*Henry was a local friend who had volunteered to help our relief and development office. He was extremely ambitious and his desire to leverage his connection with us for his future prospects was not exactly subtle. Even other locals were a bit taken back by his drive and abnormal energy to get ahead. He represented a certain slice of the younger generation who were reacting against the fatalism of their culture and a bit too intoxicated with the Western ideals of self-determinism and the power to set one’s own destiny.
Yet alongside of his drive he had the normal Central Asian abundance of hospitality and relational energy. It was an interesting mix. One of my teammates befriended Henry and began taking trips with him to visit Henry’s father’s village and flocks and going on mountain picnics with him. During these outings they began to study the Bible together. I was really encouraged to hear that this was happening as much of my time in that season was taken up by my focus on Hama and his network. Occasionally I would have the opportunity to speak briefly into these conversations, but mostly my teammate took point and I prayed and supported as I could.
This state of things continued for a couple of months or so, with Henry seeming close to understanding the gospel and then pulling back in defensiveness. Still, it seemed to be an upward spiral. One summer afternoon I was present in our office as the debate reached a tipping point.
“I need you guys to find me a priest,” Henry said.
“Why do you need a priest?” asked my teammate.
“I need someone who can explain the Bible to me better than you guys can. I just can’t understand it, no matter how hard I try. I need a religious professional.”
“Henry,” my teammate protested, “we are telling you plainly what the Bible says, you don’t need a priest or a pastor.”
“No! I need a priest. I need a professional religious teacher. Then this book will make sense to me.”
The back and forth continued like this for a bit longer. I eventually chimed in as well.
“Henry, you don’t need another human teacher. We’ve been telling you clearly what this book means, but you can’t understand it because you need God’s help. You need the Holy Spirit of God to be your teacher. Only he can open up your eyes now to understand this book. You need the Holy Spirit, not a priest.”
Henry ended up leaving, frustrated. Perhaps we could somehow connect him with a like-minded pastor. Maybe that would make the difference?
The next day Henry came back to our office, pale as a sheet.
“Henry, what is it? Come in!”
“I need to sit down,” Henry said. “I need to tell you something that happened.”
Henry’s entire demeanor was changed. No longer was he projecting his confidant, ambitious, driven persona. For the first time, I saw in his eyes what could have been humility. And fear, there was definitely fear.
Henry insisted we go into an inner room of the house and lock the door behind us.
“I have to tell you what happened last night. You need to help me know what to do,” Henry said. “Last night I was reading in the Bible you gave me. I was reading the book of Proverbs for the first time. I got to chapter three or four I think. I remember thinking about the part where it says ‘Trust in the Lord with all your heart; and do not lean on your own understanding.’ Then I fell asleep, with the Bible on my chest.”
Henry paused as he collected his thoughts in the dim light of the inner room. There was no electricity so we were sitting in a quiet but somewhat dark space. The taste of a room that needed to be dusted was in the air. Henry was on the couch, we were on two chairs, pulled up close and facing him.
“I had a dream. In my dream I saw a man in shining white robes that came to me. I do not remember everything that he said, but he said to me, in my own language, ‘My son!’ – In my own language!”
“Do you know who that was, Henry?” we asked.
“I know it was Jesus. I don’t know how I know, but I know it was him,” he said. “He had an open book in his hand. He told me that I need to read it. Behind him were several people, also wearing white robes, also with books in their hands. It was you guys. I saw you in my dream standing behind Jesus. I asked Jesus who you were and he said to me, ‘These are my people. You need to listen to them!”
At this point my teammate and turned to one another, wide-eyed with chills going through our bodies. I think we may have laughed in amazement and high-fived.
“Did he really say that, Henry? Did he really say that we were his people and that you should listen to us?! Ha! That’s wonderful, that’s amazing! Wow!”
“Yes,” Henry said, “He said that, and you were there. It was your faces and you were holding books, like you were eager to give them to me.” My teammate and I shot each other knowing glances. We had been vindicated.
“What else did he say?” we asked.
“I can’t remember everything. The only other thing that is clear is that he said, ‘It is the glory of God to conceal things…’ Strange sentence. Does that mean anything to you?”
It had a familiar ring to it, but neither of us could remember off the top of our heads where it was from. So we pulled out our Bibles and laptops and began searching. It didn’t take very long for us to point out to Henry that it was from Proverbs 25:2 – It is the glory of God to conceal things, but the glory of kings is to search them out. We showed this passage to Henry.
Henry backed away from us, looking frightened.
“I… I didn’t read that part of Proverbs yet. I fell asleep in chapter four. I didn’t read that! But that’s what Jesus said, and there it is, in the Bible, right there! How did he do that?”
My teammate and I couldn’t stop grinning from ear to ear and shaking our heads. For a couple of college guys who had volunteered to spend a year in the Middle East, we never expected anything like this. It was enough to get to share the gospel with our friends and study the Bible with them. But it seemed that the Holy Spirit was out to rescue some of our friends, like Henry. And he was displaying his sovereign power in doing so.
“Guys,” Henry said, his face now in his hands. “It all makes sense to me now. Everything you’ve been trying to tell me. Everything that the Bible says. It’s so clear now, when yesterday I just couldn’t grasp it. Something has changed.”
“Henry,” we said, “It seems that you found your teacher… or that he found you. The Holy Spirit has given you the light you need to understand God’s word.”
“So what do I do now?” Henry asked.
“Well, now you follow Jesus.”
“But how do I do that?”
We proceeded to walk Henry through the gospel one more time – God as holy creator, man as a fallen sinner, Christ as our savior and sacrifice, and the need to repent and believe. Henry affirmed that he believed all those things. We weren’t exactly sure what to do at that point, having ourselves been chewing on the issues related to the traditional sinner’s prayer as we had inherited it. So we opted to instead lay hands on Henry and to pray that God would confirm his gospel confession as true and if so, establish him in his new faith.
After we prayed Henry looked up, no longer afraid, but now full of joy. He was now a brother. He has quietly continued in his faith to the present day.
But what was going on with the quotation of Proverbs 25:2 in his dream? I am no dream interpreter, but my best guess is that this verse was quoted in Henry’s dream to emphasize that the truth had indeed been sovereignly concealed from him as he wrestled to understand it in his own wisdom. No matter how strong his drive was, Henry just couldn’t make sense of this book. Biblically, there is a particular glory of God that manifests itself in the concealing of mysteries. After all, he is a God with secrets and with thick darkness all around him (Deut 29:29, Ps 97:2). He wanted Henry to know that only the Holy Spirit could remove the veil from his eyes so that he could see the truth and beauty of Jesus Christ. Why? So that it would be all of grace, clearly all of grace with no room for boasting (Eph 2:8-9).
All of grace. Henry didn’t deserve to be given spiritual sight. Neither did I. It is the glory of God to conceal things. Yet praise God, it is also the glory of God to reveal them.
Around 3 a.m. last night we arrived in our Central Asian city after five months in the US. The return journey was unexceptional in many ways, though trips like this with multiple small children always come with their fair share of challenge and misadventure – He’s eating pretzels off the floor again. Gross. I should stop him, but is it worth it at this point? And yet travel in 2020 is unique enough that I thought a few observations on our trip would be of some interest.
On an encouraging note, we enjoyed seeing airports such as Dallas-Forth Worth and Doha, Qatar humming again with activity, even if it’s less than half of what it was last year. Five months ago when we took the repatriation flight the airports were deserted shells of themselves, dark, empty, and sad. This time travelers and airport staff seemed genuinely happy to just be out and involved in travel again. “Don’t apologize, we’re just glad to be doing some work for a change!” said an elderly counter agent while dealing with our complicated tickets and destination requirements. Alas, all of the Starbucks were still closed. We were hoping for one more American-style cold brew. We did manage to get in one last classic burger.
The planes were all very full, which was a bit surprising for us. Yet all the passengers seemed to don their required face masks and face shields without protest. We didn’t encounter any of the conflict over these requirements we’ve read about in the news. Most seemed happy to comply, glumly resigned, or already adapted to a new normal. Even on 14-hour flights, humanity is remarkably flexible. I mused to my wife about how our youngest might remember these flights. In a few years when we all travel once again with unveiled face, he’ll think back and recall all the space-age face equipment worn, perhaps wondering if that actually happened or if his memory is playing tricks on him. For some kids, returning to “normal” might actually feel like a bit of a loss. No more cool face shields and ninja masks. Bummer.
