Many missionaries experience the honor of being renamed by those in their host culture. This is often a kind act of respect and acceptance on the part of the locals. And, depending on the name itself, it can be a gift the missionary holds onto for years to come.
It’s a peculiar thing, the way we humans rename one another. The name itself is often a reflection of some characteristic already present in the person, although naming can also be reflective of the giver, where they project their hopes onto the recipient in the form of a new name. I’m struck by how much mileage these names often get, sometimes becoming a key part of our identity even when the name emerged as a nickname in jest.
During our local trade language class in high school, we were amused one day by some of the older obscure terms we were learning, such as the word for fine hair on plants, mosong. One of the boys in our class, named Ryan, had short, fine, spiky blonde hair both on the top of his head and poking out of his chin. Someone during that class period saw the correlation and dubbed him Mosong. We all (including Ryan, a good sport) laughed at how well the name fit, and it stuck. By the end of high school, no one called him Ryan anymore. He had become Mosong. Now almost two decades later, I would probably still call him Mosong if I saw him again.
This past week as we marked the anniversary of my dad’s death, my mom reminded my brothers and me about the tribal names we were given during our first term in Melanesia. She remarked that they were peculiarly well-given, still seeming to reflect what we are like even decades later. The names were given by new believers in remote village areas where my parents served, my dad providing interim leadership for small congregations while local pastors were being trained up and my mom teaching women and literacy.
My dad was named Kamtai, which means thunder. This was fitting, as he was bold and strong, a former marine and natural leader. My oldest brother was named Kampok, which means lightning. This was because everywhere my dad went, my brother went also – just as lightning and thunder always come in a pair. The middle brother who was always climbing trees was named Kamp, which means cuscus. For those not versed in obscure Melanesian marsupials, a cuscus is basically a cute jungle possum of sorts that is an expert climber. My name was Kilmanae, which translates as parrot. This is because when I was a child I did not have a blog, so all my ruminations about the world around me came out verbally – apparently striking a strong resemblance to a chattering bird. I’ve currently got a four-year-old of my own who could be given the same name. Some days there is an astounding stream of words that comes unceasingly out of that boy’s mouth.
My mom was given a name that she was initially not very excited about: Dogor, which means cicada. Cicadas are big ugly flying bugs with beady eyes and large claws that leave their larval exoskeletons hanging all over jungle tree trunks like little brown insect zombies. They shriek/sing in unison throughout the day, their loud “REEEEEEEE…. REEEEEEEE” filling many of my childhood memories. Curious and a little disappointed with this name, my mom asked her friend why she had chosen to name her after a bug. “Because you brought the light,” she responded, “just as cicadas sing and bring the sunrise.” After that, my mom was pretty happy with her tribal name.
These names still describe us well. My mom continues to bring the light, serving in counseling and cross-cultural roles here in the US. My oldest brother has always had a bold leader side to him, which can’t help but echo our dad. The middle brother has always been good with tactile work, whether climbing trees, fixing up cars, or remodeling houses. As for me, I still love good conversation. Tonight I’ll be getting together with some Central Asian friends just to enjoy talking with one another while sipping on some tea. While I may not be quite the verbalizer that I used to be, the flow of ideas and words these days comes out through the keyboard. The parrot has learned to write.
Of course, giving new names is quite a biblical concept. God renames Abram as Abraham, Sarai as Sarah, and Jacob as Israel. God promises to give Israel a new name in Isaiah 62:2, on the day of her salvation. While Simon is not renamed Peter and Saul is not renamed Paul (these were just their parallel Greek names), others like Barnabus do get a new name tied to their new identity that sticks: Son of Encouragement. And of course in Revelation 2:17 Jesus promises a new name to every believer who conquers, written on a white stone.
Our names given by wise tribal believers have proven to be strangely accurate over the decades. Even nicknames like Mosong have power. I can’t wait to know what meaning will be reflected by our new names given in eternity. Undoubtedly they will reflect us and shape us uniquely as no other name has. On that day we’ll be the same, and yet we’ll also be different – like a cicada that has shed the crawling exoskeleton of its youth, and now can fly. Our new names will surely be a part of this, somehow strangely familiar, somehow wonderfully new.
Several years ago we found ourselves on vacation in Istanbul, Turkey. I have always loved Istanbul, the city that spans two continents and is overflowing with history, culture, kabab, and – crucially – very good coffee. Very few places in the world feel so Western and so Eastern at the same time, depending on which direction you are coming from.
For some reason I was on my own that sunny spring morning walking through the hip neighborhood of Kadiköy, a colorful part of Istanbul full of little cafes, restaurants, and shops. I was on the hunt for a coffee shop that had come highly recommended from a friend who knew way more about coffee than I did. I followed google maps to the small intersection where the coffee shop was supposed to be. The square was paved with grey flagstones, with a small metal statue of a crocodile in the center. Most of the traffic through it was shoppers on foot, with the occasional cart or miniature van.
I didn’t see the coffee shop, so I double-checked the map. I was in the right spot. Maybe it had closed? Eventually I glanced up and realized that the coffee shop was a second floor establishment, perched above a cell phone accessories store, with a balcony that looked down on the square. I ambled over to the cell phone store and found the narrow staircase tucked beside it that led up to the cafe.
Once there, I was convinced by the kind barista to try a Japanese cold brew. It was the first time I had ever had one of these beverages. During hot summer visits to Istanbul I had already come to appreciate Istanbul baristas and their cold brew skills. I was on vacation, after all. Why not try a Japanese cold brew while in Turkey, made with beans from Ethiopia? I knew that once we returned to our region of Central Asia, I’d be back to only being able to get coffee that sometimes tastes of moldy dirt and often hits the palate like a bitter slap to the face.
As it would take a few minutes to brew, the barista encouraged me to go and find a spot on the sunny balcony. I sat down at the counter seating right on the edge of the balcony, got out my Bible and journal, and observed the square down below. I noticed a strip of white-grey marble running down the center of the street and found myself reading a curious name carved into it, Khalkedon. The name seemed familiar to me, bearing a striking resemblance to what I knew as Chalcedon, the location of the great church council of 451, where the ancient church hammered out how to articulate the nature of Christ. Surely, this wasn’t where that took place, was it? My tourist mobile data was acting up, but once I got it working again I looked it up. Sure enough, Chalcedon used to be a village outside of Constantinople, now Istanbul, and was eventually absorbed by the city, now forming a part of the Kadiköy neighborhood. This was indeed the location of one of the most important councils in Christian history.
I scanned the square for any kind of historical marker or monument that might alert passersby to this hugely significant history. I didn’t see anything. The crocodile statue, while a decent piece of artwork, did not seem to have any connection to christology or creeds. The businesses around the square and the people shopping there didn’t seem to show any awareness of this history either. This made sense, since Istanbul is an overwhelmingly Islamic city now. But still, surely they must know something about it. I decided to put the barista to the test. After all, he did work in Chalcedon.
My cold brew was ready, so I went back inside the cafe to pick it up.
“Can I ask you a question?” I asked as I held the cold brew up to my nose, enjoying the sharp rich aroma as I swished it around.
“Sure,” he answered, smiling.
“How long have you worked here?”
“Do you know about the history of this place, Khalkedon?”
“No, not really.”
“Well, right here, right in this neighborhood, one of the most important meetings in the history of Christianity took place, about 1,500 years ago.”
The barista gave me an inquisitive look.
“At that council they debated how Jesus could be both fully man and fully God!” I continued.
The barista continued to stare at me.
“Have you ever heard this before?” I asked. He shook his head.
“Well, when you get home, look up the council of Khalkedon, or Chalcedon. If you work here, you’ve gotta know the amazing history of this place. It’s really significant.”
“Thanks… I will,” he responded. Then, seeming a little perplexed, he turned to work on someone else’s drink.
I went back out to the balcony and enjoyed the cold brew and some Bible reading, imagining what Khalkedon must have looked like back in the year 451, when the emperor Marcian and 520 leaders of the ancient church gathered to debate the oneness and the twoness of Christ, and how in human language we might best summarize what the Bible has revealed of this great mystery. It’s from this council’s creed that we have received the orthodox formulation of the nature of Christ as one person, two natures. This council rejected the teachings on the one hand that Christ had only one nature (Monophysitism), and on the other hand that he had two persons (Nestorianism). Christ was one united person in two natures, fully human, fully divine. Sadly, Chalcedon was the theological occasion for the eventual break between the churches of the East – those outside the Roman empire – and those in the West. These churches had already been significantly divided by language, political borders, and culture. But the controversy over Chalcedon made the split official, one that has lasted to this day.
