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

What Are You Calling a Church?

In the words of renowned theologian Inigo Montoya, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

The word I am referring to here is church. And when it comes to communication between missionaries and Christians back in their supporting churches, this word is used often, but almost never defined. What often results is a failure in communication that leaves both parties feeling good, but ultimately failing to serve one another well.

Let’s say a missionary or organization reports on a certain number of churches that have been planted. This receives much applause and leads to much rejoicing. And yet what those reporting on the field mean by that little word, church, can sometimes be nothing like what the supporters back home are thinking of when they hear that same word.

Perhaps a Christian or pastor back in the home country hears a missionary report that 1,000 churches have been planted. In his mind, he envisions 1,000 smallish congregations, each maybe several dozen strong, containing diverse believers from a given community who now form a new spiritual family for one another. He projects his image of small church plants which he has encountered in his home country onto the report he hears about this overseas region. The missionary, on the other hand, influenced by a movement missiology, counts a gathering as a church if there’s merely a believing husband and wife who read the Bible weekly with their unbelieving teenage son. Or, he reports a church when two cousins who are secret believers meet up monthly to read, pray, and whisper-sing some songs together. Or perhaps a group of five college students who meet regularly with a local pastor for a time of Bible study.

None of these gatherings are bad at all. Each are worthy of celebration. But that doesn’t mean we can assume they are churches. What is lacking is agreement upon what standard is used to call something a church.

The missionary might report 1,000 churches planted and the home audience in one sense hears that 1,000 churches have been planted. Yet they are not actually communicating with one another, because they are not using the word church in the same way. This means that what one envisions in their mind when those words are spoken is wildly different from what the other sees in their respective mind’s eye. The missionary knows that if all the groups of 3 or 4 people meet, this represents somewhere around 3,000 – 4,000 people, a mix of believers and unbelievers, most of whom gather only with those of the same natural household or family. However, the home audience is assuming something more like 20,000 – 30,000 people total, all believers meeting with others from different households. The missionary means 3,000 not leaving the natural bounds of their own network. The crowd understands him to mean 30,000 forming new spiritual families. This is, at best, a failure of communication. At worst, it is downright deception.

This entire interaction can take place without either party acknowledging the great divide in their definitions of the word church. And as long as this goes unaddressed, both sides can leave feeling pretty good about things. But it must be addressed. Missionaries and their sending churches are accountable to one another. This even applies to reporting. If missionaries mean something wildly different from their senders when they use the term church, then this needs to be made public. And for the good of the mission, common definitions and parameters must be agreed upon for when it is appropriate to call a group a church.

This is the point where most Christians realize that they are operating out of experience and assumptions rather than a thought-out ecclesiology. So step one is to examine the scriptures to see what it says about the necessary ingredients by which we can call something a church. So far, so good. All church-planting missionaries and all pastors should be able to readily articulate what constitutes a potential church, a true but immature church, a healthy church, or a false church. Please, don’t send anyone to the mission field who can’t do this.

For example, our group of five college students represent a potential or formative church. Despite what certain methodologies might claim, I do not believe that they can biblically call themselves a church even though they regularly meet with a pastor to receive teaching, to worship, and to pray together. Several key ingredients are missing, such as the biblical self-identification as a church (covenanting) and the Lord’s supper and baptism. Now, if they had these elements in place, but no elders, giving, or mission, then they could be a true but immature church. A healthy church is simply one which is well on its way to implementing all of the Bible’s characteristics of a church.

We like to summarize these biblical characteristics into a list of twelve: Discipleship, Worship, Leadership, Membership, Fellowship, Giving, Evangelism, Teaching/Preaching, Accountability/Discipline, Mission, Ordinances, and Prayer.

A useful exercise is to list out these twelve characteristics (or a comparable list which summarizes the data differently) and to try to discern which elements can be present without a group actually being a church. Then try to figure out from scripture and church history where the line is that separates a potential church from an actual church. When I do this, I end up first with a formative church section full of a bunch of elements that could take place in a college ministry, such as teaching and fellowship, separated by the ordinances from a cluster of organized church elements such as membership and accountability/discipline that take place in a true – if still maturing – church. I personally like to then make a third division which separates what I call an organized church from a sending church, since so many churches end up implementing eleven of these twelve characteristics, without ever getting involved in church planting and missions. Again, I’d define a healthy church as one committed to implementing all twelve. A false church would be a church where in either the teaching or the practice a false gospel is proclaimed. Here is a basic diagram of how I have tried to chart things out.

Earlier I mentioned that step one is to examine the scriptures to see what it says about the necessary ingredients by which we can call something a church. Step two is simply to then adjust your language accordingly. Don’t call something a church that is not a church. Be intentional in when you make the shift in terminology from group to church. Communicate your biblical rationale for when and why you start calling a group a church so that people understand what you mean by the term. If, like me, you believe that a mere three people could sometimes actually constitute a true church, then explain the biblical and situational rationale for this.

