The Unexpected Beauty of Babel

The events which took place at Babel most definitely fall into the category of judgment. Genesis eleven describes how the early peoples of the earth all shared one language. And contrary to God’s desires, they did not spread out and fill the earth, but decided they would band together, build a city in the land of Shinar, and construct a tower to challenge the heavens. In this way, they would “make a name” for themselves. You don’t have to be from an honor-shame culture to understand that making a name for yourself essentially means working to build up your own honor and reputation. It was pride, pure human pride – and that accelerated because everyone knew the same words, the same language.

God, not in the least threatened by this little rebellion, comes down to see what the residents of this city of Babel are up to. There’s some rich irony in the text here – the tower builders are not nearly as high up as they think they are. After seeing how the linguistic unity is enabling their prideful building campaign, God decides to instantly scramble their languages by means of a miraculous act of judgment. Once this has been accomplished, everything falls apart. Faced with mass communication confusion, the building of the city stops and the peoples end up spreading out over the face of the earth after all. Their dispersion is largely involuntary, a forced obedience of sorts thrust upon them by their dysfunctional language situation. Babel was judgment. Judgment for human pride. Judgment for neglecting the creation mandate to go forth, multiply, and fill the earth.

Yet Babel was not only an act of judgment. It was also an act of creation. Creation through judgment. Apparently, when God acted, dozens of languages burst into existence instantly and then began to live and move and have stories and descendants of their own. These languages would be the first ancestors of the language families in our world today, with language families meaning simply groups of related languages. For example, English, Latin, Farsi, and Hindi all come from the Indo-European family of languages. While Arabic, Hebrew, and Aramaic come from a different family, the Semitic. However, while languages within a given family are clearly related to one another, separate language families don’t seem to share any common descent. Historical linguists can try to reconstruct ancient languages like Proto-Indo-European and Proto-Semitic, but they can’t seem to find any links suggesting these early languages emerged from a common ancestor. Similar to the problem facing speciation in Darwinian evolution, what seems to emerge from the data is not one connected tree from which all the descendants are traced back to a single ancestor, but rather a forest of trees that seem to have been there at the beginning. Like subspecies, languages branch back toward these early independent trunks, but not further, posing a great mystery for historical linguists. Christians of course have a good answer. We believe in a humanity created in the image of a speaking God, and in Babel, the source of this world’s incredible language diversity.

It’s curious to note that the result of this judgment – a world of linguistic diversity – is never promised to disappear. The restoration of all things does not seem to include a future where we are restored to being a monolingual species. Revelation 5:9 and 7:9 instead suggest that noticeable language differences are actually preserved in eternity. John can tell that the great multitude before the throne is made up of those from every tongue. “After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne and to the Lamb!'” (Revelation 7:9, 10). Our unique languages don’t seem to melt away into some heavenly tongue, like cast off vestiges of a divided past. Rather, God’s plan from the beginning seems to be the redemption of humanity’s diverse languages, a restoration where they are finally free to perfectly glorify God in a great multilingual choir of the saints.

We see hints of this plan in God’s choice to reveal the Scriptures in multiple languages: Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. At various points in history, these multiple fallen languages are given the honor of being the vehicle by which God reveals his eternal word. Even Persian gets a bunch of loan words in the Bible. Then, when the Spirit comes at Pentecost, what does he choose to do? To empower the apostles to preach and worship in the foreign languages of pilgrims who had come to the feast from dozens of far-flung lands. Put together with the visions of Revelation, the picture we get is that both at the birth and at the final destination of the Church, the many languages of the world do not fade away to be replaced by some heavenly tongue, or some chosen earthly tongue like Hebrew. No, instead we see the languages of the nations transformed, employed in the praise of God.

It seems as if, as he so often does, God has chosen to bring beauty through judgment, a greater grace and glory than would have existed had the judgment never taken place. After all, this is the logic of the cross and salvation history. Yes, judgment falls. Yet amazingly God’s grace shines even brighter for it. Should we be surprised that God delights to also do this with the arc of language history? It reminds me of how God gave a king to Israel in 1st Samuel chapter eight. Being granted a monarch was a judgment, a consequence of Israel wanting to be like all the other nations, and their rejection of God as king. And yet we know that God’s plan was, through this rebellion, to raise up David – and eventually the eternal son of David. God’s forever king for his people was the plan from the beginning. And yet an initial hint of this mystery’s unveiling was a story of human failure, and divine judgment.

What might God be up to in his plan to redeem the languages of Babel and their many descendants? Here I’m helped to remember the limitations of a single language. Languages are good, wonderful even, but they are limited. Everyone who has learned another language has experienced the frustration of a perfectly descriptive term existing in one tongue, but not in another. In my home we have terms from Melanesia as well as from Central Asia that have made their way into our daily household English. This is because English lacks a word for those particular situations or feelings. If languages are thus limited to describe everyday realities, then how much more limited are they to describe eternal realities? To describe the Godhead?

In Greek, and my adopted Central Asian language, God can be called Lord Heart-Knower (Acts 1:24), and yet this title simply doesn’t work in my mother tongue, English. On the other hand, English has so many wonderfully-succinct terms for God’s attributes like omniscient and omnipresent and omnipotent that require multiple words – or even a whole sentence – to communicate in many other languages. Alas, as with the sons of Adam, so every language has also fallen short of the glory of God. No, when it comes to the task of glorifying the Trinity for all eternity, a single language was apparently not enough. Rather, God seems to have desired thousands of them, all working together to leverage their unique strengths and beauty for his eternal praise – and the enjoyment of his people.

