The First Church Discipline in 1,000 Years

Locals have a very aggressive way of pruning their fruit trees. At the very end of fall, the old men with their sickle sticks make their rounds again – and leave the trees naked for the winter. We were not in our current house this past winter, but we saw the effects of the lack of pruning on our loquat tree. Yes, this late spring it had several weeks of the yellow/orange fruit. It was fun while it lasted. One morning I triumphantly plucked my breakfast straight from the tree. But the neighbors’ trees had four times as much fruit for twice as long! Next winter, I’m getting an old man to come prune my trees. I will endure the sad loss of branches and leaves for the hope of the coming harvest.

Two months ago we gathered for the last time as members with the international church in our previous city. As we prepared to move, leaving this dear body of believers was one of the hardest parts. Seldom have I heard of another international church like this one. It is both serious about becoming a healthy biblical church and at the same time practical and devoted to serving cross-cultural missionaries like us in planting language-specific churches. Many international churches do not embrace a robust church planting vision for the local population in their host countries. Or, in the name of serving the broader expat community, many others settle for lowest common denominator doctrine and ecclesiology. But not all. There is a small but encouraging movement afoot, begun in the UAE twenty years or so ago, that is dotting this region of the world with a different breed of international churches. In my opinion as a cross-cultural missionary, this is one important part of a broader strategy to reach regions like ours with the gospel.

When we were new members at this church, we got to be a part of their first church discipline vote. Now, this is not at face value a very encouraging thing. Though commanded in scripture in passages like Matthew 18, church discipline is hard, messy, and costly. As such, it is largely absent from the evangelical missions world – despite being practiced by William Carey, Adoniram Judson, and others of our forerunners.

How exactly church discipline should get worked out in church planting situations is complicated, and there is a great need for research and thinking to be done about how to actually do this. As with many areas of ecclesiology, it’s gets muddy when you are seeking to plant the first healthy church ever among a certain people group – in situations that we call “zero to one.” How do you do church discipline when you haven’t been able to raise up local pastors/elders, and the church plant is led by temporary-apostolic-planter-pastor types like us? How do you discipline when you haven’t had a chance yet to teach on church membership and roll out a size and culture-appropriate expression of the inside-outside principle for biblical congregations? Yet the complications don’t erase the biblical commands nor the realities on the ground. For a tree to be healthy and fruitful, it must be pruned. The same is true of the local church – and church plants. After all, Paul’s letters were written to situations not too different from ours, to first generation believers who worshiped in church planting contexts.

In our first term we got burned by these very complexities. A local leader-in-training turned out to be a very divisive and deceitful man, who was bribing and dangerously misleading new believers. When our team wanted to move against him in order to protect the church plant, we were undermined by our conservative evangelical partners who didn’t feel that church discipline would “work” in this culture. Turns out the line of those who will actually do church discipline and who won’t is another crucial one which, in terms of practice, divides Bible-believing evangelicals. When it comes down to it, many biblical innerantists on the mission field won’t actually obey the Bible on this front. When you are dealing with a wolf, this is deadly.

Even among those of us who felt that we were dealing with a Titus 3 “divisive man,” we were very unsure of how to proceed in a new church plant that was not yet quite a church. We were caught flat-footed, and this skilled manipulator had lots of room to run circles around us, at great cost. Just the other day I was exploring the bazaar and happened to find the tailor shop of a new believer who fell away in that season, one of the first victims of that whole debacle. I don’t know if he’s open to relationship with us again, but now that we know where his shop is we can try to rekindle that connection.

All of this context is why were were both grieved and encouraged that the international church was moving forward to discipline one of their few local members. This young man had stopped coming to the church gathering for about a year and was unrepentant in the face of earnest counsel to return to his spiritual family. Hiking was more important than his church, and it appeared that his faith had been like the seed sown on shallow soil. He was simply over Jesus, and he was OK with that. We prayed for him to repent and waited patiently, but when the members meeting arrived we sought to be faithful to Jesus by declaring this man an unbeliever and no longer a member of our body.

As we reflected on what happened that day, we realized that this local man may have been the first person in our focus people group to be church disciplined for a thousand years. Or perhaps ever. There was a significant presence of ancient Christians in this area, and they did practice excommunication at times, so I can’t positively say he was the first. But likely the first for a millennium. A tragic distinction for him. But a courageous step for the international church. It would have been so easy to excuse away patterned unrepentant sin because as a local he was coming from an unchurched background, because locals are more resistant to the gospel, because their culture means they don’t understand church discipline, etc. But instead of going these routes, the church leadership and body stepped out in faith, obeyed the Scriptures, and pruned the tree.

The aim of healthy church discipline is always restoration – that those disciplined would wake up and respond in true repentance and faith. We pray that this young man would do this. But we also know that healthy church planting here will involve many more situations like this one. Every time will be a challenge. Will we believe and obey the Scriptures when both our culture and our adopted culture find it unpalatable? When local believers and other evangelicals tell us not to? We must. This is simply what faithfulness in church planting looks like. Holding fast to the commands of Christ, come what may.

We must model for the local believers how to prune the church as they model for us how to prune our fruit trees. To be faithful gardeners, we must endure the sadness of the pruning for the hope of the abundant fruit that will result.

Next spring I hope for many more loquats. And next decade? Many more brothers and sisters in the faith.

Photo by Paul Hanaoka on Unsplash

The Border Bridge

“You have to leave tomorrow. There’s a chance the other faction of the government will take control of the border and your exit visa will no longer be valid.”

The land border was the only exit we had left. During a political crisis the airports had been shut down. Other borders were shut or went through territory too dangerous to traverse as Westerners. We had been stuck in-country for a while, hunkered down as we watched political powers slowly tighten the grip on the region we were living in.

One colleague wisely counseled us in that season, “There’s a unique stress to being stuck out of country, and there’s a unique stress to being stuck in. Which one can your family better handle right now?” It was time to risk the stress of being stuck out.

We handed off our responsibilities to local believers and partners and consulted maps together. The tense uncertainty of our ability to return meant it was a sweet goodbye with the little core of our local church plant. Early the next morning, we set off.

The journey to the one border crossing left meant a six hour drive through the mountains, then leaving our vehicle with some friends. From there we would take a taxi one hour to the border, go through the border processes, and then drive another two hours to an airport city in the least unstable country of our region. We looked forward to a two-night rest in a hotel once we got there. We would need it to be ready for the long flights back to the US with two small children.

