Scalable Platforms

Many missionaries in the 10/40 window live in what’s been called creative-access countries. In these countries there are no missionary or religious visas available to cross-cultural workers, so they need to have “platforms,” whether business or non-profit, in order to maintain legitimate access. I’ve written in the past about the importance of doing tent-maker/platform work that 1) results in an excellent product that brings value to the community and gives God glory and 2) leads to gospel opportunities and relationships with locals.

You want your platform to be strong and valuable enough to provide some cover when locals start coming to faith and others potentially start complaining about you. Of course we can’t guarantee we won’t get kicked out even if we have the ideal platform, but we should still do the best we can so as to protect access to the unreached.

Now that I’m some years into the creative-access gig and working under my fourth platform, one other very important principle is emerging – that of a platform’s scalability. This principle is important not because of dynamics among locals, but because of dynamics among us foreign workers.

Ours is a lifestyle of high and costly transition. We’ve recently been joking that we should give up on annual goals in favor of quarterly ones due to the sheer amount of transition that we experience. It feels like we are always saying goodbye to workers leaving the field, or welcoming new ones, adjusting to others who have left for furlough, or taking in the news that others will be significantly delayed in getting back to the field. This can make maintaining a solid core of platform workers quite difficult.

The goal of our platforms is to serve the church planting strategy, not the other way around. But we have also experienced seasons where the needs of the platform are so demanding, often due to staffing shortages, that it very much feels like we are serving the platform – and the church planting work is taking a back seat. This is a tension we live in, hoping that a season of investing in a solid platform can later result in greater freedom for ministry. Sometimes you just have to hold the beachhead until reinforcements arrive.

However, what would happen if we built the reality of worker transience into our platforms from the very beginning? Rather than being blindsided by the next unexpected departure of our staff, what if we anticipating it and planned accordingly? For several years now I have been chewing on the idea of a platform designed to be scalable. On the one hand, one person working part-time could keep it running if he had to. On the other hand, it could scale up to accommodate a raft of new personnel who arrive in need of visas and a legitimate work identity. What kind of businesses and non-profit models might be this flexible?

My current non-profit platform serves as a potential example of this. For the past year we’ve been providing training several times a week to a small group of students. The teaching load is manageable because we have several staff who share the load. But it would be a lot for only one teacher. On the other hand, the group is too small to justify bringing on many more staff. However, this group of students recently graduated from the program and since then we’ve started experimenting with modular trainings in partnership with other organizations.

Now that we only have a few modular (1-3 day) trainings per month, we are finding ourselves really enjoying the increased time in our schedules for relationships and ministry. We have also stumbled into a model that is unusually scalable. If we have more colleagues join us, we can always increase the number and kind of modular trainings available. If everyone is gone or on furlough and only one worker is left, he can scale the trainings back to a pace that is realistic. This gives us hope for greater sustainability, even as the modular trainings give us access to a broader scope of the community.

Now, the content we are providing is masters-level stuff and our partners are able to gather decent crowds for our modular trainings, so that makes a pared-down schedule doable yet still very respectable. Not everyone will find themselves in this kind of situation.

Yet the transience factor is not going away. As missionaries, churches, and organizations wrestle with how to keep workers in creative-access contexts for the long-haul, the scalability of platforms should be considered. Scalability means sustainability, because the worker remaining on the field doesn’t have to be crushed by the platform work created by that recently departed or arrived coworker. The platform can grow or shrink according to the needs of personnel and the ministry.

That kind of flexibility may sound idealistic, but the potential is worthy of some experimentation. If platforms became more scalable, that would help assure that they are truly serving the missionaries, and not the other way around.

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A Proverb of Caution

Don’t cross the bridge of the dishonorable.