For surely languages will also be redeemed and preserved for the sake of our enjoyment. While polyglots delight in the freedom that comes from being able to speak and think in a dozen different ways, even my four-year-old cracks up when a good pun is made (and scripture is full of witty puns and wordplay). Language was created for our enjoyment, and even in this broken age we get small tastes of the fun that is coming to us beyond the resurrection. Perhaps in eternity the Spirit will give us a supernatural ability to speak and understand all languages, in a sort of permanent Pentecost. Or, perhaps we will use the time provided by eternity (plus a resurrected mind) to learn all of the many tongues spoken by our brothers and sisters. We simply don’t know yet. I tend to hope we’ll get to learn them the old-fashioned way, maybe a little easier, but still getting to make funny mistakes.

What we do know is that God wanted a universe with thousands of unique languages. And so, even though Babel is a reminder of human pride and God’s just judgment, it is also the start of something which will ultimately become an amazing tapestry reflecting God’s glory. There are eternal upsides to the shattering of humanity’s united language. In Babel there is beauty, unexpected, but even more wonderful for it.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Two Types of Language Learners

Language learning. It’s the 500-pound gorilla that first term missionaries everywhere must learn to dance with. Though often, this experience feels less like a dance and more like our metaphorical gorilla is simply sitting on your head.

I had the advantage of growing up a bilingual TCK, which does help. The shift from two to three languages seems to be easier for the brain than the shift from one to two – something about the mind having already learned once to express reality in an alternative system of thought/speech forms makes it that much easier to do it again. A second or third language gives your brain additional categories, more hooks on which to hang the grammatical concepts or vocab of whatever language you’re learning next. For example, my high school Spanish got me familiar with verb conjugation based on person and number, a category that served me well when I started learning our local Central Asian tongue. But no matter how much experience you have with languages, it always takes a lot of time and hard work to master another one – and this often requires two to five years. Therefore, anything that makes it somewhat easier is extremely valuable.

I’m no trained linguist, but as a language-learning practitioner (and one who has worked closely with many others) I’ve observed two main kinds of language learners, two main patterns of wiring when it comes to learning an additional tongue. There may be technical terms for these language learning styles out there, but for the purposes of this post I’ll call them the Analytical and the Intuitive language learning styles. Essentially, every language-learner I’ve engaged with on this topic seems to fall into one of these two camps, creating something like a 50/50 divide.

These styles or preferences differ from one another in how they relate to the structure – the grammar – of the language. The mind of an Analytical learner craves and needs understanding of the language’s structure very early on, often proving unable to absorb vocab and dialogue without it. If required to learn and reproduce phrases without this structure, the mind of an Analytical learner protests and complains – “How am I supposed to learn this if I don’t understand what these parts of speeches’ roles are, what they are doing in the sentence, the rules that govern them, and how it all fits together?!” An Analytical learner needs a map of the language, a blueprint of sorts, and only when they have this can they begin to truly learn the individual parts. It’s as if the mind then relaxes and is free to learn because it now knows where to place the hitherto-disjointed pieces. These pieces are then no longer felt to be disembodied and random, but part of a logical system, part of a whole.

The mind of an Intuitive learner functions in the complete opposite way. An intuitive learner’s mind cannot take in or understand the language’s structure, its grammar, without a large foundation of listening, phrases, and dialogue. If presented with grammar lessons at the beginning of language learning, their mind will tend to reject the information, since it feels like it has nothing concrete on which to hang these abstract rules and systems. These learners crave jumping in headfirst and using the language, getting conversational with practical, everyday language. Only after a solid season of this will their brains start to desire and accept the Why behind the words and phrases they have been hearing and using. They need to feel out the rules first, and only directly study them later. Rather than needing a map, these learners need to go and explore the streets on foot as it were. After they have done this they will then be able to rightly orient themselves with the big picture.

All human beings learn their first language as Intuitive learners. Our brains naturally absorb the structure of our mother tongue by constant observation and trial and error. We absorb the rules naturally and indirectly. Then, once we are in school, we are directly and explicitly taught the structure of our language. We approach grammar study in school in an Analytical way. This means that for everyone who has studied grammar in school, we all have at least some experience learning our own language in both styles. But whether because of brain plasticity or something genetic, around half of us develop an Analytical learning preference, while the other half continues to prefer Intuitive learning.

How do we know which wiring fits us? Even without learning another language, there may be some clues that you already have. First, how did (and do) you feel about studying the grammar of your own language? Does this feel good to your mind, or more akin to the angst of getting a cavity filled – necessary, but definitely not enjoyable? Does “seeing” the invisible structure of your language bring you joy or make you want to go to sleep? If grammatical concepts make your mind tingle pleasantly, chances are you are an Analytical learner. If you’d really rather get back to what you feel is the real language, then you’re probably Intuitively-wired.