Istanbul is not the only place to have a hidden historical witness to Christian faith. Many parts of the 10/40 window used to have a significant presence of Christians in antiquity or in the middle ages. Just forty five minutes outside of our Central Asian city is a ruined monastery-citadel complex from the 400 or 500s. Locals know nothing about it, and it took tracking down an archeologist in Texas to get confirmation that this is indeed an ancient Christian site. Since then we’ve been able to take groups of local believers out to the site so that they might marvel at the evidence that their own ancestors may have had access to the gospel 1,500 years ago. Of course, this is a tremendous encouragement to them.
All over what is now the Muslim world, there are mosques that have been built on the foundations of ancient churches, abandoned chapels and monastaries in remote areas, tombstones, and even carpet patterns that reflect this lost history. There is a sadness to these silent witnesses. Persecution has often meant that Christianity has been almost or entirely snuffed out in regions where it was once strong. And like the Chalcedonian barista, the locals have no idea of the significance of what they are walking past every day. How did this happen? How could God have allowed the Church to lose areas that used to be strong enough to be sending bases of ancient missionaries?
Yet there is also encouragement to be found in the presence of these ancient stones. They are silent witnesses – but only until a believer comes along who is able to interpret for them. When this happens they begin to cry out. God has been active in the history of this people and this place. Your ancestors have not been left without a witness. Christianity is no Western religion foreign to your soil – it was here long before Europe was Christianized. To follow Jesus is for some an opportunity to return to the faith of their fathers before they succumbed to the sword and choking caste system of Islam. Like the tide, the gospel may recede for a season, but it will be back – unstoppably so. As Zane Pratt famously said at the tomb of Tamerlane, the Mongol Muslim ruler most responsible for the extermination of Central Asian Christianity: “We’re back… and you’re dead.”
If the West becomes even more post-Christian, we will undoubtedly have more of these silent witnesses ourselves, flagstones, monuments, and ruins that speak of our decline. We must remember that they also point forward to our return. And that no matter how dark it gets, God will somehow preserve a witness. Someday, a Central Asian Christian may just find himself pointing a Western pagan barista to the Christian truth present in the very stones around him.
Therefore, following the holy fathers, we all with one accord teach men to acknowledge one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, at once complete in Godhead and complete in manhood, truly God and truly man, consisting also of a reasonable soul and body; of one substance with the Father as regards his Godhead, and at the same time of one substance with us as regards his manhood; like us in all respects, apart from sin; as regards his Godhead, begotten of the Father before the ages, but yet as regards his manhood begotten, for us men and for our salvation, of Mary the Virgin, the God-bearer; one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, Only-begotten, recognized in two natures, without confusion, without change, without division, without separation; the distinction of natures being in no way annulled by the union, but rather the characteristics of each nature being preserved and coming together to form one person and subsistence, not as parted or separated into two persons, but one and the same Son and Only-begotten God the Word, Lord Jesus Christ; even as the prophets from earliest times spoke of him, and our Lord Jesus Christ himself taught us, and the creed of the fathers has handed down to us.
The Chalcedonian Creed, Chalcedon, Asia Minor, AD 451
I woke up to texts that several of the exiled political party/guerrilla bases in our area had been bombed. One main base was hit with a devastating rocket attack. I scanned the updates, wondering if any of the teenage guards or kind officials that we had interacted with there had been killed. I was struck again by the sad security realities of our area of Central Asia. Things could seem so stable and safe, then all of the sudden, the veneer of security gets shattered as someone you interacted with gets disappeared, assassinated, or targeted by a neighboring country’s rockets or drones. It hadn’t been very long since I myself had been at that same base that now had a smoking rocket crater in its central building. Though in general we tried to stay away from sensitive locations like these, it was a crisis among local believers that had brought me there. In fact, the leadership of this guerrilla base had even helped to save the marriage of two local believers.
Two months earlier, things had reached a breaking point in Pauline* and Karim’s* marriage. Their daily arguments about money and respect had escalated, household items had been smashed, and they were at risk of falling back into their pre-conversion violent outbursts toward one another. We asked Karim to come and stay with us for a few days until things could cool off. After initially protesting at how shameful this would be for a Central Asian man to be “kicked out” of his home by his wife, he eventually relented. I was grateful for that humility that won out over cultural pride.
The following weeks were full of crisis counseling, and that in another language. It is one thing to have technically achieved advanced language. It is another thing altogether to keep up with conflict conversation, when accusations and insults you’ve never heard before are flying. Somehow we muddled through it. After a few days, Karim moved back in with his wife and daughter, but things were still not great. Sixteen years of tumultuous marriage as unbelievers had left some mighty deep scars. And in spite of the tremendous growth in knowledge they had achieved in their several years of being believers, both husband and wife accused the other of failing to put their Christian beliefs into practice when it actually counted – in the home.
Karim was willing to work on things, and while truly at fault for a great many things, was willing to take some initial steps of repentance. Pauline was done. Day after day she insisted they get an official divorce. To do this, they would have to visit the headquarters of their political party, an ethnic organization and paramilitary group that had been exiled from one of the neighboring countries and was now based out of our area. The unique way our regional government handles groups like this is to require them to have a separate legal infrastructure for all their party members who live as asylum seekers or freedom fighters in the region. The party is thereby able to grant some measure of legality and protection to it members, who are not granted many of the basic rights that local citizens enjoy. To get a certificate of divorce, Pauline couldn’t go to the local courts. She’d need to work through this parallel system, she’d have to make her case to her party leadership.
Continued pleading and counseling with Pauline had little effect. We asked specifically for a month’s time for her to think over the huge decision she was about to make. But it seemed she had run out of hope entirely that she and her husband could change. She insisted that they go and request an official divorce, and, being without transportation, she asked that I drive them. After weighing the risks with the team, I decided to go with them, hoping that the hour and a half drive might provide some opportunity to talk further.
When we began the drive, I realized how unrealistic my hopes for vehicular counseling had been. Pauline and Karim could barely look at one another, and had no interest in talking. Their teenage daughter merely stared out the window and sometimes cried quietly. The atmosphere in the car was tense and silent. I decided to turn on my playlist of English worship songs. In happier times, Pauline and Karim regularly made jokes about how bad their English was, so there was little chance that songs by City Alight, Josh Garrels, and Poor Bishop Hooper were going to have much effect on them. Still, they might pump some faith into my heart. And it was better than driving in the heavy silence. Maybe they’d pick up on the Hallelujahs and the name of Jesus as the songs played.
I stewed on our depressing situation. Pauline, a member of our church, was stubbornly pursuing an unbiblical divorce against all the counsel she was receiving. Karim was acting like a punk as well, taking angry jabs at Pauline that only made things worse. We were driving to a guerilla base that a neighboring country counted as a terrorist hub, and one they periodically bombed. But the worst part of it all was the horrible witness this whole adventure would likely be to the unbelieving party members that we interacted with. How were they supposed to see the difference Jesus makes if their only comrades claiming to be Christians have a marriage that is falling apart? I shook my head, imaging the kind of bickering they might get into once each was asked to make their case to the judge. Maybe, just maybe, my presence there as their pastor could serve to do some good in all the mess. In all likelihood, their party leadership, influenced primarily by Marxism and ethnic pride, would give them worldly advice, and issue a certificate of divorce. Even if they leaned on their Islamic background, supporting a divorce was the most likely outcome.
I drove and prayed. We had tried everything, and it hadn’t been enough. If Pauline proceeded, we’d need to shift into a church discipline process as our final option. What else could be done? Some moments in ministry we feel only too keenly the powerlessness of our words to effect change upon hardened hearts.
After an hour and a half we passed the last local government checkpoint and drove down the desert road toward the area where the exiles had built a neighborhood and their political party and paramilitary facilities. Eucalyptus trees swayed in the spring wind. Rain clouds teased the thirsty orange soil with small sprinklings here and there. It was a beautiful day, the kind likely to produce a rainbow or two over the distant foothills. It was too bad our excursion to this small desert outpost had to be for such a sobering reason.
We pulled up to the base’s checkpoint and were approached by a gate guard who looked like he was seventeen. He and the other young female guard with him were dressed in dark solid green fatigues and had checkered black and white scarfs around their necks. I remembered how idealistic I was at seventeen and wondered if these kids were true believers in the guerrilla cause or if this was simply what one does growing up in this kind of community of political exiles – a high school job of sorts. After checking Karim’s papers, they waved us through and we found a place to park in a small gravel lot.
A party official with a large mustache soon arrived in his vehicle and parked next to us. He recognized Karim and was familiar with their situation. Having been responsible for some of their official processes in the past, he felt some responsibility for their family and quickly shifted from respectful greetings to an almost fatherly demeanor. He put his hand on Pauline’s shoulder and began warmly but earnestly entreating them to do whatever it took to save their marriage. This was when I began to realize that some of my assumptions about the day might not be correct. This man was talking sense, sound wisdom that backed up the counsel they had been getting from their church. I looked at Pauline to see if it was having any effect. Negative. Her respectful nods were accompanied by a steely gaze.