Step three then is to hold your ground. No matter the pressure you might feel to report higher numbers. No matter what the missiology gurus say about how good or bad this is for multiplication. Call things what the Bible calls them, and hold your ground. Sometimes this will mean surprising supporters back home who have projected church buildings, pastors with theological degrees, and certain size congregations onto the biblical meaning of church. Other times this will mean running afoul of the current trend in missiology that your leadership is so excited about. But the way the Bible uses a term is our truest window into the real, eternal meaning of that word. So let’s stick with that, and not deal in the more temporary definitions.

Finally, we must not be shy to ask others how they are defining that word, church. We cannot truly serve one another if massively different understandings of this term are simultaneously taking place while we all clap for the report of thousands of “churches” that have been planted. My sense is that many denominations and pastors would be scandalized to hear what their missionaries are actually calling churches, if they would only press for detailed definitions.

Some missionaries will not want you to press. This is a warning sign. It may mean these missionaries feel that they are superior to the Church back home or that they operate in what could be called a missiology of reaction, where their goal is above all to not do church as they have experienced it back home. Lots of weird missiology is the result of this kind of posture, but not healthy churches that last.

Trustworthy missionaries, however, won’t mind you asking. In fact, they may find your questions downright encouraging. After all, faithful missionaries have thought carefully about these things. Why? Because the front lines force them to wrestle with these things, and to examine their Bibles. But even more so, because they love the local church, and so they honor her with their language.

Photo by Rosie Sun on Unsplash

Do I Have a Problem With What Now?

“Don’t laugh too much at me!” I have sometimes warned our team overseas, while chuckling with them about yet another piece of American culture I’ve somehow never known until that point. “I am a vision of your children in the future! Teach them well… or else!” At this point our teammates who are parents usually laugh a little less heartily and shoot nervous glances at their kids, knowing that what I am saying is only too true.

When you are raised between two cultures – your parents’ and the foreign country’s where you are living – there are bound to be important things that you miss. Returning to your family’s homeland can be fun, but it’s also always loaded with potentially embarrassing exposure of these inevitable knowledge gaps. A third-culture kid (TCK) must do his best to plug these gaps in ways that lead to as little red-facedness as possible. Learning to laugh at yourself is key, the only real path for survival.

When I was sixteen I believed that spaghetti was grown on large watery farms, similar to rice. Thankfully, this emerged around my family’s dinner table, and not while on a youth group outing on a furlough. As I recall, it took quite some time for my family to convince me that spaghetti was indeed made in factories, and not in some kind of noodle paddy.

Then there was the time as a new college freshman where I ate at a Subway for the first time, freezing like a deer in the headlights when the man behind the counter asked me what kind of bread I wanted for my sandwich. And it wasn’t just the bread, but the meat, the cheese, everything. Even though he was the one who worked at the restaurant, he demanded that I choose item after item for my sandwich. A snickering classmate bailed me out of that one.

Then later in college, I joked around with my fiance’s dad that we might need a shotgun wedding – not actually knowing what a shotgun wedding was for. “What?!” I remember saying, mortified. “That doesn’t just mean like a quick wedding?”

Be kind to those TCKs that you know. It’s a steep learning curve. Culture is usually learned by absorbing it over many years, in a kind of relational osmosis. But when you have been living in another culture, you end up absorbing different things. Sure, those things are very important for that culture, but they don’t always equip you to navigate the cultural waters of the passport country. 

To this day, I rely heavily on my patient wife to debrief social situations. “Wait, do we say that in America?” “Do you think I used that phrase right? They looked at me a little funny.” But now that we’ve been seven years overseas – and are now heavily shaped by Central Asian culture – even she’s starting to experience similar dynamics. Admittedly, I don’t always successfully hide my joy at now having a companion in my cultural perplexity.

One more story from college stands out as an illustration how local use of vocab can lead to profound, and humorous, confusion for a TCK who is scrambling to try to figure things out. I offer it as a lesson to all those parents and “aunts and uncles” of TCKs out there. You’ve got quite the job on your hands. To any TCKs out there, may God help you.

For a couple of years I worked doing furniture delivery two days a week. It was a great job for a college student. I could take classes the other three days in the week, and work long days twice a week for good pay.

But it was hard work, arguably the most physically demanding job I’ve ever had. Lugging reclining sofas or king mattresses up multiple stories or jamming them through narrow basement doors is no joke. Most customers failed to measure their door frames and hallways to make sure the new furniture they had bought would actually fit. The two of us manning the delivery truck would do our best to put up with customers’ foibles, but sometimes things would tend to build up.

One day my boss and I were sitting in the truck on a nice suburban street. He was fuming. We had a heavy day of deliveries, all carefully planned out, and the next customer was not home when he said he would be. I could see my boss’s jaw clenching as he sat and stewed, periodically spitting his chewing tobacco juice into a bottle unfortunately placed on the console between us.

At last, the customer’s car pulled up behind us. It was a police car.

“You go out and talk to him,” my boss said, staring straight ahead. “I need a few minutes to cool down.”

“Uh… OK,” I said, putting on my smelly rubber work gloves.