These categories tend to flow over into other areas of learning as well. A friend who works as a chef told me this week that he has always loved learning the why, the science, behind what is happening in cooking. Knowing this makes him feel more free and equipped to create and enjoy cooking food. This means there is a very good chance that my friend would be an Analytical language learner. Get that man some grammar early on, and he will feel so much more free and equipped to persevere in language learning. Paying attention to how you prefer learning in other areas is another clue to how God has wired your brain to learn language.

Why are these categories are so important to understand? Because enjoyment and perseverance in language learning are on the line here, and this because language learning programs tend to favor one style or another. Put a language learner in a program that favors the other kind of mind, and they will very quickly want to pull their hair out, and/or quit. Put a learner in a program that fits with their respective Intuitive or Analytical style, and greatly increase their chances of actually learning that language. Too often learners are handicapped by the wrong approach, and mistakenly come away thinking they are not really gifted to learn language at all.

Several dynamics mean that language learners continue to get placed in programs that lead to deep frustration. The first issue is simple ignorance of these learning preferences. The learner, teacher, or facilitator might not know that these variations exist, so how can they know which style the student best aligns with? Second, it is a lamentable human tendency to project our own wiring onto others. So, if we successfully learned a language in a certain way, we naturally feel that everyone else should be able to learn in this same way also. We might even go on to publish and distribute our favored method, making big claims about the universality of our approach. And this leads to the third issue, that of methodological rigidity. Just as missionaries might latch onto a silver-bullet church-planting strategy, so they tend to latch onto a language learning methodology as the way to do it, rather than a way. Here the same common sense logic applies to both church planting and language learning – it’s a very hard job and people are very diverse, so we should want to keep all of our healthy options on the table. Sadly, many new missionaries on the field are locked into a language learning approach that is given the weight of law, when it should really only be treated as a helpful option, one that very well may need to be tweaked or even discarded.

My wife and I are wired as Intuitive language learners. This meant that we wanted to jump in right away into collecting phrases and doing conversational practice. I remember having some grammar lessons in the US before going to Central Asia, but almost nothing from those lessons was retained by my brain. Instead, six months into an Intuitive learning approach (GPA), I suddenly found my mind unexpectedly hungry for some rules for things like the way that near/far and singular/plural demonstratives were acting in my new adopted language. A grammar summary from a teammate on the logic of how to say “these bananas, those bananas, this banana, etc.,” made all the difference here. And even though we found ourselves in a learning program that mostly fit our style, we were also crucially allowed a great degree of flexibility to pursue more Analytical lessons as needed. And we made generous use of this freedom, changing up our program significantly every few months. I believe that this flexibility is what allowed us to reach the advanced level of language in the time frame that we did. Because for us, flexibility to pivot when needed meant we were able to continue (mostly) enjoying the language learning process.

And yet many of our colleagues have found the same programs we used, the same lightly-structured approach favoring Intuitive learning, to be positively life-sucking. They dream of having an official language school, where an Analytical approach to the language could result, for them, in greater freedom and joy in language learning. And I wish the same for them, because God has apparently wired our minds differently. Why should they be compelled to learn in the same way that I did? No indeed, get those folks some grammar, and fast! But please don’t make me study it until I’m ready. In this way we may all learn to get that 500-pound gorilla off our heads, and perhaps even begin to dance with it.

Photo by Patrice Audet on Unsplash

Restoration, Not Renovation

It was our first trip to a village since our family had moved to Central Asia. One of my English students – a vivacious and persistent fellow named Rahim* – had convinced us to come stay with his family for several nights in the village of Underhill. Our hope in going was to learn more about the language and culture through this immersion experience, and to try to share some gospel truth. Rahim was probably hoping to bring honor to his family and himself by hosting us, since everyone in the village would know that they had Americans staying with them, and his family would get to show us off.

This is not to say that any motivation for honor-accrual made them poor hosts. On the contrary, the locals in our area of Central Asia view guests as a gift from God, and elaborate and generous hospitality as the primary way to gain any honor from a hosting situation. So geese were slaughtered, the chai flowed, the TVs were left constantly on, and I was invited to go fishing with the men on the lake at 5 a.m.

Apparently the men of the family liked to fish either with small explosives or by using a car battery and cables to electrocute any fish close to the boat. Both methods sounded slightly dangerous, but worth observing at least, so I actually woke up at 5 – a very rare occurrence for a night owl like myself. Alas, none of the men of the household woke up with me, so I eventually went back to sleep.

“I called the fish this morning,” Rahim later told me at breakfast, cracking a wry smile, “They said they were still asleep, so I decided to stay in bed also.”

To make up for not going fishing, Rahim offered to give me a walking tour of the village later that morning. The village of Underhill was a newer village in a very ancient area. The hill that overshadowed it and gave it its name was crowned with the ruins of an ancient Zoroastrian fortress. The valley behind it contained villages where not only Zoroastrians and Muslims had lived, but also Jews and Christians in centuries past. Like many areas of Central Asia, it was now one hundred percent Muslim, and proudly so.

Underhill village had been built a couple decades previous, as families were resettled whose original homes had been destroyed by a genocidal dictator. Surrounding the village and in the pastures where the goats and sheep grazed, broken down stone outlines of homes could be easily seen scattered here and there, sad reminders of the terrible things that had taken place when Rahim’s generation were still toddlers.