American Airlines for its part has not adapted to the extent that Qatar Airways has. Qatar brought with it both higher Covid-19 precautions (staff in full PPE, mandatory passenger face shields plus masks) and an almost complete return to pre-pandemic in-flight service. Qatar has never stopped flying during the pandemic, strategizing that it’s better business to make a name for itself as one of the only carriers still going strong. Their flights to and from our region have been a lifeline for us and our organization. I hope it will work out well for them when the industry gets back to normal.
Even with all the restrictions, Qatar Airways also managed to be remarkably child-friendly, ushering our family to the front of lines and showing special attention to the kids during the flights. As usual, this contrasted sharply with the way Western staff tend to treat families with small children. It’s sad to be reminded every time we travel between hemispheres how the East values children while the West views them mainly as an obstruction. “We have a connection to make!” one flight attendant huffed while we fumbled to get off the plane with our kids and our extra bags full of childhood diabetes equipment.
However, this kind of comment was the exception as most travelers and staff, Eastern and Western, seemed more appreciative of simple human interaction than they might have been before. The world has been starving for social contact. There was joy to be found for many just in the simple act of being in a small traveling crowd again. The language barriers, the seat negotiations, and the screaming/laughing kids seemed to be met with a measure of greater patience. Common grace is a wonderful thing. There was potential for a refreshing solidarity, room for conversation where each party gets to share how they’ve been affected by this global crisis. I imagine we’ll be swapping stories about 2020 for decades to come – not a bad thing at all for Christians eager for common ground that leads to conversation about deeper things.
Another trip halfway around the world. But likely one of our more unique journeys – the first one to require face shields and airport nose-swabs at least. Today we are jet-lagging something bad, but our hearts are overflowing with gratitude. Our three kids did great on a difficult journey. We were able to juggle our daughter’s new diabetes and a squirmy almost-two-year-old without any major mishaps. Our oldest son is at the age where he can now help push luggage carts and pull small suitcases! (Game changer). That airline food and coffee was pretty awful, but how wonderful that the long flights served coffee and meals at all. After a canceled flight we even got some rest at an airport hotel (last room available), just enough to keep us sane for our 3 a.m. arrival. God is so good.
So here we are, back in our adopted city, unpacking our bags, coming up on two years of almost-constant transition. Our hope now is for a season of stable presence and ministry. Like so many, we find ourselves largely in the dark as far as the details of God’s purposes for seasons of transition like this. Yet we do not trust in stability or in our ability to piece it all together (much as I might try). Our God is the God of sojourners and pilgrims, the God of wanderers like Abraham. He just saw us through another two day journey around the world… during a pandemic. He’ll see us through whatever longer journey we might yet face. In the end it will all weave together for glory.
Right after Sharon’s speech returned, one of Hama’s nephews was given an Operation Christmas Child box by an NGO that was passing them out. Along with school supplies the box also contained some scripture portions and a plastic Jesus who would quote verses when you squeezed his hand. “I am the bread of life” was one of the phrases he would cheerfully intone in a Christian-radio American accent.
Hama and his wife were thrilled and swiftly commandeered action figure Jesus from their nephew and put it up on their wall. They were so excited to show it to me. For my part, I groaned inwardly as soon as I saw it. It’s remarkable how many of the regrettable parts of consumer Christianity still make it to frontier settings overseas. And yet, by the grace of God, I have learned they can sometimes be appreciated in a wholesome way by our Central Asian friends, free as they are from much of the attending baggage.
Plastic Jesus went up on Hama’s wall, surrounded on all sides by Islamic paraphernalia. I remember that on the opposite wall there was a rather frightening picture of Medina, with a dark, brooding, red sky. The two stood facing each other for the next couple months, the time when Hama wanted to follow Jesus, but was still held back by his fear. It was a showdown, a face-off oddly representative of the real spiritual forces at play. For me it also represented the way Hama and I had been talking. I had a sense the whole time that I should stay away from polemics and attacking his native religion, Islam. I felt that if Jesus was held up as beautiful and powerful that everything else would fade.
Indeed, that’s how it happened for Hama. Like the yeast that’s inserted into the lump of dough or the mustard seed into the garden, Jesus went into the midst of Hama’s life (and living room) and changed everything from the inside out. As Hama and his wife eventually walked away from Islam, the different Islamic pictures and amulets on their walls also came down. Only plastic Jesus remained. I thought we might need to have some kind of talk about not venerating images, but Hama beat me to it by giving away plastic Jesus to a mover who was fascinated by it. Hama’s wife was a bit upset that he had given it away, but for my part I was relieved.
Thus ended the saga of plastic Jesus, an unexpected parable of what the real Jesus was doing in the heart of my friend. How shall we apply this strange tale? First, be amazed at the creativity of the Holy Spirit. He can truly use anything to draw those he is saving. Second, if you are ever packing shoe boxes for distribution among children overseas, I would ask you kindly to not include Jesus action figures. God can use anything – but seriously, just don’t do it.
I had a favorite pair of flip flops that I took along to the Middle East. Being a college student at the time, and one who had grown up in an island-type culture, I had indulged on an expensive American pair of preppy leather flip flops. One summer day I wore them to a house church, depositing them outside the door with all the other shoes and sandals. After the gathering was finished I was dismayed to find that my favorite flip flops had disappeared. Apparently someone had mistaken them for their own – but no, footwear like that wasn’t available in this country, so no one could confuse them for their own. Had someone stolen them? And at a church meeting no less!
A few weeks later a local believer came to our house. And lo! He was wearing my flip flops. As it registered that he was the thief, I sat pondering how and if to bring up this awkward topic. Yet something was strange about his bearing. He wasn’t acting guilty or conscious at all of his infringement upon my personal property. There he was, wearing them right in front of me. I let it slide until I could figure out what was going on and how I should navigate this situation. Somehow I eventually came to realize that my friend wasn’t showing any signs of remorse because he hadn’t even committed a mistake, let alone a theft, according to his culture. Flip flops and sandals were simply considered communal property.
To have special ownership over a pair of sandals was utterly foreign to my host Middle Eastern culture. Shoes, yes, but sandals? Everyone knows that sandals belong to everyone. You wear them to to enter the squatty-potty, to walk to the corner store, to go out on the dusty roof. No one thinks twice about utilizing them however is needed. Once I realized this part of the culture I strategically wore a different pair of sandals to the next house church meeting. I managed to reclaim my cherished flip flops with a subtle switch during a trip to the bathroom. My friend never seemed to notice that I had successfully reclaimed them. Yet given the extent that I had been bothered by the loss of these flip flops, it felt like a hollow victory. As I recall, the leather later shrunk and curled under the merciless Middle-Eastern sun.
Cultures vary in their understanding of communal property. Certain items or spaces are understood as belonging not to individuals, but to the community. In Melanesia, grassy lawns were viewed this way. It was not uncommon to emerge from a missionary’s house to see clusters of locals sitting and enjoying the front yard. And yet when my friends and I tried to hike different mountains, we kept getting in trouble for not first consulting the “owners” of the mountain. Lawns belong to the community, mountains are private property. Got it.
Every culture has communal property, those things which are simply understood by insiders as justly being available to all. We even have this in the West in spite of our heavier emphasis on private property. Just drop a group of American tourists in a foreign context with no public restrooms and see what happens. And yet this is another area of culture that tends to go unspoken. It is caught rather than taught. One grows up and learns by osmosis what is private and what is communal. As such this area poses a real danger for culture stress.
Frustration with a foreign culture often builds slowly, akin to death by a thousand paper cuts. I think that the “trespassing” of our private property is one area particularly irksome to us Westerners. Whether it’s time, space, or belongings (or hair or photos?), we tend to have a harder time overlooking the oft-unintentional violations of what we have learned belongs to us. We need to have eyes that are open and looking for these differences so that we are better prepared to overlook them in love when they do occur. Count on it, when crossing cultures we will have opportunity to practice not counting anything that belongs to us as actually our own (Acts 4:32). Not that the scriptures are against private property at all – on the contrary, it is assumed to be part of the world God has created. But when necessary for the sake of the gospel and the community of believers, these private rights are surrendered for the sake of love.
