The Hot Tub Philosopher

I’m not one of those people who likes to dunk on seminaries. By this point I’ve heard the publically-spoken question, “Why didn’t they teach me this in seminary?” to the point of nausea. Come on, brother, you really expected the seminary to have specialized classes in your niche ministry and specific problem-people? There’s a reason I never had a class in how to draw on a Melanesian MK upbringing to deal with a Central Asian wolf in sheep’s clothing in whose house we had just planted a church together with our Mexican partners (true story). There is no seminary professor who could or should teach that kind of specific material. Rather, professors should teach the theology and principles that equip diverse ministers of the gospel to apply God’s truth to infinitely varied ministry contexts around the globe.

My pro-seminary posture is also because I live in a part of the world where there is no access to theological training in the languages of people groups that are millions strong. It’s easy to take pot-shots at seminaries when they’ve been around forever and are taken for granted among your people group. I also don’t buy the whole “they’re not reproducible” line so popular in missiology. If they’re not reproducible, why have thousands of them taken root all around the world, even in ancient times and places like Sassanian Gondishapur where Christians were a persecuted minority? Perhaps there is a bit of a hidden and arbitrary definition to that term “reproducible” that so often functions as a trump card in discussions of methodology.

But it’s also easy to forget their weaknesses with the rose-tinted glasses that can come with distance. Some of the critiques do stick. God has given humans a remarkable ability to find patterns in things. And one of those unfortunate but true patterns is represented by the awkward and out-of-touch seminarian who struggles to notice the real people around him. There is a great need for those studying at seminary to accompany their classroom training with down-to-earth mentoring in people skills. Local church relationships that model for seminary students wise and practical ministry intuition and care are crucial for keeping these students effective in the real and messy world of actual people.

I’ll never forget the time I took my wife on a date during a particularly exhausting period of our newborn days. We were broke, had an infant with sleep issues, and were trying to mentor new believers and share the gospel with refugees. And we were desperately in need of an affordable date. I had the idea of going out to a discounted dinner and then making use of our free alumni access to the seminary pool and hot tub. My wife agreed to the plan and we were off in our beat up ’95 Honda Civic our Iraqi friends had christened Baby Camel because of its fantastic gas mileage and minuscule size.

Things were going swimmingly. We made it to the seminary, the pool area was nice and quiet, and the hot tub was empty – perfect! So we got in and began to have a good conversation, sharing our hearts with each other. But before long, a student and acquaintance from church entered the pool area. We waved and said a friendly hello, and strategically mentioned that we were on a date together. I turned back to my wife to continue our conversation. But the man plopped down in the hot tub next to me, eager for discussion.

Internally, I winced. How did he not pick up on the dynamics of this situation? But, resolving to be kind and hospitable, I turned and engaged him in friendly conversation. My wife had a not-so-subtle expression on her face, but held her tongue. The man didn’t seem to notice. Were I older and wiser, I would have said something direct about my wife and I needing this time so that we could connect in our sleep-deprived state and care for each other. Instead, I kept trying to drop hints in the conversation and with my body language to get the brother to move along to splashing in the pool or something.

But my talkative friend was not going anywhere. Instead, he stretched out his arms and relaxed and considered this the ideal moment to get into the depths of why he was actually a Thomist when it came to philosophy instead of a Van Tilian Preuppositionalist. I had only had one or two philosophy classes, so I knew just enough of this topic to drop a semi-informed comment here and there. But eventually I just stopped speaking to see how long the monologue would go. It kept going, and going, for quite an impressive length of time. I was perplexed. Why oh why did he feel like this particular conversation was at all fitting for this context? I shot a look back at my wife whose face conveyed a look of incredulity at what was going on in front of her.

“Can we go?” She mouthed in my direction. I nodded. Things had finally gotten awkwardly silent. It was time for a tactical retreat. We said our goodbyes to the hot tub philosopher and made our way back to the locker rooms.

I thought of my seminary – and of myself. The dangers of getting lost in the world of the mind and losing touch with practical kindness and social skills are real. I’ve felt the pull of these things when I get a little too excited about sharing about something I’m learning, only to realize those I’m sitting with have gone quiet and are fidgeting a bit. My brain can run away from me and I can stop tracking with the emotional state of those I’m supposedly conversing with. At that point I’m not really conversing with them in a loving way at all. I’m merely on a monologue.

While not neglecting the life of the mind, we must learn to ground it with an understanding of our flesh and blood neighbor. Yes, we must study the books. But we must also be students of people. We must be those who can get taken in by the beauty of an idea while still being conscious enough of the present to sense the body language of our hearers. What if, like me, the life of the mind comes more naturally than people intuition? How do we learn to study people? We can start by praying regularly that we will grow in this area. We can make a careful effort to study what God’s word says about the way people act and think. We can read great literature – after all, it’s great because it has been proven to be a window into human nature across many generations. We can read up on ways that hard-to-see things like cultures and personalities have been mapped and categorized by others. Finally, we can get some good feedback and tools on our particular God-given wiring. After all, if we don’t really understand ourselves, we won’t be great at understanding others either.

I would be remiss not to also mention what can be learned by shadowing those who are pastors in the truest sense of that term. Much skill in this area must be caught, rather than taught. And catching it often means accompanying those older and more experienced than we are, observing how they wisely interact with these wonderfully complex and broken beings called humans. Watching how and when an experienced pastor says, “I’m so sorry” can be a powerful lesson in what effective empathy actually looks like.

Plus, mentors like this also tell us when something is simply awkward or weird – like climbing in the hot tub with a couple on a date in order to talk Thomist philosophy. We all need someone in our life who will put their arm around us and simply say, “Brother, that’s weird. Don’t do that.”

A Trombone Instead of Heroin

My Iranian refugee friend, *Reza, had come to faith. It had felt like a long road for him, but there was now clear evidence of the new birth in his life. After lots of struggle and discussion about baptism and church membership, he had taken the plunge. My wife and I began dreaming about seeing a group of Middle Eastern refugees in our American city come to faith. Who knew? Maybe this new believer would result in a church plant that strategically focused on this diverse and overlooked community.