We soon transitioned into a nearby trailer office, a sort of triage room for those with appointments with party officials. Here we sat on reception couches as the younger official behind the desk ordered tea for us and began to confirm the details of the visit with Karim and Pauline. Once again, this official bore a look of kind concern. He also began reasoning with Pauline, asking her to reconsider her decision to divorce, if only for the sake of their daughter. But Pauline held firm, quietly insisting to see the judge. The official then asked who I was, and Karim shared how I was one of the pastors of their church, and an American. Both of these things surprised the official, who seemed both confused and intrigued at my presence. While they couldn’t have interacted with many Christians, or that many Westerners for that matter, I was encouraged that the hospitable responses so far seemed to indicate my presence at least wasn’t going to make things worse.
We finished up our tea and walked back out to the gravel lot, where were met again by the first mustachioed official. He now learned who I was, and as he walked us into the main building to see the judge, he dropped back to walk beside me.
“If we work together, I bet we can change her mind,” he told me under his breath. “She’s not as set on divorce as she appears. I can tell.”
I found this interpretation encouraging, though Pauline sure seemed hell-bent on divorce to me. Hopefully he was right. As we walked through the corridors, multiple energetic and respectful greetings were exchanged with each person that we passed. I was struck by how well this paramilitary context fit with the formal, honorable tendencies of our local culture. The militaristic structure seemed to bring out some of the best aspects of the culture, and to dampen some of the negative aspects that Islam reinforces, such as the demeaning of women. In fact, there was an easy respect among the men and women on this guerilla base that was downright refreshing. I also noticed that the female soldiers were still very feminine, sporting long black braids for example, and everyone seemed fine with that. This, and the fact that many joined up because all their brothers had already been killed presented a more nuanced picture than is usually present in evangelical discussions about women in the military.
At last we were ushered into the large room where we would do the interview for the certificate of divorce. It was carpeted, stiff high-backed couches lined the walls, and portraits of party leaders were prominently displayed. A large, very official looking desk sat in front of the windows. We sat on the couches facing the desk, and were served a second round of tea.
Two women then entered. Like all of those who worked at this base, they were dressed in simple green fatigues. The younger woman was a lawyer. The short woman in her fifties was a high ranking official, and would serve as judge for Pauline and Karim’s case. She had a mature – though tired – look in her eyes and a no-nonsense bearing that called for a respectful hearing. Yet she also seemed kind and approachable. I instinctively trusted her to see through any of the nonsense that might emerge in the following conversation.
After confirming the details of the visit one more time, she proceeded to ask some basic questions. This led to the only funny thing that would come out of the day.
“You are Karim and Pauline, correct?”
“And you’ve been married how many years?”
“And these two are your children?”
“This is our daughter, and… uh, this is our, um, pastor,” Karim managed to say with only a hint of a smile.
I shot the family a quick glance and could tell they got a kick out of the judge thinking I was their son. That Karim and Pauline are my “dear mother and father” would become a story often told and an inside joke that continues to the present day. But the welcome moment of levity was over all too soon.
“So you are here to request a divorce. Pauline, please explain your situation.”
Pauline proceeded to lay out her complaints for the next ten minutes or so while the judge took careful notes by hand and the lawyer leaned in to listen. After this, the judge allowed Karim to respond and explain his desire to remain married. So far, everything remained calm and orderly. I found myself envying the gravitas this older woman brought, and wondering how I could learn to do likewise in my conflict-mediation conversations with locals that tended to explode.
After hearing both sides and effectively shutting down some bickering, the judge began to reason with Pauline.
“My dear, none of these problems that you are describing are abnormal for a marriage. These are not massive issues. They are the everyday frustrations of a husband and wife that must be navigated and worked through. You are not describing anything to me that seems to warrant a divorce. Think of the great costs you and your daughter will incur if you do this. Think of the regret. Pay attention to your husband’s openness to making change. Why should you give up at this point? Be wise and careful, my dear. This is a very serious thing you are requesting.”
The judge continued on this vein for some time, patiently and wisely attempting to help Pauline see reason. For my part, I was thrilled that the judge was taking this position. Over and over again, these unbelieving freedom fighters were dropping wise and sober counsel. Eventually, the judge turned to me and asked what our church’s advice had been regarding the marriage. I was surprised at this invitation to speak, but grateful.
“Jesus teaches that marriage is between a man and a woman for life, and that a situation like this does not call for a divorce, but reconciliation. We have counseled them to stay married, to commit to regular counseling, and to follow Jesus in this way.”
The judge nodded respectfully and took more notes. A middle aged man with a red mustache came into the room with some files for the judge to sign. He knew Karim and proceeded to make efficient greetings to all present. He seemed very kind.* Following this, the judge rose and excused herself to deal with another situation that had arisen, promising to return soon with her verdict.
We sat in the room for the next fifteen minutes. The lawyer decided now was a good time to wax eloquent about her views on marriage and feminism. It was the first counsel of the day that was less than helpful. But I could tell that neither Karim nor Pauline seemed to like her. The lawyer continued her spiel, seeming not to notice.
At last the judge returned, sinking into her seat with the look of a woman who has to deal with multiple crises every day.
“Having reviewed everything in your case and heard all of your answers, we have decided to give you a month to think things over.”
This same period of waiting was what the church had asked for as well. I smiled, since the judge hadn’t heard that part. She continued.
“We will not be issuing you a certificate of divorce today. Go home. Think it over for a month. If after a month you still desire a divorce, then come back and we’ll give you the certificate. But dear, do you think carefully and wisely about what you really want.”
Karim, his daughter, and myself were relieved. Pauline was furious. The verbal outbursts that followed confirmed for the judge even more that she had made the right call and that Pauline was in no condition to be making this kind of life-altering decision that day. The guerilla leader saw a chance to save the marriage, and she took it, believing that Pauline might come to her senses and stick with her flawed, but loyal husband. And she was right, this is exactly what would happen. God would use the legal decision taken by this party official to buy time for repentance to begin. I had been very concerned that this leftist group of freedom fighters would only help to undermine Karim and Pauline’s marriage. Instead, we had surprisingly found ourselves to be allies, pleading for the goodness and sanctity of marriage together. God uses all kinds of means – apparently even Marxist-leaning paramilitaries and “terrorists.”
It was early afternoon by the time we left, and we were all starving. We stopped by a hole in the wall restaurant to eat some chicken before the drive home. Karim stepped outside to take a call and I seized the opportunity to draw out Pauline without him present.
“Dearest mother,” I started, alluding to judge’s humorous mistake. “How are you doing? Will you not take this month to reconsider your decision?”
Pauline smiled and chuckled, “Oh my dear son, I’m still getting divorced, believe me! We’ll be back in a month, you’ll see. Now pass me some of that chicken.”
But already there was a new softness in her eyes. And she continued smiling. Somehow I knew we wouldn’t be back at that base after a month. She had tried very hard to go her own way. And God had kindly placed obstacle after obstacle in her path.
Today, Pauline and Karim are still married, and doing better than ever.
*Names changed for security
*Sadly, this man would be assassinated in a hotel room two days later.
If you happen to be growing up in a place like Melanesia, then you want to have a mother as adventurous as mine. My mom allowed us to have all kinds of unique pets over the years, and enjoyed them right along with us. In addition to seasons with dogs and cats, we also at times cared for snakes, tree frogs, owls, parrots, tree kangaroos, rabbits, lizards, turtles, praying mantises, and a baby bat. I would bring my pets proudly to school for show and tell, where they would wow my classmates and inevitably manage to relieve themselves on the classroom floor. Only one pet (a tree kangaroo) ever bit a classmate. Poor guy’s parents made him get a rabies shot. Do tree kangaroos even get rabies? Anyway, I digress.
When I was in junior high we purchased* our first emerald tree python from a local who was selling him on the street of the small government town nearby our missionary compound. These snakes are beautiful creatures, sporting bright yellow scales when they are young, which fade to a bright emerald green as they mature. They are small to medium constrictor snakes that like to eat birds and small mammals when they are in the wild. While newspaper flashbacks to the mid-twentieth century regularly included reports of giant pythons dropping out of the trees to attack an unsuspecting villager, we never saw any get to that size – with the exception of one terrifying carcass I saw at the river where we regularly swam. But the pythons that we owned were still adolescents, so only about a meter long, with a body diameter about the size of the hole made by a finger and thumb making the OK sign.
The first snake was as friendly and gentle as you could hope for. He never tried to bite us, and he enjoyed coiling up on my oldest brother’s laptop or on our shoulders, nestling in to get access to body heat. I have no idea what happened to him earlier in his serpentine life to give him such a pleasant disposition, but he was great, a true pal. Unfortunately, he managed to escape one day. An enterprising local caught him nearby our property and tried to resell him to us, in spite of our insistance that we were the rightful owners. But finders-keepers prevailed and we decided on principle not to buy him back. This was probably the wrong decision.
