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

Cracking Tails, Roasted Hearts, and Resurrection

While walking in a park yesterday, a friend and I spotted a bird with a long blue/black fan tail. My friend wasn’t sure what it was called in the local language. Apparently, it doesn’t show itself very often in the city. I shared with him that it reminded me of a bird we had in Melanesia called the Willy Wagtail. As I explained to him what wag means in English, and how we use it for the tail of a dog, he exclaimed, “Oh! That’s what we call tail cracking! Like when you crack your knuckles. We use the same verb for both situations because it’s like the animal is cracking it’s tail.”

One of the great joys of language learning is stumbling onto new ways in which to describe reality and connect its different parts. I never would have seen a connection before between the wagging of a dog’s tail and a person cracking their neck or their knuckles. But my Central Asian friends have seen it and reflected it in their language. I guess when a happy dog is next to a door, there is a rhythmic crack crack crack as his tail repeatedly hits the surface. Perhaps this is where it came from. Or just the swaying action looks similar to a human trying to stretch back and forth in search of a refreshing series of pops. This crack/pop verb is also the same one used for the firing of a gun and related to the word used for the explosion of a bomb. Indeed, the more you chew on it, the more you can see the common thread tying these things together.

Later in the afternoon we had a language lesson. As we studied a regional folktale together, our tutor pointed out the phrase used when a character suddenly fell in love – her heart was roasted. The same verb used to roast something in the oven, which is also used in adjective form for a rotisserie chicken. Not too distant from certain poetic ways the English language speaks of love, such as being inflamed or burning with desire. But roasted? What an interesting way to conceptualize having a serious crush on someone. It carries with it a certain completeness in the effect of the emotion upon the heart, deeper than you might get from the mere idea of a flickering flame.

As we discussed folktales and oral tradition, we learned that the phrase used to describe how a story is passed from father to son is that it has come from chest to chest. This is because the historic understanding here was that memory was located in the chest, the core of the person. So, naturally, something which is memorized by one generation and then passed on to be memorized by the next is understood as passing from chest to chest. I really like this one. It reminds me of 2nd Timothy 2:2, “and what you have heard from me, entrust to faithful men, who will be able to teach others also.” Pass it on from chest to chest, dear Timothy.

Speaking of entrusted, the very name of this blog comes from discovering a new way to speak of death in our local language, that a person is entrusted to the dirt. A dear friend told me last week that the name of this blog sounds to him like Lamentations, like a “face in the dust.” While my title does certainly reference death and its connection to the dirt, I actually chose it because of the subtle hint of resurrection implied by the word entrusted. When something is entrusted, it has not been lost or abandoned. There is a certain stewardship implied, a certain aim, perhaps even a return. Like 2 Tim 2:2, that aim might be faithful preservation and multiplication of a body of teaching. In the case of believers’ bodies and the soil, it is a trust given anticipating a glorious return. “What is sown is perishable; what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor; it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness; it is raised in power. It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body” (1 Cor 15:42-44). We entrust our dear ones to the soil and we eventually entrust ourselves, knowing by faith that glory and resurrection will be the sure and unstoppable outcome. It’s still dirt, it is still death, it’s still not the way things are supposed to be. But that’s not the end of the story. The dirt holds a mighty secret. All of creation whispers that resurrection is coming. And so our tears are mingled with a certain flicker of joy.

Each language is like a unique form of poetry, all of them attempting to describe creation as God has allowed us to experience it. As such, there is fascination and even delight to be found in the ways other tongues speak of things like tails wagging, hearts burning, stories passed on – and even of death itself. Take heart, weary language learners out there. There is more wonder in the end than there is drudgery. One of the things I’m looking forward to in the New Heavens and New Earth? Being with believers speaking thousands of complex and poetic languages – and all the time we need to learn each and every one of them.

Plus a resurrected brain with which to learn them. Let’s not forget about that part.

Photo by Wikimedia Commons

Flying V’s and Forming New Habits

Being a wise person has much to do with devoting ourselves to simple, good daily habits. Every Christian who has had a steady time of daily Bible study and prayer can attest how powerful the daily plod can prove to be – in cumulative, at least. We all have those days where we carry out said rhythm and it feels like nothing good has actually come of it. Thankfully, this is one more case where our feelings are out of touch with reality. Brief but consistent daily repetition almost always results in measurable long-term growth.

Yet so many of us also fall into habit fatigue. We’ve tried to start so many new habits so many times and have so often failed to follow through. So we despair of ever actually being able to implement that good rhythm like we know we should. I’m still there with some things as well, important things like exercise and fasting. Often the breakthrough to starting and continuing a new habit seems to hinge on the most incremental amounts of motivation. So any help in getting that obedience onto the bottom shelf, the easiest place to reach, can be a game-changer.