Initially, we did have some traction with some of his Middle Eastern contacts. But through his friendships as an employee at Walmart, my friend started befriending and reaching out to a very different community – struggling Kentuckians. He befriended a single mom who had had a very broken past and was in need of a lot of help. Our community group rallied, helping her with practical needs and sharing the gospel with her. We helped her walk away from a false church with cult-like tendencies. It was encouraging to see my friend’s new faith resulting in mercy ministry. But I was a little uneasy with this direction things were taking. My vision was reaching Middle Eastern refugees. Mercy ministry with local Americans was a good thing, but very time-consuming. And it was something there were many churches already doing.

Things got more complicated with this single mom and she ended up moving in with us temporarily while we searched for a safe living situation. She seemed to be close to coming to faith. Then we found out there was romantic interest there as well between her and Reza. Two baby believers with very complicated pasts were now interested in one another. We had only been married a year ourselves and had a newborn. We were in over our heads, but kept trying to plug our friends in to good opportunities for growth with us. So Reza started attending a Perspectives class with us. If you haven’t heard of Perspectives on the World Christian Movement, it’s a class offered in many places in the West that focuses on global missions and includes a lot of church history. If you want to wake a local church up to God’s heart for the nations and their part in that, hosting a Perspectives class can be a great way to begin. It’s not really designed for brand new believers, but we were hoping to get missions DNA into our Iranian friend from the get-go.

Then we learned about his girlfriend’s brother, *Akin. Out of the blue he had reached out to his estranged sister, asking for help and telling her that he had finally burned all his bridges in the city where he lived. He had been addicted to heroin for three years. I didn’t know very much about drug addiction, but my friends who did told me to be extra careful with heroin users. “They’ll rob their own mothers,” is the sentence that I remember. Reza told me they were going to go pick him up and have him move into his sister’s new place, an apartment we had just been able to find in a sketchy refugee apartment complex we would later live in ourselves.

“Absolutely not,” I told him. “That is a really bad idea. I have been told to be super careful with heroin users, so you should not let him move in with his sister who just escaped a dangerous living situation. Just give me a couple days to work something out with the homeless center that we’re connected with. They should be able to get him a good option that’s also safe. Just whatever you do, don’t go get him tonight.”

He ignored me.

The Perspectives class was just starting when Reza called me. “I’ve got the brother. We’ll be with you in class shortly.”

“What?!” I asked, “You went and got him? Bro, I told you not to!”

“It’s OK, I’ll take responsibility for him. See you soon.” And he hung up. I looked around the room, wondering what to do with the unfolding situation. I decided there was nothing really to be done. Not for the last time I shook my head at the stubbornness of Iranians.

After a short time, they arrived. My short and mustachioed Iranian friend walked into the room with a pale, skeletal American guy. He looked to be about my age, had scruffy facial hair, sunken eyes, and didn’t look completely aware of his surroundings. They came and sat at our table and we did some hushed introductions as the class was now underway. But I was frustrated. Why wouldn’t my friend trust me and listen to me? Why would he complicate our already complicated situation like this when we had so much else that we needed to sort out? Couldn’t he have waited just a couple days and not brought this guy to a missions class? I sighed. I was supposed to spending my time doing relational evangelism with Middle Eastern refugees, not doing emergency ministry triage for these messy Americans. I could see glances being exchanged by different class facilitators as they took stock of the situation also.

The next part of the class was the part where we would pray at our tables for an unreached people group. That night, it was a people group in India and we were instructed to pray in pairs with the person next to us. My assigned partner was Akin. Well, I thought to myself, at least I can pray the gospel as we pray for this people group. Oh, the strange situations I keep finding myself in. I’m prayer partners with an unbelieving heroin addict, praying for a group of unreached Hindus in India!

I can’t say that it was the most faith-filled prayer I’ve ever prayed. Internally I was all over the place. But we made it through the prayer and through the class. Akin, to my surprise, listened intensely to the speaker’s presentation, which contained a lot of gospel. Somewhere in the middle of class, I looked over and noticed how calm he had become. Other facilitators also told me afterward that something had visibly changed about Akin over the course of the class. He borrowed a copy of Ragamuffin Gospel from somewhere, moved in with his sister, and was nursed through a month of detox by my Iranian friend. He started coming to church with us right away and plugged in to our community group of messy young believers and young seminary families. Soon he had an interview with one of our pastors where they dug into the gospel and the changes taking place in Akin’s life.

I caught him in the church sanctuary after the interview and asked him how it went.

“It went well. I’m so encouraged that the pastor has a past of drug addiction too! He pushed me real hard on some things, but I didn’t back down. I’m not going back to heroin. I believe in Jesus now.”

“Really?” I asked. “What do you mean by that?”

Akin went on to explain the gospel and his trust in it. And how he had begun to experience dramatic internal changes – starting from when I had prayed with him for that random Indian people group.

“What?! You think that’s when God might have saved you? That first night when we hadn’t even had a chance to talk yet?”

“Hard to say, but something changed during that prayer. Then I kept reading and praying when I was doing detox, and studying the Bible with Reza. Yep! I think God’s made new.”

God had indeed made him new. Whenever the specific act of regeneration had occurred, God had used our strange circumstances – and my Iranian disciple’s ignoring of wise advice – to save Akin. Mysterious and ironic. I did not feel called to work with Kentuckians like Akin, but that wasn’t going to stop God. He was out to save Akin and his sister anyway.

It wasn’t long before we noticed things coming full circle. Akin started counseling a Middle Eastern refugee who was struggling with drug addiction and was a resident at our partner homeless center. I had assumed that investing in this broken American family was something apart from the particular ministry God had called us to. I didn’t realize that God was going to use us Americans to reach a Middle Easterner, who would himself reach some Americans, who would then go on to in turn serve Middle Easterners. It was, for me, a particular lesson in providence.

Akin would go on to get baptized and become a member of our church, to marry a godly woman – a marriage ceremony I had the great joy to officiate – and to eventually become a faithful deacon at that church. These days it’s not uncommon for him to be caught scheming with the other deacons about how to bless others through mercy ministry, playing his trombone for the worship team, or busy on the phone with his Iranian brother-in-law, planning when to play basketball with the nephews. During our last visit together they hosted us for some sublime barbecued pork – a particular kind of mercy ministry for people like us who work in Islamic countries.

Whenever I encounter those struggling with substance addictions, I think of Akin. I’ll never forget the first time I saw him playing trombone with the worship team in a powerful rendition of “Absent from Flesh.” Everything God had saved him from hit me afresh. God doesn’t always instantly heal addictions. But sometimes he does. I’ve got a deacon to prove it.

*Names changed for security

Photo by Rich Smith on Unsplash

Will You Consider Hosting Refugees When Normal Returns?

