Satanist? What a strange and powerful demonstration of the Spirit’s power to use anything as part of his call. Totally sovereign. What a source of hope for those searching for Jesus’ sheep in a very broken world.

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. (John 10:16 ESV)

Photo by Denny Müller on Unsplash

You Need Pain Medicine? Why?

We’d like to believe that medicine is a hard science, unaffected by something so, well, unscientific as culture. In reality, culture exerts massive influence over how equally-intelligent doctors and healthcare professionals think about and practice their craft. The day my youngest was born gave us some rather unforgettable illustrations of this truth.

When my wife was pregnant with our third child we were hoping for a natural birth and planning to have the baby in our adopted Central Asian city. But very few doctors here are experienced now with natural birth and most vastly prefer C-sections. Still, we were hopeful as we planned for the birth at one of the premier private hospitals in the country. Then we found out that the cord was wrapped around the little guy’s neck. This and other unexpected developments meant we needed to change our minds in the middle of the night and prepare for a C-section. At this point they told me that I needed to go be prepared in case something went wrong in the surgery and my wife lost a lot of blood. They told me to go down to the lab with a slip of paper. At that lab I would be given a cooler full of ice. Then I would need to leave my wife alone (in stalled labor) to trek across the city with my cooler to the blood bank, pick up two units of blood from the blood bank, and bring them back to the hospital. I remember asking, “Wait, you don’t store blood here at this hospital? How can that be? What about emergencies?” They assured me the twenty-four-hour blood bank would be open (it was 3 a.m.), and no, they didn’t have any blood at the hospital. And no, they didn’t have a phone number for the blood bank.

I called up a local believer who worked as a policeman and was often awake all night. Thankfully, he came to our rescue and went to the blood bank on our behalf. Turns out the twenty-four-hour blood bank was shut down for the night. So our wonderful friend spent the night in the hospital parking lot and then went back and banged on the blood bank gate at the hour they were supposed to open. They didn’t have my wife’s blood type on hand. “Go tell them to call their relatives to come and donate the blood for them.” At this point my friend had had it and basically threatened to bring the wrath of the police down on their heads if they didn’t produce the needed blood ASAP. And somehow they were able to suddenly scrounge up one unit from somewhere. He rushed it back to the hospital and made the hand-off. I delivered the blood and worriedly told the nurse that they only had one unit. She replied with a strangely cheerful, “Well, Inshallah she won’t need it!” All I can say is, Praise God she didn’t.

Later on that day, the little guy already born through a successful C-section, the doctor paid my wife a visit. By this point, my wife was in quite a bit of pain from the surgery. She asked for some pain medicine. The doctor cocked her head and in all earnestness said, “You need pain medicine? Why?” And then prescribed a couple of Tylenol. We learned very quickly that the locals don’t really use heavy duty pain meds. In fact, they often send women home on the same day that they’ve given birth. This is super normal to them and they discharge women with their IVs still attached, who then hobble down the street and are likely buy some fresh flatbread on their way home. Our local friends and the hospital staff were quite bemused at the strange foreigners that opted to spend three nights in the hospital. “Nobody does that!” We were quite stunned ourselves both at the pain tolerance of the local mamas and the lack of any meds stronger than an ibuprofen in one of the best hospitals in the country.

We went home just as my wife started to develop severe debilitating pain in her neck. The outer layer of the spinal cord had been punctured too severely by the epidural shots and too much spinal fluid had leaked out, meaning she couldn’t sit up without incredible pain. She spent the next four or five days completely bed-ridden while I played nurse and hosted all of our local friends who had come to congratulate us and bring my wife a special post-birth recovery mash of flour, sugar, and oil.

The amazing thing about all of this is that our third-born turned out to be the most easy-going, sweet baby that we’ve had. To this day we marvel at his perceptive and kind nature (He’s a two year old now, and a cute curly-haired little ewok). Our other two were born much angrier, angstier babies. And yet he had, by far, the most traumatic birth experience of the three of them. We shrug our shoulders and attribute his easy-going nature to him being the only one to enjoy the delicious local diet while in the womb.

When it comes to the local medical system, we’ve had our fair share of shock and surprise, both in this situation, and later, when our daughter was hospitalized with new-onset type-1 diabetes. But in spite of the cultural differences, we do really thank God for the doctors and nurses in this country. There are some things we will always scratch our heads about. Sometimes we can see clearly how their culture has canceled out sound medical practice. But at the end of the day, they are a common grace from God. They’ve saved the life of one of my children and potentially of my wife and youngest as well. And to be honest, I’m sure we also have our own cultural blind-spots in the West that get in the way of good medicine.