The drive through the mountains went well. It was spring and the bright green carpet of grass was already creeping over the mountains. We drove by ancient cities and villages I still hope to visit someday. Everything was strangely quiet for the six hour drive. The vehicle drop-off went well. The designated taxi was waiting and we made the trip. So far so good. Now for the border – the most unpredictable part.

Had the other faction taken control and would they block our exit or fine us? Would the border even be open? Would there bathrooms – or chai?! I had crossed this land border once before, but that was ten years previous. We were at the mercy of our taxi driver, who thankfully was very adept at shuffling us and our documents from one window bureaucrat to another. He also had TV screens for the kids in the back seat, which played several Tom and Jerry episodes in a loop. This would prove to be remarkably helpful as we jumped back in the car and drove to join a massive line of vehicles. After managing to pull into line, we sat. And then proceeded to sit for seven hours.

It wasn’t that we were totally still. We probably moved about one centimeter per minute. In front of us was our country’s security checkpoint, then a bridge across a river – maybe 100 meters long – and the neighboring country’s security checkpoint on the other side. We thought we had gotten there with plenty of time, but before we knew it the afternoon was spent and the sun was setting. The only exit left was one massive bottleneck.

We sat and sat and inched forward and sat some more. We made it through our country’s security checkpoint without too much trouble. No sign anywhere of the rumored takeover. Sometime after sunset we made it onto the bridge itself. An encouraging development, to be sure – until our three year old daughter needed a bathroom. There was no way back. And we couldn’t access the bathroom on the other side of the next security checkpoint, down at the other end of the bridge. So we tried, in vain, to create a shield with the car door and to help her relieve herself there on the pavement of the bridge. What else was to be done? We had at least another two hours to go sitting on this bridge. However, the strangeness (security spotlights and all) was too much for her three year-old-system, and in spite of her full bladder, she simply couldn’t go anymore. My wife decided to see if we could get an exception for a cute kid desperately in need of a potty. She headed off toward the end of the bridge with our daughter in tow, and was able to make eye contact with a female border agent standing at a side door – who mercifully gave them illegal bathroom access. Technically that toilet existed on the territory of a country we had not yet been cleared to enter. But common grace still exists, and cute kids can secure all kinds of exceptions in Central Asia.

We had a lot of time that day to be still and notice our surroundings during the seven hours it took to cross that river. We started noticing something curious. Some people were milling around up and down the bridge by foot. As they would pass our vehicle and others, some would tap twice or three times on the metal siding of the car. It wasn’t aimless. It was some kind of pattern. We started noticing small packages being slyly passed up the line of vehicles and individuals ducking behind cars as the security spotlight hit, and running up behind the next car once it moved on. We were witnessing a robust yet seemingly common-place smuggling operation. All the taxi drivers – judging by the tapping system – seemed to be in on it. Including our own.

We had been clear with him that as Christians, we were not going to be able to take part in any cigarette smuggling that is typically expected of taxi border passengers. Taxi drivers will stuff passengers’ bags with bulk cartons of cigarettes and have the passengers claim them as their own. In this way the drivers and their associates are able to buy cigarettes cheaply on our side of the border, and sell them for a profit on the other. We simply would not participate in the part where we said they belonged to us, we had insisted with the driver. And he assured us that he was OK with this and wouldn’t try any funny business with the smokes.

Late at night we finally made it to the security checkpoint. I checked our bags as they were taken out of the trunk. No bulk cigarette packages. But I did notice some had appeared in the trunk. Fruit of the car-tappers, no doubt. We shuffled our bleary-eyed children away from their hours of Tom and Jerry on repeat and made our way to the X-ray machine. As soon as we put our bags on the belt, a young man ran up out of nowhere and placed the cartons of cigarettes alongside our bags.

“What are these?” the security agent asked us.

“These belong to them!” said the young man.

“No they don’t, I said in the sister dialect of the local language.”

“These foreigners don’t understand our language,” he said, “I assure you these belong to them.” And he smiled at me with a please play along now kind of look.

“No,” I said, “these are not ours!” I was grateful that these sentences were more or less intelligible across the dialects. A look of worry flashed on the man’s face as a couple of burly security men came and hauled him off. The security officer attending us just shrugged. I shot a look back at our driver who was scratching his head some distance from us, trying not to look disappointed that his sneaky plan had failed.

Around one in the morning we finally made it to the hotel where we were staying, after leaving our house around 5 a.m. the previous day. We slept hard.

Upon waking and heading down to the breakfast buffet, we immediately felt the stress lifting now that we were no longer in a country under political siege. I sipped my Americano and enjoyed the bright light coming into the hotel dining room. After the long season of security crises and our crazy border crossing day, we could now breathe deep for a little bit. Then it was off to the US for our first trip back since moving overseas.

My wife was staring at me. She started mouthing some words. I am positively terrible at lip reading, so after I tried and failed to understand what she was saying, she gave up and just blurted it out.

“I’m pregnant.”

“You’re what?!”

I nearly dropped my coffee. And that’s how I learned about our third-born.

Photo by Max Titov on Unsplash

Lean Toward the Radical

Two weeks ago we celebrated another wedding anniversary. I’ve now been married to my lovely bride for almost one third of my life. And I marvel at God’s kindness to me that I get to be married to this wonderful woman.

During our anniversary I was reminded of some marriage advice from my first year of college. I had joined a one-year program for freshman at Bethlehem Baptist in Minneapolis, where John Piper was the preaching pastor at the time. Our year of study focused heavily on history, theology, and missions. We read authors like Ralph Winter, Rodney Stark, Thomas Cahill, Jonathan Edwards, and dozens of others. And we focused on important figures in missions history, like William Carey. It was a small group of students in our cohort, only eleven of us – a very good way to reenter life in the US for this MK fresh from Melanesia.

Occasionally we would have one of the pastors at Bethlehem be our guest lecturer or come in for a Q&A session. One day John Piper was fielding questions. We had recently finished studying the life of Carey and there was one question that was bugging me.

“Pastor John, William Carey was an amazing man and did some incredible things. But his wife didn’t want to go to India and she lost her mind on the mission field – then she died. He might not have done what he should have to take care of her. Some of us are wrestling with a call to the nations, but also with a call to be godly husbands as well. How can we balance these two callings that sometimes seem in tension?”