Yesterday a local friend was helping me move a big mattress for a teammate. In between waddling and heaving the awkward thing, we somehow got into a conversation about how hard it is for many Middle Eastern and Central Asian refugees who are resettled in the West.

“My living room in the US was often visited by refugee friends,” I told him. “They would sit, drink chai, and lament about how there were no people out on the streets, no people mixing in public, no equivalent of the tea house or the bazaar. Just work, more work, then car, home, TV, and repeat it all again. It’s a hard life in the West.”

I remember being puzzled at how often the comment about “no people on the streets” was repeated. This ache for living somewhere with more human interaction was a constant theme that came out as we sat together and kept the dark black tea spiced with cinnamon and cardamom (and plenty of sugar) flowing. The desire to simply see more people on the sidewalks and in public hinted at a much deeper sadness – the absence of true friendship for most of my refugee friends in America. Having lost their natural relationship networks back in their homeland, they now found themselves in a land that felt utterly starved of community – even without the language and culture barrier they had to contend with.

During that season of our lives we lived in an apartment complex where many refugees were resettled. We used to open up our apartment and the one across the hall for a weekly community potluck-style meal and text all our international friends to come and join us. Once a month we would also turn the green lawn in front of our apartment building into a “Community Cafe.” We would set up a small canopy, get some tea and coffee brewing, set out some chairs, put up a sign, and invite anyone who walked by.

I remember one autumn day sitting down in our “cafe” next to a Saudi student and looking around at the various groups of people chatting. Iranian men – Persian, Azeri, Kurdish, Luri – were gathered in one corner. A couple Iraqi Arab friends had also come by and were dumping incredible amounts of sugar in their tea. The ladies were busy getting to know some Eritrean women. And a Nepalese believer was energetically connecting with a Hazara friend from Afghanistan. Strange as our pop-up cafe was for their cultures and for ours, it was proving to be an encouraging environment for our international friends. It was leading to conversation and friendship, and our friends were soaking it in like a Somali refugee in the Minnesota winter huddles in the heat lamp at the bus stops. What a kindness simple conversation and friendship can be to the lonely and those far from home. How their eyes light up when someone really wants to know their story and to learn about their culture.

It also doesn’t have to stop at tea and friendship. Friendship can lead to sharing the gospel, Bible studies, and new believers. And though we didn’t get this far, it can even lead to a new church plant. Oh for a thousand new church plants to be formed in the West because believers showed simple kindness and hospitality to the refugees, asylum seekers, and internationals who now live in so many of our urban areas. They are a field ripe for the harvest. And once they come to faith, they are a powerful force for a jaded post-Christian West to reckon with. I may be dismissed as just another white Evangelical trying to proselytize, but when my generously-bearded Iranian friend starts sharing why he became a follower of Jesus, all my secular countrymen don’t quite know what to do with it. So they listen.

Our time in that particular refugee community came to an end about six or seven years ago. Today it’s 2021, and there’s talk of Western nations returning to some level normalcy this summer. A change of administrations in the US also means the numbers of refugees received there will be increased ten-fold. Believers will be emerging from this strange pandemic time-warp eager to gather physically with the body of Christ – and hopefully – eager to engage the lost face to face again.

As many Western nations plan to reopen this year, will you consider hosting and befriending some refugees that live in your community? It’s not that hard. Volunteer as an English tutor at TESOL programs in your city. Choose to buy your tea and hummus from halal markets in your area (google it and you may be surprised), and while there make some friends. Open up your home for regular meals where you invite international students and others – most of whom never get invited for dinner in a Westerner’s home. Especially consider how you can host gatherings around the holidays. Repeatedly offer to help your immigrant neighbors with any tasks they might be confused about – court documents, mail forms, bills, homework, etc. Realize that most refugees, asylees, and internationals don’t have any good friends who are natives of their new host country. Choose to step into that role, even if only for one family.

The missing piece for so many refugees is relationship with trustworthy locals. Government and social programs might abound, but the crucial ingredient for refugee success in their new society is friendship. And as it turns out, friendship is also the key for some very compelling evangelism. Sure, you’ll make plenty of mistakes. That’s par for the course in any kind of cross-cultural ministry. But you might also make some surprising best friends – as I have – and then get to watch them lead your own Western neighbors to faith! Now that is worth a little bit of risky hospitality.

Photo by Amirhossein Bararsani on Unsplash

A Local’s First Visit to the International Church

A local friend of mine recently visited our international church for the first time. A teacher, and a somewhat traditional man, I was curious to see what his impressions would be. After the service I asked him about it.

“I’m amazed at all of the small children here!” he said. “You don’t see any small children at the mosque.”

“Really?” I asked. “Is that not normal?”

“No, we don’t let any children under six come. But not only are families with small children here, their children are sitting quietly and listening! This is amazing.”

In response to this, I was able to share the story with my friend of Jesus encouraging the little children to be brought to him, from Matthew 19. It was likely the first time he had ever heard it. I also assured him that the small children (such as ours) definitely do not always sit quietly. But persevering parents who aren’t afraid of giving ten thousand reminders make a big difference.

He was also amazed by the diversity. Being an international church, we have members and attendees from twenty countries or so.

“I haven’t seen anywhere like this in our city before. So many people from Asia and Africa and Europe. Look at this man! I wonder where he is from?”

My friend kept on commenting in this vein, seemingly unable to stop, eyes wide at the fascinating mosaic of human skin and culture in front of him. I just smiled. The ethnic diversity of our church family is indeed a powerful witness.

“Was there anything else you noticed? Do you have any other questions?” I asked.

“Yes, your services… are they always this long? It was very long.”

I just laughed. “Yes, it’s a little long. But I’m so glad you got to be part of it.”

Little children and people from lots of different ethnicities, all worshiping Jesus together in a very long service. Not at all a bad first introduction to the local church.

Photo by Sam Balye on Unsplash

The Bearded Robber

I was fifteen. My friend’s dad, uncle John, had just invited me to join them on an overnight hike to a mountain waterfall. We would be a party of four, one near-deaf missionary uncle and three scrawny high school kids. This particular hike was to prove fun, scary, and shaping. It was shaping in that being invited into the accessible adventure of the mountains around our missionary school compound in Melanesia launched me into dozens of hikes over the next few years. Hiking would become a place where I could try my hand at manly things like risk, endurance, sleeping in the rain, and eating cold hot dogs because the matches were too wet to get the fire lit. But this hike was the first one, so I was green and a bit nervous, though excited as well.