Local Oral Tradition

This local proverb warns against trusting the untrustworthy. It reminds me of Proverbs 26:6, “Whoever sends a message by the hand of a fool cuts off his own feet and drinks violence.” Trust is good, but trust without wisdom is dangerous. We need to know the character and the ability of the person we are extending trust to. Historically, to cross a bridge is to take a risk. A bridge usually crosses some kind of dangerous water or gap. Will its construction hold? A bridge is also a chokepoint. Could it lead to an ambush? In local wisdom, to cross the bridge of man known to be dishonorable is to invite harm. Of course, as followers of Jesus we will at times violate this principle for the sake of the gospel (such as in Zacchaeus’ case), sometimes to powerful effect, but we still live in a universe where we are foolish to trust the untrustworthy naively.

This is one of the stronger local proverbs I’ve heard recently, and one which must be used with caution. That word dishonorable is so loaded in this honor/shame culture, that you would never want the one you use it for to hear about it. If they do, you will at least have broken the relationship, if not have also invited threats of violence.

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A Proverb on Having Your Cake

You want God and you also want dates.

Local Oral Tradition

This is our local equivalent of “You can’t have your cake and eat it too.” In this local proverb, you can’t want God (a spiritual life) while also wanting to eat dates (a pleasurable life). You can’t have it both ways, local wisdom says.

It seems that locals use this proverb for someone struggling with doublemindedness. I learned it from a local friend whose mom had just used it on him as he lamented about not knowing which of multiple good options he should pursue for his future. He was stuck, knowing that to choose one good was to deny another. “I shall be telling this with a sigh, somewhere ages and ages hence!” wrote Robert Frost, recalling a friend who regularly lamented the roads not taken.

Central Asian mamas don’t have any time for that kind of stuff, busy as they are serving their family (including adult sons) hand and foot. “Listen, son, you want God and you want dates? Pick one and quit your drama …and here’s some more chai, sweety.”

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A Proverb on Knowing Value

The value of gold is with the goldsmith.

Local Oral Tradition

This local proverb speaks to the importance of experience in knowing the value of something. A parent truly knows the value of children. A scholar deeply feels the importance of his area of focus. The goldsmith or gold seller – and we have entire sections of our local bazaar full of gold shops – is the one best able to value gold.

Much missiology is done in reaction to unhealthy churches. Cross-cultural workers who have never been part of a healthy church come overseas confident of what they don’t want to plant, but have no clear positive vision for what they want to see come about. This can mean that church gets radically redefined or even dismissed. These workers are ripe to be swept up in the latest missiological fad which promises amazing results. This is due, in part, to a deficiency in their experience. Perhaps all they have known are churches that are dying due to an unwillingness to change extrabiblical traditions or megachurches awash in seeker sensitive antics.

However, one who has been a part of a healthy church knows the value of a body of believers that pursues the biblical characteristics of a local church. They have been inoculated to the position that “We’ve done church all wrong in the West” because they have seen and tasted the power of a faithful New Testament local church. They know the secret that healthy church principles transcend centuries and cultures, albeit while putting on appropriate aspects of local culture.

Don’t send out missionaries who practice a missiology of reaction and who have a dismissive attitude of Western local churches – all the while being funded by them. Look for those who have lived as healthy church members and who deeply love the local church, even with all its flaws. These workers are in the best position to take New Testament principles for the local church and to seek to plant them across cultures.

Photo by Adam Jones on Wikimedia Commons.

On Not Fighting Like Gauls

I recently had the opportunity to speak to a number of my colleagues on the importance of sustainable sacrifice (a term borrowed from author Christopher Ash in his book, Zeal Without Burnout). Together, we looked at 2nd Timothy 2:1-7, and specifically, Paul’s examples of the soldier, the athlete, and the farmer. Each example would have communicated to the original audience a lifestyle of sacrifice, as well a lifestyle of disciplined pace – long-term labor that requires a long-term posture.

While preparing for this talk I decided to include a historical illustration from Roman military history. Julius Caesar conquered the Gauls (or Celts) of modern day France between the years 58 and 50 BC. These now famous battles, called the Gallic wars, made the Gauls of western Europe (relatives of those Galatians down in Asia minor) Roman subjects. Eventually they would become models of Roman assimilation, more Roman than the Romans as it were. But in the beginning they were something terrifying to behold – particularly in battle.