Piper furrowed his brow and answered in three parts.

First, he encouraged me to make sure that as I pursued a woman to marry, that I made sure that she shared a similar calling to the unreached. That would prevent many of the issues in the Carey situation.

Second, he warned me against the contemporary Western tendency to idolize the family. The larger danger for our generation, according to Piper, was to love family and safety so much that we fail to sacrifice for the nations as we should. We are unlikely to fall into the same pitfalls of Carey’s era.

Finally, he leaned forward and squinted his eyes at me, giving one last exhortation, “And.. lean toward the radical!”

It was sound and stirring advice for my eighteen-year-old self. The following fall I ended up taking a gap year in Central Asia, where I found my calling to the nations confirmed. The year after that I met my bride-to-be, who also shared a burden for Central Asia. We would joke while dating about her excitement to live among camels and tents. That common love and calling has meant that we have not lost our minds (yet) in the costly seasons and places of ministering among the unreached.

And what of leaning toward the radical? How has that gone for us? Well, we certainly have our scars and our particular brokenness that has come from walking this path. I don’t feel nearly as bold or as strong as I used to. By this point we know well the sting of great risks taken that have ultimately failed. Yet the unreached peoples and places of this world are that way for a reason. They are hard to access, and hard to reach with the gospel once accessed. Our focus culture, for example, seems exquisitely designed to implode church plants before they even get off the ground. Church planting here is like lobbing watermelons into a minefield. Sure, melons will eventually grow in that field, but there’s gonna be whole lot of noise and mess for quite some time.

But oh the difference it makes to have a good woman by your side, one who would have come here even without you. To have agreed to the risks and the costs – together – is something remarkable and gracious. It’s not a simple thing, balancing biblical manhood with the needs of the unreached. But Piper was right. The right woman, a counter-cultural posture, a bent toward the radical – these things have been vital to maintaining a faithful posture in the midst of the tension.

Photo by Prasanth Dasari on Unsplash

I Finally Got a Pretty Phone Number

I finally did it. I caved and purchased a pretty phone number for around $30.

As cross-cultural workers, there are some aspects of the culture that we are eager to put on. “Wow, the locals are so good at generous hospitality!”

There are other aspects that as Christians we will never put on, such as the shamefulness and suspicion attached to adoption among locals.

Then there are issues of preference in the culture that for one reason or another we just don’t care to put on. The fact that locals spend money to buy phone numbers that are deemed more beautiful? I just haven’t found that very important. Rather, in the age of smart phones it’s just felt kind of vain and goofy. Who cares about phone numbers anymore?

And yet every transition is another chance to reexamine our posture toward local culture and to take some additional steps so that we ourselves might seem less weird and goofy to the locals. This time around, my new platform manager joked that I should get a pretty phone number for my new business cards being made. We laughed about it, but the comment made me realize I was no longer absolutely closed to the idea, and it might be an experiment worth trying. After all, locals have been asking me about my ugly phone numbers for years. So I took the plunge and got a pretty phone number.

The first local friend I gave it to was *Frank, himself a very practical man more concerned with things working than with beauty. But sure enough, even Frank lit up. “Wow! Where did you get such a pretty mobile number?”

I just laughed to myself and then awkwardly told him how much I paid for it.

Locals can’t always put their finger on it, but they sense when cross-cultural workers are doing what they can to put on the local culture. It is meaningful because it is not absolutely necessary. “Why would you willingly change preferential things that you have grown up with in order to live more like we do?”

It’s not that a small step like this will make all the difference in becoming all things to all men. I remember being at an evangelism methods debate years ago where a white American brother proclaimed, “I do not need to learn how to shake hands like a black man in order to share the gospel with black men!” A Bolivian brother and I who were part of the discussion just kind of grimaced. Of course, this comment is correct on one level. We don’t need to learn culture as a precondition to sharing the gospel. The gospel itself qualifies us to share it across cultural lines. However, if step by step we also gradually reduce the cultural barriers that might be there, then we often find the cumulative effect to be a more attentive ear – and yes, a more skillful evangelist. The fact is, as an evangelist I have to drop some very hard truths on you regarding eternal damnation. So why not try to remove things that could tempt you to write off my message as for only my type of people?

We have learned that these kinds of shifts are just one more practical way to show love. This is true of any culture. But when foreign workers come from more dominant cultures and then willingly choose to identify with hidden or oppressed cultures, these small steps can mean even more. I can’t tell you how big the smiles get when we drop a few phrases in a minority tongue that no foreigner is supposed to know.

Yes, I am fully within my rights to continue living in the culture of my own heritage. It’s just as much a good culture as the local one, fully equal in its dignity and its brokenness. My parents’ culture is not inferior just because it is Western and has been very influential for a while. To act like it is is to fall into a different kind of error. However, when I willingly lay down my rights for the sake of love, when I take steps to identify just a little bit more with locals – just one more nod toward the honor and dignity embedded in their heritage that still endures even given all the fallenness and sin – this can open remarkable doors.

A pretty phone number will not be the straw that breaks the camel’s back and ushers in revival. But perhaps it will add to the stack! And thus it is an experiment worth attempting.

*Names changed for security

Photo by James Sutton on Unsplash

We Have Found Our New House

We are now the proud renters of a traditional stone house, built in 1955, right on the edge of our city’s bazaar. It’s a got a large garden courtyard that wraps around three sides of the house, enclosed by beautiful, though neglected, stone walls. The house is made of the same kind of stone. The different limestone blocks are subtle shades of grey, pink, tan, and yellow. Small fruit trees line the courtyard – loquat, tangerine, fig, olive, and some grape vines. It also has it’s own well.

The interior rooms are plastered, broad, and lit by many traditional metal windows which are lovely in the spring, but will do very little to keep out the cold of winter. There’s only one squatty potty, and a small traditional bath/sauna room. Three walls have some considerable water damage. The kitchen door is so small we won’t be able to fit in our appliances or counters. There’s a lot of work to be done, but it has such potential and will actually be a beautiful house once it’s fixed up and lived in, in contrast to many of the ugly cement structures of the more recent eras. And beauty may not always seem practical or efficient, but we are finding that is supposed to play a much bigger part in our lives than it has in recent years.