Uncle John’s hearing had slowly diminished due to tinnitus, the same condition my dad had had before he had passed away. By the time of our trek into the mountains, he had completely lost hearing in one ear and could only partially hear with his other ear with the aid of a hearing aid. He relied heavily on lip reading and was overall very quiet, though always very kind to me. He has since gotten cochlear implants. I’m told after having his hearing implants he became a man transformed.

This particular hike was nothing too challenging. Initially there was about forty five minutes of trekking, first down a paved road, then on some muddy ones flanked by high grass, then over a river on a swinging wire bridge, then on muddy footpaths into the foothills. There were a few villages we would pass through in the foothills before we started climbing the grassy and wooded slopes in earnest. In all it was about two and a half hours to our destination, a waterfall and swimming hole that lay between two steep spurs of the mountain.

The afternoon was sunny and we made good headway, somewhat bemused and embarrassed by the village grandmothers’ excited offering their granddaughters to us in marriage. At last we made it up and down several small ridges and to the waterfall. We swam and cooked dinner, and by the heat of our campfire somehow managed to provoke the emergence of thousands of small black beetles from the earth, which promptly overwhelmed our campsite. Still, the beans from a can were good (food always tastes better on a hike) and after the beetles dispersed we had a pleasant evening sitting around the fire and listening to the sound of the waterfall. Sleepiness came on fast and we all passed out in the tent without too much trouble. Cicadas and waterfalls make for good background noise.

I woke up in the middle of the night, startled. By the shadows on the wall of the tent and the rustling sounds, I knew that someone was shuffling around our campsite. We knew that we were running a slight risk of being robbed by going on this hike. Opportunistic local men were known to sometime accost foreign hikers and to rob them while threatening them with machetes, and sometimes homemade shotguns. But knowing the local language and carrying very little cash and flashy gear on us, we weren’t sending the kind of signals that might normally entice a robbery. We were almost locals ourselves, living down in the valley. And many women from the villages we had passed through were employed as household helpers on the missionary compound. Still, someone was definitely moving around the campsite. It did seem we were about to be robbed.

Perhaps they would just take the gear around the fire and leave us alone? I prayed. Then the zipper on the tent started moving. And my heart leapt into my throat. The tent door slowly unzipped, zzzzziiiiizzzz, opened, and in the deep darkness I saw the silhouette of a bearded man (most locals wore beards). He was looking right at me. He silently pointed at me with his hand and made the motion for me to roll over. He seemed to be telling me to lie down and not make any unnecessary noise. I didn’t know what to do. The others in the tent seemed to be fast asleep, so I started to roll over, but also started to try to reason in the local language with this criminal about the shamefulness of his actions.

“What you are doing is bad and shameful.”

“We don’t have any money on us.”

“We’re just here to respectfully spend the night in this good place.”

“We’re not rich tourists, we’re just missionaries that live down in the valley.”

“Do you not see that this is shameful? It’s very shameful. It will bring shame on your village and your people and no one will come to see your beautiful land!”

He wasn’t even acknowledging that I was speaking. What to do? I shot a glance over to uncle John’s sleeping bag. Suddenly I realized that it was empty. I gasped. They took uncle John! And he’s completely deaf at night without his hearing aid. Things were seeming much worse than I thought. Violent crime was indeed increasing in the culture. Was this going to turn into a hostage taking?

Heart pounding, I ventured a peek outside the tent door flap. The figure was crouched by the fire, messing with it. Suddenly a flame jumped up. And in the light of the fire I saw that the criminal I was desperately reasoning with was… bearded uncle John. Stirring a can of beans. Relief and embarrassment swept over me. Oh no, he had heard all my desperate negotiating! But wait, had he? No, impossible, his hearing aids were out. He hadn’t heard a thing! And that’s why he hadn’t responded. I began to laugh at myself and settled back into my sleeping bag for the rest of the night.

At breakfast I shared the story of “the robbery” with the rest of our little hiking crew and we all had a good laugh together. Apparently uncle John had woken up in the middle of the night and couldn’t sleep. But what was he doing staring me down and ordering me to roll over like that? Turns out he was trying to indicate that I could move over and use his inflatable sleeping mat. But in the midnight blackness I thought he was a robber, and he must have thought I was at least a little daft myself. Why is this kid staring unresponsive at me like that? My wife still tells me that I’m the worst at lip-reading, so there’s that.

The hike wrapped up without any further incidents and for the three of us skinny MK’s, we had been initiated into the sore and muddy joys of hiking. It was a small thing for uncle John to do that with us high school guys. Just a quick overnight hike. But for me, it turned out to be much more meaningful than either of us could have known at that time. As the youngest sibling of a single-mom household, there just weren’t very many men who invited me to do things with them when I was growing up. Ministry men are busy with ministry. And I was shy. In spite of good intentions, invitations like this hike were seldom extended. I had lots of great role models from a distance to watch, but precious few opportunities to have an adult man show me how to do something adventurous or practical so that I could then do it on my own.

But this hike to the waterfall was easy enough to be repeated – and built on. My buddies and I were soon hiking to the top of the ridge and beyond – eventually summitting the three highest peaks in the country. Uncle John had set some time aside from his ministry responsibilities and shown us some fatherly kindness, and this one gesture had unlocked a world of adventure that was just plain good for us hormonal teenage boys. We needed to test our limits, to risk, to have some adventure. We needed to get arrested by tribal war parties (as would later take place) and learn the hard way the value of having a rain plan – a soaking wet sleeping bag in a patch of jungle on top of a mountain is a very effective tutor! We needed to learn that continuing on in the fog and the dark at 14,000 feet when your guide has left due to altitude sickness is a very bad idea. And learn we did, through many misadventures and near-misses. It was wonderful. We muddled along on our disastrous hikes and somehow learned some good lessons about what it meant to be Christian men.

The year my son was born, 2012, was notable for a tragic reason. It was the year that children born outside of wedlock in the US surpassed those born within it. The doctors in our Louisville, KY, hospital already at that point didn’t quite know what to do with a husband who was there for all the appointments and for the birth itself. They awkwardly tried to address only my wife, not sure if they were supposed to acknowledge me as well. From that year on, the majority of children in my homeland have been raised in single-parent or broken households.