The warriors of Gaul tended to be much taller than Roman soldiers, with blonde hair (often bleached even blonder) and long mustaches. Sources say they would charge into battle naked – save for a metal band around their neck – and painted in blue war paint. Their preferred way to fight was to charge the enemy line, fearless and screaming, caught up in some kind of battle rage. This would have been a terrifying thing to behold and try to withstand, and much discipline would have been required to hold the line. In the back of a Roman soldier’s mind, they might also be thinking about how the Gauls liked to collect the heads of their defeated enemies and decorate their houses with them. The Roman consciousness was also haunted by the memory of the Gauls who had sacked Rome hundreds of years earlier.

No doubt many a Roman line did not hold in response to a charging hoard of Gauls (You can’t blame them). But Julius Caesar learned one valuable secret. That secret was the importance of pace. The Gauls were using massive amounts of energy in their fanatical charge at the Roman line. If the legions could just hold the line for a little while and save their strength, then the majority of the Gallic warriors’ strength would be spent, and the Romans would be able to get the upper hand – by simply having enough energy left to finish the battle.

Of course, the Romans also employed advanced military tactics and discipline, and no doubt these all played their part. But I was struck by the fact that battles could be won simply by the power of pace.

We have not been very good at pacing ourselves here in our corner of Central Asia. Many limp to the end of their first term and beginning of furlough. Most long-term cross-cultural workers leave here after 4-6 years. Everyone with high-school age kids leaves. We come in with an immense amount of energy, throw ourselves at language learning, evangelism, and discipleship, burn into sleep and family time, and justify it all because it’s ministry. Then one day we wake up realizing there’s suddenly nothing more in the tank.

In short, we have been fighting like Gauls.

My encouragement to my colleagues (and myself) is that we need to learn to fight more like Romans. Let the short-term teams fight like Gauls (but clothed, please). This is because their battle is much briefer, more like a sprint. But for those of us who hope to be here for decades, we need to learn the kind of posture and pace that enables us to endure a very long war full of very long engagements. To jump historical eras, we are in WWII Stalingrad, not in the fall of Paris.

Borrowing categories from Christopher Ash, this means we need to be serious about sleep, sabbaths, friendship, and inner renewal. It also means we need to embrace a posture of grace toward our teammates, so that we might prevent and mitigate the devastating effects of team conflict.

Ultimately, we don’t know how long we will be able to stay on the field. Some factors are beyond our ability to influence, such as geopolitical changes or getting cancer. But we can and should seek a wise, long-term posture, one where we do not fight like Gauls, but instead fight like soldiers who know there’s a lot of battle still to come – and who want to actually be there to see the victory.

Photo by Wikimedia Commons

A Proverb On Going Slow and Steady

He’ll catch a rabbit with a wheelbarrow.

Local Oral Tradition

This is one proverb I am thrilled to have found. For years we have had to defend our slow pace of church-planting, money usage, and leadership development to locals. I even came to start referring to our church as those desiring to be faithful turtles.

Money is the fuel for most governmental, private, and religious organizations here in our corner of Central Asia. Small salaries are expected for participation and loyalty to a group, and many Christian organizations have played right into this. If you hear of exciting results from our area, ask how money is involved. Sadly, many new believers (and some unbelievers) are being paid to share the gospel, lead bible studies, and form groups. And with these small salaries, things develop quickly. But as soon as the money dries up, things fall apart just as quickly.

In reality, money has been used to substitute for godly character. Yet without godly character, those being paid can’t handle the temptations that come from being paid to do the work of ministry. Our approach has been to do the slow work of character formation and to let the multiplication of disciples, groups, and churches be governed by that same slow speed. Money is used sparingly, and only after someone has demonstrated freedom from the love of it.

