Book Review: Dispatches from the Front, by Tim Keesee
Tim Keesee. Dispatches from the Front: Stories of Gospel Advance in the World’s Difficult Places. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 240 pps. $14.99.
All around us, it seems, the sky is falling. America. Australia. The UK. Church attendance is down, cultural compasses are pointing east of Eden, and many so-called “Christian” veneers are vanishing. Once-nominal Christians are now comfortably non-Christian, while many once-amicable non-Christians are now comfortably anti-Christian.
There are many ways we can respond to this. First, we can (and should) understand this news rightly, realizing that in every yarn of destruction there are threads of promise. Lord willing, the articles linked above and below are exercises in that. The sky isn’t falling, and as Christians we know it never will. Instead, we wait for the sky to open, our eyes straining for that white horse, whose rider is called Faithful and True.
Second, we can (and should) look to history for encouragement, understanding that the church has seen such presumably dire straits before—and carried on with Christ as her architect. We’ve done that, too— both here and here.
Third, we can (and should) commit ourselves to prayer, both corporately and individually.
But that’s not all. We should also look to the present for encouragement. We should take time to learn that the church, around the world and in the unlikeliest of places, is far from vanishing; instead, as people are being called out of darkness and into the marvelous light of God, it’s shining brighter and brighter and brighter and brighter.
A JOYOUS EDUCATION
This is the kind of joyous education one receives while reading Tim Keesee’s beautiful, affecting, and poignant Dispatches from the Front: Stories of Gospel Advance in the World’s Difficult Places. The book is a collection of journal entries, written across several years and bookended by what appears to be an occasional prologue and epilogue.
Because of this, it’s somewhat difficult to subject Keesee’s work to a standard “review.” He doesn’t give the reader arguments to parse or specific exhortations to either heed or reject. Instead, his message is a simple one: From the Balkans to the former Soviet Republic; from China to the Horn of Africa; from Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea to Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan; from Southeast Asia to Afghanistan and Iraq—God is sovereignly and graciously saving people through the proclamation of the gospel. What’s more, Keesee recalls story after story where these now-saved men and women are being taught to love the Word and join with other Christians in local churches for mutual encouragement, holiness, submission, and service. He tells story after story where the spiritual discipline of evangelism isn’t for super-Christians in super-churches, and where discipling relationships are part and parcel of “normal Christianity” (98).
Who wants to quibble with that?
A FEW TAKEWAYS
That said, I do want to provide a pair cruising-altitude takeaways, and then move on to the book’s immediate usefulness.
First, Keesee’s narration is hopeful, even assured, without sounding naïve or simplistic. We’ve all read well-meaning, evangelistically zealous books or missions reports that celebrate x-amount of baptisms (usually high) in y-amount of time (usually short) that resulted in z-amount of churches planted (usually a high number, in a short amount of time). Dispatches avoids this misleading temptation, making clear that the metric of faithfulness far supersedes one of reported (and hoped for!) fruitfulness.
Second, Keesee is exemplary without being exclusionary. Let me explain. The topics of missions in general or “frontier missions” in particular are sometimes discussed at the expense of Christians outside the missionary fold. Because of this, exhortations to consider global lostness or get involved with God’s work among the nations occasionally trend toward an unwitting exclusion of all but those who were already considering giving their lives to missions in the first place. Meanwhile, those who are “giving their lives” to accountancy or construction or military service or hedge fund management are left wondering if participating in the greatness of the Great Commission requires a recently-stamped passport. Perhaps this is avoided simply by Dispatches’ narrative approach—the “audience,” as it were, is only God and Keesee himself. Nonetheless, I am certain this book will be useful, applicable, and compelling for all Christians in every walk of life.
NEW WORLDS, NEW PRAYERS
But exactly how was this stranger’s journal about places I’ll never go and people I’ll never meet useful, applicable, and compelling? In short, it helped me pray. Perhaps more specifically, as Keesee wrote and reflected on his life, he introduced me to worlds and people and cultures I never knew existed, describing them with such honest and earnest vividness that I was compelled to pray beyond my usual string of vague, pre-packaged prayers for the lost around the world.
For example, I learned to pray for:
- The 6 million Tatar Muslims who, as of now, have no entire Bibles or gospel tracts in their native language (32)—Lord, bring the Word in words they understand.
- Pastor Huseyn in Azerbaijan who is experiencing intensifying persecution as he ministers to “mentally disabled children who live in horrific state institutions . . . and have no category for the kind of love these Christians are showing them week after week, month after month” (47)—Father, save many children and hospital staff through your people’s category-shifting love.
- Astrit and Vjollca, a married couple in Albania whose Christ-centered marriage grates against their surrounding misogynistic culture in which “a man can beat or rape his wife, and it’s considered normal” (64)—God, please protect these wounded women from evil men; send godly men like Astrit there to protect and lead women like Vjollca toward flourishing; judge those who persist in such reprehensible sin.
- Shiite gypsies who live in “tents and shacks along the Buna River, amid a dump that is bordered by an open sewer. . . . [They] are scorned, hated, and dismissed as dirty beggars and thieves” (74)—Lord, as the Christians there love the “unloveable,” I pray that you would save many.
- Those in Lanzhou, China fooled by Taoist deceit, which “combines the most ancient Chinese superstitions into one miserable dungeon of the damned” (89)—Father, by the power of the Holy Spirit, please open blind eyes.
- The many house churches in Mongolia (96)—Lord, we pray that you would make these house churches healthy and faithful and fruitful, that they would clearly reflect God’s character to a watching world.
- Churches in Koh Kong, Cambodia that are surrounded by red-light houses “notorious for child prostitutes and trafficking in young girls . . . [where] girls become the prey of pedophlies because their parents need the money to feed hungry mouths at home . . . [where] life is cheaper than a meal” (106)—Lord, come quickly; save these precious, image-bearing girls; judge these image-marring murderers.
- The Hindus in Serampore, where William Carey once ministered and started a college that has since departed from the faith. Keesee writes, “But Carey’s monuments aren’t made of bricks or marble, but rather something so much bigger. He gave India the Bible. In fact, he gave this polyglot people with its tangle of tongues several Bibles. . . . This is Carey’s living legacy” (139)—Father, in this land of false gods, all of whom are as blind and deaf as their worshippers, reveal yourself as the one true God who opens hearts to believe.
- The “Malawu miracle,” where God providentially prepared many to receive the gospel, even though their town was founded by a witch, dedicated to demonic spirit worship, and designated as a “gate to hell” where animals and humans were routinely sacrificed. Now, though, this place of “unspeakable evil and violent darkness . . . has turned from darkness to light” and a “church building now stands on ground once dedicated to Satan” (167-168)—Thank you, Lord! May these men and women grow in the grace and knowledge of our Savior Jesus Christ. To him be the glory both now and forever.
Read this book if for no other reason than it puts flesh and bone on our prayers as it illustrates the faithfulness of God in keeping his promises. Promises like the one in John 10 where Jesus says, “I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.”
I met many of these sheep while reading Dispatches from the Front. They are beautiful sheep and, this side of heaven, all I can do is pray for them. Once I’m in heaven, though, assuming it works this way, I hope to find one or two and thank them for their testimonies of perseverance, for their confidence in Christ’s church and its victory, for their tight-fisted faith in the Good Shepherd who was slain for his sheep. Together, we will sing:
Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!
And from every tongue and tribe and people and nation, all God’s people said . . . Amen.