The location is also exciting (for us anyway!). It’s right on the edge of the bazaar, in a very old neighborhood, the one where *Hama grew up. That means it’s a two minute walk for us to be in the bazaar proper and a ten minute walk to the center. I have access to a traditional man street of the bazaar and my wife can walk just a bit further to get access to a street frequented by women. That means I would probably be within walking distance of two dozen tea houses and my wife within walking distance of two dozen used clothes shops.

We have always loved the bazaar and can’t believe that we actually have a chance to live right next to it now. Our hope is that this will mean we can go even deeper into the local language and culture and that our neighborhood will be much more accessible to local believers who are dependent on walking and public transit. All the buses flow to the bazaar. Locals themselves seem to naturally flow to the bazaar, ending up there even on days when they swear they are completely broke or booked by work, study, or visiting relatives. It is in a real sense the soul of the city. We’ve spoken for years about the ministry advantages that could come by living close to the bazaar. Now we get to test it out.

It is a little odd that we are moving into this area. Very few, if any, Americans have lived there. Locals bemoan the terrible afternoon congestion of the area streets and the electricity and water issues. But once we explain that we are old souls who love the bazaar and the classic houses, they seem to mostly understand. “He is a confused man. But alas, whoever does not accept their neighbor is not accepted by God!” is one older neighbor lady’s comment about me now that we’ve actually rented the place. For her part, she was very kind and concerned that we were paying far too much rent for the place given the poor economy and it’s condition. But I am willing to pay a bit more rent than locals would because I believe a little bit of work will make folks a year from now shocked that we got it at such a good price. Plus the economy is likely to rebound, sending rent prices up again. But we’ll be locked into a very reasonable rate. And a big yard right in the middle of the city? That’s an almost impossible find. And at 2, 7, and 9, my kids (and their parents) would be greatly helped by having some space and some dirt and some trees.

We’ve been praying hard for this past month that we would find a good house, close to the bazaar and life-giving for our family. Though it’s a fixer-upper, we are amazed at God’s kindness in answering through this lovely old stone home. May it become an oasis of hospitality, rest, and even eternal life.

A Gray Crown of Glory

Tonight we had dinner with *Frank and *Patti, two dear local believers that I’ve written about before. We had a wonderful time eating and joking together and being introduced to their new poultry micro-business they’re operating from their roof. I must say – the roosters in this part of the world are positively huge.

Frank, in his mid 40s, is already sporting a full head of silvery hair. During our visit tonight I was reminded of the time three years ago when Frank shared his testimony publicly for the first time. We had asked four of the believers in the church plant to share a basic story of what their life was like before Jesus, how they had heard the gospel, the content of the gospel, and then how their life has changed since following Jesus.

When Frank’s turn to share had come, he stuck to this basic outline, but also included a bit of a detour explaining how Islam had always motivated him by fear, whereas the gospel motivated him now by better motives – love, gratitude, and glory. To illustrate, he surprised us by quoting Proverbs 16:31, “Gray hair is a crown of glory; it is gained in a righteous life.”

“I first heard this verse when sister Sister Workman shared it with me,” Frank said.

My wife looked up, surprised. She had shared this verse with Frank largely in jest and not ever thinking that anything would come of it.

“I heard this verse,” Frank continued, “and it struck me as a good example of how very different the gospel is from Islam.”

We cocked our heads and listened. This should be interesting.

“When I was a Muslim I was told that I shouldn’t dye my hair black to cover up these emerging gray hairs. To do so would be a terrible sin and contribute to my condemnation. But I have dyed my hair many times, because this motivation by fear wasn’t enough to control my desire to look good in front of others. But then after I believed, I heard this verse from the proverbs of Solomon, and it introduced a very different motivation to this issue. It told me that gray hair is a crown of glory. It motivated me to obedience with something better and stronger than fear, it motivated me through something beautiful, through glory.”

Frank then made the connection to the heart of the gospel. “The gospel of Jesus Christ doesn’t try change us by merely threatening condemnation, like the religion I grew up with. Instead, we are forgiven through the sacrifice of Jesus, since he took our condemnation for us, and then we are free to obey because of reasons like love and glory… So, I don’t have to dye my hair anymore! You’ll see me getting quite gray here very soon!

And Frank began to laugh his contagious and joyful laugh.

Tonight I smiled at Frank and his gray hair of glory as he proudly showed me his newly hatched chicks and goofy adolescent chickens with their feathered feet. I mused to myself about the potential for mini poultry businesses like this to support believers who lose their jobs because of their faith. Apparently you can buy a baby Turkey locally for $7, and sell it full-grown for $70 – and raise it almost for free on table scraps. Not bad!

Like my local friends, all of us can fall into obeying in order to try and secure God’s favor and appease him. While the Scriptures are full of grace-motivated obedience, we often miss it. What a joy then it is to walk with believers from other cultures who spot gospel motivation in the text in places we never even would have thought to look.

I am myself sprouting quite a few gray hairs these days. I hope to follow Frank, as he follows Solomon (and the true and better Solomon). Gray hairs don’t have to be a shameful thing we try to hide. Instead, they can be a mark of glory, and even a reminder of the gospel itself.

Photo by Takalani Radali on Unsplash

*Names changed for security

Blame It On the Masons

A local friend today gave me a powerful example of how far we humans will go to excuse away shortcomings in our own tribe – something true Christians are not immune from either.

We were discussing the correct use of a new local proverb I had just learned. The proverb translates to something like, “your excuse is worse than your shameful action.” I thought it was to be used for a typical situation where someone does something disrespectful and then uses a lame excuse to defend themselves.

“No, no, no,” my friend insisted, “We use it when someone does something blatantly sinful and then right away tries to do something spiritual as if nothing had happened. Like someone boldly going to do Islamic prayers right away after doing something very shameful.”

This statement reminded me of a sad encounter I had a few years ago with a former English student. He had invited me to his workplace. While there we hung out with his coworkers. One of them, a middle aged woman, was in an unhappy marriage. To my dismay, as I sipped chai and ate the obligatory guest chocolate, I realized that my student was joyfully helping this woman set up secret social media accounts so that she could cheat on her husband. They were laughing and having a great time. I was grieved that this student would so willingly and openly participate in this kind of deceit and betrayal.