This creates a great need. So many boys are growing up without dads (and daughters, too). Now that I’m a dad I remember the kindness uncle John showed me by inviting me along on that hike. Even one gesture like that was potentially life-changing for me. Men of the Church, let’s lift up our eyes and look around us. Are there any boys growing up without dads that we can sometimes invite into our lives? I’m sure they would love to learn a practical life skill, to go on an adventure, or to just spend time with a kind man who is already an adult. Even if we only have time for this every once in a while, we might be surprised at what might come of it.

Whether they show it or not, I can tell you this, they’ll be grateful for an invite.

Photo by Derek Owens on Unsplash

How the Baby Turned

We were on a short family getaway, staying three days at a spot where our Central Asian mountains meet a lake. It was early Autumn, still warm enough to swim during the day, but getting chilly at night. The pleasant winds of the fall were coming off the mountains, complementing the September sun which shone off the lake and the yellow-brown mountains. I’ve always loved the feel of fall in this part of the world – brief and subtle though it is. It seems to only last two weeks – a calm golden respite in between the burning summer and the freezing winter.

My wife was seven months pregnant with our third child – and the little guy was facing the wrong direction. He was breech. We were hoping to have the baby in-country, and to have a natural birth, uncommon though that is for most of the local doctors. So we were praying hard for him to turn, as it would too risky to proceed if he stayed head-up. We were also coming close to the deadline by which my wife wouldn’t be allowed to fly, so it was getting a bit urgent.

On the last full day of our time away, I decided it would be fun to do some multitasking. I had fond memories of swimming in this same lake in years past, but on the other side of the mountain from where we were staying. I recalled a place that even felt kind of like a beach. But to find it, we’d have to do some exploring. The multitasking was that we were in need of finding a new baptism spot for our local friends. A dunking was fast approaching, and just like every other time, we found ourselves wishing we had thought more ahead about finding a spot with just the right combination of privacy, publicity, deep enough water, and natural beauty. This particular kind of spot continued to elude us. And while kiddie pools have their own advantages, we were hoping for some better options.

For some reason I majored on the baptism piece when proposing the day’s plans to my wife and forgot to really major on the beach-with-the-kids part. She wasn’t thrilled with our family rest time being taken over in this way, but kept these thoughts mostly to herself. So we started off, winding around the switchbacks of the nearby mountain. After fifteen minutes we made it to the top with its stunning views of the lake and other peaks, then began the descent down again. My wife was already regretting having agreed to this plan. Mountain switchbacks are not particularly compatible with being in the third trimester.

Once we reached the bottom of the mountain, I found a dirt road that looked like it went toward the lakeside. But it dead-ended in a village, with curious goats and village children looking bewildered at our presence there. So we turned around and bumped back down the track toward the main paved road. Once again we found another dirt road that looked promising, but this one also dead-ended, disappearing into a pasture filled with boulders. We stopped to reassess and listened to the lowing of the cows and the grumbling of our children. By this point I could tell the physical discomfort and frustration of my wife at this misadventure was reaching a critical point.

“Let me try just one more road,” I said with a hopeful grimace. We found a gravel road this time that looked much more promising. I turned off the main road, hoping that this artery would be the one that got us to the shore. Then, amid the rumbling and vibrating of the car, we began to rumble ourselves and argue about what exactly we were doing on this misadventure.

As it turns out, I had (not for the first time) managed to synthesize several ideas in my own mind, and forgotten to kindly spell those things out for my wife. She was, understandably, frustrated by what this optional ministry jaunt was turning into. Breakthrough came when she realized that I was also really hoping for a special time as a family at this elusive beach, and wasn’t just out on a work task – and after I apologized and owned that I had failed to share as openly as I should have.

Then suddenly she gasped.

“What is it?!” I asked.

My wife’s eyes were wide and she had a curious look on her face.

“I don’t know, I just felt the strangest thing in my stomach… I think the baby turned!”

“Really?!” I asked.

“Yes, I’m pretty sure he just did a flip. I’ve never felt anything quite like that before. Must have been all the bumpy roads! Ha!”

The car continued to shake as we drove along and we began to laugh at ourselves. Of course God would answer our prayer right in a moment where we were feeling significant marital tension, out in the middle of nowhere on a misadventure.

All of the sudden, the road turned and crested a hill, and there below us was a muddy and rocky shore, sloping down toward the water’s edge.

“We found it!” And there was much rejoicing in our by-now-very-dusty SUV.

We proceeded to spend a sweet time together, swimming in the warm water, building castles out of rocks, and getting grossed out at the mud suction that pulled us in halfway up to our knees. Plus we had brought a picnic blanket and chocolate, which makes everything more pleasant. It turned out to be an afternoon full of good memories, after all.

Our third-born did indeed flip around that day, in an answer to prayer. An ultrasound later confirmed this. Though given unforeseen complications, he actually ended up being born through a C-section, an adventure of its own. But those bumpy roads and the baby flipping enabled us to move towards the birth with greater confidence that we were indeed supposed to stay in our country for the delivery, in spite of the unknowns.

We chuckle now as we remember this particular answer to prayer. Our God’s ways of answering his people’s prayers will never cease to amaze – and sometimes, even to amuse.

Photo by Erik Mclean on Unsplash

Mistakes Made: Bypassing the Discipler

When committing to something new with a local believer, always check with that person’s primary discipler first.

I haven’t always done this. And I’ve been hurt and hurt others by not following this wise practice. It’s quite easy to justify bypassing the discipler, especially when there are theological and methodological differences. “Why should I run this by that other foreigner? He doesn’t understand healthy church. He doesn’t know the language and culture well. Or he isn’t reformed. Clearly this local has approached me because he has seen our work is more solid.”

We might have the opportunity to start studying the Bible with a local, to invite them into a training program, to hire them, or to invite them to our church plant or discipleship group. But these wonderful opportunities can become hidden landmines if we ignore that other believer who has invested so much in this local.

Not that there are never times to bypass someone’s mentor. If that mentor teaches a false gospel, then that would be a different situation. But I’m referring here to mentors or disciplers who are evangelicals in the sense that they agree on the fundamentals of orthodoxy and the gospel.

What do we accomplish when we run a certain new plan or idea with a local believer by their primary discipler? First, we honor that person and the spiritual investment they have made in that local. This is very important for modeling how believing leaders should relate to one another. Second, we have the opportunity to get buy-in from that discipler, meaning they will be supporting this new plan from their position of relational weight. It’s more likely to succeed if the local’s first Christian friend and mentor isn’t taking potshots at your efforts when visiting with that local, but is instead increasing their trust in you. Third, this gives us an opportunity to be aware of hidden issues that might be going on underneath this local’s excitement about us and our new opportunity.