One of the best examples I have seen of this came from an older Korean couple who worked among a mountain-top tribe in Melanesia. Knowing that the tribe would understood their tools as belonging to the community and not to themselves alone, they decided to proactively own this fact, rather than fighting it as many other outsiders do. When they moved into the tribe, they appropriately asked that the villagers build their first jungle house for them. In return, they publicly announced at their welcome ceremony that their tools were for the use of the whole village, as needed. So when a tool was inevitably stolen later, they gathered the village leadership and told them that the village tools had been taken. The tribe was accordingly alarmed and put together a search party which soon hunted down the culprit and punished him appropriately. The tool was returned and all was well.
Had this Korean couple not contextualized their personal belongings in this way, the village may well have justified the theft because of the vast wealth disparity still present between the average villager and the modest missionaries. In a subsistence culture where survival depends on sharing tools, these missionaries appropriately put away their own culture’s understanding of personal property and put on their host culture’s. They have lived in peace in that remote tribe for many years now.
What is your culture’s understanding of communal vs. private property? Every culture will have both, but the particular arrangements tend to vary. Are we preparing our hearts to respond lovingly when our understanding of private property is violated in a cultural sense? Do we know what private property means in our host cultures so that we can still call theft theft in the biblical sense? These are not simple questions. Yet they are the meat-and-potatoes of living with a good testimony in another culture.
Some days we will find ourselves deeply annoyed that something of ours has been treated as communal property. But it would tragic to lose our witness among our focus people group because we clung too tightly to our own culture’s property preferences. Let us rather be known as those who cheerfully give up our possessions for the sake of others. In this way we can point to him who though rich, became poor for our sake (2 Cor 8:9).
We had been teaching through the sermon on the mount and the portion on oaths had fallen to me. It was not necessarily the text I would have chosen to focus on in that busy season of our fledgling church plant. But we had committed to teach through Matthew, believing that every part is God-breathed, even the parts that felt less relevant. So I studied Matthew 5:33-37 as best I could and labored to explain it and apply it in the local language. After the meeting finished I approached *Frank and *Patti, two local new believers.
“Was everything clear? Any questions?” I asked. I wasn’t really expecting a lot of response.
Both stood with furrowed brows.
“Yes, very clear… But if this is true, then we need a whole new language,” Frank responded.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
Patti chimed in, “It’s impossible to speak our language without starting every other sentence with an oath. We need to learn a whole new way to speak! We knew that following Jesus would mean change, but this is going to be really hard!”
“This was a very surprising and important part of the Bible for us to learn about. Thank you,” Frank said.
If my local friends were surprised at this part of Jesus’ teaching, I for my part was surprised by their response. Didn’t see that one coming, I thought to myself, and not for the last time. We later debriefed with our teammates about this conversation.
It was true. How could we have missed it? The local language was absolutely chock full of oaths. Coming from a culture and language where oaths are mostly archaic, we hadn’t really noticed them, even as we ourselves learned to start our sentences with some of them, mimicking the cadence of our local friends’ speech.
By God. By the sacrifice. By the Qur’an. By my grandmother’s grave. By both of my eyes. By the top of my head. By my honor. As we reflected we realized just how hard it was to make a serious statement in the local language without prefacing it with an oath. This passage from Matthew may have been very practical after all.
We were at that point just beginning to learn that the Central Asian culture where we serve is riddled with deceit and duplicity. This is the real downside to an honor-based culture. Everyone is lying all the time to save face. This is likely where the oaths came in, trying to create a more reliable kind of statement where the hearer can be assured that the speaker isn’t just lying to save face. But it didn’t really solve the problem. Like some strange cousin to the Catholic doctrine of the immaculate conception, it just punted the problem up one level. How does it help you believe in Jesus’ sinlessness to claim that Mary was born sinless also? What about her parents? How does it help you believe your friend who would normally lie to you just because this time he used an oath? Wouldn’t a liar just keep lying, even if using an oath?
We began trying to purge the local oaths we had learned out of our speech and it did prove remarkably difficult. We held on to using By the Truth, feeling like we had some precedence to lean on by Jesus’ usage of Truly, truly, I say to you.
Going deeper in our understanding of the local culture helped us better understand the first-century culture Jesus was rebuking. To cultures and languages that try to maintain two levels of speech, normal and oath-backed, Jesus says, “Enough! Let your yes be yes and your no be no.” No more tolerating certain lies and trying to convince others to believe you by linking your statement to something holy or something you foolishly think you have power over. In the kingdom of God, followers of Jesus will be known for honest character and honest speech such that oaths are now no longer needed.
It may be the distant echoes of this teaching that lead Muslims to still say about the local ethnic Christians and about Westerners, “They are honest people compared to us.” Islamic teaching advocates for deceit in the cause of good. This, of course, has been like pouring gasoline on the dumpster fire of human deceitfulness. Lying and duplicity have in time become some of the deepest besetting sins of the Middle East and Central Asia. This makes me truly appreciate the local translation of Romans 12:9 – “Let love be without two-faced-ness.”
Frank and Patti were partially right. In one sense, they would need a whole new language. But not in the religious sense where some human tongue is elevated as more holy than another. No, Hebrew, Greek, Latin, Syriac, Arabic, or English are not superior spiritual languages, regardless of the bad precedent set by Christianity and Islam. Rather, Frank and Patti’s fallen language, not unlike their fallen bodies, was now under new ownership. Their language was to be redeemed and made part of the eternal Revelation 7:9 choir. That would mean purging some elements, like oaths, and the addition of many others, such as new forms of theology, thanksgiving, and worship.
Jesus is transforming Frank and Patti’s language from the inside-out. It will be remarkable to see the future church there speaking the same tongue, but now transformed into a mature vessel of glory. A language remade! Now that is encouraging to think about.
I waited anxiously at the hole-in-the wall restaurant where we had agreed to meet. It was the kind of place that specialized in a Central Asian pizza of sorts, flatbread with ground beef, oil, and spices spread on top of it. Not the most compatible meal with anxiety. *Hama was running a little late and I was worried that he would bail on me. I was excited that he had agreed to visit a local house church with me for their midweek evening meeting. But I also knew the great fear locals have of meeting with others from their own people group to do something technically illegal – to study the teachings of Jesus in rejection of Islam.
Thankfully, both Hama and *Aden arrived. Aden was another good friend of mine. He had been a believer for a couple years and was a passionate young evangelist as well as being a goofball. I hoped that they would hit it off given the fact that Hama was almost a believer and also appreciated a good prank. The first meeting could have been worse. They sized one another up and had some respectful dialogue, but I sensed some hesitation in Hama.
“Still want to go, Hama?”
“Yes, I still want to. I have some important questions and after what happened with my sister…”
“Well,” I said, “I’m glad you’re taking this risk. I’ve visited this group a few times over these past months and I think they’ll be very receptive to your visit and to your questions.”
I wondered if this visit would be the one to push Hama over the edge. He clearly was wrestling with faith in Jesus, but he knew it would come at a cost.
We walked the ten minutes or so to the house where the church was gathering. It was in a neighborhood just down the hill from the strip of restaurants where we’d met. We left our shoes at the front door, contributing to the couple dozen that were already fanned out there. As we entered the room, everyone broke from their conversation and immediately stood up, proclaiming respectful greetings, making honorable gestures, and shaking hands at the same time. We were pointed to the more honorable side of the room, where guests were always invited to sit. We chose a spot still considered honorable, but shifted over to the side a bit, communicating both an appreciation for the gesture and our own desire to let others take the better spots on the floor. The hosts waited to sit until we had already found our spots, sitting cross-legged on the carpet.