How can we justify this slow work in an area that is 99.9% lost? Because it is the only work that will last. To plant churches that last – and not merely multiply and die – is our goal. That goal keeps us slower than most, but so be it. By the grace of God, the disciples we make will persevere, the leaders will last, the churches will live beyond a few years. I believe that, given enough time, a small network of churches planted in this fashion will overtake the alleged movements that some have claimed here. 18,000 churches planted is what one man claimed – the problem is, no one who actually lives here has ever seen even one of them!

This local proverb speaks to the surprisingly effective results of slow and steady work. One doesn’t usually catch a rabbit with a wheelbarrow. But with great focus, planning, and perseverance, someone wise with a wheelbarrow just might catch one, when all others have failed. It’s the same principle behind the classic tortoise and hare fable – slow and steady wins the race.

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22 Questions That Reveal Character – Even Across Cultures

It’s hard to discern a potential leader’s character, even in our native cultures. Unlike physical features, the terrain of character is invisible, demonstrated over time through a person’s life. Veteran pastors in the West say it typically takes 2-3 years to really know if a man has character fit to lead the church. How much more difficult is it then to discern character across culture and language barriers?

When that cashier is careful to not touch your wife’s hand when taking money from her, is that because he believes women are inferior and dirty? Or is that because he is wanting to protect the honorable reputation of your wife in a culture where a bad reputation for women can be life-threatening? Which is it? We are faced with a thousand dilemmas like this when we begin doing character work across culture.

Here are 22 questions that can serve as practical lenses for discerning character no matter what culture you’re in. They’re not exhaustive, but I hope you will find them helpful. They are also not original to me, but represent the pooled wisdom of many conversations with pastors, authors, friends, and wise believers. Some of these questions have also practically emerged out of being burned and bitten by wolves.

Before we look at the questions, however, we do need to keep a couple realities in mind. First, biblical principles do not change throughout time and across cultures. They are universally true and unchanging. However, the expressions – the applications – of those principles do vary from one century to another and from one culture to another. This will also be true at times for how character is expressed.

How an American shows respect is night and day different from how Central Asians show respect. Same principle – respect – outdo one another in showing honor. But very different, even offensively different applications. The same goes for hospitality, what constitutes manliness, who should kiss who, how we think about time, etc.

To make it even more complicated, the scriptures sometimes tie a principle and an expression very tightly together – like baptism and the Lord’s supper. The expressions are commanded along with the principle. But other times we are given principles and a large degree of freedom in expression – as with musical worship in the church. Especially for those of us in cross-cultural ministry, this is an area for careful and nuanced study of the Word.

How narrow or broad is the spectrum of faithful expression for a given biblical principle? We should know that spectrum of faithful expression, and then choose a posture according to our unique context.

To illustrate what I mean, imagine a huge Kentucky oak, not a squat mountain scrub oak like ours in Central Asia, but a remarkably tall and straight tree, a couple hundred years old. This huge oak tree has roots fixed in the earth, steady, strong. It’s trunk is firm and unmoving, solid. However, once you get up into the branches, you see some sway when the wind blows. Even the strongest and healthiest tree has some sway.

Our biblical principles are like the roots and the trunk. Our faithful applications are like the branches. Solid biblical principles have some sway in their applications across time and cultures. Disregard the universality of biblical principles and you become a relativist. Disregard the existence of the sway and you fall into a classic error of fundamentalism, which is mistaking an expression for the principle itself.

So then, ask these questions for discerning character, and be aware of how character does and doe not express itself differently across cultures.

1. How does his local church feel about this brother? The local church is often the very best reference we can have on a man’s character. What do the elders see? What do the old ladies see? Do the members of the church commend him as one already leading, already shepherding even without a title?

2. How does he respond to gospel conversation? Do his eyes gloss over and does he insist he has that topic down? Or does his heart burn within him? Does he light up at the chance to revisit the beauty of the good news?

3. How does he handle the word? Does he exhibit a posture of humility and carefulness toward scripture?

4. Does he repent freely? This is a big one for Central Asian culture! You know your local brother’s character is changing when he doesn’t just give a general, “I’m sorry,” but he starts naming specifics – and in front of others!