It’s in that vein that I commend a simple, unoriginal piece of advice: Attach a new habit to something that is already a daily rhythm.

What am I already doing every day? And is there a way in which I can hang a new habit easily onto that preexisting rhythm? I’ve found that it requires much less motivation to do this than it does to start a new habit at a new scheduled time every day. Setting a new alarm for some set time when I think I will be free and motivated just hasn’t proved to be as effective as latching a new habit onto the trailer hitch of that other habit that’s already rumbling down the road.

Ever since our first child was very young we’ve been able to be very consistent at daily family Bible reading, singing, and prayer together. Is this because we are more self-controlled or spiritual than others? Not at all. It’s because our kids naturally have a bedtime routine: pajamas, bathroom, teeth brushing, hugs and kisses. This happens almost every single night. That meant that attaching family worship to the front end of bedtime was much easier to accomplish. This has been going on for seven years now! It’s become very normal and second-nature to us, and yet we’ve hosted many over the years who had never seen a simple rhythm like this until they had observed it at our house.

Mealtimes are also great for new habits, because again, they actually happen every single day. That makes them a perfect place to attach new rhythms. Last year I was feeling like my dinner prayers were growing stale. So I made a list of short prayers from the Bible and important figures in church history and we began rotating through them at supper. I love church history and desire to find creative ways to expose my kids to it. So why not precede our Central Asian dinners of rice, beans, and kabob with a little Basil of Caesarea?

Steer the ship of my life, good Lord, to your quiet harbor, where I can be safe from the storms of sin and conflict. Show me the course I should take. Renew in me the gift of discernment, so that I can always see the right direction in which I should go. And give me the strength and the courage to choose the right course, even when the sea is rough and the waves are high, knowing that through enduring hardship and danger in your name we shall find comfort and peace.

What about lunchtime? Well, just for fun, we’ve been telling a new joke every day, using this article, The 50 Best Jokes for Little Kids. We’ve been consistent at this for about a month and our kids (8, 6, and 2) have been loving it. It also helps me also get out of my serious work mindset and into silly dad mode, which is not always my natural bent. Attaching this rhythm to lunch made it very accessible and my kids never fail to remind me about our lunch joke. What do you call a dancing cow? A milkshake! (ba-dum-psh!)

Daily habits and language learning/retention. These two absolutely must go together. God has wired our brains to learn and retain language through daily usage, and to lose that language if we don’t use it. I was overjoyed to stumble into a new habit a year and a half ago where I was able to use Bible apps on my phone to read two verses a day in four parallel languages. I may be the only person in my current country that speaks one of these languages, but I don’t want to lose it! Three of the other languages are those I’m trying to learn or make progress in. Two verses a day isn’t much. But when it happens almost every day over a couple years that means I’ve carefully worked through over seven hundred verses – and managed to keep the gears for that particular language fresh and oiled in my brain. Where did I stick this new habit? On the tail end of my personal study and prayer time in the morning. It adds ten minutes to the routine, but they are ten minutes well invested.

Finally, lest anyone start to feel impressed by any of this, I must admit that I struggled for years to remember to brush my teeth in the morning. At night, yes, but morning? Terrible. The breakthrough came with the simple act of putting an extra toothbrush and toothpaste tube in the shower itself, right next to the shampoo. I was already naturally showering every day, so why couldn’t I remember to do my teeth? I could, I just had to stick the needed ingredients somehow in a place where my absent-minded motivation could access them. Now, I do my dentists proud (If only I could not drink so much chai. Alas!).

When it comes to forming new habits, as my former team leader used to say, let’s put it down real low where the chickens can get it. It’s hard to start new habits cold-Turkey. Like geese flying in a V-formation, new habits can be better carried along on the energy of habits already-established (that’s three bird analogies right in a row, mind you).

So, if you are like me and sometimes despair of ever having the motivation to start that thing you know you need to start, you may want to give this habit-forming trick a shot. Attach a new habit to something that is already a daily rhythm. I can testify that there is practical help to be found there.

Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash

Why Should We Invest in Minority Languages?

There are over 6,000 languages in the world and many of them are dying out. Little seems to stand in the way of the growth of English as the first truly global language (since Babel). So why are thousands of missionaries all over the world spending years of their lives learning minority languages and translating the Bible into obscure tongues? Why not save the blood, sweat, and tears and focus only on the regional trade languages or on the globally dominant ones?