As I stepped down from the cab of the box truck, the customer walked toward me. He was a very tall, well-built, African American man, probably in his forties. He was wearing his police uniform, but even without this, he had a commanding, stern presence. “Like a drill seargant,” I thought to myself.

“Hi!” I ventured, showing some friendliness that I hoped would counteract my boss’s angry words earlier on the phone, “We’ve got your furniture. You can show me where you’d like us to take it.”

The officer did not acknowledge my greeting. Instead, he walked up, put his hands on his hips, and stared down at me. I waited, unsure of what was coming next.

“D’yall have a problem with booties?” he asked.

I stared at the officer, not understanding at all why that particular combination of words had just come out of his mouth.

“Um… sorry… what?” Surely I had misheard something.

“D’yall have a problem with booties?” he asked again, stern and commanding. 

I continued staring at him, confused. An internal monologue started running through my brain, flashing through in a matter of seconds. It went something like this,

“Once again, an American has completely ignored giving a greeting, which always throws me off. No matter. Time to figure out what’s going on. What is this? Some kind of attempt to get a laugh? Some weird way to connect? There’s no hint of a smile on the officer’s chiseled face. No, he isn’t joking, unless he has an amazing deadpan. What am I missing? Something inside me is starting to panic. There’s got to be some meaning to his strange question I’m missing. I mean, I know that booty can be used for pirates, and well, for human anatomy, but neither meaning is fitting this context at all. Maybe some kind of cultural reference? American culture? Black culture? Police culture? Furniture delivery culture? Is there even such a thing? You’re running out of time! Oh look. There’s his gun.”

The officer had cocked his head at me now, still staring.

“He’s on to me,” the internal dialogue continued, “He knows I’m a fraud, not really from around here at all. Booties? Why booties? Why now? Someone help! I’m just a kid from Melanesia. How did I end up here, on this suburban street, trapped between this imposing officer and an angry boss, trying to untangle the semantic range of the word booty?”

I simply had nothing to say in return. My brain had run its form and meaning programs through all the archives and had come back with absolutely zero results. So I stood there, mouth half open, having no idea what to do next.

“C’mere,” said the officer in his booming voice, shaking his head at me, and motioning for me to follow him into his garage.

We walked into the garage and he stooped down to pick up a small box. He pulled something out of it. It was some kind of opaque white fabric thing, which he put on one of his hands and stretched open with his fingers.

“Booties. For your feet.” He said to me, measured and slow, as if bearing with a very slow student.

Suddenly it dawned on me. Booties must be some kind of fabric thing you put over your shoes in order to protect the carpet when walking in and out. Booties as in boots! Things for your boots. A rush of relief washed over me. Form and meaning had come together at last.

“Right! Booties. For our feet. Sure. That’s, uh, that’s fine,” I said, trying to smile.

The officer was still looking at me, seeming concerned. Thankfully my boss just then walked into the garage, his face back to a normal shade of pink. He grabbed a pair of booties from the officer, apparently knowing full well what they were, and went inside to see where the furniture was to be placed.

I was left alone in the garage with my thoughts. “Man, how have I never heard about booties? Oh well,” I shrugged, “TCK issues.” And I went to begin unloading the truck.

Photo by Wise Move SA on Unsplash

No Word For Grace

“Our people group has no word for grace or gift.”

One missionary couple shared this fact at the gathering of a church planting network this past week. The comment landed with sobering weight, since the preaching at the conference was working through the book of 2nd Timothy. We all realized that without the word or concept for grace, you would get stuck at only the second verse of the book.

How do you preach the gospel in a tribe where there is no word for grace?

At lunch the next day, a couple of us asked these missionaries and bible translators some further questions about this problem of missing vocabulary. Thinking of the sermon on the mount, I was curious about how this people group viewed the blessings of rain and sun, which they don’t work for, but receive freely despite how righteous or not they are.

“Do they view these blessings of nature as gifts somehow, or as entitlements?”

“Our people group, sadly, is a very entitled one,” my friends responded with a frown. “Even with things like these.” Dead end there. Earlier they had shared how even a father building a house for his son would expect payment for this labor.

When faced with a lack of spiritual vocabulary like this, a missionary has three primary options. The ideal one is to dig deeper into the language and culture to find a word or phrase that might be there – though currently hidden – that can in fact do the job. A second option is to make up a new word within that language, ideally by combining other words or word parts that already exist. Finally, you can introduce a loan word from another language. With these latter two options you have to teach the meaning over and over again to make sure the new word created or introduced gets paired with the right meaning. But even with the first option of finding an indigenous word, constant teaching might be needed to make sure the word grows into an accurate, biblical meaning.

Our friends could pursue any of these options as they move forward. This is one reason they are focusing first on bible storying before they begin Bible translation. It gives them more time to iron out these thorny linguistic issues.

As we tossed around the problem at our lunch table, they shared that there is one indigenous word they need to explore further, a word which they had recently learned in the marketplace. Their locals will often sell a batch of produce, such as a small pile of tomatoes, for a set price. But once the customer has agreed to purchase, the seller might throw in a couple extra pieces, and then use a specific local word to describe these extra tomatoes that are apparently functioning as some kind of gift. Initially, this seems to me to suggest a meaning more like a bonus, which is still earned in a sense because of the initial purchase. But it does at least show the culture is not entirely absent of the concept of something being given for free-ish. And that could be a beginning.