Some time later we saw another similar-sized python for sale for a good price. Fresh off such a positive experience with our first snake, we decided to get him. Unfortunately, while the first snake was a kindly soul, the second python proved to be very mean and aggressive. I remember staring through the glass terrarium walls with my brothers as the angry thing repeatedly lunged at the glass, trying to bite our faces. He would even snap at us when we attempted to feed him. Whatever we had named him in the beginning, we began to call him Demon Snake. Needless to say, Demon Snake did not get any snuggle time on our shoulders. He did, however, also manage to escape.
In the end, this was probably the best outcome for all parties. Like many pets taken from the jungle after a certain age, our second snake was wild and unlikely to get accustomed to relationships with humans. He needed his freedom where he could live out his grumpy ways in peace. But it seemed he didn’t desire complete independence from humans. One day my mom walked out onto our downstairs patio area where we had clotheslines hung under the roof for when it rained. Above the lines on the wooden rafters lounged the python, snoozing and looking fatter than usual.
Our former pet had managed to find himself a pretty good living situation. The rafters from the patio disappeared into a gap in between the upper and lower floors – a gap that apparently made for nice snake lodging, and one where big rats also lived. It seemed that he had learned to spend his days hunting the scratching rodents in between the floors and then lounging on the patio rafters where he could soak up the heat from the corrugated metal roof directly above him. Not a bad gig.
We developed quite the complementary relationship in the end. We let him be, and attracted the rats – presumably just by living normal life and eating delicious food, like fried and salted Asian sweet potatoes. He in turn hunted and ate the ROUS’s* which we had been until that point largely unable to trap or catch. We actually grew quite comfortable seeing him up above our heads taking his naps, and just had to make sure he wasn’t around to create any surprise appearances when we were hosting locals, most of whom were completely petrified of snakes.
We moved on from snakes after this experience, purchasing instead a gorgeous green and red Eclectus parrot who was one of our longer-lasting pets, managing in the end to very effectively confuse passersby with the whistles and unique phrases he had learned in the voice of each member of the family.
I’m not sure what became of the Demon Snake python in the end. We came back to the US for furlough for my eight grade year and never heard of him again. But I am grateful for all those rats he ate. Melanesian rats are no joke. I hope he lived out the remainder of his snake days a happier serpent than he had been, full of rodent, warm from corrugated metal roofing, and free from any more missionary kids hoping to snuggle with him.
*Correction: My mom has informed me that we did not actually buy the first snake. He was given to us as a gift from a colleague who heard that our dad had wanted to get us one before he passed away. This then was a very kind gift of a very kind snake.
*For those who haven’t seen The Princess Bride, ROUS stands for Rodent of Unusual Size, which inhabit the Fire Swamp, as well as the walls of my childhood in Melanesia.
“The most strategic thing we could do to reach the Muslim world is for every Muslim to simply have a believing friend.” As a nineteen-year-old, I remember hearing the missionary-statesman Greg Livingstone share this insight at a gathering in the Middle East. His point was that the vast majority of Muslims today are living and dying without ever hearing the gospel message and seeing it lived out in the life of a good friend. It wasn’t complicated, Greg encouraged us, so much could change by giving Muslims access to Christian friends who would genuinely love them and tell them about Jesus. The simplicity of this idea gave me courage. Having grown up among tribal animists in Melanesia, I might not be the most skilled in engaging Islam, but by the grace of God, I could be someone’s friend.
Being at the very beginning of my gap year in the middle east, my prayer became that God would grant me one Muslim friend who was open to Jesus. He answered, and gave me that friend in the person of Hama*, the jaded wedding musician with a British accent who would eventually come to faith after many misadventures together – including nearly getting blown up by a car bomb. In my friendship with Hama I learned that the relationally-intense culture of those from that part of the world meant that one close friend was truly all that was needed for full-time ministry. This is because a Middle Easterner or Central Asian almost never comes alone, but with their own large network of relatives and friends. One good friend serves as a gatekeeper to an entire community of those who will be open to getting to know you if you are hanging out with their boy, and who may also be open to getting to know Jesus.
The following year I found myself back in the US to finish up university. After a difficult semester at a Christian college in a very rural area, I transferred to a different school in Louisville, KY, in large part because I knew there was a community of refugees and immigrants from the Muslim world there. Once again, my prayer became, “God, grant me one Muslim friend.”
One day I learned about an international festival taking place at a community center in the part of the city where most refugees were being resettled. I hitched a ride with some other students, excited to see if I could make any helpful connections with the Muslim community.
At some point I found myself at the booth of a local library which offered ESL tutoring to new refugees. Somehow the librarian present found out that during my year in the Middle East I had become conversational in one of the region’s minority languages.
“We need you!” she exclaimed. “We have a newcomer, Asa*, who has almost no English. And he speaks the language you do. Please come and meet him this weekend!” Before I knew it, she had signed me up as a volunteer.
I was elated to hear that there was at least one person in my new city who spoke the same minority language that I’d been studying. Maybe Asa would be the friend that I had been praying for. It certainly seemed like a providential connection.
The next ESL session I showed up at the library and was introduced to the other volunteers. One older couple greeted me happily.
“We heard that you speak Asa’s language! That’s wonderful. So glad you’re here.”
“Thanks, I’m excited to be able to help.”
“We are in such need of volunteers, but we keep getting these dratted Baptists who try to worm their way in to proselytize, can you believe that?” said the husband, squinting his eyes and glancing around the room. “Keep an eye out. Well, have fun!”
This comment caught me off-guard, so I don’t know what happened to the color on this Baptist proselytizer’s face in that moment. But my mouth stayed shut.
Soon I was introduced to Asa, a single man in his late twenties. We hit it off immediately. Not only could we speak the same language, but Asa was from the very same city where I had spent most of my gap year. Before long, we were lost in that particular joy and relief that overtakes two speakers of a common languagge who unexpectedly run into each other in a foreign land.
I learned that Asa was not particularly profiting from this ESL group class (the librarian seemed to have a crush on him) and he earnestly asked me if the two of us could meet separately for English tutoring instead. Between his aversion to the class and the class’s aversion to Baptists, I thought this was a great idea. At the end of the tutoring time we exchanged numbers and proclaimed a barrage of respectful farewells to each other. We both left, mutually elated to have a new friend.
The next couple weeks were just like it would have been with a promising new friendship in the Middle East. Lots of calls, lots of hanging out, lots of chai, cutting up, and talking about all kinds of things. Middle Eastern and Central Asian men love to talk, and the particular Western masculinity that focuses on doing rather than talking is one of many factors that contributes to profound loneliness for most refugees from those regions. We had even begun to have our first spiritual conversations, and to my great excitement, Asa expressed interest in learning more.
This was it, I thought, this was God answering my prayers. Asa was going to be like another Hama for me. I was a busy Bible college student, I couldn’t do a lot. But I could be a good friend to a guy like Asa. I was so encouraged by God’s kindness in providing me with this friendship.
Two and a half weeks after we met, Asa called me.
“Hey A.W., I’m… moving to Boston!”
“Boston? That’s like seventeen hours from here. Why?”
“Well, a friend there said he could get me a job.”
“Can you come by my apartment tomorrow to say goodbye?”
“Sure, I’ll be there.”
The next day I made my way across the city to Asa’s neighborhood, disappointed and feeling a bit misled by God. Things had seemed so providential, so perfect. Why was it turning out this way? Why must I so quickly lose a friend who seemed like he could become a brother?
I walked up the creaky wooden stairwell to Asa’s apartment and knocked on the door. Asa opened it and greeted me excitedly. He was packing, he said, and he invited me to come in and have some chai. In the tiny living room were two other refugee men, one tall and lanky, named Farhad*, and another short and energetic, named Reza*. As Asa packed his small bags, we began to converse in his dialect about his plans. Farhad and Reza turned to me with wide eyes.
“How is it that you can speak _____ ?” they asked. Turns out both of them were from other regional unreached people groups and were also conversational in Asa’s language. To see a skinny white boy speaking this language was one of strangest things they had seen in America so far.
Asa handed me a scarf as a farewell gift and insisted that I exchange numbers with Farhad and Reza. “A.W. is my true brother,” he said to his two other guests, in the honorable overstatement so typical of his people. I smiled, wondering how many cultures would extend brotherhood in this way so quickly. For my part, I sent Asa off with the last New Testament I still had in his language.
Asa left for Boston and I didn’t hear from him again for years. Farhad and Reza, on the other hand, started reaching out to me. Eventually, we started meeting up regularly to argue about politics, culture, and how so-and-so’s people group was related to that other guy’s people group. Sure enough, God opened the doors again for gospel conversation, and before long we had a Bible study going that would at its inaugural meeting run afoul of Al Mohler’s security.
