Pangur Ban My Cat and I

One scribe will complain of the backbreaking work of book-copying, another of a sloppy fellow scribe: “It is easy to spot Gabrial’s work here” is written in a beautiful hand at the margin of an undistinguished page. A third will grind his teeth about the difficulty of the tortured ancient Greek that he is copying: “There’s an end to that – and seven curses with it!”

But for the most part they enjoy their work and find themselves engrossed in the stories they are copying. Beneath a description of the death of Hector on the Plain of Troy, one scribe, completely absorbed in the words he is copying, has written most sincerely: “I am greatly grieved at the above-mentioned death.” Another, measuring the endurance of his beloved art against his own brief life span, concludes: “Sad it is, little parti-colored white book, for a day will surely come when someone will say over your page: ‘The hand that wrote this is no more.'”

Perhaps the clearest picture we possess of what it was like to be a scribal scholar is contained in a four-stanza Irish poem slipped into a ninth-century manuscript, which otherwise contains such learned material as a Latin commentary on Virgil and a list of Greek paradigms:

I and Pangur Ban my cat,

‘Tis a like task we are at:

Hunting mice is his delight,

Hunting words I sit all night.

‘Tis a merry thing to see

At our tasks how glad are we,

When at home we sit and find

Entertainment to our mind.

‘Gainst the wall he sets his eye,

Full and fierce and sharp and sly;

‘Gainst the wall of knowledge I

All my little wisdom try.

So in peace our task we ply,

Pangur Ban my cat and I:

In our arts we find our bliss,

I have mine and he has his

Cahill, How The Irish Saved Civilization, pp. 161-162

In honor of this anonymous ancient Irish scribe, if I ever have a cat I just may name him Pangur Ban.

Photo by Hannah Troupe on Unsplash

Syrians Against Arianism

Nisibis’s reputation was founded not only on the monasteries of the Izla mountains, however, but also on the School of Nisibis, which was likewise traced back to Bishop Jacob, who wanted to fight Arianism, which had been condemned at the Council of Nicea in 325. In any case, we know that he employed Ephrem the Syrian as a biblical exegete. When the city was handed over to the Sassanian king Shapur II in 363, Christian instruction ceased, and Ephrem fled to Roman Edessa, where he taught until his death and supported his bishop in the fight against Arianism.

Baumer, The Church of the East, p. 22

Ancient Nisibis is modern Nusaybin, Turkey. And Edessa is now called Sanliurfa. I’ve often heard of the battles over Arianism that took place in major cities like Alexandria, Egypt. Fascinating then to hear what was also happening in these eastern border cities often fought over by the Romans and the Persians.

Photo by Wikimedia Commons.

Written With a Capital Ox

I recently came across this article discussing the historical development of our alphabet. I think it’s fascinating how little some of our letters have changed since 3,750 years ago, when the first known alphabet (Proto-Sinaitic) was written.

Take our letter A. This started as a picture of an ox head, an ox being called an ‘alp, and this symbol came to represent the sound Ah. This ancient Semitic word for ox came down to us through the Greek alpha and has found its way into our word, alphabet. If you turn our contemporary letter A upside down, you can still see how it is descended from a pictogram of a horned ox head.

Our letter B comes from an ancient Semitic word for house, bayt, which is basically still the same word in Hebrew and Arabic (As in Beth-lehem, house of bread/meat). The original symbol looks like the outline from a bird’s eye view of a house with an open door.

So while our compound word Alphabet now means the collection of letters used to write our language, it also historically translates as ox house – or could it be house ox?

And who knew that our capital E comes from a stick figure who has been tipped over and lost his head and legs? From now on when writing by hand, I may from time to time subtly restore some of his dignity by giving him back his head.

Some letters speak to the continuity of human experience through the millennia, such as dag, which is a symbol for a fish, and the ancestor of our letter D. Other letters, such as gaml (our letter C), remind us that the past really is a foreign land. It means throwstick, which apparently was an ancient hunting device.