Or, since they work as Bible translators and are gifted linguists, this couple could end up just making up a new word with the help of their translation team. But again, this path is not without its risks. There is no guarantee the word will gain traction and actually be used enough to be understood. However, sometimes this can indeed work. Another missionary shared how this has taken place in Indonesian. A word for grace was created a couple hundred years ago, and it is now well-known and widely used among the Christians there. 

Borrowing the word from French – their country’s trade language – could also be the way these missionaries decide to go. But again, the risk is that this loan word could end up being used without understanding or even that grace itself could thereby be understood as a foreign concept, not really something that belongs to this unique tribal group. But this option can also work at times, as it has among the Central Asian people group where we’ve been laboring. A term for grace was borrowed from the historically-dominant language of a neighboring people group, yet is now used freely and without baggage among local believers.  

It is a sobering thing to realize that some societies have fallen so far as to not even have a term for grace or gift. A lack of a word means that since the fall, that category of truth has been almost completely destroyed in that people or culture. Given the nature of God’s law written upon our hearts, I don’t think a spiritual category can ever be utterly destroyed. Yet it seems possible that a concept can become so foreign to a people group long-separated from the truth that it now lingers in the soul only as a shadow of a distant memory – something barely present as a form of intuition, something perhaps felt, but not “known” in a cognitive, linguistic sense.

At times like this the role of the missionary is a stunning and vital one. They are in a sense raising a dead concept back to life, by clothing it in an old, new, or borrowed “robe” of a word. In time, and with the help of the Spirit, this word will become a vital part of the spread of the gospel in this language and the life of the new indigenous Church. This being the case, in the words of 3rd John 8, we really ought to support people such as these. The stakes are very high, and we need to pray for wisdom for those tasked with this kind of high responsibility to make the truth clear in long-lost languages.

I am so grateful for these friends laboring among this tribe, and for all in similar roles. May their labors over specific words and meaning someday bear fruit such that their focus people praises God’s wonderful grace – and both knows and loves what that priceless word means.

Photo by Chinh Le Duc on Unsplash

The Power of Proverbs

Before we moved overseas we lived in an apartment complex full of refugees, immigrants, and low-income Americans. By that point I had become aware of the power of proverbs among those from the Middle East and Central Asia. What surprised us was finding that proverbs and truisms also functioned centrally in the speech and relationships of the low-income Americans around us.

While proverbs didn’t really feature much in the speech of my middle class, highly-literate peers, or only functioned in an ironic way, I found that my black or white Kentuckian neighbors from difficult backgrounds dropped them on the regular. They were not always helpful proverbs. I can’t tell you how many times we tried to engage someone with the gospel and were met with opaque responses such as someone’s commitment to “let go and let God” or insistence that “God helps those who help themselves.” But other times they contained biblical wisdom, such as “Y’all reap what y’all sow.”

What we were experiencing was a curious similarity between the cultures of our Arab and Sudanese neighbors fleeing war and our American neighbors trying not to get arrested for dealing drugs. It seemed that every culture in our apartment complex – other than ours – was considerably more oral in its ways of thinking and speaking. Being primarily oral might mean that someone is illiterate, but it often means that someone knows how to read and write, but only does so when necessary, and not for pleasure or for organizing their life. It means that someone’s use of language is largely independent of the written word, and the corresponding ways that the written word shapes how we think and speak. Instead, it is the memorized and spoken word that come to dominate an oral person’s use of language. This has nothing to do with degrees of intelligence, though it can often reflect a person’s level of education.

There is a significant communication barrier between those who are highly literate and those who are from an oral culture, even if they are from the same country and speak the same language. This is because the ways we use language and the ways our brains have been shaped by that usage are so very different from one another – and this is a reality that is often invisible. An oral communicator relies heavily on stories and proverbs. They end up with a kind of language that is less direct and more full of symbolism and concrete metaphor. A highly-literate communicator relies more on argument and logic and ends up with speech that is more direct and abstract.

Often this communication barrier can result in a situation such as highly-literate communicator asking an oral communicator about a concept such as sin. The oral communicator responds to the question by telling a winding story, one which might be interspersed with several proverbs or truisms. When the story is finally over, the highly-literate communicator is left unable to discern what kind of point or answer has just been made. So he tries to get back to the abstract concept he was asking about, only to be met by another confusing story. Both leave the interaction not confident that they have been heard or understood.

For about ten years I have been chewing on this communication barrier between those who are highly literate and those who are oral communicators. This is one reason I have been on my long-term experiment to learn and employ Central Asian proverbs as we’ve ministered overseas. The challenge of orality is a serious one, since it limits our effectiveness in communicating the gospel cross-culturally or to huge portions of our own societies that are poor or working-class. This is likely one reason why reformed evangelicalism is so homogeneous when it comes to our socioeconomic status and educational backgrounds. We are, if anything, an extremely literate tribe of Christianity. There are amazing strengths that come along with this, but one weakness is that we are no longer naturals in communicating with those who are oral thinkers and speakers. It’s as if we speak a different dialect than huge chunks of our own fellow countrymen, especially those who are working class or coming out of backgrounds of poverty.