More choruses of welcoming phrases followed, accompanied by honorable responses from Hama and Aden and to a lesser extent, myself. Americans just say “thanks” to everything so it takes us a while to get used to utilizing the several dozen respectful greetings and responses that Central Asians fire, machine-gun style, into their every day interactions. Twelve years later, I’m still not a pro, but I’m certainly better at it than I was back then. It helped when I realized that the other party isn’t actually fully listening to your barrage of pleasantries, busy as they are producing their own.
Two men in their late thirties were the obvious leaders of the group, both dressed in traditional attire. Most of the rest of the guests were young twenty-somethings, like my friend Aden. They were dressed in Western clothing. There were only a few women present at this meeting and they chose to meet in the next room over. One of these men, *Zane, was the pastor, and *Allen was his assistant-in-training. Both had quite the background story, with Zane surviving assassination attempts and *Allen being a former member of a terrorist organization. As a twenty-year-old missionary, I was just going to sit back and pray and let these guys do the talking.
The plan had been to continue their study through the book of Revelation and spend some time in prayer together, but they condensed their meeting in order to have abundant time to interact with Hama. After a brief study and prayer together (lifting up one of the members who couldn’t come because he’d been beaten by his brothers again), we sang a few worship songs. This particular house church had some issues with tying their teaching too closely with the political aims of their people (sound familiar?), but man, could they sing. I’ve yet to be part of another group where the singing was as passionate as this one. They would often start their songs off in roaring A Capella, clapping, and in the wrong key and tempo, much to the consternation of the violin player who was supposed to be leading. Still, they meant it. Living through persecution together can have a powerful effect on corporate worship.
After this, they invited Hama to share his story and why he was interested in knowing about Jesus. Hama shared for about fifteen minutes, telling about his years in the UK, his disillusionment with Islam, his study in Matthew, and his sister’s recent healing. Zane listened intently, leaning in. I could see why all these young men were a part of his group. He was a natural leader. His sudden and secret departure for Europe a year later would largely shatter this church – an unfortunate result of him being offered some kind of position as a pastor in Germany.
After Hama was done sharing, Zane began his response. He probably spoke for about thirty minutes, weaving in and out of different reasons why Jesus was the true way and Islam was false. Hama listened and nodded soberly. I kept praying. Zane’s words were going deep. The one part that I clearly remember is when he gestured to a young man sitting in the corner.
“You see him? He’s a part of our enemy people group. His people committed genocide against us. If we were Muslims we would still hate each other. Right, *Elijah?”
“That’s right,” Elijah grinned.
Zane continued, “But because of Jesus we are brothers now. We love one another and we even love that American guy who brought you too. We are all one family now because of Jesus’ sacrifice for us. Jesus teaches us to love our enemies. Only by believing in him is this possible.”
Hama nodded and I stopped listening to what Zane was saying next as I chewed on what had just occurred. I hadn’t known that Elijah was from that enemy people group. What a powerful testimony to the unity the gospel can produce. These men really should hate one another and Elias should hate me, given his background. Yet here we are.
Zane finished up eventually and closed the meeting. We said our respectful goodbyes and walked back toward the restaurant area. Several of the young men were heading that way too. One of them kept pressing Hama with one evangelistic argument after another. Hama was half listening, but his brain was clearly already saturated. He wasn’t in need of more information, but in need of some time for reflection.
“It’s true, you know,” Elijah said putting his arms around me and Aden. I should hate you and I should hate you and you should both hate me! But we are brothers now… Look at what Jesus has done!”
Even though that house church eventually fell apart, Elijah’s words that night have remained with me. The power of his mere joyful presence in that group of natural enemies was a small window into what eternity will look like – and into what healthy churches among our people group can look like also.
Many in missions emphasize the need to plant only people-group specific churches. The logic is that planting churches combining those from different ethnicities will hamper church multiplication. While I understand the push for speed comes from a motive to see as many reached as possible, I can’t help thinking that the speed will come at the loss of a particular kind of power and beauty. The power and beauty I saw on display that evening as Elijah walked with us. No longer an enemy, now a brother.
I was raised mostly in a certain Melanesian country. Having grown up there, I was able to intuitively pick up on many parts of the culture. I knew what many forms and actions meant in that specific context. The repeated tongue-clicking meant either pity, shock, or awe. You could use it while hearing a sad story or while admiring a friend’s new pair of sunglasses. I knew that a bowed head and one hand placed just above the forehead meant that person was feeling a degree of shyness, embarrassment, or shame. I knew that it was not considered immodest for a woman to breastfeed while singing a special in front of church, but that it was considered immodest if she wore blue jeans.
The thing with culture is that form and meaning don’t stay static. Over time the way that meaning is communicated through certain forms changes. In the West, not wearing a tie to church just doesn’t carry the same meaning that it used to. Culture, like language, is a living thing. While this doesn’t at all make meaning or truth relative, it does mean there’s a certain degree of forms-communicating-meaning fluidity built into the thousands of human cultures out there. When the scriptures have to say “Now this was the custom in former times in Israel concerning…” (Ruth 4:7) it means that that form had changed such that the author’s contemporaries would no longer understand the meaning without an explicit interpretation. Keeping up with how culture is changing is hard, especially when the changes are happening at an accelerated pace.
Youth culture is one subset of culture where changes in form and meaning seem to take place very quickly. This is true in the West. The slang words (forms) used just five years ago by high school students are out, and new terms are in. This is also true in cultures overseas which are emerging from a more isolated past and coming into contact with more technology and global culture. In tribal cultures, such as those I grew up in in Melanesia, this pace of change is warp-speed. Tribes which had lived in stone age-like conditions as recently as the 1970s now have smartphones and access to Facebook. Oh to sit around a village fire and hear the stories village elders would be able to tell of the contrast between their childhood and their own grandchildren.
My high school years were thankfully just prior to the emergence of social media. Email was also not mainstream among my peers, especially my Melanesian friends. No, it was with good old-fashioned letter writing that I would end up caught in a very embarrassing cross-cultural blunder.
The week of Easter Camp was one of my favorite times of the year when I was in high school. Baptist youth groups from all over the country would descend on a Bible college campus for a week of preaching, volleyball tournaments, skits, and verse memorization contests. Most years I was the only Westerner present among several hundred Melanesian high school students. Since my MK school was majority Western in students and culture, I always enjoyed the chance Easter Camp gave to be fully immersed in Melanesian culture once again, as I had been when I was much younger. This was the one week of the year when my brain would actually think in another language and need to take a moment to translate those thoughts into spoken English. Easter camp was also fun for all of the typical reasons youth group camps are fun – the chance to goof off with other guys and maybe meet a pretty girl.
One year we reached the last day of camp and a frenzy for exchanging addresses began. While both guys and girls were exchanging post office box addresses with me, I began to be a bit alarmed at the number of girls I hadn’t even met that week that were asking for my address. Clearly, something was going on, but I didn’t have the experience to place the proper meaning with this address exchange frenzy. I assumed it was mostly a chance to find potential pen pals. Not wanting to be rude I gave out my address to all who asked.
A couple weeks later I started receiving letters from two different Melanesian girls who lived in other provinces of the country. They were very polite and kind letters with questions about life and learning English. Wanting to also be kind, I wrote back. My responses were similarly polite and respectful, very much of the pen pal variety. I was not a very good pen pal in general, with a fellow MK in Panama at one point dubbing me “worst pen pal ever.” We MK’s tend to struggle at maintaining friendships from a distance – something about the amount of transition we grow up with. Still, in the case of the Easter camp letters I thought I had done what was expected of me and moved on unconcerned.
When the girls’ responses in turn arrived I was thoroughly shocked and confused. They had both independently written back full-blown love letters, full of poetry, compliments, and dreams of a blissfully-wedded future. Clearly I had missed something! Not long after, my good local friend, Philip, shared with me some bad news. At our local church’s youth group he had been confronted by some of the teen girls, who demanded to know why I was such a womanizer that I was dating two different girls in different provinces at the same time. He now put the question himself to me. Thoroughly confused (how in the world did the youth group know about this?), I explained to Philip that all I had done was respond to these girls’ letters in a kind way! He then let me know that the simple act of responding to a letter in these circumstances communicated the intent to enter into a romantic relationship.