As we walked in the spring sunshine, I shared with Rahim that I was trying to learn the words in the local language that would help me explain the big story of my faith. I asked if I could run them by him to see if it made sense. Rahim, an observant Muslim who was not at all shy to discuss spiritual things, eagerly agreed.

So I started with the word I had recently learned for creation, and explained that we believed that God had created the universe and made it very good. So far, so good. Rahim agreed with both the content I was sharing as well as the word I used to summarize it. Next, I shared the word I had learned for fall, telling Rahim that our first parents had sinned and had broken both our our good human natures and our relationship with God. Rahim agreed with the word I used, but it was clear he wasn’t very familiar with what I was saying about the devastating consequences of sin for humanity. Islam believes in a watered down concept of sin where it is more like an external mistake, and not an internal corruption. Because of this, they believe that humans are still freely capable to choose good anytime they want to. Given this difference in theology, I wasn’t too surprised that Rahim’s brow furrowed as I tried to explain our doctrine of the fall.

We stepped over some goat droppings and passed some chewing cows on our left. I could sense that Rahim was good with me continuing to share, so I told him the word I had learned for redemption, and explained the good news to him that Jesus is God-become-man who made the perfect sacrifice for our sins and rose from the dead to break the power of death. Rahim listened respectfully, surprisingly not pushing back with the normal objection that Muslims have – such as the belief that Jesus never really died on the cross, because God would never allow his prophet to be shamed like that.

I got to the last word, restoration, as we turned a corner and started going uphill again. I explained how the Bible teaches that when Jesus returns evil will be finally defeated, all who believe in him will be resurrected with new spiritual bodies, and that even the heavens and the earth will be resurrected and new. Heaven and earth will be completely reconciled. Rahim seemed to be thinking hard about what I was saying.

“You’ve got the wrong word for that one,” he said.

I was surprised, the word I had learned seemed a pretty straight forward translation of “to make new again,” a good way, I thought, to communicate restoration.

“We use that word for when someone is renovating their house,” Rahim continued. “You know, new paint, new windows, new drop ceilings. No, there’s another word that I think would fit better, one we use for rebuilding a house that has been completely destroyed, like these houses here.”

Rahim motioned off to his left where more crumbling stone walls rose up out of the bright green grass.

“If you were going to make these houses new, you need a stronger word. One that means a complete restoration after destruction. At least to me that sounds a lot closer to what you are describing.”

Rahim proceeded to teach me the appropriate word, one which carries the sense of restoration from the ruins, rather than mere renovation. As I later checked these terms with local believers, they agreed with Rahim. I’ve used the term he taught me ever since when explaining the big story of the Bible in its four parts of Creation, Fall, Redemption, and Restoration.

Rahim was more correct than he knew. Renovation of humanity, of this world, would never be enough. Our spiritual and material substance needs a lot more than a fresh coat of paint and some new shiny light fixtures. We’ve got problems deep down in the foundation, in the plumbing, in the wiring, and in the walls and beams. Our metaphorical structure has been condemned, and rightly so. No, to live in a world with no more suffering, sin, or death, we need a complete rebuilding from the ground up. Who could ever afford such a rebuilding? The cost would be staggering.

We walked back to Rahim’s house and my light-hearted friend was a lot quieter than usual. It was probably the first time in his life he had ever heard of the need for a costly redemption and restoration of his own heart – and of the entire universe. I prayed that this new message would go deep within, and puncture the whitewashed Islamic veneer of goodness that he was trusting in.

To this day we still don’t know of any believers in Underhill village, though there are a few Bibles there now. Bibles, and memories of many conversations – conversations that we hope will long linger as witnesses, like those bombed out shells of ruined homes. Renovation is not enough. We need restoration.

*Names changed for security

Photo by 李大毛 没有猫 on Unsplash

In Need of a Harvest Collective

The first neighborhood my family lived in when we moved to Central Asia had two names, the formal name and the name everyone used. I first came upon the formal name when I learned to read the street signs (which everyone ignored). It was not a word I heard anyone using, nor was it a term every local was familiar with. Eventually, I found a friend who was able to translate it for me. Even then I realized that there was no direct English equivalent. This is true of many individual words when learning a new language – you can translate them with a descriptive phrase but not with an individual equivalent word. In fact, releasing the assumption that every word must have a direct translation is an important step in the language learning process.

The name of the neighborhood translated to something like “harvest collective.” It was a village term, hence some of my city friends not knowing it. The villages in our corner of Central Asia are wise enough to know that no household can handle harvest time all on their own. Or perhaps wise enough to know that even if they can, they really shouldn’t. So, there is a rotation, a harvest collective, when on an appointed day the whole village shows up in a specific household’s field in order to provide them with the needed manpower and motivation to gather in the crops.

I liked the concept as soon as I heard of it. It reminded me of our newborn days when I realized that my young wife and I really couldn’t handle that season of postpartum and exhaustion on our own – and yet the very way society around us was structured encouraged isolation and often prevented receiving help from extended family or community. I remembered when our oldest two were toddlers and the never-ending household work my wife struggled to get to unless another mom in our community group came over to lend a hand. Or more recently, as most of my peers have become home owners, hearing about the difficulty these dads are having in fixing up their homes on their own.