If this is true, then what can we do to become better oral communicators of the gospel? First, we need to recognize that this communication barrier exists. It does us no good to continue thinking that the rest of society is just as literate as we are. If you are reading this post, that likely means you are in the top literacy bracket of your nation (for the US, this is only 12 percent of the population). This means that the vast majority of our neighbors are less literate than we are. And literacy profoundly impacts how we think, speak, and comprehend others. Have we been assuming that our communication with others is being truly understood? Perhaps it’s time to reexamine that assumption. As George Bernard Shaw wrote, “the problem with communication is the illusion that it has been accomplished.”

Second, let’s learn how to employ proverbs and truisms. We might feel like those that are still in circulation in English are cliche or unhelpful. But let’s redeem what we can and set about crafting some new ones if we have to. The key to a good proverb is its ability to condense complex truth into a short, catchy statement that can easily be memorized. For oral communicators, these memorized moral statements provide a ready framework for navigating the complexities of life. What would it look like to build a discipleship curriculum around key biblical proverbs? Or an evangelism strategy? Just as you would give a literate friend a good book, consider how to give away a good proverb to a friend who is an oral communicator.

Third, let’s not be afraid to tell stories. Sometimes those of us in the reformed camp can complain about illustrations, as if this part of the sermon is really only fluff. But a good illustration or story may be one of the most important components of a sermon for oral communicators. Even for those who are highly-literate, the illustration often remains in our brains long after the outline has faded. In a sermon that is largely abstract language, a good illustration provides some helpful concrete imagery. Stories also engage our affections in important ways. And after all, our Bible is three-fourths narrative, so we should think seriously about how story functions in our own efforts to communicate God’s truth.

Music also has a huge part to play in engaging and discipling oral learners. Again, the idea is to have truth that can be memorized and carried around, ready to be engaged without the help of a written resource. To serve oral communicators, some of our songs need to be of the sort that can be memorized and sung without any instrumentation, much as was the case with the great hymns of the past. Good songs can be an incredible tool for oral cultures.

Finally, let’s stay curious about the communication breakdowns that are happening around us. I am not saying that we abandon our highly-literate forms of communication, as if we should replace all outline-based preaching and bible studies with stories, proverbs, and songs. But rather, what can we do to meet oral communicators half-way? Can we learn to become bilingual as it were, able to communicate the same truth orally to those with only an 8th grade education as well as in highly-literate fashion to someone with a PhD? These are complex, invisible dynamics. It will take some chewing and curiosity to make any changes here and to not just revert to our defaults.

Proverbs still matter. In fact, most of the world’s population still employ them as a key part of their primarily oral engagement with reality. Actually using them may seem strange, or cliche, to us. And yet learning how to use these and other oral tools may allow our churches to break out of our highly-educated, middle-class strata, and finally communicate well with the poor, the immigrant, and the hard-working laborer. And that seems a goal worth striving toward.

Photo by Daniel Fazio 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

On Not Neglecting the Internationals in Our Churches

A couple days ago I got coffee with a missionary who has served in East Asia. During one part of our conversation, we discussed a subtle issue we’ve noticed even in otherwise-healthy churches – that internationals and those from other cultures are often overlooked when it comes to both their care as well as investment in their potential. Similar to what I addressed in my post earlier this week, leadership and fellow church members don’t always “see” this particular class of the lowly or the seemingly-unimportant in the same way they “see” those who are same-culture individuals.

This is only natural. Humans gravitate toward those who are most similar to them and with whom they have the most in common. These sorts of people get more of our attention because relating to them is simply much easier – there are fewer barriers to communication and friendship. But therein lies the problem. The Church is not a natural institution, but a supernatural one, a new family built not on shared natural affinities, but on the spiritual affinity of a new birth into a new family where God is our Father and Christ is our older brother.

It’s makes sense that the Jewish Hellenistic widows were neglected in Acts 6. There were pretty significant cultural and linguistic barriers between them and the Judean/Galilean believers that prevented their needs from being as visible to the apostles. But the apostles and the early church didn’t shrug this off as some kind of natural dynamic that should be embraced (“Let’s just plant First Hellenistic Church, shall we?”). Instead, they created the forerunner of an entirely new office in the local church that would focus on the needs of the needy and marginalized. They recognized that they had a major crisis on their hands, that the credibility and faithfulness of the believing community was at stake if its members who were essentially foreign widows – foreigner and widow both being major categories of concern in the Old Testament – got neglected. So, they went and created the diaconate so that this kind of oversight might never happen again. Or, so that when it happens, there are leadership resources devoted to it.