5. How does he respond when someone sins against him? Or when he is publicly shamed? Does he know how to extend grace and forgive? Or does he keep bringing it up and holding a grudge?

6. Is he a good follower and team player? I never want myself or my friends to follow anyone who can’t be a good follower themselves. And neither should you. The healthiest leaders are those who also know how to be good followers.

7. How does he respond to those with power and position? Does he always gravitate toward the preaching pastor, the foreigners, those with power? Does he seem to be trying a little too hard to look good in their eyes?

8. How does he respond to the vulnerable? To women, children, the poor. Our response to the vulnerable always exposes our character. Is the instinct to protect them, to ignore them, or to take advantage of them?

9. How do his wife and children respond to him? Let’s not neglect to ask the people who live with this man what he’s really like at home. A pastor who used to be a cattle farmer told me they once fired a man for how the cattle acted around him. They never saw him abusing the cattle, but they could tell from how the cattle acted what was happening when he was alone. How do a man’s wife and children respond to him? And what can that show us?

10. Is he quick to deal out judgement? This often means he’s hiding sin or doesn’t understand the gospel. Most of the wolf-types we’ve encountered have been unpredictably judgemental on minor issues.

11. Can he be trusted with money? As one of our top church-killers, money issues are often what make or break the character of a Central Asian leader. He must be above reproach with money or he will not make it in this environment of foreign organizations excited to partner financially.

12. Is he self-aware of his own weaknesses and need for the body’s diverse gifts? Do not appoint a man to leadership who is still in the phase of thinking that everyone else needs to be gifted exactly like he is. Only appoint men who rejoice in others’ diverse giftings.

13. How does he respond when he doesn’t get his way? A man of good character knows how to defer, how to trust others even when they disagree. 

14. Does he welcome correction? This is a sign of wisdom. (Prov 9:8)

15. Is he gracious toward cross-cultural mistakes? This is a very practical filter for us. The only local partners that will last with us are those who have a robust category of grace for honest cultural mistakes that we can’t help but make. If they’re harsh with your cultural mistakes, they will be with others’ even from their own culture.

16. Does he always make it about himself? Somehow does the conversation always turns back to his accomplishments?

17. Does he host or serve in ways that don’t get recognition? As one Central Asian pastor has said, pay attention to the Central Asian man who cleans the bathroom or does the dishes. That means something!

18. How does he handle his liberties? Mature christian freedom is freedom for the sake of love, not freedom for the sake of freedom. Will he give good things up that cause others to stumble?

19. What is his reputation among the discerning? Do you have folks around you who are perceptive and discerning? Lean on these people and their gifts of character discernment. I am helped to hear what a certain teammate of mine sees in a person, and to hear how my wife feels about that same person. What they see and feel tends to be validated later as a person’s true character is exposed.

20. What comes out of him in a crisis? Some security police crashed a church meeting at a colleague’s house a couple years ago. A new believer who struggles with fear stood right up, went over to the police, greeted them, told them his name, welcomed them, and acted with great courage and respect. You can’t plan reactions like that. Crises expose what is deep down inside.

21. Does he keep his commitments? A righteous man swears to his own hurt (Ps 15:4). This is foundational for building trust.  

And lastly, 22. Does he run when the wolf comes? Or does he lay down his life for the sheep, as the good shepherd did? I was discipling some Iranian new believers in the US and they were bothered by the fact that staff pastors at our church were paid salaries. “How do we know they’re not just in this for the money, like the mullahs back home are?” they asked. “You’ll know,” I said, “when a wolf emerges, or anytime when caring for the sheep means the pastors must sacrifice and suffer. Then you’ll see their character emerge.”

Why is it important that we have some practical filters like this for discerning character? Because it’s hard to see character even in our native cultures, let alone in one where we are outsiders.

