A Proverb of Caution

Don’t cross the bridge of the dishonorable.

Local Oral Tradition

This local proverb warns against trusting the untrustworthy. It reminds me of Proverbs 26:6, “Whoever sends a message by the hand of a fool cuts off his own feet and drinks violence.” Trust is good, but trust without wisdom is dangerous. We need to know the character and the ability of the person we are extending trust to. Historically, to cross a bridge is to take a risk. A bridge usually crosses some kind of dangerous water or gap. Will its construction hold? A bridge is also a chokepoint. Could it lead to an ambush? In local wisdom, to cross the bridge of man known to be dishonorable is to invite harm. Of course, as followers of Jesus we will at times violate this principle for the sake of the gospel (such as in Zacchaeus’ case), sometimes to powerful effect, but we still live in a universe where we are foolish to trust the untrustworthy naively.

This is one of the stronger local proverbs I’ve heard recently, and one which must be used with caution. That word dishonorable is so loaded in this honor/shame culture, that you would never want the one you use it for to hear about it. If they do, you will at least have broken the relationship, if not have also invited threats of violence.

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A Proverb on Having Your Cake

You want God and you also want dates.

Local Oral Tradition

This is our local equivalent of “You can’t have your cake and eat it too.” In this local proverb, you can’t want God (a spiritual life) while also wanting to eat dates (a pleasurable life). You can’t have it both ways, local wisdom says.

It seems that locals use this proverb for someone struggling with doublemindedness. I learned it from a local friend whose mom had just used it on him as he lamented about not knowing which of multiple good options he should pursue for his future. He was stuck, knowing that to choose one good was to deny another. “I shall be telling this with a sigh, somewhere ages and ages hence!” wrote Robert Frost, recalling a friend who regularly lamented the roads not taken.

Central Asian mamas don’t have any time for that kind of stuff, busy as they are serving their family (including adult sons) hand and foot. “Listen, son, you want God and you want dates? Pick one and quit your drama …and here’s some more chai, sweety.”

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Only Begotten Brother

At lunch yesterday with some colleagues and local believers, Mr. Talent used a unique phrase to call the waiter.

“Only begotten brother! We’d like some more fermented yogurt water!”

Since it was my first time to hear this particular title, I wasn’t sure if I had heard right. Sure enough, he continued to use it to hail our waiter.

The phrase seems to come from the local word for brother combined with a word that we don’t have in English, which means something like “only child” but can also be applied to an only son in a family of daughters, or vice versa. I can use it for my only daughter, but I can’t use it for my sons. Our King James phrase, “Only begotten” is not too far off, and indeed, this is the local word our language’s translation uses for God’s only Son in John 3:16.

This word also carries with it a sense of special honor and affection. Since it’s organized along male kinship lines, it’s not surprising that our Central Asian culture would bestow this kind of title onto an only son, but I’ve been encouraged to see that this unique honor and affection can also be extended to only daughters. These “only begottens” might even end up a little spoiled.

But I had never heard this kind of special familial term extended in this way to someone like a waiter in a restaurant. It was a perfect example of how honorable titles here are regularly proclaimed onto others in the course of daily business and interactions.

“My flower”

“My soul”

“My lion brother”

“My liver”

“My beautiful son”

“My eyes”

“My dear uncle on my mother’s side!”

I’m only scratching the surface here when it comes to the titles that men can use to refer to their neighbors, friends, and shopkeepers.

One of the hardest things for us to learn as Westerners is this constant art of blessing or honorable proclamation – even after we get up the courage to call a man our flower while kissing his cheeks. I still catch myself mumbling respectful phrases when I should be projecting them confidently. At least that seems to be what Central Asian fathers teach their sons, since they all grow up really good at the art of bold title bestowing.

I find myself a little unsure. “What if they don’t want to be called my lion brother?” But my local friends don’t seem plagued by this doubt. It doesn’t seem that the qualification for the title resides in the recipient, but rather in the will of the one bestowing it. Central Asian men are going to call you that honorable thing whether you feel like they should or not.

In this I see a small window into the nature of God, hidden away in our broken local culture. Does God not also proclaim honorable titles over his children, friends, and enemies dependent only on his divine pleasure? And does he not keep on proclaiming them whether we feel worthy of them or not, whether we want them or not on a given day?

“See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are.” 1st John 3:1

“No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends…” John 15:15

I want to get better at proclaiming respectful titles over my friends and acquaintances here – and not just so that I can become a Central Asian for the sake of reaching Central Asians. I want to become more like God.

In this culture awash with honorable pleasantries, it is not the most skillful orator who will be noticed, but the one whose honorable blessings actually come from the heart. In this case there will be some who truly come to fulfill these titles, to surpass them even. How? As they hear the gospel and are transformed from one degree of glory to another, for all eternity.

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A Proverb On Going Slow and Steady

He’ll catch a rabbit with a wheelbarrow.

Local Oral Tradition

This is one proverb I am thrilled to have found. For years we have had to defend our slow pace of church-planting, money usage, and leadership development to locals. I even came to start referring to our church as those desiring to be faithful turtles.

Money is the fuel for most governmental, private, and religious organizations here in our corner of Central Asia. Small salaries are expected for participation and loyalty to a group, and many Christian organizations have played right into this. If you hear of exciting results from our area, ask how money is involved. Sadly, many new believers (and some unbelievers) are being paid to share the gospel, lead bible studies, and form groups. And with these small salaries, things develop quickly. But as soon as the money dries up, things fall apart just as quickly.

In reality, money has been used to substitute for godly character. Yet without godly character, those being paid can’t handle the temptations that come from being paid to do the work of ministry. Our approach has been to do the slow work of character formation and to let the multiplication of disciples, groups, and churches be governed by that same slow speed. Money is used sparingly, and only after someone has demonstrated freedom from the love of it.