Then the call to prayer went off. There was a small mosque built right next to my coworker’s office. “Come! Let’s go pray!” He said to me. I let him know that I was content to sit at the back of the mosque while he prayed, but I wasn’t going to be joining in. One, I’m a follower of Jesus who believes in salvation by grace alone, and therefore can’t participate in a prayer ritual that is understood to count as merit that balances out sins committed. Two, I was not about to join this man in prayer after he had happily become an accomplice to adultery. I was angry inside at the blatant hypocrisy of my student, who then went on after prayers to extol to me the virtues of his religion.

I shared this situation with my friend today as we sat in the park, and he confirmed that this would be a very appropriate situation to use this proverb. But by bringing up this story, I had poked the honor-shame mechanism in my friend’s worldview, and even though he’s not a strict practicing Muslim, he felt obligated to defend his tribe.

“You know, my friend,” he began. “We have some people here, secretly among us.” I nodded. It’s Central Asia. There tend to be actual spies around, and basically everyone suspects everyone else of being some kind of spy for someone. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard that people think I’m a spy. “They are from our people, but they are supported by a group called the Masons. The Masons pay these people a salary and order them to do shameful things and then to go and do Islamic rituals also. In this way they hope to give foreigners like you a negative view of Islam. They hope to make Islam look two-faced, but we are on to them and their schemes.”

Now, lest you get the wrong idea, my local friend who told me this is extremely intelligent. He is a language teacher who is fluent in multiple languages with a sharp mind for cultural, historical, and political information. But as is often the case, intelligence is no match for the deeper impulse of defending the honor of one’s own tribe. The mind will quickly become the servant of the deep emotional need to find some kind of scapegoat or explanation so that shame is deflected – no matter how implausible that explanation is.

I have heard some wild explanations in my time from very dear and very intelligent friends (Central Asians and Westerners). But to hear that the Freemasons were paying locals to act like hypocritical Muslims so that foreigners like me would discount Islam? That’s, um, that’s quite the stretch.

Not really knowing what to do with that story, I moved the conversation on to other topics. But I found myself inwardly grateful for the simple honesty that following Jesus affords. We don’t have to latch on to elaborate stories to excuse away the actions of Christians who are not acting according to the Bible. We can simply say that their words and actions contradict God’s word – and that if they are true believers they will come to repent of them sooner or later. We don’t have to hide our own two-facedness, or that of our tribe. We can admit it, call it what it is, and bring it to the cross for forgiveness and change. After all, our good news begins with the bad news that we are all hypocrites desperately in need of being made clean and being made new.

Those most grounded in the gospel of Jesus Christ should be those most free from the lure of conspiracy theories. We simply don’t need them. We have plenty of clear reasons for what’s wrong with the world, starting with our own sin and brokenness. Thank God, there’s no need for tales of imaginary Masonic spies.

Photo by David Tip on Unsplash

Diabetes Is Not Forever: One Year Later

One year ago today we found out my six year old daughter had type 1 (childhood) diabetes. We had been at some organizational meetings in Europe in January, and as usual, a serious virus made the rounds among the kids. On the way home a security crisis canceled our flights and we were stuck in a layover city for several days. We were grateful for the unexpected rest, as my kids and wife were having the hardest time recovering from this strange virus, while I was strangely asymptomatic. Since then we’ve heard reports of Covid-19 being present in the country where our meetings were, even as early as January 2020. We can’t help but wonder if that’s what it was, since many of the symptoms line up.

We eventually made it made it back home and everyone slowly got healthy again. Or so we thought. After about a month we started noticing some strange things going on with our daughter. Two months after our trip the symptoms were increasing. She started wetting the bed at night when this had never before been a problem. She seemed to be looking unusually bony and skinny. She was waking up in the night extremely thirsty and and in the day eating and drinking large amounts, but without seeming to be able to quench her hunger or thirst. Her stomach started getting swollen and serious constipation developed. Eventually a rash appeared on her stomach and she started becoming lethargic and falling asleep in the middle of the floor at random times. Her normal state of 110% zest and energy was simply no longer there.

By this point we were several weeks into a strict Covid-19 lockdown. We were trying to treat our daughter’s symptoms, get remote medical advice, and wondering if being cooped up in the house without as much physical activity was partially to blame. But when I tried to have “gym class” at home, she was barely able to participate because of fatigue and discomfort. We were getting seriously worried when a doctor friend of our teammates suggested we check her blood sugar. Even though there was a history of diabetes in my wife’s family, we hadn’t thought to explore in this direction.

The police were mostly allowing civilian vehicles to drive around local neighborhoods, but not on the main city streets. So I was grateful that every local neighborhood in our corner of Central Asia contains several small but quality pharmacies – one of the ways the private sector here has responded to the broken government healthcare system.

It was a sunny late March afternoon when my daughter and I carefully drove to the far end of our neighborhood, making sure there weren’t new roadblocks and hoping that pharmacies would be open. As I recall, this was the first time she had to put on a mask to enter a building. She was really groggy and I remember encouraging her to try really hard not to fall asleep in the car. Deep down I was becoming afraid that falling asleep could be dangerous – though I couldn’t have said why.

We stopped in a local pharmacy and bought a blood testing kit, one of the kinds where you prick a finger and test a drop of blood through a special strip and small digital reader. The pharmacist conducted the test for us on the spot and as soon as the result showed, his brow furrowed. “They can’t show a blood sugar number if it’s above 400,” he said. “Let’s try again. If it’s still just showing ‘HIGH,’ then you’ll have to go to the hospital for a more detailed test.” Sure enough, the second test showed the same result. We would have to go to an ER – and that in the beginnings of the local Covid-19 outbreak.

I called my wife to update her that we might be out for a few more hours and to ask her to pray that the police would let us through the checkpoints. Thankfully, they did. All I had to do was tell them that my daughter was having a medical emergency and that we had to get to the hospital – fast. They would glance in the back seat, see how frail and sick she looked, and quickly wave us through. I was relieved it was this easy.