These filters give us some tools to have on hand, things to notice as you are walking with potential leaders – or any believer for that matter. How they do with these lenses applied will expose who they are, or who they are becoming.

It’s hard to see character, but a man’s heart is exposed by the fruit of his life (Matt 7:15-20). If we are careful to study the fruit, we can truly “see” the heart, and character will no longer be invisible.

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Beware Evangelical Talk

When I was a brand new missions pastor, I was given a great piece of advice from the lead pastors that I reported to.

“Beware Evangelical talk,” they said.

“Given your position,” they continued, “you will have countless opportunities to meet and network with other pastors and people in ministry. Many of them will want to spend precious time talking about what they are about to do, or what they would like to see happen in the future (you will too). Watch out for this, and spend your time first actually getting things done, and then you will have something to talk about.”

I nodded and tucked this piece of advice away. Before long I found out just how necessary the warning was. I was inundated with invitations to meet with other ministry professionals to “connect,” “network,” and get to know one another. Some good came out of these meetings, and some important relationships were formed. But there were also many meetings where it wasn’t quite clear in the end why the meeting had taken place at all, beyond us feeling good about having spent some social time with a new person in a somewhat-related role. Plus, we were in Louisville, so the coffee was often quite good (Sunergos, Quills, Vint, etc.).

Group gatherings of ministry professionals could be the worst in this regard, and not only in ministry contexts in the West. This is a dynamic that also continues on the mission field when groups of workers from different organizations meet together. It usually goes like this. A bunch of evangelical ministry types feel the urge to meet together regularly because “unity” and “the kingdom is bigger than your church” and “don’t be tribal because that’s bad.” But these vague notions don’t often get any more defined than that. So the group meets, and when it’s time to share the bulk of the time is spent by those talking about exciting things that seem right about to get started – or it’s monopolized by someone who has had some measure of success and now believes that what they did is the silver bullet for everyone else’s context. Most leave vaguely encouraged, but each would be hard-pressed to define anything specific that came of those several hours spent together. “Yeah, it was… good to… connect?”

Any time I’m asked to be part of planning a time like this, I always ask for one condition for the sharing time, “Can people please stick to what they’ve actually seen happen and resist the urge to share about items they think are right on the cusp of being the next great thing?” I often find myself needing templates and models that have actually proved faithful and fruitful, not just creative ideas that might work or might go down in flames (I tend to have too many of those on my own already). And at least in our context, the work is hard enough that always focusing on that new relationship or initiative seems to be a bit of a coping mechanism that keeps us from facing our repeated setbacks. We’ve sometimes lamented that our corner of Central Asia could be called The Land of a Thousand False Starts due to how many promising beginnings simply fail to go anywhere. Workers focus on what’s just around the bend for 10 years and then go home disillusioned, without having left anything behind that lasts.

“But ministry is all about relationships!” Yes, relationships are key, and I don’t mean to minimize the importance of having a network of trusted friends. Meetings, whether one-on-one or a group, can be a great way to build the type of trusting relationships that just might someday save your life – or keep your church from imploding. Effective ministry requires having these kinds of friendships with others who are allies or at least co-belligerants. But the cost of long rambling meetings must also be taken into account. Does it take away from time you could be shepherding your people? Sharing the gospel with the lost? Learning the local language and culture? Working on those important but not urgent projects that seem to be forever punted? Prayer?

I’ve found that a very slight uptick in definition, common ground, and goals for ministry networking can lead to making the best use of the time when meeting with other Evangelicals. What exactly is this meeting and why am I going to it? Why are they wanting to meet with me? What piece of wisdom or experience or help can be gleaned from this time? And what can I give to serve them? How much common ground do we share in terms of theology and methodology? (This last question helps to focus the conversation on the more appropriate areas of partnership).

Building the relationship is often a win in itself, but not always. When thought has been put in to define the meeting, work out its purpose and at least one goal, and do some theological/methodological triage, then relational ministry meetings often are worth the time invested. But without thinking through these things on some level, we risk getting pulled into the Evangelical Ministry Talk Vortex. And one can spend decades in there, floating around from one meeting over coffee to another.