How can we justify this slow work in an area that is 99.9% lost? Because it is the only work that will last. To plant churches that last – and not merely multiply and die – is our goal. That goal keeps us slower than most, but so be it. By the grace of God, the disciples we make will persevere, the leaders will last, the churches will live beyond a few years. I believe that, given enough time, a small network of churches planted in this fashion will overtake the alleged movements that some have claimed here. 18,000 churches planted is what one man claimed – the problem is, no one who actually lives here has ever seen even one of them!

This local proverb speaks to the surprisingly effective results of slow and steady work. One doesn’t usually catch a rabbit with a wheelbarrow. But with great focus, planning, and perseverance, someone wise with a wheelbarrow just might catch one, when all others have failed. It’s the same principle behind the classic tortoise and hare fable – slow and steady wins the race.

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A Proverb for a Spittin’ Image

Yesterday I was in our previous city and ended up giving some South Asians and some locals a ride from a church service to a following home group time. As I was getting to know the men in my car I found out that one of the local men was from a mountain town far to the north. I looked in the rear-view mirror at him. I knew that face. I remembered that I had recently attended a training with a believer from that very town.

“What’s your father’s name?” I asked him.

“It’s Keith*,” he said.

“I know him! We were together at a training just a few months ago.”

“Ha!” the son said, “They say I look just like him.”

“You do! You look so much like your dad*. Your culture has a proverb for that, right?”

“Yes,” the other local chimed in, ‘Like an apple split into two parts.'”

This local proverb, unlike some others, is fairly straightforward to understand. We even have a couple sayings like this is English as well. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree is one, but that proverb seems to be used more for behavior. The saying that I’ve heard for physical resemblance from parents to children is that the descendant is the spittin’ image of their mom or dad. Why spitting? Perhaps something to do with spit-cleaning an old reflective surface? I find this an interesting example of how oral tradition in a culture can continue to communicate the metaphorical meaning of something even when the literal meaning and origin has been forgotten. “I know what it means,” you might say, “though I don’t know what it literally means.”

Thankfully, unless some kind of freak fruit disease or collapse of global trade destroys locals’ access to apples, I’m pretty sure that future generations here will continue to understand this local proverb about split apples.

*Names changed for security

*Though I didn’t intend it this way, this is is a weighty local complement to the strength of the father’s genes.

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An Idiom on Drinking the Kool-Aid

He has eaten flatbread from ____’s hand.

Local Oral Tradition

This is an idiom to use when someone has drunk the proverbial Kool-Aid. As in they have completely bought into someone else’s story, system, or philosophy. I have many local friends who believe the US and Israel have created groups like Al-Qaeda and ISIS for their own nefarious ends. Next time I hear this opinion come out, I’ll have to drop this idiom. “Bro, seriously? You have eaten flatbread from the mullahs’ hands.”

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A Proverb on Learning One’s Lesson

If they cut off your arm, God will judge them. If they cut off your the other arm, God will judge you.

Local Oral Tradition

This is our local equivalent of “Fool me once, shame on you; Fool me twice, shame on me.” In other words, once someone has proven themselves untrustworthy or even dangerous, a wise person should no longer extend to them the same kind of trust they did previously. To do so is not only foolish, but this local proverb goes so far as to say it’s the kind of folly that even invites God’s judgement.

And now for a flashback demonstrating the importance of knowing your proverbs, especially if you are going to use them publicly:

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A Proverb on The Sweet Spot

Everything with salt, and salt in right amount.

Local Oral Tradition

This local proverb speaks to the bell curve present in many virtues. Too little of it turns it into a vice; too much, another kind of vice. Just the right amount – the sweet spot – is where wise conduct is to be found. Think of the goodness of being transparent with others. Too little transparency, and we risk hiding important information and undermining trust. Too much transparency, and we cross the bounds of what is appropriate and violate trust. I am excited to have learned this proverb because it speaks to the kind of nuance so often needed in mature Christian conduct and speech.

“Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer each person.” – Colossians 4:6

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Another Take on a Character Proverb

Travel and business are a gold appraisal tool.

Local Oral Tradition

I’ve posted another version of this proverb in the past, but I believe that this version is the older one. In the local culture, they used to appraise gold by scratching it with a special device. The appraiser was able to tell the quality of the gold from the scratch made in its surface. In this proverb, the gold represents a person’s character. So in essence, travel and business, like a gold appraisal tool, reveal a person’s character.

As one who has traveled for my entire life, I testify that the travel part is certainly true. When a trip is long enough (and it doesn’t have to be that long), people are unable to keep up appearances. Sooner or later, they will get tired or stressed or sick or inconvenienced in some way. And at that point, character will spill out.

Every time we travel internationally, I am reminded of the difference the new birth makes in when it comes to simple kindness. In the dehumanizing environment of a crowded airplane, most want to protect at all costs the few rights and the small space they still have. Those who are kind to families with small children or to the sick or the elderly stand out. And often, turns out the kind and sacrificial ones are those who know Jesus.

In an age where we often lament the lack of difference between the Church and the world, I am happy to say that travel truly can reveal the reality of the new birth – and that it is a golden, wonderful thing.

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A Proverb for a Lazy Worker

For fear of day labor he became a musician.

Local Oral Tradition

This proverb is for the person who shuns hard work and seeks out the easier tasks. One young man was hired to help paint our house when we moved in. There was a ton of work to be done, but I kept catching him watering the trees. He really liked watering those trees. Or perhaps he just really didn’t like painting.

I didn’t know this proverb at the time, but it would have been an apt one to use. Needless to say, the painting only got ninety percent done. But the garden trees look great!

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