We eventually lost Farhad when discussing Jesus’ call to love our enemies. “If Jesus requires me to love them, then I will never follow Jesus!” he raged during the last time he would ever study the Bible with us. Farhad’s people group had suffered genocide and centuries of oppression at the hands of the dominant people group of his country.
Reza, on the other hand, kept coming around. He became a dear friend. And he became a brother in the faith. What I thought God was doing through Asa, he had in store for me with Reza. One friend who was open to learning about Jesus. One friend who would in turn go on to share the gospel with his network, both Middle Eastern Muslims and Kentuckians.
God had answered my prayers in a way I hadn’t expected. It had first involved disappointment. But it had ended in kindness. As ultimately, it always will.
It’s been about nine years that I’ve been suffering from periodic anxiety attacks. Apparently, many third-culture kids experience some kind of health or mental health collapse in their mid-twenties, which some researchers in the TCK counseling community are saying is due to years of unprocessed grief and the built up stress of so many goodbyes, transitions, and losses. In my case, this pattern fits my story almost too well. I literally collapsed one morning as a 25-year-old while doing an evangelism training, passing out just a couple minutes after I had taken the stage. This started a long pattern of anxiety attacks connected to speaking in public and eventually, to anxiety attacks in many kinds of high pressure conversations.
It’s been a long road trying to pursue healing from this struggle. Certain years have been better than others. I’ve learned to recognize the occurrence or even the hints of the beginnings of these attacks as a warning light of sorts – a signal that I am pushing beyond my God-given limits in unwise ways. I’ve also been learning of the importance of digging into my story to better understand why things like conflict conversations and the possibility of public humiliation are so terrifying to my sympathetic nervous system, the part responsible for our fight, flight, or freeze emergency responses. These things always have a context. And we often can’t skillfully apply gospel truth to our deepest struggles unless we understand that context.
2021 was very stressful year for our family. Unexpected leadership transitions on the field meant some major reshuffling was needed in order to stabilize two of our teams. It also meant that another move was needed for our family, causing us to pack up our house in the desert city we were serving and to move back into the mountains, to the city where we had spent our first term. As is the case with most leadership transitions, there was some pretty serious conflict which ensued during this season on top of everything else. By the fall of 2021 I was in a pretty weak place, finding even doing public introductions to be an exhausting battle.
We were attending some training in the US and one of the trainers was also a trauma counselor who offered to meet with any of us that needed it. My wife and I quickly signed up for a slot, particularly wanting some insight into our struggles with anxiety. I described my long-term struggle with the counselor, and was met with a surprising response.
“First thing I would tell you is this: No caffeine or sugar for forty days, lots of water, lots of celery. We need to flush all that cortisol out and after that see what kind of effect that has.”
“Really?” I responded, “You think coffee could be affecting my anxiety?”
“How many cups do you drink a day?”
“Three or four.”
The counselor raised his eyebrows and gave me a “You should be able to put the pieces together here” look. Apparently, caffeine can interact significantly with cortisol, the body’s stress hormone, and make struggles like anxiety much worse. I thought back to the season when my anxiety attacks had started. Sure enough, in those years I transitioned from a free social drinker of chai and coffee into a lifestyle that was dependent on several cups of strong coffee a day. It was easy to do, given the fantastic coffee scene of Louisville, Kentucky. Many a ministry meeting took place in award-winning coffee shops like Sunergos and Quills. Much dark chai was drunk and spilled with our Middle Eastern refugee friends. I’m also not a very big guy, thinly built and weighing in at an average of 150 pounds/68 kilos. It makes sense that body type would also impact caffeine’s affect on the nerves. This is made worse if, like me in that season, one is not exercising regularly and in general ignoring that they are an embodied being with limits.
This bit about caffeine was one of the more practical pieces of counsel I had received, and I excitedly decided to start right away. The next day of the intense training I abstained from all coffee and sugar – and suffered an awful migraine. Right, I thought to myself, better figure out a way to do this gradually. I found a plan to cut caffeine out by a quarter of a cup every three days and proceeded at that pace, thankfully migraine-free. After several weeks I found myself spending entire days without any caffeine, and ready to see if it was actually going to help.
The short answer is yes, it helped tremendously. While I never got as serious about the no-sugar or lots of celery parts, the no-caffeine advice proved to make a dramatic reduction in my anxiety. It’s not that anxiety stopped surfacing, it’s that it was much less likely to tip over into the cold-sensations-up-the-back-of-the-head, heart-pounding, language-blurring, head fog arena of anxiety attacks. This bought me more room to focus on relevant truth vs. lies in situations where I was feeling anxious. It also eventually meant anxiety was no longer so close to the surface, right up in my throat as it were. There was more margin to endure hard things before the the anxiety started.
I was also surprised by how my body’s energy levels adjusted. It was as if if the high peaks and deep ravines of energy in my caffeine-infused days gave way to much more gentle hills and shallow valleys. Sure, I wasn’t feeling the same kind of creative, energized high that I would get after a good homemade pour-over – or if I was out in the bazaar, a punch-you-in-the-face bitter Central Asian Americano. But the upside was less crushing fatigue. Energy was more balanced all around. I also started sleeping better. And waking up was not nearly as hard as I thought it would be.
I was worried about the gut effects of quitting coffee, since I’ve found it so helpful over the years as a way to supplement my weak stomach – something I learned from missionaries in China. A good cup of black coffee meant I could eat a greasy kabab in the bazaar and on a good day not suffer the consequences. But turns out decaf is almost as good as caffeinated coffee for providing these kinds of medicinal benefits. And yes, thankfully we live in a day where good decaf does indeed exist. I’ve enjoyed the aptly titled No Fun Jo for any who might be curious.
My Western and Central Asian friends responded in shock when I told them I was quitting caffeine. “Every time I see you, you have a caffeinated drink in your hand,” was how one colleague put it. Some openly doubted that I could do it, which provided some helpful challenge motivation when I was freshly mourning the loss of my delicious dark beverage. I was, however, never able to completely quit all caffeine entirely. I still lived in Central Asia, which meant that periodically I was honor-bound to drink that cup of thick black chai for the sake of my host. But for the most part I went a full nine months with almost no caffeine before I started experimenting with carefully adding some back in.
Truth be told, I missed the creativity and motivation boost that came from a good cup of coffee. For knocking out some needed admin work or writing up another blog post, there is something good and helpful about a healthy dose of caffeine. I think this is likely why God has given us so much caffeine in so many different kinds of plants and drinks around world. It’s a good gift for workers and creators, when it can be used wisely. While in Central Asia, this meant in the last six months I’ve gotten back to having one cup in the late morning or midday. Here in the US, with this country’s early morning culture and increased coffee options, I’ve been enjoying a half-caf* mid morning and another one midday. So far this has not seemed to have any negative impact on my anxiety.
On the spiritual side, it has been good to experience coffee again as something which can serve and equip, rather than something which I am bound to. “‘All things are lawful for me,’ but not all things are helpful. ‘All things are lawful for me,’ but I will not be dominated by anything'” (1 Cor 6:12). This time around, I hope to better navigate my use of caffeine such that I don’t have to become so dependent on it again. Even if I didn’t have the anxiety attacks, it would have been beneficial to fast from caffeine for a season for the sake of rightly-ordered affections.
What about public speaking and conflict conversations that previously led to anxiety attacks? Over the past year I have noticed a significant increase in my resilience in these settings. While not completely free of the initial waves of panic, in many of these challenging settings I’ve been able roll these waves of fear back and carry on with a high degree of freedom. Even conversations where I have been under attack and several high pressure public speaking situations have gone well. I don’t doubt that the counseling, journaling, prayer, exercise, and other aspects of pursuing healing in this area are also proving helpful. But the most immediate and dramatic change in my struggles with anxiety came from this very earthy kind of spirituality – that of quitting caffeine.
We are such complex creatures, with the body, the soul, and the mind intermingling in mysterious and surprising ways. We need to be careful that we are not so spiritually-minded that we miss the importance of the body when it comes to areas of deep struggle in our lives. Paul tells Timothy to no longer drink only water, but to drink it mixed with wine for the sake of his stomach (1 Tim 5:23). Wise Christian leaders have said that sometimes the most spiritual thing you can do is take a nap. For me, it was an act of practical spirituality to cut caffeine for a good long season.
I likely still have a long road ahead of me regarding battling anxiety – an area in which physical suffering and spiritual sin can overlap in confounding ways. Anxiety can be entered into as an act of sinful distrust in God’s provision. Anxiety attacks, however, seem to fall much more in the realm of suffering, when an experience of past suffering gets stuck in our bodies, reemerging to hijack us in situations which one part of the mind reads as dangerous. But whether suffering or sin, I rejoice that complete freedom is one day coming. In the resurrection we will only know courage, love, and freedom, and anxiety will be a distant memory. The coffee will be flowing, and we will drink it in perfect self-control and freedom.