MK’s occasionally have these kinds of moments when we suddenly realize that there’s been an important gap in our knowledge of either our home or our adopted culture. While we’ve been doing our best to pretend to be insiders, suddenly we are outed for the outsiders we actually are. These moments come out of nowhere and we usually try not to let on how thoroughly in the dark we’ve been. But I’m pretty sure I couldn’t hide from Philip my dismay and utter ignorance of this very sensitive cultural form. How had I missed this? I was now dating two different girls in two different provinces all the while I was planning to ask out my Australian neighbor. I had never dated anyone previously in my life and here I was, almost dating three girls at the same time. How had it come to this?
Thankfully, I had a mom who was willing to come to my rescue. I had quickly shown her the letters and shared with her my confusion about what to do next. She wisely counseled me to write back and clarify that my intentions were purely platonic. When one of the girls wouldn’t stop writing me love letters after many attempts to make things clear, my mom wrote the next one for me. It must have been quite the intimidating letter because it had the intended effect.
When I think back to my years in Melanesia, I wish I had taken a more proactive role in learning the local culture. There was much I was able to pick up on. But there were also holes in my cultural understanding that clearly needed to be filled. By coasting along in my adopted culture, I had missed the very important and very new dating culture rules that had emerged among my Melanesian peers. And I had certainly dashed some hopes in the process, not to mention risking being known for behavior that was not becoming of a follower of Jesus.
Cases such as the Easter camp letters have given me a desire to be a lifelong student of culture. One, so that I can avoid landing myself in these kind of embarrassing situations! But also because of the dynamic nature of culture. We may assume it is static, but it is anything but. It is a living thing, shifting right under our noses and rearranging meaning and forms in endlessly new combinations. As those who desire to communicate God’s truth not just in word, but also in deed and form, it behooves us to pay very close attention.
This doesn’t mean adding some college-level course to our lives that we don’t have time for. It can be as simple as a more generous usage of one very important question: What does that mean?
...it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment. - Hebrews 9:27, ESV
On a pleasant spring evening twelve years ago, *Hama and I should have died, with Hama’s sister dying shortly thereafter. But it was not yet our appointed time. In that sense, even though death brushed past us in alarming proximity, we were invincible. Not because of any power of ours. No, but because God is on his throne, appointing for each man his time of passing into eternity. God keeps us from premature death through the mysterious workings of his providence. Seemingly random decisions and the prayers of believers become the means by which the great king and author works out his grand narrative and reveals his glory.
Hama and I were walking down one of main avenues of the bazaar, one named after a famous poet, like so many other streets in our mountain city. We were on our way to the cafe of a nearby hotel to study English together. Hama was thrilled to have a native English speaker for a friend again as he was worried his language, picked up while a refugee in the UK, was beginning to slip.
The spring weather was lovely on that late afternoon and I soaked in the sights and smells of the bazaar as we walked and talked together. The smell of tea on charcoal, shwarma sandwiches, and shops full of spices wafted up and down the busy street in the spring breeze.
Suddenly Hama stopped. “I think I’ve changed my mind. Maybe we should go to my house for supper first, then after that we can go to the cafe to study.”
I glanced ahead. You could already see the upper floors of the hotel looming above the shops, maybe five hundred meters ahead of us. We were nearly there. At the same time, Hama’s family lived in a neighborhood almost within the bazaar itself, one of the oldest neighborhoods in the city. It wouldn’t be a long walk back in the other direction to his house.
“Sure, bro,” I said, “Whatever you want to do is good with me.”
We turned around and made our way back up the street and after ten minutes or so took a right into the winding alleyways that represented the fusion of the bazaar with Hama’s neighborhood. Streets just big enough for one car were framed by cement, brick and mudbrick courtyard walls, some crumbling. Others, in fading design work, still showed evidence of a bygone glory. I loved the sense of history in this neighborhood, a sense often lost in the construction boom of the rest of the city. As we walked I asked Hama what he had been reading in the gospel of Matthew since we had last spent time together.
“It’s amazing, bro, there’s no one like Jesus. Everyone who comes to Jesus gets healed!”
I smiled as Hama talked. There’s nothing quite like hearing a friend encounter scripture for the very first time.
“The lepers, the crippled, the sick, the ones with the evil spirits in them – Jesus is powerful to heal all of them! Our religion teaches us that Jesus performed miracles and healed people, but I didn’t know it was like this. Jesus is special, bro. He is different.”
We walked along as Hama shared some more and then walked in silence for a bit. A note of concern was in Hama’s voice when he began speaking again.
“Bro, my sister is about to die. You know, the disabled one, *Sharon?”
I had only seen Sharon briefly one or two times, but Hama had told me about her. She had been born with dark purplish markings all over body, but in spite of this had seemed to be a normal infant. However, when she was three years old she had gotten deathly ill. Somehow the illness had arrested her mental development and she had remained with the mental capacity of a small child as she grew into an adult. The other children in the neighborhood had mocked her mercilessly, so her family had learned to keep her hidden away indoors, as so many families in our area do if they have a family member who is physically or mentally handicapped. Sharon had learned the names of some family members and childhood friends, but after her illness was never able to learn another person’s name. Even though her condition made her an object of shame in local culture, nevertheless her family adored Sharon and doted on her, giving her generous amounts of sugary chai whenever she asked.
“Hama, what happened?”
“Sharon’s become very sick in the past few weeks. She was already really thin, but now she’s just bones. She hasn’t eaten anything in days. She’s lost her ability to speak, even to us, and her good eye has clouded over. A doctor came yesterday… He says she’ll be dead within the week. He said there’s nothing we can do.”
“I’m so sorry to hear this, bro,” I replied.
We walked on in silence for a little longer. Then Hama, seemingly without realizing it, began recounting once again how Jesus had healed the crippled, the blind, the mute. As he spoke I felt an urge, a thought, growing more and more powerful and clear in my mind and in my chest.
You need to ask to pray for Sharon tonight.
Doubt and anxiety rose up in me parallel to the strength of this impression. Nevertheless, the thought grew stronger.
You need to ask to pray for Sharon tonight.
But I don’t know how to do that! I protested inwardly. Sure, I had read lots of missionary biographies and even heard some first-hand accounts in Melanesia of God’s power to heal when believers pray for the sick. But I had never seen it modeled. And I was feeling reluctant to go out on a limb like this when my friend seemed so close to following Jesus. What if nothing happens and he comes to doubt Jesus’ power? What if I just make myself look like a fool? What if they get offended when I pray in the name of Jesus?
But the leading was irresistible now. I had to yield.
“Hama, do you believe that Jesus really did all those miracles that you’re reading about?”
“Yes, of course I do!” Hama replied.
“Do you believe that Jesus is alive and powerful in heaven now?”
“Yes, both of our religions teach that Jesus is alive in heaven and powerful.”
“Well,” I swallowed, “Do you believe that Jesus is powerful to heal your sister if we ask him to?”
“Bro… I, I don’t know…” Hama responded with a sigh.
“If it’s OK with you, can you ask your family if I can pray for her tonight? Jesus asks us as his followers to pray for the sick and sometimes he answers our prayers for healing.”
“I can ask bro, but I’m not sure what they’ll say.”
Shortly afterward we arrived at Hama’s family’s home. He and his newlywed wife lived in the upper floor and his mother and three sisters, including Sharon, lived on the ground floor. Hama’s father had been killed by a previous dictator when Hama was just a boy. Even though he was the youngest brother, he had the strongest leadership skills and often functioned as a leader in the household, depending on the day and his mother’s moods.
Hama’s family shouted some greetings to us as we went up the external staircase to the upstairs. As customary, they were full of polite greetings and hospitality in spite of the grief they were feeling inwardly. Hama’s wife, Tara, looked genuinely happy to see us. She was pregnant, probably early second trimester, and terrified of losing the baby after a previous miscarriage. Though I didn’t know it yet, a fear was growing inside of her that they would lose this second child because her husband was angering Allah by studying the Christian Bible. But on this night she just seemed happy and relieved that we had come for dinner.
Tara took out a spray bottle and sprayed a mist over some flat bread she had stored (to make it tender) and put the pile of bread in the middle of the table cloth she had placed on the floor. As we sat down, cross-legged at the edges of the cloth, Tara placed bowls in front of us, full of chicken broth, tomato/okra soup, and lightly fried rice. We began tearing off bits of flatbread and scooping the rice into our mouths. I was not regretting our decision to come back for this home-cooked dinner.