What might those hidden issues be? Perhaps that discipler called the local out on some sin, and the local was unwilling to repent – and that’s why they’ve excitedly sought you out to be their new discipler. Maybe there are longstanding issues with sin or weakness that provide helpful context or a wise change in direction. Or the local is upset about his discipler not turning into a patron for him in financial terms and so he’s moving on – hoping that you will be the one who bankrolls him. It could also be because of some real issue with the discipler himself, something that can come out more clearly if we actually meet with them instead of sidestepping them.

During a season where my family was the only one from our previous team on the field, a neighboring country had a devastating earthquake. I was asked by my organization if I would help lead a relief project. The only problem was I couldn’t get into this country as an American, so I would have to send locals in to do the work. I planned to send in some local believers, because of the deeper level of trustworthiness that is supposed to be there among those of the household of faith. Our initial plan was to send in supplies that we bought ourselves. But there were issues at the border. And friends in the relief and development world pushed back, saying that it hurt the local economy of the area affected if we flooded it with supplies from the outside. Better to send in workers with cash who can buy the needed supplies locally.

100,000 were homeless. It was winter. I had my parameters – hire a couple local believers who speak the right language, send them in with tens of thousands of dollars to buy relief supplies and distribute them, and just make sure there are receipts and photos to document everything. I knew only a few local believers who spoke the right language, and one of them turned me down. Another agreed to do it. So I reached out to a new English student of mine, *Tony, knowing that he was a new believer and knew the right language. Tony was thrilled to do the work and committed to the project right away.

We were already far along in the planning process when it dawned on me to inform Tony’s discipler, his best friend of ten years, another American missionary. I called him up and let him know, and as we talked I began to wonder if I had gone about things in the wrong order. He was gracious, but clearly concerned about the whole setup. Apparently, Tony had some deep money issues, and some issues with honesty. His discipler was worried that this would be a bad situation for him and provide some strong temptation. But it was too late at this point to back out, or so I felt. Plus, I had some concerns about this foreigner’s methodology and theology – and those concerns didn’t leave me as open to his experienced counsel as I should have been. I proceeded as planned, trusting that everything would work out.

The earthquake relief project initially looked to be a smashing success. But after only a few months, things began to unravel. $4,000 of the project cash was “stolen,” likely an inside job. There was evidence of inappropriate use of the funds when they were on the other side of the border. Tony and the other man’s love of money was stirred up, and they began deceitfully scheming to get funding from other Christian groups for their ministry efforts, which ultimately led to a heartbreaking church split. It had all started so well, but ultimately proved to be kind of a disaster.

In hindsight, before I even called Tony to float the idea to him of doing this project, I should have called his mentor and gotten his counsel and his blessing. He probably would have told me not to send a new believer with money issues across an international border with tens of thousands of dollars. But in my haste and presumption I was only focused on helping those in need as quickly as possible. And I bypassed the discipler.

Sadly, my tale is not that uncommon. In contexts where missionaries from different organizations are working, relationships with local believers often overlap. And in our suspicion of one another and excitement to agree to new plans with locals (especially when they affirm us so warmly), we often end up hurting other missionaries, getting hurt ourselves, and undermining the spiritual growth of our local friends.

When committing to something new with a local believer, always check with that person’s primary discipler first. In this is wisdom.

*names changed for security

Photo by Jamison Riley on Unsplash

He Brought His Own Birthday Cake

Last week I got lunch with a local believer and a teammate from our previous city. As they introduced me to the best chicken tenders I’ve had yet in this part of the world (I live in an emerging foodie city), I remembered with gratitude and amusement how this local brother had first professed his faith.

Mr. Talent (as his name translates) was a student and is a close friend of this same colleague. Since both men are quite serious about their food, they initially spent a lot of time together meeting up at new and different restaurants in search of the best kabob in the city. “We would always plan our meetings around which restaurant we needed to hit up next.” As far as a relational evangelism strategy goes, that’s not half bad!

These lunch outings led to many conversations about life and spiritual things, and eventually into a study of the gospel of John. When my teammate left for his furlough, Mr. Talent was clearly wrestling with the claims of the gospel. Just before my teammate’s departure, we had together begun trying to start a local language house church in the morning and an English language house church in the evening, both simple gatherings on the same day, based out of our living rooms. Mr. Talent would come about once every three weeks to the local language group and show up occasionally for the English group as well, even though his English was not great.

Mr. Talent belongs to a certain stream of men in this culture who are a particular blend of soldier masculinity and strong aesthetic-consciousness. The son of a general, he once took us to shoot AK-47s in a field (illegally we later found out, when we got taken into the police station). But whenever he came to our English center he would compliment me on my formal teacher apparel as he adjusted my collar so that it would sit just right. Mr. Talent usually wears expensive suits and watches, has shoes spotlessly shined, and is known to take selfies with other similarly dressed students while they hold a bouquet of flowers. Contrary to the West, there is no conflict in this culture between manliness and immaculate grooming. Think classic James Bond – a James Bond who also really likes poetry and flowers. Yes, while the core of masculinity doesn’t change throughout history and around the world, its expressions certainly have a wide range of play. When you consider how many historic war epics contain the hero fabulously dressed and waxing eloquent in poetic verse (while cutting down his enemies), you might even begin to feel that we are the ones who are somehow out of step with our understandings of manhood. Needless to say, it’s been an adjustment for me, a simple T-shirt guy who used to go everywhere in flip-flops.

One evening, we had just wrapped up our English language gathering when we heard a knock on the metal door. I opened it, and there stood Mr. Talent, dressed in a light blue suit and with a large cake box in his hand.

“Mr. Talent! How are you? And what is this?” I asked, motioning to the cake box.

“Hellow! It-z my birth-e-day.”

“Really? I didn’t know that! Happy Birthday!” I said as he came in and extended his Salaam to everyone present.

“Not my actual birthday! Tonight I’m going to believe in Jesus,” he laughed and told me in the local language. “So I brought a cake to celebrate.”

It took us all a minute to process what he had just said. He brought his own cake because he’s planned to profess faith? Is this in line with the ordo salutis? We glanced around at one another as we chewed on this unexpected development.