So I sip my second and last half-caf of the day, and believe again that day is coming.
We had the hardest time getting local believers to gather for a house church service. Sure, they would meet (somewhat) regularly for one-on-one Bible studies with us. But meet in a group with other locals? Not happening. Our first year on the field was full of conversations with our team and locals about this frustrating reality that would have to change if a new local church was ever going to be birthed.
However, when we invited a group of individual local believers to a picnic or a party, they would come. We also had several come on a weekly basis to an English-language study of Tim Keller’s The Prodigal God. This evidence showed us that locals would indeed show up and be exposed to others when they wanted to. But there was something about an invitation to church, to sing, pray, and study the Bible in a group with other locals that kept them from being willing to actually attend. True to an honor-shame culture, many would commit, only to back out last minute or simply fail to show at all. Most of it seemed to boil down to the fact that they didn’t trust the other locals, but believed they were mostly spies, frauds, or just bad unknown people. We were also pretty sure that a lack of experience in the joys of gathering as Christians meant that their spiritual appetites for gathering were barely existent. Their lack of appetite kept them from gathering, and not gathering kept their appetites from developing. They were stuck, and many a team meeting was spent arguing about how to get our local friends unstuck.
These dynamics and disappointments caused many missionaries to give up attempting to gather mixed groups at all. Instead, they felt that the only way churches would ever be planted among our people group were if we were content to gather only those who were part of a natural household network together. This “oikos” network of family members and close friends would have some level of familial trust for one another, therefore they would likely be more willing to gather and do something risky like study the Bible and sing songs to Jesus.
But we had several problems with this oikos-centered model. First, there was precious little fruit to be shown for a decade of oikos-promoting work among our people group. Even if we were going to be purely pragmatic, the oikos approach simply wasn’t working either. Second, we knew a sizeable network of believers who were alone in their faith in their network of friends and relatives. Some had even tried to gather a group of friends and relatives to study and had been rebuffed or threatened. When it came to the household-only strategy, they were actually prevented from gathering with others by some of the foreigners because the only other believers in the city were not part of their natural network. Most seriously, we believed that the nature of the church is that of a new household of faith, where those from disconnected and enemy households and networks are visibly part of a new family with one another. Especially in a culture so prone to division, treachery, and racism, we wanted the church to be a picture of a new humanity – and that from the very beginning.
Our locals are very concrete in their thinking. Yet all of our conversations with them about church were still in the realm of the hypothetical – inviting them to partake in something they had never seen. So we wanted to find some way for them to experience church without having to call it that. Christmas provided the perfect opportunity.
As in most of the non-Western world, Christmas as a secular holiday is making major inroads into our area of Central Asia. Locals are fascinated by this winter holiday with its celebrations of lights, gifts, and music. Some vaguely know that it’s connected to the birth of Jesus, but most think it’s basically a way to celebrate the new year. Yet every time we had invited a local to something Christmas-related, they not only came, but eagerly came. Some of our teammates had learned how to leverage Christmas-time hospitality so that family after family would hear the gospel as they munched on sugar cookies and listened to a description of tree ornaments that together told the story of Jesus.
A plan was hatched. We would invite all of the isolated local believers that we knew to a Christmas party. Along with eating a festive meal together, we would also include a time of singing, teaching from the Word, and prayer. Since this would be their first Christmas party, they wouldn’t know that we were smuggling elements of a basic church service into it. This would give them a chance to taste and see the goodness of corporate worship, which might make some then willing to keep gathering with us in a similar way.
We divided up the responsibilities for the party. Mark*, the only one at that point able to teach in the local language, would teach on the magi from Matthew 3. I would help with some songs in the local language, my wife would make some coconut curry, Mark’s wife would prep the sugar cookies and chai, all of us would pester our friends about coming.
The day of the Christmas party came, a bright, chilly December day. The team all sat around in Mark’s dining room, wondering if anyone would show up. The dull crackle of the propane space heaters filled the air whenever the conversation fell silent. Suddenly, we heard the door bell. We looked out the window and saw Harry’s* head peeking over the gate. Yes! We would have at least one guest. Harry was one of our language tutors from a very conservative family and had come to faith a couple of years before. After a few minutes Hamid* appeared, one of our English students and also a newish believer. Then came Joseph*, an English-language scholar who lived isolated in a city three hours to the south. Then Maria*, a single woman from a neighboring country. Finally, my close friends Hama* and Tara* arrived, and close behind them a brand new believer named Marlin*, one of the members of our Prodigal God study group.
Lunch was a hit. Apparently coconut curry is a good choice for a Christmas meal with Central Asians (though mild, not spicy). We dipped freshly baked local pita loaves into it and had fun cutting up over the meal. Hama could always bring some welcome laughs to any gathering, although true to holiday meals in our own country, Hamid kept wanting to corner people and bring up politics.
Eventually it was time for the “service.” We moved to the living room and Mark opened up Matthew 3 and taught on the coming of the wisemen. Like other Central Asian languages, ours still has a word for magi, a linguistic descendant of the once-dominant Zoroastrianism of our area and the broader Persian world. The tallest mountain looming over our city is even named after a magi. So this topic easily held the attention of our local friends, drawing a connection between their ancestors and the birth story of Jesus. Mark finished up his lesson by tying it all to the gospel, and we sang some songs together in the local language, including one from Psalm 133 that celebrates the goodness of brothers dwelling together in unity:
Lai lai lai, lai lai lai, lai lai lai lai
Behold how good and how wonderful it is
When we dwell in unity together
After this it was time for prayer and for passing out the chai and cookies. Our wives made the rounds, passing out the caffeine and sweets to grateful replies of, “May your hands be blessed,” and responding with, “May it be to the health of your soul.”
“This was great,” Marlin said, munching on a Christmas tree-shaped cookie. “Why can’t we do this more often?”
We tried not to choke on our chai when Marlin said this. The irony was rich. We had been inviting them to do this adnauseam.
“We do this every week,” responded Mark.
“Yes, every week we get together and learn from God’s word, we sing, we pray, and we eat together. Just like this. It’s called church.”
We waited to see how the locals would respond. While we couldn’t read some of them, several were leaning in, processing what Mark had just said. They seemed excited, like a boy who had beforehand been deathly afraid to try the waterslide, only to afterward admit that it was actually quite fun.
Mark decided to go for it. “Let’s do this again, then. Next week. Right here, just like we did today. Who’s in?”
Almost all of the locals agreed that they would like to come back. We could hardly believe it. We had smuggled in a basic church service in the guise of a Christmas party… and it had actually worked.
Today, six years later, a small church exists in Central Asia as a direct outcome of that Christmas party. Of the original guests, only Hamid is still there, having recently come back and reconciled after a long absence. Hama and Tara and Harry have fled the country due to persecution. Marlin no longer professes faith. Joseph is still living in relative isolation in the south. Maria’s family were outed as actual spies. Mark and his family are still on the ground, and every year when Christmas comes around he teaches on the magi, from Matthew chapter 3.
God uses many things to get new churches started. Church history has seen it happen from revivals, forcible displacements, and power encounters. Our sending church was started when a bunch of German Catholic immigrants met in a brewery to sit under the preaching of seminary students.
Our little church in Central Asia? Birthed by a Christmas party.
My kids had plain Greek yogurt for breakfast this morning. Later, my wife told me that our son complained about that other American yogurt while eating. “It’s so gross,” were apparently his exact words.
“Well,” my wife responded. “A lot of Americans might think you’re the strange one for enjoying thick yogurt without any flavoring or sugar in it.”
I smiled when she told me this later in the morning. “Well, except for all the Americans who now eat Chobani. That’s why it’s so popular, because it’s so different from the runny, sugary stuff that used to be the main kind sold here.
We were standing in the kitchen and she held the Greek yogurt container up to our noses.
“Smell this. Isn’t it wonderful? I miss it.”
I took a deep breath, enjoying the sour, rich aroma. “We will have new stomachs, my love, in the resurrection. And we will eat lots of amazing, resurrected yogurt.”
Something has happened to our digestive systems over the last decade, so we can’t handle much dairy anymore, no matter where it comes from.
In spite of this, I always smile to see how many inroads Chobani yogurt and its Greek yogurt competitors have made into the grocery stores and culture of my passport country. What most don’t recognize is that this represents a quiet Central Asian* culinary invasion.
Greek yogurt isn’t really Greek. It would be more accurate to call it Kurdish, Turkish, or Armenian. Even the name of the company that popularized “Greek” yogurt gives this away. Choban is the Turkish and Azerbaijani word for shepherd. It’s one of many related variants of the same word in the region. Kurds say shivan or shwan. Persians say shiban and Tajiks say supon. So, Chobani yogurt means shepherd yogurt, or, in a direct translation, shepherd-y or shepherd-ish yogurt.