About twenty minutes into our meal all of our mobile phones started ringing at once and getting inundated with text messages. We pulled out our simple Nokia phones and started reading the texts and answering the calls. A tense and nervous air had descended on the house. Clearly some kind of emergency was going on. As we processed what we were reading and hearing, Tara quickly turned on the TV.
There had been a car bomb. It had detonated at the front of a main hotel in the city. It was the very same hotel where Hama and I had been planning to study. The entire front facade of the hotel was shattered, including the cafe where we would have been sitting. Tragically, a security guard had died. He, along with the suicide bomber proved to be the only casualties.
After reassuring various friends, family, and coworkers that we were OK, and finding out that they were OK too, Hama and I looked soberly at one another. We very well could have died had we not decided to turn around and gone to his house for dinner instead.
Shaking our heads at the craziness of the whole situation, I leaned forward toward Hama.
“My friend, we could have died tonight. You should be dead right now. You’re not. That tells me God has a reason for saving your life tonight. He has a purpose for you, something that needs to happen before you die.”
Hama nodded his head in agreement, watching the flashing news reports with a glazed expression.
“I think you’re right, bro… I think you’re right.”
The evening wore on as the entire city took stock in the wake of the car bomb. Locals were furious that a Palestinian youth had been the bomber. What was he doing all the way over here in our corner of Central Asia? For our part, we were totally engrossed in the phone calls, texts, and news reports. Tara was shocked to hear that we had narrowly escaped being victims of the bomb ourselves and lots of wide-eyed rapid conversation took place between her and Hama which I wasn’t able to follow. She was of course happy that her husband had not been blown up, but she was also understandably angry that he had almost gotten himself blown up. Nevertheless, she put some chai on for us and soon had served it.
While we were sipping our chai I was reminded of our plans earlier in the evening to pray for Sharon. The evening was wearing on.
“Hama, do you think we could still pray for your sister tonight?”
Hama suddenly remembered our earlier conversation and took a moment to think over my question.
“Yes, let me go downstairs and see what they say.”
“Hama, please tell them that I have to pray for her in the name of Jesus. I mean no disrespect, but I am a follower of Jesus and I must pray for her in the way that he asks his followers to do so.”
Hama nodded and went downstairs. Some lively discussion ensued, but he soon emerged again and told me that the family had agreed, and that they were very thankful that I would consider doing something like this for them.
We went downstairs and into the room where Sharon was laid out on a foam mattress on the floor. If they had not told me otherwise I would have assumed that she had already died. Her body was skeletal. Her skin, the parts that were not the purplish color, was a lifeless grey. She stared up at the ceiling with unseeing eyes and clutched a blanket to her chest with bony hands. She was in her early forties, but I could have been looking at a deathly ill ninety-year-old.
I asked Hama to translate some more for family, who had already begun crying as I knelt down next to Sharon.
“Please tell them that I’ll just put my hand on her hand and simply ask Jesus to heal her.”
I prayed quietly in English to myself, holding onto Sharon’s bony hand. The first time nothing happened. I began crying as well. The second time nothing happened. I prayed a short, third prayer and looked up. My heart sunk. Nothing had happened.
“Hama, please tell your family that sometimes God says yes, sometimes he says no, and sometimes he wants us to keep asking. Maybe this is not a no. Maybe he wants us to keep asking. I’ll keep praying tonight and ask some of my friends to pray also. All we can do is ask and wait for God.”
We went back upstairs and I sat, confused and disappointed. I heard some more commotion downstairs. When I asked what it was I became even more discouraged. The family, desperate as they were, had invited the local Islamic mullah to come and also pray over Sharon. Then I heard shouting and doors slamming. The mullah had attempted to beat Sharon with his cane in an attempt to drive out a demon. The women of the family, not about to put up with that nonsense, had in turn driven him from the home.
“Well,” I thought, “at least they’ll see that contrast tonight.”
Later that night when we said goodbye, Hama’s family thanked me profusely. They could see that my tears and prayers for Sharon had been genuine, even if they were ineffectual. The contrast with the mullah’s cane had clearly left an impression on them. Perhaps that was God’s only purpose in this strange encounter, a chance to show Christian compassion?
After I made it back home I sent out an email to some prayer supporters, updating them on the situation with Sharon and asking them to join in praying for Jesus’ power to be displayed, whatever that would look like. Then I went to my room and opened my Bible. For the next couple hours I worked through the gospels, pausing on each account of Jesus healing someone.
“Lord, you did for that person, would you do it again for Sharon?”
Around 1:00 a.m. I had a strong urge to focus on praying for Sharon to be able to speak again. Shortly after that I fell asleep.
When I awoke, the first thing I did was reach for my trusty little Nokia phone, hoping to see a message from Hama. There was nothing. I spent all day distracted in my work, chewing on the mysteries of God’s providence and human suffering. I kept checking my phone in hopes that I had somehow missed a call. But I had resigned myself. God had said no and Sharon would die.
Around 7 pm, I noticed something flashing in the bottom corner of the phone’s small screen. When I looked into what kind of notification it was, I was informed that my phone was out of memory and that I had a new text message waiting once I cleared up some more space. Frantically, I deleted other messages and opened the new one. It was from Hama, sent early in the morning.
“Bro, Jesus healed my sister! Please call as soon as you can.”
I called up Hama right away and asked what was going on.
“Hama, why didn’t you call me? I just saw your message now.”
“I had no credit, ha! Bro,” Hama said, “Jesus healed my sister!”
“Around 1:00 in the morning, all of the sudden she sat up and asked for some chai! We all jumped out of bed. We couldn’t believe what was happening. She’s been eating and drinking all day and we are just laughing and talking about what happened! Bro, you prayed and Jesus healed my sister! When can you come and see her? You have to see her!”
I was taking a trip out of town that evening, but a couple days later I returned to Hama’s home to see Sharon. The family was ecstatic and Sharon was sitting up in bed, eating and drinking and talking in her unique, child-like way.
“Ever since that night, she hasn’t stopped talking! She talks all night long and now we can’t sleep!” laughed one of Hama’s sisters. “Would you please pray again to Jesus to get her to shut up?”
We all laughed until we cried.
“But seriously, as a family we did want to ask if you would pray for her again. She is still blind and before she had one good eye. Would you pray that she would be able to see again?”
I agreed. Then I proceeded to pray, this time with a much greater confidence. But just like the previous time, nothing seemed to happen.
“Well,” I said, “Maybe God is again saying that we should keep asking. We will keep praying for her.”
Sure enough, two weeks later I got another phone call from Hama.
“Bro, her cloudy eye has cleared up and she can see again! Jesus did it again!”
God had granted Sharon another season of life. It would prove to be brief. For six more months she ate, drank chai, saw her family through her good eye, and even learned my name, the first name she been able to learn in forty years. Then she died.
Hama hadn’t told me that she had gotten sick again. I was a little upset at him for this. But he responded that the family didn’t feel right about telling me. They knew I would want to pray again. Perhaps they felt like God had already granted them two miracles and it was ungrateful to ask for another.
God had intervened to save Sharon’s life through the prayer of a doubting nervous believer. He had intervened to save Hama’s life and my life through a seemingly random decision to turn around and eat dinner before we studied English. Both of these miracles resulted in death delayed, not death dismissed. It was appointed for Sharon six months later. It will be appointed for Hama and I one of these days as well, though now we look forward to it together as brothers in Christ. God’s providence in these things is beyond me, but I recount these things as they really happened. I haven’t had the same kind of near death experience nor answered prayer for healing in the twelve years since. It was simply God’s mysterious kindness that they should both fall on that particular spring evening.
At the time I thought that this would be the last step in Hama professing faith in Jesus. Surely after such a display of power, alongside of his study of Matthew, Hama would immediately profess faith. But to my surprise, Hama stopped speaking about Jesus altogether for the next six weeks. A battle was going on in his soul. Jesus had revealed his truth and power. But would Hama surrender and risk everything?