Beware Evangelical Talk. It’s a subtle danger in a world without enough laborers. Let’s get to work, and then we will have a great time meeting to talk about it later.

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A Proverb on Learning One’s Lesson

If they cut off your arm, God will judge them. If they cut off your the other arm, God will judge you.

Local Oral Tradition

This is our local equivalent of “Fool me once, shame on you; Fool me twice, shame on me.” In other words, once someone has proven themselves untrustworthy or even dangerous, a wise person should no longer extend to them the same kind of trust they did previously. To do so is not only foolish, but this local proverb goes so far as to say it’s the kind of folly that even invites God’s judgement.

And now for a flashback demonstrating the importance of knowing your proverbs, especially if you are going to use them publicly:

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The Lone and Level Sands

Our corner of Central Asia is an ancient place. We had some first-time visitors with us this past week, and while traveling back from another city we took the opportunity to visit some very old ruins – old, as in circa 2,700 years ago. Remarkably, ancient carved script was still clear and legible on dozens of the large limestone blocks.

The few scholars that can read that script say that most of it is typical of the bragging monument-speak of ancient kings. “I’m the king of the world” and all that. If you’ve ever read the poem “Ozymandius” by Shelley, you’ll understand the sad irony felt when that kind of chiseled pride is contrasted with the desolation that inevitably comes with the passage of time – and with death.

I’m reminded of the time I visited the ruins of Ephesus. The site of the temple of Artemis only contained one pillar still standing – and that from a recent German reconstruction – and a whole bunch of grass and grazing sheep. So much for “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!” (Acts 19). The site in Central Asia we visited was similar. Broken beer bottles littered the site itself, and nearby were tents of nomads, their shuffling flocks, and a lazy guard dog. So much for “the king of the world.”

What’s left of the temple of the great Artemis of the Ephesians

However, I’ve also read that this particular monarch (later murdered by his own sons) may have been privately realistic when it came to his own mortality. In public he may have claimed to be a semi-divine global ruler who would live forever. But scholars say that on the underside of some stones, hidden for centuries, a very different kind of message has been discovered. It’s along the lines of “If you are reading this, then my kingdom has been destroyed, I am no more, and was a mere mortal after all.” That’s quite the time capsule message to leave buried beneath massive limestone blocks. And a rare example of realistic humility for ancient royalty, if these carvings were indeed commissioned by the king himself and not a sneaky dig made against him by the head stone chiseler.

The visitors and I had a great time exploring the site. It’s simply astounding that ruins like this exist and that they have lasted so long – especially the carved script itself. 2,700 years is no small achievement for an ancient mason or scribe shooting for quality work. It was an invigorating place because of the remarkable history, but also a humbling one. Our empires’ greatest public works will one day look just like it, if they even last half as long. A testimony in the desert to glory long gone. It makes one long for the city whose foundation blocks will never fall or waste away.

I found myself wishing the pompous autocrats and politicians of our contemporary scene could visit this historical site, and take away lessons on both the enduring legacy of bold projects and the importance of humility for any powerful – yet oh so temporary – leader. Yes, we may be “crowned with glory and honor” for a day, yet all too quickly it comes to an end. They, and we, would be wise to more often consider these things, and to heed the warnings of Psalm 2:10-12.

Now therefore, O kings, be wise; be warned, O rulers of the earth. Serve the LORD with fear, and rejoice with trembling. Kiss the Son, lest he be angry, and you perish in the way, for his wrath is quickly kindled. Blessed are all who take refuge in him.

Their glory and honor will fade. Only one ruler has a throne and a kingdom that will last forever. If they do not take refuge in him, if they do not give him the kiss of loyalty, they will fade into the sand, just like our local “king of the world.” Just like Ozymandius.

In case you haven’t read it before, here is “Ozymandius” by Shelley.

I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read

Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

“Ozymandius” by Shelley, from Poetry Foundation

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