My own focus language has somewhere around five to ten million speakers. This means it’s not going anywhere anytime soon, but it’s also obscure enough (belonging to an ethnic minority) that it’s not likely to become useful or influential in other parts of the world. So is my investment in this language worth it? I want to outline seven reasons why I believe it is good and worth it to invest in minority tongues.

Theological Beauty and Limitation. Each language is uniquely able to help us worship God and each language is insufficient in itself to fully describe God. Saying that human language is unable to describe God adequately is no mere poetic flourish. Each human language is actually a limited thing, something which can truly describe truth about God, but not ever comprehensively describe him. One of the blessings of Babel is that we now have thousands of languages which can be used to worship God in ways that are uniquely beautiful (and possible) to that language. Specific sounds, titles, adjectives, and verbs exist in some languages and not in others. Some kinds of poetry, songs, and metaphor are only possible certain tongues. In this way, the diversity of human languages acts like a giant choir, where each language gets to sing praises to God in the ways it is particularly gifted. To lose a language is to lose a unique voice of the choir.

A Record for Future Generations. Even languages that die are worth preserving. If the sad day comes where there are no longer any living speakers of a language, having that language recorded and documented is still worth it. Again, it shines an important window into how a certain group of people uniquely spoke about creation and about God. This can help us. Every individual language also contains data that helps us learn about the way language in general can function. Even secular reporters who bemoan the supposed “culture changing” of tribal missionaries celebrate the fact that by learning the language enough to translate the Bible, many missionaries are preserving a record of languages soon to be extinct.

Spiritual Power. The mother tongue or heart language of a person usually speaks to their soul with greatest potency and clarity. To feel this point, you will probably need to be bilingual yourself or have experience learning language in a multilingual environment. It wasn’t random when the Holy Spirit used the native languages of Elamites, Medes, Arabs, and Libyans at the day of Pentecost. When you hear someone speaking your mother tongue, you pay attention. The mother tongue is often the language of dreams, desperate prayers, and curses. It is the language most intimately entwined with our affections. So, if we want to cut to the heart, we should preach in the mother tongue when possible. Many of my friends who come to faith out of Islam report having dreams about Jesus where he spoke to them, not in the trade language or the speech of the foreigners, but in their own language. The thought that God knows my language is a very powerful one to those who have never heard this truth before.

Love and Honor. Learning the language of a minority group is a powerful way to show love and honor, especially if they have been oppressed by others. Denigrating another group’s language as somehow inferior is an age-old form of hatred. Many minority groups around the world have never had an outsider learn and love their language. When a missionary does this, it often communicates a deep love and respect for the people themselves. If a foreigner will love them that much, then perhaps the wild thought that God also loves them and knows their language is true after all.

The Priesthood of All Languages. Here I’m playing off of the phrase, “the priesthood of all believers.” No one language is holier than another. It is no accident that the Bible was written in three languages with loan words from many others. No one human language is the language of heaven (though there may be a spiritual language that is?). All languages are equally affected by the curse, meaning they preserve some of the image of God, though now in marred form. However, they are also redeemed in the worship of God forever in Revelation 7:9. There are many things about Islam that make my blood boil, but the claim that other peoples must worship God in 7th century Arabic and not in the language that God has sovereignly given them is particularly odorous.

The Mysteries of Providence. We don’t know what God might do with a given language in the future. No one 800 years ago could have predicted that English would come to dominate the globe. At the time, Old English was dying out due to the influence of the Norman French of the ruling classes. Yet here we are. English is the primary language not only of global business and education, but also of the modern missionary movement. When Patrick learned Irish, he could not have known how God would use the obscure Irish Christian scribes to miraculously salvage the biblical and classical literature of the Western Roman Empire after Rome fell. Their descendants would then go on to reintroduce Christianity to mainland Europe and found monastery missions that would later become cities like Vienna, Austria. We simply don’t know how God might take a humble, unknown language and do mighty things through it.

The Internet Resurgence. Many endangered languages are experiencing revival with the tools the internet provides. This has given an unexpected vitality to many languages that were supposed to die before now. The internet provides a place for native speakers to easily develop content, classes, and resources in their mother tongue which can be used to help the next generation. Sometimes languages even come back from the dead, like modern Hebrew. Languages are a lot like hobbits. They are full of surprises.

So, are we wasting our time investing in minority languages? No. Each language has unique value to God, to the Church, to current speakers, and to future generations. Learning a minority language is an act of faith. We just can’t predict the future of languages. But we can trust that on the last day, any investment made in these languages for the sake of love will not be made in vain.

Photo by Etienne Girardet on Unsplash