We arrived at an urgent care type of facility and they ran some blood tests. By this point I was really hoping that we would be able to find some answers, even if it meant something like diabetes. Some kind of mistake was made and the first round of tests didn’t include checking for the blood sugar level. They almost sent us home, but I somehow caught the mistake. As soon as they checked the blood sugar, the tone of the medical staff changed. They communicated that our daughter’s blood glucose level was extremely high and that they would have to transfer us to a private hospital with one of the only local endocrinologists who had experience treating children. While type 2 diabetes is everywhere here (blame the rice, chai, and baklava), type 1 is almost unheard of. Type 2 is usually diet-related and emerges in adults. Type 1 requires a genetic predisposition and emerges in children in response to the body’s immune system attacking a virus – and the body’s own pancreas by mistake. When this happens the part of the pancreas that makes insulin gets mortally wounded, and eventually stops producing insulin altogether.

The next couple hours were a strange mixture of sitting around waiting and medical staff urgently coming in and out. I could tell that it was serious, but the doctor was only willing to say that he thought it was likely diabetes. We were transferred by ambulance to a private hospital and taken up to the third floor. As we approached the doors of the ICU, they rushed my daughter through and I was abruptly informed that I wasn’t allowed to come inside. I pushed back that this wasn’t an option, that I had to be there alongside my six year old daughter who they now poking with various needles – and who was now beginning to shriek in terror. She has always hated shots with a passion. And now she couldn’t even see her dad. While the hospital staff insisted that non-staff are never allowed in the ICU, my daughter was fighting them hard enough and I argued just strong enough to be given temporary access and the assurance that I could stay in a room just outside the ICU door. I decided to take these concessions and to wait to push more later.

I was able to have a few moments comforting my daughter as the nursing stuff buzzed around us and attached various wires and tubes to her frail body. Soon a doctor came in and the staff insisted that it was time for me to leave, but that I could get access to her a little bit later. I was not comfortable with this arrangement at all, but I tried to stay calm, and tried somehow to help my daughter not panic. On the way out I managed to see the paperwork of her blood tests.

Blood glucose level was 786. Normal is 80-180.

I quickly sat down on the small couch in my room, just outside the ICU doors and googled what a 786 blood sugar level meant. What I found froze me in my tracks. Diabetic coma. And other terrifying possibilities. I knew that something very serious was going on, but it wasn’t until that moment that I realized just how close we had gotten to losing our daughter. Sitting by myself in that room a sense of desperation overcame me and I pleaded with God for my daughter’s life. I realized that our hasty goodbye in the ICU could have been the last time we saw one another.

I don’t remember how long it took for a doctor to come and update me on the situation. Much of that time was spent frantically praying and sending out texts for prayer. I was also talking to my wife by phone. She was understandably furious that they had not allowed me to stay by our daughter’s side. I tried to reassure her that I would keep pushing for regular access, but that we didn’t have very many options and that fighting at that point wouldn’t get us more.

Eventually a young doctor came in my room. He told me that my daughter was experiencing something called diabetic ketoacidosis, a condition where the body’s cells have been unable to process the “food” they need due to lack of insulin, so the body has been attacking and consuming itself. This was what accounted for all of the strange symptoms she had been experiencing. She definitely had new onset type 1 diabetes. But she was going to make it. They would work to stabilize her and safely bring her blood sugar levels down. We would need to stay in the hospital for a week or so.

“Don’t consider it an illness. Consider it a gift!” he said with a flourish as he made his way out the door. While thankful for the intent, I clenched my teeth at these parting words. Not the right time, doc, not the right time.

Through the timely intervention of the hospital staff and the prayers of God’s people, everything got easier from that point on. Our daughter stabilized, although it took three days or so for her blood sugar levels to be safely brought down below 300. As the mostly foreign hospital staff realized I could get my daughter calm enough for her shots and urine tests, they began to invite me into the ICU more and more, and eventually just gave me the door code so I could come in whenever I wanted to.

The first 48 hour shift nurse assigned to our daughter was an Indian gal, and one who was connected to our international church. Turns out one of the Filipino doctors at the hospital was a believing member of our church. Other Pakistani fellow members walked from their neighborhood to bring me home-cooked pratha and omelettes. The wife of one of our pastors sent me an Aeropress coffee maker and some ground coffee. Most of our team lived a little too far from the hospital to be able to walk there, but they walked groceries to my wife and other two kids at home, and provided childcare so that my wife could begin to visit the hospital once we acquired a special letter for the checkpoints. One single teammate could make it to the hospital by foot, and he even learned to boil eggs just so that he could fulfill that particular request. To this day my daughter raves about those boiled eggs. As her cells began to be able to absorb nutrients again, she began to eat like a full grown man!

After three nights, our daughter was allowed to move into my room. This was a cause for celebration. We began having dance parties to try to bring her sugar down and experimenting with the random diabetic-friendly food items we could get from nearby stores. Lots of nuts and cheese and cucumbers. Not so much rice and bread, which was mostly what the hospital food consisted of.

It became a strangely joyful time in that bright little hospital room that smelled like Pakistani food and coffee. My daughter seems to remember mostly the sweet parts of our surreal hospital stay and to not recall the many scary parts. I am incredibly grateful for this.

As best we can figure, that virus that hit our family back in January 2020 is likely what caused my daughter’s immune system to misfire and handicap her pancreas. This led to the development of the ketoacidosis. Apparently type 1 diabetes is much more common among those of Northern European and specifically Scandinavian descent. Turns out our DNA has more of that heritage than we knew at the time. We really should have known that this was a possibility for our kids, since my wife’s two younger sisters also have type 1. These sisters have proved to be wonderfully helpful aunts to my daughter since they can identify with her experience so well. The experience that my wife had growing up with her sisters’ diabetes is likely why we were able to so quickly get back to a kind of normalcy – and why we continue to feel so grateful at the kind of diabetes management now available. God should get more glory for insulin pumps and continuous glucose monitors (we use the Omnipod and Dexcomm G6). These devices, sadly not available in this country, are stunning in how much freedom they give kids with type 1 and their parents. A disease that would have been fatal in 1921 barely slows down my now seven-year-old in 2021. We were able to get set up with these devices during five months of medical leave in the middle of last year.

We look back at what happened a year ago and we thank God and shudder. It was hard. We will be lamenting the presence of this disease in our family for the rest of our lives. Yet we also rejoice at God’s particular kindness to us through this whole experience. From the medical advice that came just in time to catching the blood tests done wrong to the unexpected presence of believers in the hospital, God was very much communicating his care for us. And there are many more details of things like this that I haven’t mentioned because this post is long enough already.