Neglecting the needs of those from other cultural and linguistic backgrounds can still happen, even in our healthiest churches – though this neglect is often unintentional. In some churches, care for internationals and those from other cultures gets essentially delegated to a select few who have themselves served in the past as missionaries. When those cross-culturally-skilled believers then go back overseas or otherwise are no longer around, the body at large hasn’t learned to care for internationals, and they can very easily slip through the cracks. Care and investment can be neglected, which looks like international students getting forgotten during holidays, older refugees getting targeted by scammers, and promising young leaders with a vision for their home country being left to figure it out on their own. Again, this is so often unintentional.

What would proactive steps look like in building a church culture that cares well for the internationals among us? Many churches in the West and in global cities will continue to have members who are either refugees, immigrants, students, or business professionals. And this does not seem to be slowing down. Here I want to offer some initial suggestions, though I offer these thoughts feeling that this is merely the beginning of a conversation on how we can all do this better in our various contexts.

First, in our churches we need to be serious about appointing wise, spirit-filled deacons who can be lead servants for the body in caring for the marginalized, including any internationals among us. After all, the origin story of deacons is explicitly tied to fixing issues of cross-cultural neglect in a local church. Do we insist that our deacons have their radars finely tuned for those in the body who come from different linguistic or cultural backgrounds, the contemporary equivalent of the Hellenistic widows? What in their deacons meetings and ministry rhythms keeps this demographic regularly before them? Without this kind of intentional focus, again, the danger is that the marginalized from our own culture will accidentally take priority, because there are fewer barriers toward them being seen and heard.

The text of scripture highlights being of good repute, spirit-filled, and wisdom-filled as the primary qualifications for the men chosen in Acts 6:3. These qualifications, along with those laid out in 1st Timothy 3 should be our top priorities when appointing qualified deacons. These are the kind of men who have the character needed to see the lowly, and that is the most important thing. However, many have pointed out that all seven proto-deacons of Acts 6 have Hellenistic names. It’s therefore likely that they themselves were more Hellenistic than Hebrew in their cultural background, and thus chosen as those well-positioned to care for the Hellenistic widows. So, while natural affinity is not the foundation of the church’s unity, here we see that it may be important for mercy ministry to the marginalized. This is because we are simply much better observers of those things in which we also have some experience.

My daughter has type-1 diabetes and uses Omnipod and Dexcom systems for diabetes management. When others walk by us with these devices sticking to their skin, or when we hear their distinctive beeping noises, we instinctively notice, when we would not have noticed before. Why? We now have experience with diabetic devices and are deeply invested in them as a way to care for our daughter. It follows that those with experience and investment in other languages and cultures are going to more intuitively notice those from these backgrounds, and also notice their needs.

Given these realities, it seems wise to appoint deacons from diverse cultures or with missions experience as those with naturally stronger radars for spotting those international members most likely to be overlooked. If you have Spanish-speaking members in your congregations, consider prioritizing the development of Spanish-speaking deacons. If you South Asian members, then likewise. Or, perhaps that retired missionary might make an excellent addition to the team of deacons.

Other than appointing and directing lead-servants, what else can be done to strengthen the skill and gifting in the body for caring for internationals? For this I really only have one tried and true method: get people overseas. Create pathways for both leadership and members to spend extended time immersed in a foreign culture, ideally alongside of missionaries or churches that you know and trust. Again, people notice what they have experience or investment in. It’s remarkable the kind of effect that several months or several years on the mission field can have on someone’s ministry outlook for the rest of their life.

We should get creative about finding ways to get church leadership overseas, and not just for short-term trips. My missionary friend serving in East Asia shared about a house swapping arrangement he had with one of his former pastors. Before the pandemic derailed things, this pastor and missionary were coordinating their sabbatical and furlough so that the missionary family would have housing in the US and the pastor’s family would get to spend six months living in a foreign context. What a great idea! What would it look like for churches to free up their pastors for mission sabbaticals like this? The impact of getting church leadership on the field for extended periods could be tremendous. Whenever I encounter a student whose dream it is to be a pastor, I challenge them to spend a couple years on the mission field first. This is because their perspective on ministry and the church will be dramatically affected by spending time in frontier missions contexts – and yes, they will be more likely to have eyes that see the internationals in their congregation.

But it’s not just – or even mainly – up to the leadership. After all, the work of the ministry primarily belongs to the congregation (Eph 4:12). So, there is a great need to equip the body to care for those from other cultural and linguistic backgrounds. Want to create a church strong in mercy ministry? Make sure there are many accessible pathways for your church members to spend extended time in mission contexts. Short-term trips are a start, but much more profound changes are going to come about by spending several months or longer overseas. They need to be there long enough to experience some negative things, and for the initial shine to wear off. They need to experience what it’s like to be a minority in a strange land, not just a tourist.

What can we do to foster a culture in our churches that cares well for the marginalized from other cultures? I think that pressing into our deacons and getting church leadership and members overseas are some sound ways to start. And let’s not forget the outcome of caring well for the Hellenistic widows in Acts 6 – “And the word of God continued to increase, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith” (Acts 6:7).

Caring well for those often overlooked leads to evangelistic power. Of course it does. Spiritual unity among those without natural affinities is a stunning thing.