While healthy churches in the West and community group structures are providing an avenue for some of this kind of collective help to happen organically (and praise God for this), my sense is that more robust structure and schedule is needed in order to push back against the overwhelming isolating tendencies of life in the individualistic West. We may have good and godly intentions to help that struggling young mom or that busy working dad, but those intentions may need an actual structure in order to translate into reality. Or to provide the kind of help that is less a one-off and actually serves for the long-term.

The idea would be for healthy church communities to borrow some cultural wisdom and implement “harvest collective” structures, where they recognize the kinds of labor a household can’t or shouldn’t do alone, and seek to regularly share that labor together. For example, a group of six men from the same church agree to become a collective together. One Saturday a month they agree to all show up at one man’s house in order to help him make some solid headway on his repair or renovation projects. That would mean twice a year each man is receiving help from five other brothers. Even if only for one day, that kind of help could go a long way. Young moms struggling with loneliness, fatigue, and the never-ending needs at home could set up a collective where they are regularly showing up to help one another, helping with not only the labor but also with the discouragement so prevalent in that season.

Westerners faced with this idea might feel an internal objection along the lines of “but we’re supposed to be able to handle this stuff on our own.” Yes, that is the overwhelming message communicated by Western culture, one which we have ingested from our youth. And it comes with a quiet side of shame for those who wrestle with why they can’t seem to figure it out – which happens to be the majority. An honest look at the loneliness, overwork, and rates of depression in Western culture just might indicate that we have some structural problems that require creative structural solutions. Non-Westerners might respond with, “But that’s the job of the extended family.” Yes, the extended family has played this role in many parts of the world. Yet the world is rapidly urbanizing, and with that comes the breakdown of the extended family’s ability to provide the same kind help it has in the past. Even more important than this is the fact that the Church is supposed to be the household of God, the new extended family for those kicked out of theirs because of their faith – or for those raised in a culture in which only a shell of the extended family remains. My Central Asian friends are the former. Many of my friends in the West are the latter. I would not be surprised if this kind of a group even lent the church an evangelistic power. “Wow, look at how those Christians take care of each other in the areas I feel so very alone in.”

The expressions may look very different than I have suggested here, but I believe the principle is sound. Like Central Asian villagers, believers would be wise to collectively serve one another in those kinds of labor which a single household can’t or shouldn’t be allowed to handle on its own. In societies that relentlessly drive towards an individualistic life, this will require intentional structures. And some humility to ask for help in ares the culture says we should be able to handle on our own.

After all, it’s not like the harvest collective in Central Asian culture has been there forever. At some point some exhausted farmer was probably sitting around drinking fermented yogurt water with his buddies and blurted out an honest confession that the harvest was simply too much for him and his kids to handle. At which point his fellow villagers must have come up with a wise plan. The kind of plan which just may be due for a revival of sorts.

Photo by Mathieu Bigard on Unsplash

A Proverb on Mustaches and Backwards Hospitality

Do you put my own oil on my own mustache?

Local Oral Tradition

This proverb appeared last week as Darius* was over at our place, helping me with sermon checking, right around the time where I tried to make a point saying “that doesn’t mean it’s destiny!” and instead said, “That doesn’t mean it’s a nut!”

Yes, if you ever preach in another language, I highly recommend checking your sermons beforehand to catch these foot-in-mouth sentences. It just may save your life – or at least your face.

Anyway, around this point Darius offered me some of the cookies my wife had set out for him. Then he started laughing and told me that he was offering me my own oil for my own mustache. As is usually the case when I hear a local proverb for the first time, I responded with a “What?”

This proverb is apparently used when a guest offers the host food or drink that actually belong to the host. Or other similar situations where a person is offered assistance by means of his own resources. It’s the sort of ironic hospitality situation that locals get a kick out of because usually such grandiose and over the top offers of hospitality are made. Another equivalent saying is, “I would like to invite you… for falafel!” Falafel being the very cheapest sandwich you can purchase in the bazaar. Delicious, yes, but costing the host practically nothing. Hence the joke.

Mustaches are a traditional sign of manhood in this culture that carry a respect of their own. And apparently oiling your mustache was/is a thing, though I have not gone deep enough yet into the local facial hair culture – or my Western peers’ for that matter – to know much about mustache oil. I either need to spend some more time with some old men in the tea houses or do more reading on the Art of Manliness website.

Some proverbs are used for tactful rebukes. And this one may be useful in that way, given the right situation. But I anticipate it being much more useful for the art of relationship building and the kind of banter that communicates friendship and trust are indeed growing – growing as surely as a Central Asian man’s mustache.

*names changed for security

Photo by Shoeib Abolhassani on Unsplash

A Call For Trailblazers

Our mountainous corner of Central Asia is extremely language-diverse. The language my family has learned is the mother tongue for only about a quarter of our focus people group. Other colleagues are learning another of the major language/dialects, one which goes by the same overall name as ours, but is about as different as English is from German. Together, we can speak the mother tongues of maybe two-thirds of the locals of this region. The other one-third is made up of a linguistic stew of a dozen or so minority languages/dialects, mostly belonging to UUPGs.

A UUPG is an unengaged unreached people group. This means not only does this people group not have an indigenous church, but there are no organizations that have personnel actually learning their language and culture and attempting to plant churches among them.