“Wow, really?! That is wonderful, bring the cake over to the table,” my wife said, kicking into honorable hostess mode, as she does so well. The cake was a lot like Mr. Talent – very fancy and very happy.

After some time socializing, our Mexican partner and I took Mr. Talent aside to make sure that he was ready to believe as he had said he was. We ran through the gospel with him a few times, to make sure there was a clear understanding and identification. We were both satisfied. There was a clear confession of personal faith and a clear understanding of the good news – God is holy, we are sinners, Christ is the sacrifice for our sins, we must repent and believe in him.

Then came the part where we had to decide how to proceed. We decided to kneel together and put our hands on his shoulders and pray for Mr. Talent. And we asked him to pray once we had finished, just expressing his new found faith to God in whatever simple terms he chose to. He had never prayed in front of us before and was quite nervous about doing it wrong, but we assured him that whatever was in his heart would be great. I prayed in mixed local language and English. Our partner prayed in mixed local language and Spanish. And then Mr. Talent prayed in his mother tongue, a simple, clear, heartfelt prayer evidencing true faith.

We said Amen and then looked up. Mr. Talent hadn’t heard very many testimonies of faith at that point. He had certainly never read any Christian literature, other than the Bible. So there was no one who had prepped him to say what he did next.

“When you guys were praying for me, I felt this strange energy, like electricity, flowing through my body.”

I took note. Mr. Talent certainly wasn’t the first person in church history to describe things this way. But that wasn’t near as interesting as what happened next. Mr. Talent, who had until that point merely been a shy learner and a seeker, started impromptu teaching us with conviction about the identity of Jesus from John chapter 10. He went on a five minute theologically-solid and passionate monologue, exhorting us to look to Jesus. My Mexican partner and I sat there amazed at the conduct of this brand new believer. Yes, striving to be good soul doctors, we carefully look for the subtle evidence of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in all our friends who who profess faith. But usually it is just that, a bit more subtle. This was blatantly obvious. Mr. Talent was suddenly talented, gifted, overflowing in proclaiming the word in a way he hadn’t been just a few minutes previously.

“Brother… keep doing that!” we encouraged him when he had finished. “Keep holding up Jesus like that. That is not just you, that is the Holy Spirit inside of you, helping you. The Bible says he gives each one of us unique gifts. And be an example to the other believers in consistency and faithfulness. Now… let’s eat some of this cake you brought. Today really does seem to be your born-again birthday!”

Mr. Talent wasn’t always the most consistent. The absence of his main discipler for a season took a toll. Friendship and spiritual progress are intertwined in mysterious ways. But now, three years later, he has persevered and has grown in his regular attendance and service to his small church. I’m not sure what exactly God is going to do in his future, but my guess is that it will have something to do with proclamation.

Proclamation – along with an appreciation for fashion and good food. So be it. The kingdom of God is a colorful place, after all. There’s certainly room for those who can lecture on the virtues of certain kinds of kabobs and suit jackets, and then pivot to exhort others on the shepherd heart of Christ.

Photo by David Holifield on Unsplash

A Hedgehog Named Desolation

My history with colorful pets on the mission field is a long one. As a child in Melanesia we had pythons, owls, parrots, praying mantises, tree kangaroos (my favorites), and a baby bat. We also had seasons with the more typical dogs and cats. Mostly these were good experiences. Though an eclectus parrot once bit a chunk out of my thumb and a tree kangaroo bit a chunk out of my big toe. That same tree kangaroo also bit one of my classmates, and for some reason his parents insisted on getting him a tetanus shot, which was probably much worse than what the frightened marsupial had done. Sorry about that, Ken.

This part of my life – an enjoyment of local critters – never quite went away, even when I moved to Central Asia. There was a part of our previous city called “Under the Bridge,” where the animal sellers would gather. All kinds of strange and interesting animals would be for sale there, though their conditions were sometimes lamentable. But sometimes you could see eagles, ostriches, chipmunks, or beautiful pheasants for sale. Locals have a thing for birds, especially of the dove, pigeon, and pheasant variety.

One day as a new single on the field, I saw a couple of monkeys for sale under the bridge. I committed one of my classic language blunders that day by asking “Where are the monkey’s people?!” over and over because I thought I was asking, “Where are the monkeys from?”

I later enthusiastically told my team about the little monkeys for sale. “Guys! We could have an office monkey! It would be great, we could teach it to serve chai to guests!”

Needless to say, my team didn’t share my enthusiasm.

Many years passed and I never saw a monkey for sale again in the bazaar. Alas. But one day, I spotted hedgehogs. Just a few months beforehand I had been reading in Zephaniah and was struck by the peculiarity of this passage:

 Zephaniah 2:13–14
  
             [13] And he will stretch out his hand against the north
                         and destroy Assyria,
             and he will make Nineveh a desolation,
                         a dry waste like the desert.
             [14] Herds shall lie down in her midst,
                         all kinds of beasts;
             even the owl and the hedgehog
                         shall lodge in her capitals;
             a voice shall hoot in the window;
                         devastation will be on the threshold;
                         for her cedar work will be laid bare. (ESV) 

When I read the word desolation in verse 13 I wasn’t exactly expecting it to be illustrated with such a cute friendly little critter in verse 14. I mean, who saw that coming? “I will bring desolation… the hedgehog!” (cue thunder and lightning). Now that I’ve lived in Central Asia for a while I understand that hedgehogs (like owls) represent one of the desert creatures that would move into an abandoned city, as Nineveh was to become. Still, I couldn’t quite shake some level of amusement with the connection of these particular words in the text.

“Darling,” I told my wife, “If we ever get a hedgehog, we’re naming him Desolation.”

“OK, love, whatever you say,” was my wife’s response. She didn’t actually expect me to buy one.

But when I came across some for sale in the bazaar for the grand sum of $8 each, it was too good to pass up. I bought one and brought him home in a shoebox, proudly presenting him to my wife and two toddlers. The kids of course were thrilled. My wife was bemused and skeptical.

“His name is Desolation! Desi for short.” I announced. My wife shook her head. The TCK in me occasionally takes over and she remembers that she did indeed marry someone who grew up swimming in jungle rivers and shooting his friends with coffee cherries.

I asked my wife tonight what she remembers about Desi.

“He was a punk,” she said. “And whenever we held him he would hiss at us! And shrink his little head back up under his spikes. Then we would set him down and he would run and try to get under the couch. But he was too fat so he would get half way under, get stuck, and then scurry his little back legs against the floor until he got flat enough to eventually fit under.”