There he was, working hard at his second job, cheerfully selling wares on the street in spite of the chill winter night. I waited until the cluster of customers moved on and then approached *Thomas, who was one of my former English students and was now becoming a good friend.
“Mr. Thomas, how are you, brother? What’s new? How’s your situation? How’s your health? Everything good?”
“Mr. AW! How are you, teacher? Are you good? How’s your household? Everyone doing well? What’s the news?”
This is how a typical conversation begins among our Central Asian people group, with a barrage of respectful questions spoken enthusiastically while the other person is doing the same thing back to you. No one actually hears each and every question or responds to all of them directly, but it’s the cumulative show of honor and friendship that counts. Once this “outdo one another in showing honor” greeting is completed, you can actually begin speaking one at a time.
“How’s business tonight?” I asked.
“Not bad,” Thomas smiled, “With my work in the bazaar pretty slow right now, I need to be out here as much as I can. Diapers are expensive!”
Thomas and his wife had recently had a baby boy, after years of infertility came to an end when they were prayed over by one of his good friends, another missionary in our city.
“May your body be whole, my brother.” I responded, signalling to him that I appreciated the difficulty of his labors.
“Let’s get some chai!” Thomas said and jumped up from his stool.
“Don’t trouble yourself!” I responded, indirectly letting him know that I would indeed appreciate a hot and sugary cup of tea on this cold winter evening. As my coworkers can attest, it’s a rare day that I turn down an offer of our local chai – strong, black, and sweet, with just a hint of bergamot, cinnamon, and cardamom. Not as simple as European teas, not as aggressive as South Asian chais – just an expertly-balanced mix of subtle spices and caffeine.
“Pah! It’s no trouble at all. Sir! Two chais over here!” The chai boy nodded that he had received our order and got to work quickly pouring the scalding water, tea, and generous helpings of sugar into two small transparent glass cups. They were in our hands and burning our fingers in less than a minute.
“May your hands be blessed,” We said to the chai boy as he delivered our order. The chai steamed in the winter air and we began stirring the sugar in, waiting for the tea to cool down just enough to be sipped without scalding.
I knew my friend’s window for visiting was limited, so after a few minutes of general question, I got to the point of my visit.
“Mr. Thomas, you’ve recently shared with me and another fellow teacher in depth that you believe in Jesus.”
“Yes! I have believed for a while. I’ve told you about how I met that older British missionary many years ago in my travels to the countries east of here. I was a conman and a drunkard, but I really did learn a lot from his example and from the church he had there. Those things have stuck with me through the years. And in the past couple of years with my other dear foreign friend, God has answered our prayers for healing and now we have a son. No question about it. I’m not with Islam at all anymore. I’m a follower of Jesus.”
“Mr. Thomas, have you ever attended a church here where there are other believers like you?”
“A church? No, but I did years ago when I was out of the country. It was amazing! Are there churches here? I haven’t seen any.”
“Well,” I responded, “Not church buildings like you would have seen in that other country. But yes, there are a few small groups of believers who meet regularly to worship Jesus together. The real meaning of church is a group of believers, not a religious building.”
Thomas chewed on what I said.
“Do you have any family members or friends who are open to Jesus?”
“No, I have tried to share with them, but it’s just me and has been for a while. My wife might be somewhat more open now… You should bring your wife over sometime so we can have her share more with my wife!”
“We’d like that a lot. And we’ll be praying for your wife to be more open to Jesus. Keep sharing with her patiently and showing her that you are a new man because of Jesus. God willing, she will notice the change in you and want to know the source of it.”
We took some swigs of our chai and I thought about how to phrase my next words. Thomas’ friend had departed for the US and we wanted to be faithful now that we were the primary spiritual influence in his life.
“Mr. Thomas, it’s very important that no follower of Jesus follows him by themselves. God wants us each to be part of a spiritual family, a true church. I’ve been talking with my friends about your situation and we believe Jesus is giving you two very good options.”
Thomas sat up and raised his eyebrows inquisitively.
“We believe that Jesus would like you to either join a church… or to let us help you start one among your family and friends. You don’t have to answer now. You should probably take some time and pray about it. But whatever you decide, we want to help you obey Jesus by being part of a church.”
“I will pray,” Thomas replied. “I am so happy to hear this.”
Now it was my turn to raise my eyebrows. The usual response to the “church talk” was one of caution and suspicion. Many local believers balk at the idea of gathering with other locals out of concern for their own safety. Thomas seemed to be cut from a different cloth. It appeared his travels out east had had quite an impact.
After a few weeks, Thomas contacted us and asked if he could start attending the gathering of believers we had recently begun, in spite of the fact that he had never met those other believers before. He was tired of feeling alone in his faith and didn’t sense that any in his personal network were very open to the gospel, with the exception of maybe his wife. Thomas came the very next week, brought his son, and beamed with joy throughout the whole meeting.
Missionaries in our region have had to think long and hard about the problem of the church gathering. Decades of dictators and secret police have a powerful effect upon the populations they have terrorized. The warped culture that emerges is one of fear, distrust, suspicion, and deceit. Everyone is afraid everyone else is a spy. This makes gathering local believers into a group that can become a church a mightily complicated task. Implosion is the norm.
This has had the unfortunate effect of causing many missionaries to abandon the idea of gatherings made up of unrelated believers altogether. Instead, most have turned a decent principle, the household or oikos, into a hard and fast rule. The oikos principle states that we often see the gospel taking root in natural households in the book of Acts and that missiology since has confirmed that this dynamic continues among unreached people groups – that the gospel usually travels fastest along previously established relational lines and churches tend to be planted in households.
But description has become prescription. One way churches are planted has become the way to plant a church, even to the point where local believers will stay isolated for years because missionaries are opposed in principle to bringing them to group of non-related believers. Following Jesus while isolated and without a spiritual family (even while enduring persecution) becomes preferred to violating the oikos principle. This is done in the name of rapid reproducibility and in response to the very real persecution and distrust that is in the culture.
On the other hand, there are also local believers who become members of a composite group (made up of believers not naturally related to one another) who fail to ever tell their family and friends that they are believers. They stay mostly secret in their compartmentalized faith. This is not healthy. And it’s true, these composite groups almost always implode. The trust between believers that we expect to naturally develop is awfully slow to grow… and sometimes there really are spies.
And yet we cannot abandon the biblical vision of local churches that are not made up only of people who are already naturally like one another. The church is meant to display how the gospel overcomes natural barriers of family, culture, and ethnicity (Col 3:11). If we plant one church for the Hatfields and one church for the McCoys and stop there, how does that not simply reinforce their blood feud? Better (though harder) to have a church where Hatfields and McCoys worship together and visibly attest to the power of the gospel to break down dividing walls of hostility (Eph 2:13-22). Yes, oikos church planting is one natural way the church has taken root among people groups for 2,000 years. But the church must outgrow the oikos and bring reconciliation between opposing households if these churches are to become healthy and faithful. And we must not leave local believers as spiritual orphans in the name of methodology. Obeying the scriptures and gathering with other believers is worth it, even knowing the risks.
All of this context is why I shared with Thomas about the two very good options he had regarding church: join one or help us start one. In truth, these would be two options worth celebrating with new believers almost anywhere in the world. Join a church made up of those totally different from you and together become the household of God, to the amazement of the watching world. Or, work with godly mentors to start a church within the relationships God has already given you. Do any of our cities actually have an overabundance of churches? Isn’t there always room for one more church plant, especially with the evangelistic energy they bring? Start with your household, but by all means, pray for and work for the gospel to break out of your network as soon as possible, and to bring in those who do not naturally fit as part of your oikos. Yes, reach your household. But also reach your enemies.
Not every new believer will be able to start a church in their oikos. The Spirit gives different gifts. Missiology tends to miss this point. But also, not every new believer will be willing to join a church where they trust no one when they have a past involving trauma and betrayal. How can we plant churches that patiently walk with all of them so that they can obey the scriptures and gather with others? I have encouraged my current teammates to share these two options with their newly believing friends, knowing that as a team we share the vision of developing multi-household and multi-ethnic churches. So whether we start with a household and deal with the trust issues on a slower track or whether take the bull by the horns and plant a composite group right away, our aim is to end up in the same place – a biblically faithful church that visibly displays the gospel.