Photo by Gyan Shahane on Unsplash

They Gave Us New Names

Many missionaries experience the honor of being renamed by those in their host culture. This is often a kind act of respect and acceptance on the part of the locals. And, depending on the name itself, it can be a gift the missionary holds onto for years to come.

It’s a peculiar thing, the way we humans rename one another. The name itself is often a reflection of some characteristic already present in the person, although naming can also be reflective of the giver, where they project their hopes onto the recipient in the form of a new name. I’m struck by how much mileage these names often get, sometimes becoming a key part of our identity even when the name emerged as a nickname in jest.

During our local trade language class in high school, we were amused one day by some of the older obscure terms we were learning, such as the word for fine hair on plants, mosong. One of the boys in our class, named Ryan, had short, fine, spiky blonde hair both on the top of his head and poking out of his chin. Someone during that class period saw the correlation and dubbed him Mosong. We all (including Ryan, a good sport) laughed at how well the name fit, and it stuck. By the end of high school, no one called him Ryan anymore. He had become Mosong. Now almost two decades later, I would probably still call him Mosong if I saw him again.

This past week as we marked the anniversary of my dad’s death, my mom reminded my brothers and me about the tribal names we were given during our first term in Melanesia. She remarked that they were peculiarly well-given, still seeming to reflect what we are like even decades later. The names were given by new believers in remote village areas where my parents served, my dad providing interim leadership for small congregations while local pastors were being trained up and my mom teaching women and literacy.

My dad was named Kamtai, which means thunder. This was fitting, as he was bold and strong, a former marine and natural leader. My oldest brother was named Kampok, which means lightning. This was because everywhere my dad went, my brother went also – just as lightning and thunder always come in a pair. The middle brother who was always climbing trees was named Kamp, which means cuscus. For those not versed in obscure Melanesian marsupials, a cuscus is basically a cute jungle possum of sorts that is an expert climber. My name was Kilmanae, which translates as parrot. This is because when I was a child I did not have a blog, so all my ruminations about the world around me came out verbally – apparently striking a strong resemblance to a chattering bird. I’ve currently got a four-year-old of my own who could be given the same name. Some days there is an astounding stream of words that comes unceasingly out of that boy’s mouth.

My mom was given a name that she was initially not very excited about: Dogor, which means cicada. Cicadas are big ugly flying bugs with beady eyes and large claws that leave their larval exoskeletons hanging all over jungle tree trunks like little brown insect zombies. They shriek/sing in unison throughout the day, their loud “REEEEEEEE…. REEEEEEEE” filling many of my childhood memories. Curious and a little disappointed with this name, my mom asked her friend why she had chosen to name her after a bug. “Because you brought the light,” she responded, “just as cicadas sing and bring the sunrise.” After that, my mom was pretty happy with her tribal name.

These names still describe us well. My mom continues to bring the light, serving in counseling and cross-cultural roles here in the US. My oldest brother has always had a bold leader side to him, which can’t help but echo our dad. The middle brother has always been good with tactile work, whether climbing trees, fixing up cars, or remodeling houses. As for me, I still love good conversation. Tonight I’ll be getting together with some Central Asian friends just to enjoy talking with one another while sipping on some tea. While I may not be quite the verbalizer that I used to be, the flow of ideas and words these days comes out through the keyboard. The parrot has learned to write.

Of course, giving new names is quite a biblical concept. God renames Abram as Abraham, Sarai as Sarah, and Jacob as Israel. God promises to give Israel a new name in Isaiah 62:2, on the day of her salvation. Simon is renamed Peter, though Saul is not renamed Paul (this was just his parallel Greek name). Others like Joseph also get a new name tied to their new identity that sticks: Barnabus, Son of Encouragement. And of course in Revelation 2:17 Jesus promises a new name to every believer who conquers, written on a white stone.

Our names given by wise tribal believers have proven to be strangely accurate over the decades. Even nicknames like Mosong have power. I can’t wait to know what meaning will be reflected by our new names given in eternity. Undoubtedly they will reflect us and shape us uniquely as no other name has. On that day we’ll be the same, and yet we’ll also be different – like a cicada that has shed the crawling exoskeleton of its youth, and now can fly. Our new names will surely be a part of this, somehow strangely familiar, somehow wonderfully new.

Photo by Ashlee W. on Unsplash

Fickle Gods and the Wondrous Clarity of the Law

It’s the time of year again when countless Bible readers are about to get bogged down in Leviticus. It’s easy to quickly skim through these sections of the Pentateuch that deal with Israel’s laws, our brains struggling to stay focused and longing to get back to some narrative passages. We read the minute detail of Israel’s purity requirements and wonder if the ancient audience was just as bored as we are. Could there have been a time and a place where hearing Leviticus read actually held the hearers in rapt attention?

Apparently so, even centuries after the fact. No reading of the Psalms can avoid the evidence that the writers of that anthology – and faithful Israel through them – not only found God’s Law interesting, but even delightful. Why did ancient Israel love God’s law so dearly? It was in Tremper Longman III’s How to Read the Psalms where I first came across one of the powerful answers to this question, an answer that continues to serve me today as I try to read and put myself in the shoes of those during that period of redemptive history. In short, they loved the Law so intensely because of its clarity.