There are reasons these groups remain unengaged. Some of them are hidden, barely even showing up on the radar of obscure linguists and anthropologists, let alone Christians and their sending organizations. We have local gypsy groups, for example, that no one has any solid data on. Other groups are known, but so little research has been done that it’s unclear if they warrant a specific focus or if they can be reached through a majority language strategy. Still others are known as distinct ethnic and linguistic groups warranting their own church planting teams, but they live in dangerous or politically inaccessible places for Westerners. Again, there are reasons why these groups remain unengaged.

Yesterday I met with some members of a Bible translation team. They have begun publishing newly translated books of scripture for one of our UUPG groups, which makes us very excited, not only because we have long prayed for this group, but also because we have open positions for a new team to at last come and engage this mountain people. We don’t have any takers yet on these positions, but having a few books of the Bible available in their language now and some job positions open is an encouraging start. Potential takers will be able to begin their work with some of the Word of God already available! This is no small thing. However, once again, there are reasons we’ve had no applicants for these positions.

Anyone who desires to engage these groups will be faced with an extremely challenging task. First, they will have to learn at least two new languages, the majority trade language the minority group uses in the marketplace and government offices as well as the mother tongue. They may be the first outsiders to ever attempt to learn said language. It may be only an oral language and not yet be written down or have its own alphabet. Most of these groups live in dangerous border areas which present difficulties for residential work, such as the ability to get a visa and the ability to have a work identity in the community that provides access and makes sense. Most also live in small towns and villages, a fishbowl type of setting where everyone will be aware of the presence of foreigners from day one – and where most are much more devout in their Islam or minority faiths.

As I mentioned above, foreign Christians living among these groups will need an identity that provides legitimacy and access. At the very least, they will need to open up a branch of an existing NGO or business, or they may need to build this kind of a platform from scratch. And then run it as they are also full-time learning language. Oh yes, and these are areas without any local or international churches or even other residential Christians. So the team will need to be able to thrive spiritually by themselves abiding in Jesus and by covenanting together as a healthy house church, perhaps made up of only the team for a long season. Homeschool or online school will be a must for any school-age kids, even if they are able to attend local school for the sake of language and relationships.

These areas are less developed, meaning spotty electricity and water supply. This exacerbates the blistering hot summers and the very cold winters. Decent medical care will be at least a couple hours drive away. Good medical care will be a couple hours drive and then a flight to another country. This will hit home when one of your kids has an appendicitis scare, as our daughter did this week.

In all likelihood, after one or two terms of residential work, once the mother tongue is learned and some have come to faith, the team will get run out of town by the local religious leaders. At that point they’ll need to relocate to one of the bigger cities of our region and continue their work in the homeland from a distance and with whatever displaced population of their focus group lives in the city. Par for the course with our regional people groups, group implosions, betrayal, false conversions, and heartbreaking apostasy await – a long string of deep disappointment with locals they had hoped would be future leaders.

Sounding impossible yet? Not so fast. We know that Jesus has his sheep, even among these unengaged groups. They will hear his voice (John 10:16). The harvest is ripe (John 4:35). All we lack are some laborers, some seemingly-crazy trailblazers who embrace the shame of a foolhardy task for the joy set before them, knowing that the kingdom is unstoppable and the mouths of all scoffers will one day be shut as even the most unlikely bow the knee to king Jesus. These groups will have churches among them, sooner or later. God will not use dreams and visions alone. These only ever precede and accompany his workers. He will use his chosen means, his Church and his Word, his proclaiming people.

Perhaps you feel a strange burning in your chest as you read of these impossible tasks. Maybe instead of balking at the unlikelihood of success, you feel overtaken by an unusual confidence, perhaps even a jealousy for God’s glory among these forgotten peoples. Pay attention to those desires if they keep surfacing and if they align with gifting and opportunity. If they do, talk it over with your pastors and your closest believing friends. You may be called to be a trailblazer. We are sure praying that some of you will be.

My friend Reza* is one of only a handful of believers we know about from one of these UUPGs. What a joy it was to see one of the very first from this people group born again, knowing that he is a forerunner of many to come. What a joy it has been to get to share the gospel in the trade language with those from other UUPG groups, knowing that someday others will share the gospel with them in their mother tongue, and perhaps even give them a gospel of Luke or an entire Bible. They will demonstrate for these groups – some a half million strong – the powerful truth that God knows their oppressed minority language and even will speak to them through it.

This is a call for trailblazers. A few are called to this hard and wonderful work. A great many will be called to the crucial work of sending and supporting them. May God show us which one he is calling each one of us to.

*names changed for security

Photo by Hossein Amiri on Unsplash

The Hazards of Second Language Sermons

Today I preached to our local church plant from John 12:44-50, a passage often titled “Jesus Has Come to Save the World.” Preaching today meant that yesterday I sat down with a local believer, *Harry, to go over the sermon manuscript, checking for language mistakes and smoothing out the grammar. For the dozens and dozens of times that I have now preached in the local language, God has never failed to provide me a local brother to help with this important prep work – and every time that local brother manages to save me from at least a couple proverbial foot-in-mouth situations. Last night was no exception.

“Jesus teaches us here that it is his words that will judge us on the last day,” I read out loud.

“When?” my friend asked, raising an eyebrow.

“The last day,” I repeated.