One year ago we discovered our daughter’s type 1 diabetes. It hasn’t been easy. But now, twelve months later, we know more of the kindness and care of our God.

And diabetes is not forever.

“I wonder,” I mused to my wife the other day, “If in heaven the lame walk, and the blind see… do you think perhaps Jesus greets those who had type-1 diabetes with a giant ice cream sundae? ‘Welcome home! Your disease is no more. Here, have all the ice cream you can handle!”

Photo by Sebastian Coman Photography on Unsplash

Now I Understand Why You Were Always Talking About Church

“Hey *Hama! I just came from the tea house. Your brother-in-law is in there telling everyone that you are a Christian and that he’s going to kill you!”

Hama and I were hanging out at his favorite intersection in the bazaar when his friend came up and made this announcement.

“Hama?” I asked, “What’s he talking about?”

Hama went on to fill me in on the situation. By this point he and his wife had both been believers for eight years, and were getting serious about their faith again after some years of struggle without steady discipleship. I had been gone in the US finishing up school and starting a family, but a year before our return I had visited and connected them with a new missionary family. This discipleship from these workers – who would later become dear teammates – was bearing good fruit.

As one simple expression of their faith, that year they had put up a Christmas tree, and their six-year-old son had made a cross ornament. However, a photo of him smiling in front of the tree with his ornament had made the rounds among *Tara’s family, Hama’s wife. Her relations, I came to learn, were by far the more conservative and Islamic side. We had made it through the round of persecution brought by Hama’s family eight years previous. Now it was her family’s turn. Far from the somewhat sincere six month shunning that Hama experienced, this persecution would get very serious very fast. It would ultimately lead to them having to flee the country.

The open death threat made that day was a turning point. The same man who had made this threat was a known killer, having murdered prisoners and political opponents in crimes that were documented online by Amnesty International. Usually Hama laughed off threats. But now that his wife’s older brother, a killer, was making them, he was visibly worried.

A few weeks later they were taken to court. Conversion from Islam to Christianity is illegal in our country and the family had accused Hama of forcing his wife to convert. They begged for prayer. To our amazement, the judge sided with them, believed their stories of genuine conversion to Christianity, and even let them swear on a Bible – in fact this was his idea. “They are Christians, didn’t you hear their confession? Show some respect and get these people a Bible to swear by!” Afterward Hama called me in tears from a police station, believing that even with the favorable judge, he was about to be hauled off to prison. Minutes later, he was let go as a free man. We celebrated God’s favor on them in this very scary situation.

But the harassment and threats continued. Tara’s brother showed up drunk one day and destroyed their kitchen, attacking Hama as well. Plans were being hatched to take their son away from them so he could be “raised right.” Our team grew nervous as a video circulated of Tara’s brother bragging about his past murders and making threats against Hama – and anyone connected to him.

To make matters worse, Hama was out of a job. The foreign company he had worked for had departed in scandal and debt, leaving Hama to clean up the mess. The financial pressure added to the persecution to make him feel like there was no way out. Hama began to sink into some dangerous depression.

So many of our locals who claim faith then quickly flee to the West, claiming persecution. Many of them are making up or inflating these claims. Our team was desperate not to contribute to the “faith-drain” that had become a regular fixture of the work in our area. But we were coming to terms with a very complex and potentially dangerous situation – and Hama and Tara were out of options. One night we asked them to pray for absolute clarity on whether the Spirit was indicating they should stay or flee, since both are biblical options. They came back with their answer. It was time to flee.

We started reaching out to friends and organizations that work with the persecuted. The responses were less than encouraging. “We don’t have an avenue for situations like this for your country. We thought your organization would have something in place.” Thankfully, a plan was eventually patched together for a visa, emergency tickets, housing in a neighboring country, and a basic budget for necessities. We might never be able to pull it off again, but at least for this dear family, God had provided a good plan of escape.

Unfortunately, Hama and Tara were only able to experience our initial attempts at gathering a new church plant together. In fact, we had been hoping they’d be one of our anchor families. But they had never quite understood why we kept emphasizing church and the gathering of believers so much. They had not committed and shown up as we had been desperately praying they would. This was typical for local believers, but extra tragic in their situation because it meant there were so few they could rely on when their natural support network turned against them.

Our teammates were the ones to drive them to the airport. I was grateful they were carrying out this last step, heartbroken as I was that my best friend was now leaving. On the way to the airport they shared this:

“Now we understand why you were always talking about church. Our physical family has abandoned us and attacked us. We were alone, except for you all, our believing friends. What would we have done without our believing family? This must be why church is needed.”

I grieved when I heard these words reported. Hama and Tara had largely missed out on what could have been theirs if they had been able to understand sooner why church is so important. But at least at the eleventh hour they had understood.

This realization made all the difference in their temporary country of asylum. They plugged into a good church and for two solid years experienced the joys of spiritual family – they really got it, and on telephone conversations they would actually scold us for not pushing our local friends more when it came to prioritizing the church! For our part, we would just listen, shake our heads, and smile.

That’s what we’ve been trying to say all along.

*Names changed for security

Photo by Grant Durr on Unsplash

Two Iranians and a Missionary Kid Walk Into an All-Night Diner

We were a strange crowd, to be sure. My two Iranian friends and I, along with a cowboy hat-wearing older veteran, walked into a twenty-four-hour diner. It was the kind of local place that was local before local became hip and trendy. Squat and grimy, the building sat an intersection just across from a liquor store. It’s had probably passed its prime sometime in the 1960s. However, this particular restaurant was just down the hill from our first apartment, and it had served us well during my wife’s first pregnancy. Middle of the night burger or omelet cravings had gotten me in the door, and my nonconformist tendencies kept me occasionally going back.

One of the differences between the Middle East/Central Asia and the West is the availability of decent middle of the night restaurants. It’s quite easy here in our adopted part of the world to head out with friends at midnight to find somewhere to get shwarma or tea. But in the US, things tend to shut down long before midnight. This is a minor but legitimate cause of sadness among those who have experienced the vibrant (and family-friendly) night culture of the so-called Muslim world.