The founder of Chobani, Hamdi Ulukaya, is a Kurd from southeast Turkey, who comes from a family of villagers and nomads who made and sold yogurt from their herds. He immigrated to the US in the mid 90’s, and like many from that region, was disappointed by the runny, sugary stuff that Americans called yogurt. Eventually, he purchased a shut-down Kraft factory and began selling denser, more natural yogurt to Americans. It got traction, and today Chobani has around twenty percent of the US market.
Calling it Greek was a shrewd marketing move. Hamdi says there was already a small category of yogurt which was called Greek in New York, but it’s also true that Middle Eastern and Central Asian restaurants and food brands regularly rely on terms like Greek and Mediterranean in order to market themselves effectively for Western customers. Occasionally you’ll find a Mediterranean restaurant that is actually run by Greeks, but more often than not it’s guys from Iraq or Syria. Truth be told, had Hamdi called it Kurdish yogurt, it’s a lot less likely it would have taken off in the way it has.
Hamdi brought with him not only a superior yogurt savvy, but also some sound wisdom from his Central Asian village roots. From the beginning, he opted to pay his factory workers good wages. He gives his employees stock in the company. He actively hires refugees and immigrants alongside of locals. His people-centered approach to business is a rebuke to much of American capitalism – and an example to Christians of how to hold on to your core principles even when your business takes off and grows exponentially. Check out this interview for more of Hamdi’s encouraging story.
Central Asian yogurt’s takeover of America illustrates the benefits that come when different cultural streams mix. Each stream can reintroduce its strengths to the other, in a reminder of sorts of things mostly forgotten. Central Asians teach us what good yogurt is. We teach them what good coffee is. They remind us about the importance of hospitality. We remind them of the importance of transparency.
Perhaps this is one reason God has cultural diversity baked into human history. We too easily forget his wisdom, not only personally, but also collectively. We are in need of other human groups to show us our group’s blindspots and to help us balance our weaknesses. This is an important way the global church can serve local bodies of believers, wherever they might be. By mixing our streams we can more effectively build local church gospel cultures – not uniform, but harmonious, a diversity of expression that grows out of a solid universal core of creed and principle.
The next time you see Chobani or Greek yogurt, think of Central Asia. And if you want to go all the way, eat it with some flatbread, eggs fried in an ungodly amount of oil, olives, honey, walnuts, and extremely sweet tea.
*Here I define Central Asia culturally, rather than geographically, as the collection of cultures in Asia that are Turkish or Persian-related.
I took a moment to register Darius’* response. This was different.
“His sister told me they had two villages,” he continued, “and from what you’re saying this is one of them. We need to go and find our brother.”
Harry*, a long-time believer, had disappeared again – which usually meant something bad had happened, some kind of threat of violence from his family or tribe on account of his faith. Whenever this happened to Harry in the past, the other local believers wouldn’t dare to get involved. Hence why Darius’ response was so different.
“Good. Mark* and I have already agreed to go. Last time Harry asked us to stay away when stuff like this happened, but staying away left him isolated and things did not go well. This time needs to be different. We would be glad to have you with us.”
I called Mark, the other expat serving with me as temporary pastor of our little church plant.
“Mr. Talent* is coming also,” Mark told me.
Another surprise. Mr. Talent, although a former soldier, had not been willing to get involved in past persecution interventions -“I can’t risk it with how well-known my dad is.” But it seemed as if things had changed for these two local men we’d been pouring into. Character was apparently growing. A readiness to risk for their brother in the faith was now there. This, in a culture where you might risk for your blood relatives, but almost never for your non-related friends. I’ve written in the past about some questions that can expose character, even across culture. One of them was, “Do they run when the wolf comes?” Wolves, in the form of Harry’s angry relatives, had potentially been spotted. And Darius and Mr. Talent were feeling some holy protectiveness. Praise God.
However, that didn’t exactly mean that we knew what we were doing. The principle was clear. In a communal, honor-shame culture, Harry’s tribe needed to know that he was not alone. He had people who would come looking for him, both locals and foreigners. This, we hoped, would give them pause if they thought about harming Harry further, maybe even convince them to hand him over if they were holding him somewhere. But the plan was what missionaries elsewhere have called “build the plane as you fly it.” We would go to Headless village, ask around to try to find Harry’s violent uncle, and try to somehow find Harry himself. If he was wounded, we would try to get him out of there. I had brought some first aid packs with me.
The uncle was the key to finding out what happened to Harry. After Harry had gone dark for several days, Mark had gone by his house to check on him. His mother and sister, distraught, told him that three days previous Harry’s uncle had shown up demanding that Harry accompany him to the village for some work on his house there. After that, Harry had been out of contact with everyone. He never came back to the house. No calls got through to his mobile phone. This was the same uncle who had lived with Harry’s family since Harry’s father’s death many years ago, living off their income and regularly beating them. Only recently had Harry been able to kick his uncle out of the house, an episode which also resulted in the uncle coming back when Harry wasn’t home and seizing some of Harry’s Christian books from his bedroom. Harry had been optimistic his very lost uncle might read some of the books and have a heart change. In hindsight it looks more like he was strengthening his hand for revenge.
Darius and I met at my house and then drove together to meet up with Mr. Talent and Mark. I was surprised to see Ray* with them also. Ray is a friend and pastor in the US who was in town for a few days after having preached at our retreat the week before. Had he volunteered to come with us on this risky outing? Or had he been “volun-told” to come so that we could have at least one mysterious American with us who couldn’t speak the local language – thereby raising some potentially helpful doubts in the minds of the villagers about what exactly our connections were? I’m still not sure which one it was, but I was grateful he joined us.
I’m calling the village Headless village because it is one of the main settlements of the tribe named The Headless Ones. These warlike nomads had settled in our area a couple centuries ago and still maintained a reputation for always being ready to fight – and having a lot of guns. Their neighborhood in our city – where Harry and his family lived – was one of the few where the local police would not allow foreigners like us to live. Given the warlike nature of this tribe, I wasn’t sure if our collective anxiety was sufficient or not quite enough. Mr. Talent and Darius certainly believed that we could find ourselves in a very dangerous situation with armed tribesmen very quickly and that we needed a wise approach.
“We’ll go to the village white-beard,” they agreed. “We’ll start with him and ask if he knows the uncle, explain Harry’s disappearance, and have him come with us as a mediator. That should provide some protection if the uncle gets angry at us.”
Right, I thought to myself, how is it that I’m always forgetting the importance of working through authority figures in this culture?
The first trick was finding the village white-beard, a social elder sort of position which every village apparently has. Unfortunately, it was now dark, so it took a little while to locate his house. When we did, we walked across a field of dry tilled earth and took counsel together about how to frame the situation in a true, but non-inflammatory way.
“Harry has been a language tutor for many of us foreigners. We can share that info and express concern that he has disappeared without notice,” Mark proposed.
“And don’t forget to mention that he’s also worked for the UN and other international organizations. That name alone should carry some weight, and help us in our purpose of convincing the tribe that Harry is not alone, but has some connections,” I added. “We need them to know that he has a lot of respect in some circles that they might not be aware of.”
We agreed who our spokesman would be and walked up to the village white-beard’s gate. A little boy spotted us and ran inside to get his father, the village white-beard. He came to greet us in the dark, wearing the traditional outfit of parachute pants fastened with a cloth belt around the mid-stomach, underneath which is tucked a collared shirt and traditional style jacket. A traditional turban and cap were on his head. He was a man in his 50s with a grey mustache, and seemed to have a friendly look about him. So far, so good.
Mr. Talent and Mark led the introductions and the purpose of the visit. The village white-beard ordered the boy to run inside and fetch us some water. We had forgotten to translate much of this initial part for poor Ray, who at this point assumed things were going poorly and the boy was sent to get a weapon. He was very relieved when he emerged with a tray of glasses and passed them around. Remembering the need to cue Ray in to what was going on, I told him to take a swig, toss the rest on the soil, then put the empty cup back on the tray. Locals don’t sip. They chug, chuck, and then give the glass back immediately.
“Is it safe to drink?” Ray asked.
“Maybe, maybe not. But we should anyway for the sake of honor,” I responded with a grimacing smile, raising my glass and taking a swig.
We seemed to be in luck. The village elder said he knew a man by the name of the uncle, with a nephew named Harry. He called him and put him on speaker phone. We held our breath.
“Is this Ali* the son of Bakir*?”
“Yes, respected one, please go ahead.”
“Ali the son of Bakir, with a nephew named Harry?”
“Yes, upon my eyes, that’s me, and who are you, honorable sir?”
“It’s me, elder brother Omar.*” This was followed by a long string of respectable pleasantries between the two of them.
“It seems your nephew has disappeared and there’s a group of his respected friends here asking about him and saying they aren’t sure if he’s safe or not.”