“A.W.,” Harry continued, “in our language ‘the last day’ means Friday, not the final day of judgement. To communicate your meaning you have to say ‘at the final age.'”

“Ohhh, thank you. I’m definitely not trying to say that Jesus’ words will judge us on Friday!”

“And when you say ‘the final age’ don’t forget that short vowel in the first syllable of ‘age.’ If you forget it you will be saying ‘at the final tongue!'”

We laughed, sipped our hot drinks, and continued. A little later my friend put up his hand again for me to pause.

“Stop,” he said, “Read ‘Jesus Messiah’ out loud for me again.”

“Jesus Messiah,” I repeated.

Harry shook his head. You are saying it too fast and skipping over the final throaty H in Messiah. When you said it just now, it sounded like you were instead saying ‘Jesus of the squeegee.'”

I chuckled. This was not the first time I had made this kind of mistake. Preaching through Ephesians years ago I had publicly proclaimed, “The Squeegee is our peace!” instead of my intended meaning, which was “The Messiah is our peace.” That tricky throaty H is one of the old nemeses of us English speakers attempting to learn this particular Central Asian tongue.

Idioms especially can be like hidden bombs, ambushing the innocent speaker who is merely attempting to speak in literal and clear ways. Just a couple weeks ago I was doing sermon checking with *Darius when I learned that I can’t say “the person and work of Christ” in that simple form.

“‘Person and work of’ together like that,” he told me, “is always an idiom for someone’s closest circle of relatives. You don’t mean to say that we are saved by the relatives of Jesus Christ, am I right?” He laughed. “That sounds kind of Catholic!”

Then there’s those tricky words that are spelled the same and sound the same, but differ in meaning based on the context and construction of the sentence. This kind of similarity between the local words for canary and shore led to one of my more famous blunders, when teaching through the parables of the Kingdom in Matthew.

“And then Jesus sat down in the boat, next to the canary, and began to teach about the kingdom of God.”

The local believers leaned into their Bibles trying to figure out where the song bird I was referencing had suddenly come into the text.

Last night Harry and I finished our editing work together around 9 p.m. I thanked him sincerely for his help, knowing that his investment of a couple hours with me would mean greater clarity for the rest of the church on the following day, Friday, when our church plant is able to meet.

As we parted ways I shook his hand and said to him, “See you on the last day, brother!”

“What?” he said back.

“Tomorrow is Friday. You know, the last day.”

Harry laughed and shook his head. “Right! See you on the last day indeed.”

*Names changed for security

Photo by Angélica Ribeiro on Unsplash

Riddles of Hands

At our post-service lunch of beans, rice, and flatbread today, a group of us men got into sharing riddles. I don’t know that many riddles, but I did manage to submit a few to the group, including one translated from my childhood readings of The Hobbit: “A box without hinges, key, or a lid, yet inside golden treasure is hid.

Hint: the answer is something that comes from chickens and is fried for breakfast.

One local rhyming riddle was new for me:

What has a ceiling above and a basement beneath, one shepherd, and four sheep?

The answer was a hand, as held out flat and horizontally. The ceiling – the back of the hand. The basement – the palm. The four sheep? Fingers. And the shepherd? The thumb.

This led to a session of discussing the local names for each of the fingers. I find them honestly hilarious and quirky.

The pinky finger: the lil’ guy

The ring finger: the lil’ guy’s brother

The middle finger: the tall-bodied one

The pointer finger: the sauce taster

The thumb: the lice killer

The sauce taster and lice killer? Ha! Why not?

Photo by Andrik Langfield on Unsplash

But Is Your Language Good Enough for Conflict?

In our previous city we once tried to host a reconciliation meeting in our living room. Two key families in our young church plant had fallen out with each other. So we tried to get them in the same room together with a respected believing brother who we hoped could help mediate.

We quickly learned why locals do not attempt this sort of meeting format, but rather depend on each party sharing their side separately with a “judge” who then gets them together, but only to pronounce the binding judgement. This set up prevents the angry parties from breaking out into a shouting match or a fist fight, both of which almost took place in the middle of our living room “reconciliation meeting.” The gravitas of the honorable judge figure demands they keep their peace, at least in the meeting itself. I’m not saying that the kind of reconciliation meetings where both parties get to share their side in front of one another are utterly impossible here, once believers mature in their faith. But we quickly saw that we were at that point completely unable to keep that meeting from spiraling out of control. Hard hearts and sharp words led to an almost complete disaster.

We had by that point come into the Advanced-Mid language level, the much longed-for goal of all of the first term families with our organization. But having reached that point where we were able to teach, evangelize, disciple, and befriend almost entirely in the local language, we still experienced a very frightening thing that night. Our language level was nowhere near strong enough to handle angry and arguing local believers who were right about to throw punches. We were, having supposedly “tested out,” utterly linguistically incompetent for that kind of situation. It was a sobering and humbling realization.

A few months later one of those local men embarked on a campaign of slander, half-truths, and deception against us that ended up splitting that fledgling church plant. Once again, we found our language ability woefully insufficient to keep up with this divisive man who was practically running circles around us.

