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. While Simon is not renamed Peter and Saul is not renamed Paul (these were just their parallel Greek names), others like Barnabus do get a new name tied to their new identity that sticks: 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

An Anchor for Our Tongues

Preachers and authors do it all the time. They quote the English definition of a word or refer to its linguistic roots as a way to ground their argument, to establish the meaning of a term or concept. Then they move on, seemingly convinced that they have offered up enough evidence for their audience to trust that they are indeed communicating the true sense of that term. What is not often realized is that, for the Christian, this kind of appeal to the dictionary or history is actually an inadequate grounding.

Perhaps a sermon is being delivered on Isaiah 40:1, “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.” The preacher focuses on the meaning of comfort in his introduction to his sermon idea. To do this, he quotes Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary, which defines the verb comfort as:

  1. to give strength or hope to: cheer
  2. to ease the grief or trouble of: console

The preacher then takes this meaning of comfort, summarizes what comfort means according to the definitions he’s just read, and then gives his main point: Our God gives strength and hope to his people through his promises of salvation.

Or, perhaps a Christian counselor is writing a book on grief and to establish what comfort means, he appeals to the Latin roots of the word. In Latin, com meant with, and fortis meant strength. So, the author concludes, comfort means “with strength,” to be with someone in a way that gives them strength.

What’s the problem with these very common ways to establish the meaning of a term or concept? The problem is that this method of establishing meaning has only served to give us what one particular language and culture believed about that concept at a given time. But how do I know that Merriam-Webster English is giving me a true and universal meaning for comfort? Or how can I be sure that the meaning the Romans gave to their words is a faithful witness to what comfort actually is? Why should I trust these snapshots of a language at a particular time over my own personal definition for the term, cobbled together by the thousands of contexts where I have heard and seen that term used?

Unfortunately, any given language is an imperfect witness to eternal truth. A language is limited in its perspective on reality. It “thinks” in a certain way, and this affects how it describes things. This gives each language a unique perspective and voice, but that uniqueness also implies it’s missing a bunch of things that other languages notice. In English I am my age, in Spanish I have my age. If I only speak English, I only think about age in a certain way. But I am missing out on the reality that age is not just something I can be, it is also something I can possess.

Each language is also limited by the kind of vocabulary and grammar it has. When a culture is strong in something it will have a whole cloud of words related to that concept. When it is weak in something, it might only have one word, or none. Our Central Asian focus culture (strong on kinship) has unique names for all kinds of relatives that in English would simply be a known as cousin, aunt, or uncle. When it comes to grammar, some languages don’t have a future tense. Others don’t use articles at all (a, the, etc.). Languages are limited things. They are also constantly changing things, with each new generation bringing a slightly different pronunciation and even meaning to the same batch of words – and sometimes inventing entirely new ones.

Consider the necessity of explaining what the fear of the Lord actually means and you’ll see what I’m getting at here. In contemporary English, fear has lost all of its positive connotations and has only retained its negative ones. As for Lord, unless someone is reasonably informed about medieval history, the term has lost any of its earthly contextual meaning and is now only a Christianese term. The fear of the Lord simply does not communicate to my secular contemporaries in an easily understandable way. Our language has changed, like a thick fog rolling in, and obscured the true meaning of this phrase.

All of this is why pointing the audience to a dictionary definition or to the history of a word doesn’t provide an adequate grounding for Christians. We are people of the Logos, God’s eternal word, which entered into the ever-unstable sea of fallen human language and thereby provided us access to fixed, eternal truth and meaning – an anchor, not only for our souls, but also for our tongues. It is not enough for for us to know how Oxford or Merriam-Webster or our various ancestors defined a word. We need to know how God defines it. We need an eternal source with which we can compare our definitions of a word and tweak, turn, or gut accordingly.

Our preachers and authors must demonstrate what a given term means in the Bible, for only in the scriptures do we have what was imperfect human language inspired to perfectly reveal eternal truth. Once we know what the Bible means by words like comfort, then we can lean on the dictionary or a word’s linguistic roots as a good illustration or secondary grounding. But our primary grounding for a term’s meaning must be God’s word.