Check out the chart at the top of this post to see if you can trace more modern letters and their ancient ancestors. The connections are fun to see and can even make learning some foreign alphabets somewhat easier, once you realize you are merely learning a cousin of the same letter you already know.

As this article states, “Like many things in the long arc of human culture, alphabets are not as far removed from each other as you might think.” In a world of over six thousand languages, it is remarkable that this language tool has been so adaptable to so many of them.

Photos by Wikimedia Commons, Useful Charts, and Ana Cernivec on Unsplash

All Language Was a Game

So, though he [an unnamed scribe] disapproved of its contents, he copied out the Tain. It is thanks to such scribes, however cranky their glosses may sometimes be, that we have the rich trove of early Irish literature, the earliest vernacular literature of Europe to survive – because it was taken seriously enough to be written down. Though these early Irish literates were intensely interested in the worlds opened up to them by the three sacred languages of Greek, Latin and – in a rudimentary form – Hebrew, they loved their own tongue too much ever to stop using it. Whereas elsewhere in Europe, no educated man would be caught dead speaking a vernacular, the Irish thought that all language was a game – and too much fun to be deprived of any part of it. They were still too childlike and playful to find and value in snobbery.

Cahill, How the Irish Saved Civilization, p. 160

Photo by Gabriella Clare Marino on Unsplash

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

Which Also Comes From Asia

It is certain that, following his condemnation in Rome around 172, Tatian (c. 110-180) author of the Gospel harmony called the Diatessaron, returned to his homeland of Assyria, probably to Adiabene [modern Erbil, Iraq]. He characterized himself as proud to be an Assyrian and scorned the Hellenistic world. His ‘Address to the Greek’ ends as follows: ‘In every way the East excels and most of all in its religion, the Christian religion, which also comes from Asia and is far older and truer than all the philosophies and crude religious myths of the Greeks.’

Baumer, The Church of the East, p. 21

Photo by Jéan Béller on Unsplash

Heroically Hospitable Monks

On a plain to the east of the Lower Lake, the monks built what would become in time a kind of university city, to which came thousands of hopeful students from all over Ireland, then from England, and at last from everywhere in Europe. Never forgetting the prehistoric Irish virtue of heroic hospitality, the monks turned no one away, as is confirmed in this description of a typical university city, given to us by the Venerable Bede, first historian of the newly emergent English people:

“Many of the nobles of the English nation and lesser men also had set out thither, forsaking their native island either for the grace of sacred learning or for a more austere life. And some of them indeed soon dedicated themselves faithfully to the monastic life, others rejoiced rather to give themselves to learning, going about from one master’s cell to another. All these the Irish willingly received, and saw to it to supply them with food day by day without cost, and books for their studies, and teaching, free of charge.”

Cahill, How the Irish Saved Civilization, pp. 157-158

Photo by Michelle Rumney on Unsplash

Jesus Spoke a Persian Word From the Cross

One way to distinguish Central Asia as a region is to say that it is the part of the world dominated by Turkic or Persian-related languages. When it comes to Persian-related languages, we’re talking groups like the Dari, Tajik, Kurdish, Luri, and Balochi. There are hundreds of millions of people who speak Persian itself (also known as Farsi) or languages closely related to it.

These hundreds of millions of people are overwhelmingly Muslim – and they might be surprised to hear that Jesus spoke a word from their ancestral language while on the cross.

That word is what we know as paradise. I won’t get into the details of the etymology, but this ancient Persian word for walled enclosure and garden came into many of the languages of the ancient world, including Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic forms. No doubt the Jewish community living under Persian rule is where much of this linguistic influence came from. Plus, the Persians were the superpower of the region for quite some time. The vocab of the superpower tends to spread, just as here the local Central Asian form of laptop is, well, laptop (but said with an “ah” and an “oh”).

The old Persian term’s connection to a garden is what linked it with Eden, and thus with our concept of paradise – not only Eden lost, but heaven as well, and Eden one day restored.

And he said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23:43 ESV)

These are the words Jesus spoke to the dying thief on the cross who simply asked to be remembered. In this saying Jesus uses the word paradise to refer to having died and being welcomed into the presence and rest of God – Abraham’s bosom as it were.