Why do I share these things? Well, my wife actually inspired this post. In a meeting today she shared this story as a way to spur our team on toward pressing on in our language learning, in spite of the difficulty and cost. To do church planting work well in places like this, we simply must get to the point where we are able to navigate angry and emotional conflict language. Our experience that night was that our comprehension, usually up around eighty to ninety percent, had dropped down below twenty. And the emotion of the moment meant that our tongues and brains were stuck. We were unable to broker peace at the crucial moment. And yet as cross-cultural church planters, we absolutely need to be able to do that – and to be able to counteract the Titus 3 divisive man when he emerges. To stop proactively learning language when we get to a point like Advanced-Mid is to leave the young believers in great danger.

So, we must press on. If you have been overseas for a number of years, then you know well the toll language learning can take. It is awfully tempting to plateau, assuring ourselves that we have enough language to do fruitful ministry. Often we do have enough language to do fruitful ministry. The question is, do we have enough language to do the urgent ministry required when it all hits the proverbial fan? This is another question entirely.

Press on, weary language learners. That phrase, that verb, that idiom – it may the key to defusing a dangerous situation, to saving a church plant.

Photo by Austrian National Library on Unsplash

The Importance of an Inclusive Focus

If you have been called, sent, trained, and deployed to reach a certain people group on the mission field, how exclusive should you be in your focus? How many things should you make a commitment NOT to do so that you can achieve your aim?

There’s one phrase I keep finding myself saying as a team leader, “It’s an inclusive focus, not an exclusive one.”

When it comes to language learning, strategy, and teaming together, I find many are wanting to draw hard lines beyond what I’m actually asking for – and beyond what the Scriptures are asking for. The default often seems an embrace of an either/or mindset, rather than an steady emphasis on one thing wisely paired with an openness to the unexpected opportunities the Spirit might bring.

“If our goal is to share the gospel in the local language, we shouldn’t share the gospel in English, right?”

No, while we push to get to gospel fluency in our focus language, by all means share the gospel in whichever language is most effective for clarity and for that person!

“If our goal is to plant healthy churches among this people group, should I turn down my neighbor from that other people group if he wants to study the Bible with me?”

No, while the majority of our time needs to be focused on the people group we have been called to reach, let’s not use that calling as an excuse to not extend basic Christian love and discipleship to others that are open around us. Who knows? Maybe that unexpected person will be the key to breakthrough among our focus group. If there’s no partner who can study the Bible with that person, then you are the one who should do it.

“If I’m focused primarily on our house-church planting strategy, that means I shouldn’t mix with the international-church strategy people, right?”

No, cross-pollination and the visible unity of believers bring far greater benefits that outweigh the possible costs of mixing with likeminded believers who have a slightly different strategic focus. We need many faithful strategies to reach our city, and we need to be fluent in as many of them as possible. We need relationships of trust with those involved in different strategies as we will very likely need to lean on one another in the futureespecially if the work really takes off.

“Because we are supposed to be devoting our time to language learning, evangelism, discipleship, and church planting, I really shouldn’t invest time in that life-giving hobby of mine, right?”

Once again, no. If playing the piano, rock climbing, or blogging (!) are life-giving for you, you’d better invest in that. These kinds of things are important for our wholeness and flourishing on the field. God has made us to do more than ministry – to create, to play, and to rest. We need to trust him as we invest in those things, especially when we can’t see any immediate ministry payoff.

In my experience, many default to an exclusive focus mindset and would not agree with my positions on the above questions. I believe this often comes from fear. If I don’t draw these hard lines, how am I to be protected from the dreaded mission drift? Well, mission drift is a real danger. It’s important that we regularly assess ourselves to make sure that we are primarily focused on the things we are supposed to be primarily focused on. That’s what team vision, meetings, regular rhythms, and goals are for. And yet the unintentional effects of an overly exclusive focus are often a lack of openness to what the Spirit might be doing in our context and frustrated colleagues who feel their consciences are being bound. Not to mention the fractured relationships and lamentable absence of healthy unity among likeminded groups on the field.

Far better that we embrace a posture of inclusive focus. We can learn that target language and freely share in English (or any other tongue) when we need to. We can labor to reach our focus people group and still find ways to serve the open among other people groups. We can focus on the strategy that we think will be most effective and still find healthy ways to partner with other strategies. We can still be faithful missionaries and pursue some life-giving hobbies for the good of our souls.

I think my greatest worry with an exclusive focus mindset is the assumption that we know the details of how the Spirit is going to bring awakening in our particular context. Don’t get me wrong. We know the main plan – Share the gospel, make disciples, plant churches, put it on repeat. He has been abundantly clear on that front and we don’t need to question “his heart for this land” in that regard. But why are we so cock-sure that we know the will of the Spirit in the minute details of lifestyle, strategy, and contextualization which are not made clear in scripture?

Given the unexpected ways the Spirit moves, it seems far wiser to embrace an inclusive focus posture. Be about learning your target language. Devote the bulk of your time to your people group and your strategy. But not exclusively. Rather, be about these things with an openness that acknowledges our own blind-spots, limitations, and inability to predict where the lightning of the Spirit will strike next – and that our particular work is not the only thing the Spirit is doing in our context.

Let’s make our plans with great intentionality and wisdom. And yet regardless of what missiology says, if the Scriptures have not made certain things a law, then please let us also not make them laws. Let us instead hold our focus intentionally and loosely, and not let it close us off to the unexpected work of the Holy Spirit.

Photo by Paul Skorupskas on Unsplash