This means we are deeply indebted to the translators who worked hard to make God’s word clear in our mother tongue. We are also indebted to biblical scholars who can help us understand a word’s range of meaning in the original languages of the Bible – as well as those who can help compare that usage with how that term was used in other contemporary writings. Praise God, in the West we have easy access to many resources like this to help us. But the need is still great to continue to get solid Bible translations and resources into thousands of other languages without this kind of access.

The question might arise of what we should do if a certain term does not appear in the Bible, but we desire to test our language or culture’s limited definition. First, we should ask if the concepts behind the word are present in the scriptures, even if the word itself is not. Second, there is insight to be gleaned from comparing how different languages represent the same or similar concepts. If each language is indeed a unique and limited common grace witness to truth, then we should expect to find help as we put multiple languages together and see a fuller picture of what aspects of God’s wisdom their words have been able to preserve.

Preachers and authors, let’s make sure we ground our definitions in the only inspired source of eternal meaning we have, God’s word. This could often be as simple as an extra sentence or two. “The definition we just read fits well with how the Bible uses this term, as we see illustrated in this passage in…” or, “I like the Latin roots of this word because they echo so well with how the biblical authors use it, for example…” A small step toward a deeper grounding will help us communicate meaning that is eternal, and not that which is a mere snapshot of an imperfect language tradition.

It matters how the English and the Romans defined things. It matters infinitely more how God does.

Photo by Joshua Hoehne on Unsplash

The Esthetic of Alphabets

From its earliest manifestations literacy had a decorative aspect. How could it be otherwise, since implicit in all pictograms, hieroglyphics, and letters is some cultural esthetic, some answer to the question, What is most beautiful? The Meso-american answer lies in looped and bulbous rock carvings, the Chinese answer in vibrantly minimalist brush strokes, the ancient Egyptian answer in stately picture puzzles. Even alphabets, those most abstract and frozen forms of communication, embody an esthetic, which changes depending on the the culture of its user. How unlike one another the carved, unyielding Roman alphabet of Augustus’s triumphal arches and the idiosyncratically homely Romano-Germanic alphabet of Gutenberg’s Bible.

For their part, the Irish combined the stately letters of the Greek and Roman alphabets with the talismanic, spellbinding simplicity of Ogham to produce initial capitals and headings that rivet one’s eyes to the page and hold the reader in awe.

Cahill, How the Irish Saved Civilization, p. 165

Here is an interesting thought. Our alphabets and scripts are actually clues to what we find beautiful.

Photo by Boudewijn Huysmans on Unsplash

You’re From Fried Chicken and Beef Sandwich?

When words get adopted from one language into another, unpredictable things happen to them. There’s almost always some correlation between its new meaning and its former one, though sometimes even this can be almost completely lost in adaptation.

The Melanesian language I grew up speaking had adopted the English words for break and screw, but had come to apply these terms to the concepts of bend and bodily joints, respectively. Thus, to pray was to brukim skru, “break your screws,” i.e. bend your knees in prayer. The English words for turn and belly had also been adopted, but while turn mostly kept its original meaning, belly came to mean the soul. Thus, to tanim bel was to “turn the soul,” i.e. to repent and believe in Jesus. It was not uncommon to hear testimonies where people would say that they “broke their screws and turned their bellies,” – meaning simply that they prayed and believed.

This morphing can also happen to place names and the different things associated with them. I am originally from Philadelphia, but Kentucky has been our home base in the U.S. for a good many years now. However, these names in our Central Asian language have become solely associated with certain foods which each location is famous for in other places. Locally, kantaki has come to mean fried chicken and fladelfia means an elongated beef sandwich – the foreign relative of the famous Philly cheesesteak. Pat’s and Gino’s have come a long way. So has Colonel Sanders. They have taken up residence not only in the diet of a far-flung people, but also in their language.