To understand this, we need to step back into the religious worldview of the ancient near east. All of the peoples surrounding Israel would have believed in a pantheon of gods and goddesses. Think Dagon, Baal, Ashtoreth (Ishtar), Chemosh, Ra, etc. These so-called gods and goddesses were not necessarily moral, nor were they necessarily loving and committed to the good of their people. They were deeply flawed like humans, except immensely more powerful. And they needed to be constantly appeased in order to guarantee a good harvest, fertility in marriage, or safety from enemy armies.

To top it off, these gods were fickle and hard to predict. Their will could change on a whim. Elaborate divination ceremonies were needed to discern their wills and to (hopefully) avoid outbursts of their wrath. These divination attempts included things like reading the livers of animals, interpreting dreams, and slapping kings until they cried to see if they still enjoyed the gods’ favor. Ancient Arabs, for example, threw a handful of arrows on the ground in hopes of finding meaning in the unique design thereby created.

Remember, life and death and eternity depended on these shifting signs and their subjective interpretations. This meant that the inhabitants of the ancient world lived in a kind of hell of relativity. Their religious systems taught them that your crop’s failure or your wife’s death in childbirth was due to your failure to rightly appease the gods – whose requirements were always opaque and were always shifting, always arbitrary. How could this not foster fanaticism, resignation, or even madness? There was precious little that was solid and unchanging that you could hold onto. You might do everything right according to the oracles, only to find out after the fact that the gods had mysteriously changed the requirements without telling you. How easy it would have been for the priestly class to abuse this system for its own benefit, while the commoners and kings either gave up or gave themselves over to a life of endless striving and fear.

Into this kind of context came the Law of Moses, not only revealed, but even written in language that could be understood by the people. Written down so that it could be regularly accessible for the entire people group and for each new generation. And it was marvelously clear, on points major as well as minor. Don’t make any idols, take the seventh day off and rest, don’t drink blood, treat the foreigners in your midst well, make sure you rinse that pot when you find a dead lizard in it.

We tend to chafe at the sheer number of laws given to the people of Israel, viewing things primary through our new covenant perspective where so many of these laws have now been fulfilled in Christ. And yet a primary response of the ancient Israelites to these laws would not have been a sense of burden. It would have been a sense of tearful relief, even rest. They did not have to live at the fickle mercy of cruel gods. They had one true and unchanging God, who rescued them because of his steadfast love and who now called them to a life conformed to his clear will – his will that would not change or shift. It was solid, dependable, steadfast, not going to cut their knees out from under them when least expected out of some kind of twisted divine freedom. No wonder they loved the law.

Our own age of diversity echoes the fickle relativity of the ancient gods. Within our own cultures, the changing pace of public morality is increasingly hard to keep up with. Lives are destroyed as one slip of the tongue or keyboard violates the shifting sands of what phrases are now safe (clean) and what is bigoted (unclean). The man on the street must live at the whim of the “priestly class” of academics, politicians, celebrities, and journalists who somehow have the inside scoop on what is newly demanded in order to be a virtuous person.

The interconnectedness of the world also brings with it an invitation to fall into relativity. As diverse cultures increasingly interact, the morality of one is seen to be vastly different from the morality of another. For many, this casts doubt on the existence of a universal morality at all. Then languages interact with other languages, highlighting the limitations, weaknesses, and localized viewpoints of each. This casts doubt on any ability to access universal truth through such an imperfect medium as human language. Similarly, the more exposure you have to other cultures and languages, the greater the sense that it’s foolishness to think that you just happened to grow up with the true answers. Yet just like those in the ancient near east, all must be risked upon our attempts to get it right, to rightly discern “the will of the gods.” It’s not surprising then if some of us also turn to fanaticism, resignation, or even madness in response to this uncertainty.

However, just like ancient Israel, believers now don’t have to live at the mercy of the fickle gods. We have God’s Law and his gospel, wondrously clear and accessible. It proved to be a solid rock in the churning sea of ancient polytheism. It is just as stable of a rock in the contemporary sea of progressive culture and globalization.

In a world with nothing to hold onto, we should conduct ourselves with a certain knowing confidence, always ready to invite those weary of the world’s arbitrary demands to something eternally steadfast. “Don’t you want something solid and truly good to hang onto?” “In all the noise, don’t you long for something that is clear and always true?” “Don’t you want access to an eternal definition of love?” We need to keep our eyes peeled for the castaways around us who already know from awful experience how the gods of this age turn on those who were desperately trying to keep up and get it right. They are in need of rescue and rest. We can offer it to them.

The shifting will of the culture, the contradictory decrees of different global cultures, these are not a problem for us as believers. They are echoes of humanity’s desperate need for something solid, universal, and unchanging. And like a weary ancient near east worshiper hearing Leviticus for the first time, we have God’s word. And it is wondrously clear. So clear, it’s worthy of delight.

Image from Wikimedia Commons