And now I know. If local surgery is required, best to beforehand round up a crew of “relatives” with the right blood type just in case the only blood bank has run out. Forewarned is forearmed. I may still feel it is a very badly designed blood bank system, but as long as you know what to expect, even bad systems become, well, somewhat normal.

Photo by Christian Bowen on Unsplash

But Is Your Language Good Enough for Conflict?

In our previous city we once tried to host a reconciliation meeting in our living room. Two key families in our young church plant had fallen out with each other. So we tried to get them in the same room together with a respected believing brother who we hoped could help mediate.

We quickly learned why locals do not attempt this sort of meeting format, but rather depend on each party sharing their side separately with a “judge” who then gets them together, but only to pronounce the binding judgement. This set up prevents the angry parties from breaking out into a shouting match or a fist fight, both of which almost took place in the middle of our living room “reconciliation meeting.” The gravitas of the honorable judge figure demands they keep their peace, at least in the meeting itself. I’m not saying that the kind of reconciliation meetings where both parties get to share their side in front of one another are utterly impossible here, once believers mature in their faith. But we quickly saw that we were at that point completely unable to keep that meeting from spiraling out of control. Hard hearts and sharp words led to an almost complete disaster.

We had by that point come into the Advanced-Mid language level, the much longed-for goal of all of the first term families with our organization. But having reached that point where we were able to teach, evangelize, disciple, and befriend almost entirely in the local language, we still experienced a very frightening thing that night. Our language level was nowhere near strong enough to handle angry and arguing local believers who were right about to throw punches. We were, having supposedly “tested out,” utterly linguistically incompetent for that kind of situation. It was a sobering and humbling realization.

A few months later one of those local men embarked on a campaign of slander, half-truths, and deception against us that ended up splitting that fledgling church plant. Once again, we found our language ability woefully insufficient to keep up with this divisive man who was practically running circles around us.

Why do I share these things? Well, my wife actually inspired this post. In a meeting today she shared this story as a way to spur our team on toward pressing on in our language learning, in spite of the difficulty and cost. To do church planting work well in places like this, we simply must get to the point where we are able to navigate angry and emotional conflict language. Our experience that night was that our comprehension, usually up around eighty to ninety percent, had dropped down below twenty. And the emotion of the moment meant that our tongues and brains were stuck. We were unable to broker peace at the crucial moment. And yet as cross-cultural church planters, we absolutely need to be able to do that – and to be able to counteract the Titus 3 divisive man when he emerges. To stop proactively learning language when we get to a point like Advanced-Mid is to leave the young believers in great danger.

So, we must press on. If you have been overseas for a number of years, then you know well the toll language learning can take. It is awfully tempting to plateau, assuring ourselves that we have enough language to do fruitful ministry. Often we do have enough language to do fruitful ministry. The question is, do we have enough language to do the urgent ministry required when it all hits the proverbial fan? This is another question entirely.

Press on, weary language learners. That phrase, that verb, that idiom – it may the key to defusing a dangerous situation, to saving a church plant.

Photo by Austrian National Library on Unsplash

I Now Believe in Demons

One of my refugee friends had come to faith. In the rough and tumble season of his early years as a believer, he had a very hard time believing the Bible in some of its teachings about the spiritual realm. This friend had a mixed religious and philosophical background, with Central Asian communism being one of his main influences. Hence the skepticism about angels and demons. At one point of crisis he lost his housing and moved in with another Central Asian refugee, S., an Iranian man who had claimed to be a Christian and who had been granted religious asylum in the US. My friend had only been there a few weeks when he called me up, sounding very disturbed.

“Brother, let’s go for a drive. I really have to talk to you about something,” he said.

“Sure thing, I’ll be there in a few minutes.”

At that point we lived in an apartment complex full of Americans living in near-poverty and refugees who had been resettled from several dozen nations. I drove over to the complex next door, where my friend lived. This one was mostly full of Nepalese refugees, but had a few Central Asian residents like S. My friend came out and hopped in the passenger seat of my little ’95 Honda Civic, which my Iraqi friends had dubbed “baby camel” because of its amazing gas mileage.

Not for the last time, my friend and I went on a meandering drive together, working our way around the roads of south Louisville while discussing something of deep spiritual import.

“Brother, I now believe in demons!” my friend started off.

“Really?” I said as I turned to glance at him. “Well… good. They’re biblical, you know. What happened?”