“Oh? That’s strange. He’s safe alright. He’s right here with me.”
We leaned in. Was he telling the truth? Was Harry really there with him and safe?
“Well, put him on if it’s no trouble.”
“Upon both of my eyes. Here he is.”
“Hello?” a younger voice rang out from the speaker phone. “This is Harry, who exactly is looking for me?”
At this point we all looked at one another in surprise and alarm. The names were right, but the voice was definitely not Harry’s.
“That’s not Harry’s voice!” we whispered to the village elder. “That’s somebody else.”
“Huh?” said the white-beard to us, “Where exactly does this Harry live?”
“In the city, in the neighborhood of the Headless tribe. He’s an engineer.”
The white-beard scrunched his brow and leaned into the speaker phone, running these details by Uncle Ali and the alternate Harry. He shook his head and looked up at us.
“You’ve got the wrong Ali and Harry. I remember now this Harry you are speaking of. Engineer in the city, connected to our tribe, not from this village. Not actually a member of our tribe. They’re really from another village up on the mountain. You’re mistaken to think that they have a house here.”
This thoroughly confused us. Up until now we had been convinced that we had the right village, based on putting the pieces together from the intel we had. But his sister had said something about them having two villages. And Harry had always been a little opaque about his background details. Maybe this was an ancestral village with no recent ties? Had we come to the wrong one? …Or was the village lying together because they were all in on it?
“They’re lying, I can tell,” whispered Mr. Talent to us.
“I’m not sure they’re the ones lying,” said Darius, with a look of suspicion and disappointment. “Harry told all of us many times that he was part of the Headless tribe. They’re all saying he’s not.”
“Let’s call Harry’s brother,” someone suggested. Not knowing if they had been in on it or not, we hadn’t wanted Harry’s immediate family to know we were coming to the village, in case they might alert the uncle before we got there. Harry’s brother lived in Europe and wasn’t really involved much with the family, but he was back temporarily on a visit. He picked up and started talking with Darius on speaker phone.
“Harry? Ha! He’s fine! He’s just traveling and in a neighboring country right now. Why is everyone so concerned about his safety?… He’s safe, I assure you… Are we part of the Headless tribe? No, we’re not. Did Harry tell you that?… No, we are from another village up on the mountain, though all our neighbors are Headless… My uncle’s not involved in any of this, who told you he was?… No, Harry is just traveling, I’m sure he’ll reach out to you soon. Haha.”
Mark and I exchanged confused looks. That same brother had been there earlier in the day when Harry’s sister and mother had tearfully described the uncle’s appearance and Harry’s disappearance. Why had the story now changed?
After some further conversation with the white-beard, our group decided to head back to the city. It really did seem as if Headless village was not involved in Harry’s disappearance. The tension that had built up as we anticipated a confrontation gave way to disappointment that our efforts had seemingly been in vain. At least if the village had been involved, and they had successfully duped us, then they now knew that Harry had some friends who would come asking awkward questions. Hopefully the ripples of our visit would make it’s way back to the violent uncle through the grapevine, alerting him to this as well. That could create some options that weren’t there previously.
The others headed home while Darius and I drove back toward my house, trying to make sense of the situation. We decided to swing by Harry’s neighborhood so that Darius could talk to Harry’s mom and sister. No one was home. We called the brother again and decided to meet him at a mall on the other side of town. Somebody, or multiple parties, had to be lying.
When we met up with Harry’s brother to try to figure out what was going on, it only muddied the picture even further. He kept claiming that Harry was just traveling for fun and contradicting things he had said to Mark earlier in the day. At this point it was too late to visit the other village up on the mountain, but we talked about making another surprise village investigation in the coming days.
We never did head to the village on the mountain. The next day we got some messages from Harry. He was on a bus, already in another country. He said he was safe, but something bad had happened and he wasn’t ready to talk about it yet. He needed to find somewhere quiet to rest. He was not willing to answer our questions. He was sorry he had left without telling us. Over the last couple months we’ve continued to get brief, sporadic messages from Harry as he was smuggled through several European countries to his final destination. He still hasn’t told us what happened. Nor have we been able to put all of the pieces together.
My best guess is that Harry’s uncle had really showed up that day and taken him to the village on the mountain. While there, he had made some kind threat or attack that terrified Harry, causing him to go dark for several days and make a run for it without even coming back home to get any of his things. Faced with another threat of persecution, Harry had relapsed to his old pattern – isolate and disappear. This time it seems he may be gone for good. His family had initially told us the truth only to walk it back later, perhaps out of fear of blowback from the uncle.
Harry’s sudden departure was a very discouraging development for our church plant and our team. He had only recently began helping to preach again after a period of restoration for having abandoned the church in a previous season. After years of coaching to next time include the body in your suffering and not go it alone, none of this counsel was heeded. Darius in particular was cut deep by his departure and the possibility of at least some deception and self-interest that was wrapped up in it. “We were ready to get killed for him, but maybe he was just trying to get to Europe and saw his chance and took it, just like all the others.”
We felt it keenly too. After several years of rebuilding, we had hoped that Darius and Harry would soon be ready to be elders-in-training. But every time we get to this point, our potential leaders tend to implode. Darius’ tone about the possibility of leadership has also changed because of what happfened with Harry, casting doubt on if he has the 1st Timothy 3:1 desire to be an elder someday. Facing an extended time away from the field ourselves, we were now set to leave our teammates with much less help than we had expected.
So much ministry in Central Asia happens in fits and starts. Costly losses are accompanied by a subtle flash of change and growth. I am grieved over whatever happened to Harry – and how he chose to respond to it. But I am also truly encouraged by the signs of growth that emerged in Darius and Mr. Talent. They really did put themselves in a dangerous position by going to an unknown village – known for its violence no less – in hopes of tracking down a persecuted believer. And though it didn’t turn out how we had hoped, the spiritual courage they showed was real. And a sign that even in the greatest setbacks, God is still at work to grow his people. These brothers had the courage to go to Headless village – a new spiritual instinct that was radically counter-cultural. It’s a beginning. One that someday just may lead to them speaking before kings.
Growing up overseas is bound to leave a mark on kids’ behaviors, assumptions, and worldviews. Any return trip to the passport country is a fun time to notice how these changes have filtered down into everyday life. I remember as a child being mesmerized by these strange creatures called squirrels and being shocked to learn that pasta was in fact not grown on a farm somewhere. Now as parents, we find ourselves doing our best to help our kids fill in their TCK gaps while also enjoying what they have absorbed as simply “normal.” Here are some recent examples.
“Who keeps throwing their TP in the trash can? You can flush it in this country.” Yes, this is a very practical one. In many countries overseas the plumbing can’t handle toilet paper, so a small trash can is where you stick it instead. Apparently, our kids have been trained well on this front, so it’s taking a while to convince them that it really is OK to send it flushing.
“Dad, are you drinking the tap water in this hotel?” Again, many other countries don’t have tap water that is safe or wise to drink. Hotels in our area of Central Asia usually have signs near the bathroom sink that warn guests in several languages, including bad English, that the water is not for drinking. But yes, with the exception of a few cities whose water infrastructure has recently tanked, we can safely drink the tap water in the US.
“Is our power out?” “No, buddy, the power doesn’t go out in this country.” One way to tell that someone has been in Central Asia for a while is to observe how they don’t even flinch when the electricity goes off. Or to notice how they keep waiting and waiting for it to be cut even in countries where it’s on 24/7.
“Guys, you always have to wear a seat belt here. Or we’ll get in trouble with the police. Or die.” Seat belt and car seat laws and customs are a lot more relaxed in some other parts of the world. Yet every time we return to the US it seems like the age for required booster seats has been raised yet again. This one, though obviously necessary for safety and not being illegal, is a tough one for the kids to adjust to with happy hearts.
“Don’t take candy from random men on the street in this country.” With the possible exception of small towns, we generally have our kids switch their behavior from the Central Asian norm, where it is quite common for sweet older men to give candy to random cute kids in public. And maybe a kiss on the cheek.
“Kids, people here don’t say goodbye that many times. One or two solid goodbyes are enough.” Here our offspring have ingested Central Asian culture, where goodbyes consist of a blast of honorable words. Whether in person or on the phone, it should sound a lot more like, “Goodbye! Bye! God be with you! Bye now! Goodbye! Safe travels! Bye! Farewell! Byyyyeee! … (followed by a goodbye honk of the car horn whenever possible).”
“They have bacon at this restaurant too?!” “Yes, son, bacon is available almost everywhere here… it’s wonderful, isn’t it?” One month in, the kids still haven’t gotten over the ubiquity of pork and bacon in the states. Truthfully, neither has their dad. We assume that sooner or later this will feel normal. For now, we’ll keep savoring the availability of this sweet forbidden meat.