A long, strange trip it’s been

My wife and daughter are safely back home and still decompressing from their 17 day trip to the “distant and mysterious land” (DML). I apologize for appearing coy, but it’s not out of the mistaken impression that this blog is widely read. It is because I know there are software and web tools that collect and report the usage of certain words and phrases, especially when used together (I use these tools myself in my day job to monitor information that may impact my company). Because of people still in the DML, it really doesn’t pay to come to the attention of a particular government. I think alert readers should be able to piece things together themselves, but there’s no point in waving any red flags electronically.

It sounds like a cliche to say it, but the DML is a land of many contrasts. For example, by government it is officially a collectivist state, yet the daily lives of its people openly revolve around buying and selling and collecting wealth. In fact, the “free” healthcare for some 1.3 billion people isn’t very free: we have heard first-hand accounts of seriously ill (but not contagious) children being refused admission to a hospital unless cash is provided upfront. It is a land of modern skyscrapers and streets – that uses these same streets as public urinals. It is a land with an ancient and intricate culture – where the sound of hocking and spitting is constant as you move around (even while on airplanes). It is a land where the women dress exquisitely – while their husbands and brothers accompany them on the streets wearing dirty shorts and tee-shirts, often with the shirts pulled up to cool their bellies in the stifling heat. It is a land where cellphones are everywhere – even among people living in homes and environments that would have been considered squalid 2000 years ago.

Another contrast is in the area of religious faith. Offically the DML worships nothing – and everything. There are countless shrines and temples for an ancient religion – and many who worship their former 20th century leader as a god. Even the Christian faith is “accepted”; that is, as long as it is practiced in the “government church” designated for it. My wife and daughter went to a Sunday service at the government church with the rest of their group. Even though they arrived late, they were ushered into the front rows – the better, it was pointed out, to be seen by the cameras. The cameras were not, however, for the church’s benefit.

The bulk of the effective Christian teaching, evangelizing and discipling inside the DML is done in underground house churches, many of them no doubt similar to the home church my wife and I conduct. The crucial difference is in our version we are open to visitors and welcome new faces. In the DML the prevalence of government spies makes the small groups wary of newcomers; a justifiable precaution because friends of ours there know of midnight raids and home church leaders that have been beaten, deported or “disappeared.” Yet the body of Christ thrives. While there was never going to be a chance for my wife and daughter to be taken into a house church, they met many Christians throughout their travels who were excited in their faith and hungry for news and teaching and they were deeply touched by the strength and hope of these believers.

These are, of course, simple observations. Any stranger visiting a new land is sure to find many things that don’t appear to make sense, whether they are in Chicago or Cairo, or even between Minneapolis and St. Paul. We carry our filters and expectations with us wherever we go, and part of seeing a new place is having these preconceptions shaken up (let’s hope in a positive way). In my wife’s case, for example, she imagined that people living under this form of government would be chafing at their oppression in the same way that people from our culture would under similar circumstances. Instead, most appeared fairly stoic and comfortable (though there is a history of the more discontented being dealt with harshly).

This was the first time my wife had been on an overseas mission where she and her group could not go openly about her business. In other trips national governments were at the worst indifferent to their cause and the local governments even embraced and celebrated their activities whether it was for a large open-air crusade, or the quieter and vitally important pastors conferences and training. As I noted the difference between the DML and, say, the Philippines, it made me appreciate what an 800 pound gorilla the government can be in evangelical work…and then I realized that the same is true in America, with all the permits, regulations, licenses and 501(c)(3) hoops that encumber our “freedom” of religion.

And I wondered if someone visiting from another land would look at us and marvel at how stoic and comfortable we appeared to be.

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