I remembered back to the numerous conversations we had had about the spiritual realm, where my friend had stubbornly refused to believe in demons as the Bible presented them. It was not that I was so very experienced in this area myself, but I had grown up on the mission field (in an animistic culture) and my parents had been involved in at least one direct encounter with the demonic. Then there’s all the sober accounts from missionary biographies and church history, which present quite a strong case to even the most skeptical Christian. Beyond all these, there’s the Scriptures themselves, which talk about the demonic as a quite literal fact of life in this fallen world and an enemy particularly exposed through the ministry of Jesus Christ. The Bible also presents demons as an enemy still occasionally dealt with by Christ’s followers in the beginning of the Church, without any indication that they would disappear entirely in this age.

“Brother,” my friend continued, “Since moving in with S., I’ve been sleeping on the couch. It’s only a one bedroom apartment. Well, last night I fell asleep while reading my Bible. But I was woken up in the middle of the night by the television turning on and off by itself.”

As usually happens when friends describe things like this to me, the hair on the back of my neck stood up.

“It was flickering on and off all by itself, then other lights started flickering on and off by themselves also!”

“So what did you do?” I asked.

“Well, I was laying there under my blanket, afraid to move. Then I heard S. laughing and I saw a glimpse of him running up and down the hallway. When I got up to see what he was doing, I looked in his bedroom and saw that he was still in bed, fast asleep! But then at the same time I whirled around, hearing him laughing hysterically and running around the kitchen! He was somehow, impossibly, in two places at once – fast asleep yet running around the apartment laughing. This was when I became truly terrified.”

We sat still at a traffic light, somewhere on Dixie highway, my eyes open wide in astonishment. My formerly materialist friend had no motive to be making up this story about his new roommate who had just graciously given him a place to live. He continued.

“I went back to the living room, turned on all the lights, and started reading my Bible out loud. I didn’t dare stop for the rest of the night. Nothing else happened, but I was too afraid to go back to sleep. Then this morning at breakfast, I confronted S. about it.”

“Wow. What in the world did he say?”

“S. confessed to me that he’s always had this problem. He said, ‘They follow me wherever I go. So I move houses a lot. Whenever I move, it seems to get better for a while, but then they always come back. Whatever you do, don’t try to talk to them or stop them,’ he said. ‘One of my former roommates tried. They got angry with him and hit him in the head, and he lost his hearing.'”

My friend was clearly shaken up by this terrifying night. He continued, “I don’t know what to do. But I now know they are real, just like the Bible says. I was a fool to remain a materialist in this matter.”

“Well,” I responded, “I’m sorry this happened. But I’m glad you believe what the Bible says now about this. S. probably thinks they follow him, but the Bible seems to teach that they are somehow within him. Demons are almost always connected to people in the Scriptures. That’s probably why he can’t get rid of them when he moves houses. Let’s make a plan, you and me. The next time you see S., ask him if we can pray for him. Together with maybe a couple other believing brothers, we’ll gather and lay hands on him and pray. I’ve never done this before, but I believe that we can help S. if we gather, pray over him, read scripture, and trust in the power of Jesus over whatever is going on with him spiritually. There’s some phony stuff that some churches get into, but Jesus’ followers have done this sort of thing quietly for 2,000 years.”

“I’ll ask him,” my friend agreed.

“Bro,” I said, unable to avoid feeling a little vindicated. “You should have believed the Bible! What a terrible way to find out the demonic is real!”

“I know!” my friend said, laughing and shaking his head, “I know. I have been thoroughly convinced.”

We both shivered, trying to shake off the creepiness of the whole affair.

Our plan set in place, I dropped my friend off and sent out a text for prayer. Strangely, right after this, S. disappeared, abandoning his apartment and never coming into contact with us again. I can only speculate as to why he ran off, but it probably had something to do with the fact that we were ready to pray for him. Perhaps the spirits tormenting him got wind of this plan and caused him to flee. Years later I heard from other refugees that they had seen him, that he no longer professed to be a Christian, and that he had gotten deeply involved in drugs. I pray that wherever he ends up, there will eventually be a community of believers who will be able to befriend him and pray over him, that he might experience the freedom from the demonic that Jesus gives.

As for my friend and me, it was a good but hard lesson in believing the Bible, even when it contradicts our experience. Whatever our “enlightened” cultures might claim, the demonic is real. We need not be fixated on it, but I pray that if we ever get another chance to directly pray for a demonized person, that we will be ready, and that we will see the delivering power of Jesus displayed in that unique and merciful way.

Photo by Matthew Ansley on Unsplash