This is not the only Persian loan word in the Bible. There are dozens of them. Somewhere around eighty in the book of Daniel alone. Yet Jesus’ words on the cross are coming at the very climax of redemptive history. And one of them is Persian. I find this fascinating. Iranians I’ve shared this with are struck as well. It’s one more example of the capacity for any human tongue to be redeemed and used in the service of God.

And what a great opening to go on and share the gospel.

Planting Forests

“But that might take hundreds of years!” my new local friend protested.

This potential seeker had attended our church plant’s baptism picnic and had pulled me aside to talk politics and societal change. I was trying to convince him of the goodness of slow, bottom-up change that begins with changed hearts.

“It’s like living in a jail here,” he said. “If I can get my hands on $5,000, I’ll definitely try to get smuggled out of the country.”

Sadly, this is a very common sentiment among the young men in our area. They view the government as hopelessly corrupt. And they would rather risk death while being smuggled to Europe than stay with their limited options. They believe the only other way to access a better life is to align themselves with the corrupt elite. But many don’t have the means or stomach to do so.

I often find myself in this kind of a conversation with frustrated young men. And I resonate with some of their frustration. After all, I also long to see this society transformed – but by the presence of hundreds of healthy local churches, acting like good leaven which spreads and transforms the rest of the dough. Instead, we find ourselves laboring hard only to see few results, and those often choked out by the weeds of an Islamic society which expertly strangles nonconformity.

And yet, here Church history is an encouragement to persevere in the long and slow work of planting the seeds of movements and even societal reform. What began as a very small group of marginalized Jews made infanticide illegal in the Roman empire by the early 300s. In the 400s, Patrick’s seemingly quixotic attempt to reach Ireland with the gospel is what led to the Irish re-Christianization of Europe at the dawn of the Medieval period. Luther did not start a movement, so much as unleash the energy which had been growing for a long time, as evidenced by pre-Protestant groups like the Hussites and the Waldensians. The practice of local church democratic governance in the English-speaking world eventually led to the peaceful democratic governance of entire societies.

Yes, it often took hundreds of years for the momentum to grow strong and wide enough for large-scale change. But should that mean we don’t make the attempt? Not at all.

I challenged my friend that if he really wants true freedom, he won’t find what he’s looking for by merely changing his environment. Instead, he needs to become a free man in his spirit and his heart. Christ can pardon him and change him and make him truly free, and he will be able then to live as a free man even under the worst of human governments.

Free men never influence only themselves. The freedom they have found as citizens of heaven is compelling, and whatever small circle of influence they have takes note. As that small circle is impacted, it often grows. That free man might not live to see his society changed, but he might see his family and friends radically transformed. And that is no small thing.

“Long before movements, Jesus often creates faithful remnants,” I shared with my friend. “And without the hard slow work of that faithful minority, movements never happen.” And though I didn’t share this kind of info with this local, the history of missions even bears this out. The verifiable church-planting movements that exist have taken place in areas with hundreds of years of missionary work. Contrast that to Central Asia, where missions was largely nonexistent before the 1990s. We are likely living in the beginning of the faithful remnant stage, only thirty years in. Our grandkids or great-grandkids may be the ones to see the movement. Should we complain about this and move on to where God is “really at work?”

“Think about planting a forest,” I said, “Planting a forest is a noble goal, and one that takes a lot of work. But if we start today, we will be old men before we get to truly enjoy the results of our labor. But once we were old, we would say it was all worth it, even though it took a long time and a lot of sweat. For us to get there, we must hold onto hope. Without that hope, we would never even start. We need to think less like the social media generation and more like farmers. But if we do, we might build something that truly lasts.”

My friend affirmed that he got my point, but he wasn’t yet convinced. This was not too surprising. He doesn’t have a new heart yet. Once he experiences that impossible transformation, then he will know what true hope is – and what ultimately transforms entire societies.

Photo by Lukasz Szmigiel on Unsplash

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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