Indeed, Desi had a grumpy personality befitting the name. Still, sometimes he was very cute and would let us rub his belly. Though most of the time he would just hang out under the couch – once he had finally managed to squeeze through. Every night I would tip over the couch and put him back in his cage. The greatest danger for him in the house was that he would somehow find the bathroom and fall in the squatty potty in the floor and drown.

Ultimately, Desi never found the perilous bathroom, though he eventually succumbed to some kind of mysterious hedgehog virus and passed away, as Tolkien would say, “an image of the glory of the splendor of the kings of [hedgehogs], in glory undimmed before the breaking of the world.”

The kids were sad. I was sad. Even my wife was a little sad. We haven’t had a pet since, but I keep my eyes open every time we’re in the bazaar. I would love for my kids to also grow up with strange tales of colorful creatures that are usually grumpy and sometimes even cute. There are some downsides to growing up as TCKs. But there are many upsides also. Tree kangaroos. Hedgehogs. Parents who are naturally adventurous and who let you have things like pythons.

Meanwhile, perhaps we’d better bring more hedgehog imagery into our teaching on God’s judgement? I’m sensing a theme…

 Isaiah 14:23
  
 [23] “And I will make it a possession of the hedgehog, and pools of water, and I will sweep it with the broom of destruction,” declares the LORD of hosts. (ESV) 

Photo by Siem van Woerkom on Unsplash

We Are Family Now

This past week I was looking back through recorded answers to prayer. I came upon a prayer from a few years ago for some local new believers to be baptized. I had written the date we started praying for this, and the date God answered that request.

The lead up to the baptism was tricky. This believing couple was pretty fearful of blowback from their community or relatives. As with many Muslim societies, the community here views baptism as the true point of no return, much more so than a verbal profession of faith. I’m not sure the historical reasons for this, but it is a powerful dynamic we must wrestle with as we work with new believers. Finding a place that is appropriately private and public – so that we honor the biblical requirements and the security realities – is often a great challenge as well. And we live in a climate labeled “high desert,” so there’s not exactly a ton of private swimming holes dotting the landscape.

After much discussion, a date was agreed upon. Then a place and a plan. The husband requested that we do the baptism at their house, in a kiddie pool that he would get ready beforehand in their garage. This would provide a measure of security and privacy, yet still allow the members of the young church to gather and publicly witness their profession and immersion. Initially, they wanted to choose which members of the very small congregation could be there and who couldn’t. Yet we insisted that it was crucial to allow all the members to attend – especially the locals. Locals tend to extend a lot of trust to us foreigners and almost no trust toward the other local followers when they are new believers, to the great detriment of church formation. We have to constantly push against this. It came down to the night before the baptism before they finally agreed the whole church (including all six locals or so) was welcome to attend.

By this point we were well aware of another cultural dynamic that was probably making them feel uncomfortable about their pending dunking. In this culture, it’s very important that men who are not relatives never see a woman wet, whether that’s swimming, wearing wet hair from a shower, etc. Wet hair and clothes are viewed as very sensual. So baptism, where a woman is publicly soaking wet, is the kind of event that could lead to strong feelings of shame, of dishonorably exposing oneself, a wife, sister, or daughter to the eyes of unrelated men. Families and close relatives go swimming together all the time, but its extremely rare for unrelated locals to be at a mixed-gender swimming locale. Because of this, all of the hotels have gender-segregated swimming hours.

To anticipate this fear and objection, our default has been to offer gender-specific baptisms, where the women only are present for the women going under and the men only are present for the men. Afterward, once the newly-baptized one has put on dry clothes and dried or covered their wet hair, all the believers celebrate together. I’ve heard that the early church in some places had similar practices for men and women and that the role of deaconess was mainly about modestly helping women with baptismal rites. When we extended this offer of keeping the genders separate, the couple pursuing baptism were noticeably relieved.

The morning of the baptism came and the members of the little church parked on the street and filed into the garage, beaming and shushing one another so that we wouldn’t make too much commotion for the neighbors. Baptisms, tricky though they are, are always an exciting time. We all stood around talking and inspecting the pool and making sure the water was deep enough for someone to go fully under – we are Baptists after all. We talked through some details for the celebratory picnic to follow the baptism and then it was time to start. We motioned to the newly believing husband and wife that now was the time when all the men would head upstairs.

“Actually, we changed our mind.” The husband replied. “We know that for our culture we should separate the men and the women, that only relatives should be present for a time like this.”

We all nodded and he continued.

“But you have told us that we are family now, that through Jesus we are family with every other believer here. So we want the men and the women to stay for both of our baptisms.”

Surprised, we pressed to make sure they really meant it. Then we shrugged our shoulders and proceeded. As foreigners, we try to walk wisely in how much we try to change certain cultural practices that we might not prefer, but which are not sin. But when the locals insist that they desire to go against the grain of the culture for the sake of Jesus and the church, that’s not the time to pull out our lines about missions methodology. That’s the time to support our brothers and sisters in their risky decision.

Due to the trickiness of getting someone all the way down, under, and back up when baptizing in a shallow kids pool, we’ve come to adopt the method of having two individuals do the actual dunking, while a third reads out the gospel questions and makes the Trinitarian baptism declaration. While we stumbled into this practice, we came to really appreciate the corporate nature of it, where the honor and authority (and physical weight) of the baptism can be spread out between three believers. This gives us a good chance to undermine any competitive “my baptizer was better than your baptizer” nonsense that can often crop up. And it visibly communicates equality of spiritual authority between the foreigner and the local if both are involved in physically laying the new believer in their watery “grave.” Locals want the foreigners to do all the baptizing. Missiologists want the foreigners to never do the baptizing. We’ve settled into a middle way.

The husband and wife both went under the water and came back out, gasping and all smiles. The ladies were lightning quick to wrap the wife in a towel as soon as she came up. The church members, far from acting awkward, burst out in their favorite worship song. At that point everyone there was fine with the neighbors being suspicious. Rejoicing had become far more important. Everyone shared their warm congratulations with their sister and brother, using those familial terms in an intentional and kind way. They were getting it – the church is the new family of God.

Then, because we’re in Central Asia, we went upstairs to drink chai, and to commence with the honorable haggling over picnic logistics.

Photo by Vince Fleming on Unsplash