Back to Thomas – he joined our composite church plant, which then went on to implode six months later. One of our leaders-in-training proved to be some kind of a wolf in sheep’s clothing and caused a world of confusion and mayhem. Thomas sadly sided with the wolf for a season. The rebound has been difficult for many of the new believers in that group, but there are signs that Thomas is still mostly on a good track. He has pursued some reconciliation and his wife has even come to faith in the season since the implosion. The church plant, which he sometimes visits, still continues.
Church planting in Central Asia is very messy and we’re learning to take the long view. There are times when I regret introducing Thomas to this group. What would have happened if he had picked the other option? But at the end of the day we walk in the light we have in a given situation. Even if we walk in biblical principles with a good conscience, in the mysterious sovereignty of God things can implode and even fail. And in spite of the eventual difficulties, Thomas’ presence in this diverse group was one of the factors that led to others hearing the gospel for the first time.
The day will come, sooner or later, when Central Asia will once again be full of followers of Jesus. Planting churches is the only way to get there. I am grateful for two very good options Jesus gives us for how to start.
One night our taxi driver neighbor called me, asking if his family could come by for a visit that same evening. We readily agreed, excited that this more traditional family felt free enough to pay a visit to us, their strange American neighbors. We also had a Texan friend over that evening, who himself had lived in this family’s home city, one of the few Americans to do so. I was excited for the potential of the visit.
Things went well enough for the first hour or so. We had tea together, munched on sunflower seeds and banana bread, and even joked around some. In what I thought an obvious jest, I told my neighbor that my Texan friend was the nephew of George W. Bush. I later found out the sarcasm must have gotten lost in translation as months later my neighbor was telling his taxi passengers that he had actually met W’s nephew! Attempts at humor in a foreign tongue can sometimes go awry.
About an hour and a half into the visit, the conversation took an abruptly serious turn as my neighbor asked me what the new password was for our wifi. The previous tenant had not had a password and since we had installed one, our neighbors had come to request that we give them the password and thus restore their free internet access. The quiet and focused attention of the family on me when this request was made led us to suddenly realize what the visit had been all about in the first place. Our neighbors hadn’t come and invested an hour and half visiting because they were primarily interested in knowing us. They had a request to make. And an hour and half visit was their way of indirectly spiraling into this one simple request.
We were initially discouraged by this realization. It felt like they didn’t value us as people, but had used the relational visit as a means to increase the force of their request. But the more we learned about the culture, the more we came to understand that this kind of indirect communication, couching requests or statements in visits or metaphorical language, this is meant to be highly respectful. It’s also meant to be clearly understood, but we straight-shooting Westerners sure end up missing a lot of it, much to the consternation of our Central Asian friends.
Indirect vs. direct communication is another prevalent difference in cultures which can often lead to misunderstanding. Many cultures which are more honor/shame oriented speak indirectly as a part of everyday speech. This is certainly true of Middle Easterners and Central Asians.
In our corner of Central Asia, if you mean to accept an offer, instead of a direct “yes,” you should say “no,” “don’t trouble yourself,” “thanks,” or “may your hands be blessed.” Instead of refusing an offer with a direct “no,” you should say “If God wills it,” “May your house ever be this blessed,” or “thanks.”
That’s right, “thanks” can be used to indicate either yes or no, and “no,” for the first three uses or so, actually means yes. Confused? Welcome to the murky world of cross-cultural communication.
“We Iranians laugh and say that we eat like this,” a refugee friend once told me, curling his right arm over his head in order to put a bite in the left side of his mouth. I have often thought about this image as I’ve been in contexts where polite questions are asked about someone’s welfare, their parents’ welfare, their cousins’ welfare, Trump’s welfare, etc., before the actual reason for the visit is stated explicitly. Indirect communicators spiral into serious topics, like a missionary pilot’s Cessna circling a jungle airstrip, trying to find a break in the cloud cover. Let the evangelist take careful note of this point. Just because the conversation hasn’t gotten to spiritual things in the first hour doesn’t mean the evening won’t lead to fruitful discussion. The plane may only be halfway done with its spiral descent.
Indirect communicators also make heavy use of poetic and symbolic phrases. Proverbs, metaphors, and similes are all leveraged for the sake of honorable and gracious communication – or sometimes for the opposite purpose, to take a dig at someone. To tell someone to stop being such a pain in the neck, you can say, “If you’re not a flower, then don’t be a thorn!” On the other hand, when a father and son visit another man’s household to ask for his daughter’s hand in marriage, they lead with the phrase, “You have a beautiful rose in your garden.” All the men in the room know exactly what that means. An engagement negotiation is about to begin.
“But this all seems so inefficient!” our Western sensibilities cry out. Why not just speak more plainly? Several things are important for us to understand about direct and indirect communicators. The first is that both kinds of people and cultures believe they are being clear. The aim of almost all communication is to be understood, so indirect people and cultures are not usually trying to be opaque – though sometimes they are trying to keep plausible deniability. Usually, indirect communicators have been raised to understand the clear meaning in phrases that, without context, seem unclear or even dishonest to a foreigner. My Central Asian friends believe that everyone knows that the first “no” doesn’t actually mean no.
Second, we need to realize that every culture makes use of both kinds of communication. Even in the West, we tend to speak of sensitive or offensive things in indirect ways. Why is it that no one directly asks about your salary, rent, or your giving to your local church? How would you feel if your waiter asked you directly if his service meant you were going to tip well instead of saying, “And how was everything this evening?” Many a Western marriage has learned that “Little man is stinky!” actually means “Please change our son’s diaper for me.” Or, as many a seminary student has figured out the hard way, it doesn’t usually work to speak too directly about marriage the first time you take a girl out for coffee.Brother, keep the fact that you are interested in marrying her an indirect, open secret for at least the first few dates!
Third, the Bible is full of both kinds of communication. Not only do we have examples like Abraham and Ephron communicating effectively and indirectly, but God himself speaks to us in direct and indirect ways. Much of the Old Testament in God indirectly communicating through narrative that salvation by trying to keep the Law just doesn’t work. What is required is faith in God’s promises of a redeemer. Then he says so directly in passages like Galatians 2:16. When Jesus says in Mark 10:18, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone,” he is saying indirectly that his questioner is not good enough to inherit eternal life (he’s in the category of no one after all), but Jesus is also likely hinting that he himself isgood in this true sense, meaning he is God.
As with time-orientation and event-orientation, Christians are in danger of making our preferred directness or indirectness of speech a black-and-white issue, rather than an issue of Christian liberty or preference. If we hold on to the biblical principle of clear, honest, and loving communication (Eph 4:15, Col 4:4), then we are free to leverage different styles of communication as fits the occasion. We all know there is a kind of directness that can be unloving – and that there is a kind of indirectness that can be dishonest. I’m not saying those cliffs don’t exist. But here again I am arguing for a spectrum of biblical fidelity when it comes to the communication cultures of believers.
I can love my American brother by taking his word for it when he says he doesn’t want a cup of coffee. But in order to love my Central Asian brother, I need to press past the first few indirect responses so that I know how I can host him well. Just as we train our children for what questions and observations are polite to deal with directly in our culture, so we can learn these things about the cultures of other believers also. Again, simple spiritual friendship can make all the difference.
What did we do with our neighbors’ request for free wifi? Well, given the honor/shame dynamics of the situation, we made a call on the spot and temporarily agreed to give them the password. But we knew that from a security standpoint we would need to not have others using our wifi network. So a few weeks later, we changed the password again. I think this worked out honorably all around. Our neighbors understood that we were not able to share our wifi as the previous tenant had. They never asked again. We were able to save face by granting their request temporarily, but later indirectly communicating our final decision.
The way to honorably and clearly decline a request is an area we continue to find challenging in our focus culture. And it’s possible we got this situation wrong. Yet we keep trying to learn more so that we can communicate with clarity, wisdom, and grace – whether that be directly or indirectly.
How have you worked through the challenges of direct and indirect communication in your own families and ministries? Feel free to comment below.