It was past 11 pm and our crew was hungry. *Chris had been hanging out with us all evening. He had come to faith recently while in prison and was now a struggling new believer. He was an Air Force veteran who wore cowboy hats, yet carried a secret affinity for the Turkish language and Middle Eastern culture from his many years of being stationed there. He had met the three of us at church, and my Iranian friends, *Reza and *Saul, hit it off with him right away. They, like many Iranian refugees, had spent years as refugees in Turkey, and they spoke Turkish well. Reza’s English was decent, but Saul’s wasn’t. So Chris took to energetically interpreting the Sunday sermon into Turkish the back row on Saul’s behalf. Yes, it was a little distracting, but I was thrilled to see Chris find a meaningful way to serve when the body gathered for worship.

Together we ambled down the hill toward the diner, conversing in a mixture of English, Turkish, Farsi, and the Farsi-related minority language I had studied. The ladies (my wife and Reza’s new girlfriend) were going to follow us after a few minutes. I led the way as we strode into the diner.

Immediately upon entering we felt the atmosphere of the place tense up. Like in some kind of classic Western, the elderly men sitting at the bar turned and stared. The elderly waitresses paused their dish drying and egg frying and raised their eyebrows. The music from the jukebox was the only thing that made any noise for one very pregnant moment.

Being a young white student with dark brown hair, I was only occasionally mistaken for being of some other ethnicity. Even though I had received lots of stares overseas, I hadn’t experienced this kind of welcome in the US before. But side by side with my Iranian friends, with their darker olive skin and jet black hair, for a second I experienced what it was like to be scanned as an outsider by a small crowd of older majority-culture Americans. It was sobering. I’m not sure what they did with Chris. He actually fit in there quite well, given the cowboy hat and tucked in plaid shirt.

However, acting as if nothing had happened, we made our way over to a booth and sat down, translating the menu for our friends. If you’ve never introduced Iranians to the concept of hash browns, french toast, and grits before, you’re in for a fun challenge. We ordered some breakfast plates with plenty of bacon (as a practical celebration of Jesus’ declaring all foods clean) and settled in for some more conversation and hot drinks.

The ladies soon arrived as well and sat down at the booth behind us. I noticed that the serving staff were eyeing us as we leaned over the bench and talked and laughed with ladies’ table. When the waitress came to take their order, she leaned over and asked my wife, “These men bothering you, hun?”

“No. Thank you,” said my wife with a smile. “This is my husband. These are our dear friends.”

The elderly waitress raised her eyebrows and shot us a skeptical glance, and went back to the griddle.

Turns out the only way Chris knew how to speak Turkish was loud. And before long you could tell the few regulars at the bar were twitching a little bit. I encouraged Chris and my friends to keep it down a little. But we were having a good conversation about their testimonies, and it was hard to contain their excitement.

I felt stuck. I didn’t want to make these older locals uncomfortable, but I was bothered as well by what looked like textbook prejudice against language and skin color. One man made his way out the door – maybe because of us. The ironic thing was that my friends might look like intimidating foreigners, but they were actually very respectful and peace-loving, sitting and smiling and talking about Jesus. The others in the diner might relax considerably if they could somehow know this.

It was then Chris pulled a bold and shrewd move. When the waitress came to refill our coffee mugs, he turned to her and asked in a voice loud enough for the whole place to hear.

“Can you believe it?! This man (Saul) was put in prison in Iran because he chose to believe in Jesus! Can you imagine what it would be like to be arrested for being a Christian? Wow. I’m so glad I know him. Give ’em some more coffee, will ya? Incredible, right?”

The waitress took a moment to process this unexpected information. And just like that, some kind of bubble burst. The waitress relaxed. The whole place seemed to change as Chris’ outburst registered. Surprised myself, I took note that Chris had managed to overcome an atmosphere of prejudice by announcing Saul’s experience of persecution as a Christian. The unfamiliarity and suspicion – and perhaps racism – had been undermined by connecting these strangers to something that ran deep in those older white Americans’ worldview – a valuing of Christianity, at the very least on a cultural identity level.

As I think back on this event, it’s a small echo of other occasions where we’ve seen political, racial, or ethnic suspicion quietly undermined as we’ve been able to share with traditional Westerners about how Jesus is saving Muslims. Yes, cultural and nationalistic Christianity which views “the other” as the enemy runs deep. Every culture has its own equivalent of this, so it’s not just a Western problem. Move overseas and you’ll see what I mean. The good news is that there are some back doors that can surprisingly undermine this common sin among professing Christians, in the West or elsewhere.

Yes, even many true believers feel threatened by those different from them. But for those who are indeed believers, their love for Jesus – and often missions as well – really does ultimately run deeper than this fear or pride. This is simply one of the effects of having a new heart. Their own “Iranians” may have previously been thought of as the enemy, but hearing testimonies of God’s grace from these same enemies tends to break categories for these demographics in fascinating ways. Hearts warm as the common ground of being forgiven sinners is built, and brows furrow trying to figure out how to square this affection with previous attitudes. A good slow thaw is underway.

To this day, 30-something Reza continues to attend a senior men’s bible study – at a diner – leveraging this same dynamic in a way that challenges these grey-haired men and turns them into adopted grandpa-types. He has even started visiting country churches on a rotation in order to serve Jesus in this way! He shows up, turns heads, makes friends, shares about his background and how wonderful Jesus is, and people end up feeling differently about those Far-iners.

We live in an age aflame with controversy about race, immigration, and culture. How are we to help those who are older or more traditional, and who tend to be swept up in the particular prejudicial temptations of this globalizing age? How can we transform the atmosphere of racist diners – or churches – such that there is room for conversation and relationship that leads to dignity and love?

Perhaps by aiming boldly for the love that, for true believers, always runs deeper than love of nation, language, and heritage. Invite missionaries to share at churches struggling with these issues about the mighty things God is doing among those considered political or cultural enemies. Have believers from diverse “other” backgrounds share their own stories of God’s grace. This is in one sense a Trojan horse. It is a tactical, indirect move to tap into a deeper affection that will over time undermine other anti-gospel affections that might seem to dominate a person’s worldview or social media account.

Our world tries to deal with prejudice-prone people by either excusing them or by writing them off as racists and publicly shaming them. There is a better way. Let’s strive for creatively and shrewdly aiming for the deepest affections, and see what miracles God might work.

…and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator. Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all. (Colossians 3:10-11 ESV)

*names changed for security

Photo by Ricky Singh on Unsplash