Everyday Rebellion

Everyday Rebellion May 1, 2018

On Thursday of last week I plopped down in a white plastic chair to listen to a young North African man get up and teach his first literacy lesson in his language. He did it rather badly, though considering he had only learned to read and write his mother tongue a few days ago it was pretty impressive. But we had been going hard all week at this literacy training and my brain-fatigue was beginning to border on apathy. I knew everyone else was tired too.

This was the first mother tongue teacher training ever in this language group. We were crammed a bit too cozily into our modest office space – eleven North African refugees and me. There were two women among the eleven, one a university student, the other a grandmother. The men were all fairly young. We were majority Christians, mostly very new to faith. There were also a couple Muslims. They were in the process of learning how to be the first literacy teachers in this language in the history of the world.

It was pretty exciting stuff. The vast majority of the group had never seen the language they speak every day of their lives written down, much less tried to read it out loud, far less contemplated how to teach someone else how to do it. But they were passionate and eager.

But it turns out in real life exciting stuff also tends to be pretty exhausting stuff. Their language has grammatical tone making it a bit of a bear to write simply. And talking about grammar in Arabic is not exactly my forte. Only four days deep and we were all starting to feel the abrasion on our brains.

As I sat down to watch the student use the primer to introduce the phoneme for the lesson that morning (k is for koleez) the man sitting next to me touched my shoulder lightly. It was Hakim, the lead Bible translator on this project. He was one of the first people from his tribe to become a Jesus follower over 15 years ago. When he tried to share the Gospel with his community, government sympathizers pulled out his toenails and threw him in a pit. But now, almost two decades later he is here translating the Bible into his language and helping me teach people how to read it. Every morning that week he led our class in reading through the first few chapters of Genesis, the first shreds of scripture that exist in this language.

But in that moment he was holding out his phone to me. A green Whatsapp message with lines of tiny scrolling Arabic script several paragraphs long was backlit on his screen. He saw from my face that it would take me more time than we had available to read the text (the beautiful irony of a literacy teacher who needs help reading) so he graciously summarized the message he had just received from his nephew. Fighting has started again in our home area. Government troops shelling and dropping bombs from Antanovs. In some places they are using MiGs. It is very bad.

After a nine-month lull in fighting, war had flared up again in the villages where everyone in this room except me was born and raised, where they still have parents and siblings living, the place they call home despite the fact that some haven’t lived there for years.

As I made eye contact with Hakim and tried to figure out what I was supposed to say in response, time seemed to slow down just a little. The guy at the whiteboard behind me was still walking the rest of the class through a syllable drill (ka ke ki ko ku) as they prepare to read a short story about a kamdal. He was relaxing into the lesson and leading with increasing confidence.

I wasn’t sure yet if others had heard about outbreak of fighting again, and the moment settled heavily on me. It felt significant somehow: a meager dozen of us wrestling out reading this language in a cramped office in a city hundreds of miles away; simultaneously, a national army bludgeoning everything this language represents.

And despite the vague horror of it, the moment felt like a gift. It was a reminder, a nudge in the side, a gentle shake, fingers snapped in my face. In the sweet monotony of daily rebellion, it was a heart-stopping glimpse behind the curtain to see once again why it all matters.


Some of the first Christians I ever met from this people group were brand new to the faith, and they spoke with zeal about how they were going to raise up a Christian army to go back and fight the government. “We will build an army for Jesus, retake our homeland back and build a church where every mosque once stood!”

They sounded like so many other people I know who misunderstand the way of Jesus completely, people much closer to home who simply trade out one religious, political or economic system for another and paint it with a veneer of Jesus. A new Rome for an old one.

But those who really come to know Jesus have learned that his devastating counter-insurgency in this world looks nothing like what the empires have to offer. It’s rebellion by way of peace. It’s subversion by way of submission. It’s overwhelming victory by way of underwhelming practices of love, day in and day out.

So, quite simply, that odd story from my week is just to say to so many of you – keep fighting. Each of our own monotonous rebellions matter. Whatever ways you have been called to resist the empire, day in and day out, keep doing it. Continue joining forces with God in creating order and light and beauty within the chaos that writhes around us. It’s not every day that we get a glimpse behind whatever curtains blind us to the battles in the world. So from one often-blinded person to another: keep fighting, giving, feeding, forgiving, learning, teaching, asking.

Keep doing it.

Because it matters.


At a tea break later that day I heard more from Hakim about the war in his homeland and why he believes what we are doing matters. He is going back North next month, as are five others from this class. They hope to encourage young churches, community test drafts of scripture, and, God-willing, teach mother tongue literacy classes. And Hakim said something that I am still turning over in my mind, words that rang both mysterious and true. “What we are bringing is not new. And what we are bringing will never be old.”

In some ways I feel like I have no idea what that means. In other ways I feel like I know in the very sinews of my soul exactly what that means.

The Gospel we fight for is timeless. But the empires of the world are not. So we enter the fray with raging gentleness and unshakeable courage.

May God give you an extra measure of both this week. And eyes to glimpse, even briefly, the wars that you are a part of.

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