The problem with this is that no one here knows that Kentucky and Philadelphia are actually places, not merely foods. Why is this a problem? Because I am often asked what part of the US I am from. Being a third culture kid (TCK), this is already a complicated question even without the complexities of inter-language morphology. But when I answer with the truth, “I live in Kentucky but I am from Philadelphia originally,” it gets understood as, “I live in fried chicken and my people are those of elongated beef sandwich.” This, understandably, leads to some bemusement. It gets even worse if I explain that I was raised in a Melanesian country famous for its former cannibalism.

Why does this foreign guy have a background so strangely intertwined with food?

Sadly, neither Philadelphia nor Kentucky are famous enough as places yet for most locals to know about them – unlike Texas, which everyone knows and constantly compares to a nearby tribal town famous for having more AK-47s than people. Come to think of it, I’m not sure that’s any better.

These word connections are relatively recent. But some connections exist that are ancient, proof that many thousands of years ago, the ancestor of the Persian-related tongue that we have learned is the same ancestor of English – Proto-Indo-European. The local compound word for a deep trust or faith is an ancient relative of our English words for back and fasten. To trust someone completely is to be fastened to their back, metaphorically carried by them. Thus, to “trust in the Lord with all your heart” is rendered in our translated Proverbs as, “Full-hearted, be strapped onto the Lord’s back.” Not a bad way at all to communicate complete trust. After all, a child riding on his parent’s shoulders is exercising a high degree of faith that he will not be dropped. His safety is entirely in the power of the one carrying him.

These kinds of word connections – new or old – can be fascinating, fun, and even frustrating. Language is a remarkable thing and our human ability to borrow, to shape, and to poetically turn a phrase is almost infinite.

That must be because God’s capacity to play with language is infinite.

Photo by Aleks Dorohovich on Unsplash

A Proverb On The Power of the Tongue

A word gone to a mouth goes to a mountain.

Local Oral Tradition

This Central Asian proverb speaks to the power of the tongue, specifically how seemingly private speech can all too quickly spread like wildfire. It agrees with the warnings of scripture regarding the dangers of the tongue. “So also the tongue is a small member, but it boasts of great things. How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire!” (James 3:5).

I can’t tell you how many times locals have prefaced a sentence with the disclaimers “Just between me and you,” or “Let no one else know this.” Yet in spite of these common agreements of confidentiality, word almost always spreads anyway. This represents a major problem in our local culture, one which constantly undermines trust and breaks relationships. Gossip is very deeply rooted, one of those parts of the culture so ingrained that local believers despair of ever driving it out. We trust that it can be driven out, however, and a redeemed tongue will be one of the astonishing markers of the redeemed community.

On the other hand, this proverb could be turned on its head and applied in a counterintuitive way to sharing the gospel -“good gossip” as it’s been called. If the Central Asian loose tongue could be harnessed for the sake of evangelism, now that would be a mighty force to be reckoned with.

Photo by Abbas Tehrani on Unsplash

From Runes to Inventing New Languages

The Irish received literacy in their own way, as something to play with. The only alphabet they’d ever known was prehistoric Ogham, a cumbersome set of lines based on the Roman alphabet, which they incised laboriously into the corners of standing stones to turn them into memorials. These rune-like inscriptions, which continued to appear in the early years of the Christian period, hardly suggested what would happen next, for within a generation the Irish had mastered Latin and even Greek and, as best they could, were picking up some Hebrew. As we have seen already, they devised Irish grammars, and copied out the whole of their native oral literature. All this was fairly straightforward, too straightforward once they’d got the hang of it. They began to make up languages. The members of a far-flung secret society, formed as early as the late fifth century (barely a generation after the Irish had become literate), could write to one another in impenetrably erudite, never-before-spoken patterns of Latin, called Hisperica Famina, not unlike the dream-language of Finnegans Wake or even the languages J.R.R. Tolkien would one day make up for his hobbits and elves.

Cahill, How the Irish Saved Civilization, p. 144

It’s interesting to note this explosion of linguistic energy among the newly-literate Irish. Humans are remarkably creative when it comes to language. We can’t seem to help it, we just keep on inventing new languages, whether on purpose or not.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

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

Written With a Capital Ox

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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