There is a path to the top of even the highest mountain.
Regional Oral Tradition
It is a satisfying thing to summit a mountain. It is even more satisfying after a previous attempt to do so has failed. I had this experience while trying to climb a tall peak overlooking our city, named after an unknown magi from the distant past. Our first attempt up the nearer side of the mountain failed when we reached cliffs and vertical stone walls that barred us from going any further. We weren’t alone in not making the summit. Other foreigners had recently gotten stuck on the mountain side and had to be rescued by military helicopter. But rather than give up, we sought a different route. On our second attempt we came up the back side of the mountain, a route which took longer but provided mostly walkable slopes all the way to the rocky top. At the summit, we were richly rewarded by the stunning views, the cool breezes, and the taste of chocolate – which is somehow always richer on long hikes, so make sure you’ve got some in your pack. There had indeed been a path up the mountain, even though we had previously failed to find one.
This Central Asian proverb speaks to hope in spite of great obstacles. To me, this proverb sounds more American than Central Asian, since my passport culture tends toward the naively optimistic while Central Asian culture tends to be more fatalistic. Yet here it is, a proverb from the heart of Central Asia defying fatalism and offering hope that even the most daunting of obstacles might be overcome. This is a good proverb for those learning a new language. Or for those attempting to do something which feels impossible, like planting a church.
The one before the eyes is the one upon the heart.
Local Oral Tradition
This Central Asian proverb speaks to the effect proximity and distance have upon our affections. We have a similar saying in English, though it focuses on the inverse of this idea – “Out of sight, out of mind.” As humans, we seem to be hard-wired to prioritize the relationships that are immediately in front of us, and we struggle to maintain those relationships that are long-distance. We quickly give resources to the needs that we are faced with, and have trouble feeling the weight of those needs that we don’t ourselves physically interact with.
A wise person will therefore do what they can to to be reminded of those important people and needs in ways their eyes can see and body can sense. This is particularly important for those who have grown up with a lot of transition and goodbyes, as missionary kids have. The temptation after a move is to cut off contact completely and to only focus on those relationships right in front of us. This is because continued contact reminds us of the distance and the change, and therefore the loss. But the seemingly easy way is not really the healthy way here. MKs and others like us need to learn to be present friends, even from a distance. I still have a long way to go on this front.
This is also why daily spiritual disciplines and corporate worship are also so crucial. We do not physically interact with Jesus in the ways his first disciples did. Instead, we interact with him by spirit, through faith, in the realm of the unseen. Our affections for him will fade and we will largely forget him if we do not have ways in which we are reminded regularly of his friendship for us. Hence Bible study which engages our eyes and hands, prayer which engages our lips and ears, and tangible reminders like the Lord’s Supper that engage our taste buds. In fact, Christians should be known as those whose deepest love is for the one not before our eyes, the one we can’t yet see and touch.
“Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and full of glory.” – 1st Peter 1:8
This Central Asian proverb speaks to what many in seasons of suffering have experienced – that suffering reveals who our truest friends really are. When the good times end and the trials have come, we find out who is still able to be a companion, even in the darkness. And who was there only for the proverbial melons. We have an equivalent English proverb that gets at the same idea: “a friend in need is a friend indeed.”
Very few people naturally know how to be a good friend in suffering. It seems to be something we must learn, often as we suffer and grieve ourselves and thereby grow in the unique wisdom of those who mourn. We also learn how to do this as we experience responses to our suffering that are not so helpful.
I am trying to learn to not pivot so quickly to the sovereignty of God in the midst of pain. I’ve learned there is a cheap way to turn to this glorious doctrine that can keep us from lamenting as we need to, whether for our own pain or for others. It can function as a deflecting mechanism of sorts because I am afraid of what will happen if I am truly open to the pain. I find it instructive that Jesus does not plainly tell Mary and Martha in John 11 what he is up to, that he allowed Lazarus to die because he is purposefully bringing about his resurrection from the dead. Instead, he hears their tortured questions, reminds them of who he is, and then weeps with them. It seems that even a death of a mere four days must be mourned before it is appropriate to start putting the pieces together. The faithful friendship of Jesus is revealed not only by his bringing Lazarus back from the dead, but also by his choosing to weep with his family first. “See how he loved him!” (John 11:36).
Many of us can grow in being better friends in suffering. Our own suffering will inevitably teach us how to do this. But we can also learn by listening well to those who are currently in seasons of grief and pain, or those who are reflecting on what they needed during their own dark season. Often, the desire to be a good friend is there. It’s a part of our new nature as believers to want to be this kind of friend for others. But we can often lack the practical know-how of how to actually weep with those who weep (Western culture is a terrible tutor when it comes to how to grieve). Our fear of saying the wrong thing can cause us to not send that note or make that call. When in doubt, we should take the risk and err on the side of extending comfort, imperfect though it may be – especially since so many agree that it’s not the words in the midst of suffering that mean the most, but our presence and mere willingness to enter into the sadness.
This Central Asian proverb echoes the eternal wisdom of God’s word also. Proverbs 17:17 – “A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for adversity.”
When adversity inevitably comes to those around us, may we be revealed to be good and true friends. And may God provide these kinds of friends for us in our suffering as well.
This proverb is used when a local is overthinking or anxious about things that are just not that big of a deal. It might also be used for someone perceived to be a bit of a drama queen or troublemaker. There are enough real problems, the local logic goes, so don’t go making a dilemma when one’s not really there. Pretend something is a problem long enough and it just may become one. It’s not far in meaning from another local proverb, “He makes a fly into a bull.”
The practice of tightly tying a strip of cloth or band around the head to treat headaches seems to be quite widespread. I remember elderly villagers doing this when I was a boy in Melanesia. It’s also practiced in our area of Central Asia. Last week we were watching Little Women, a story based in New England in the period of the Civil War, and the mother made mention of this same practice. To be practiced in such diverse contexts it must be effective – as long as there’s a real headache there to treat, that is.
Money dishonestly gained will either go to the physician or be lost in the end.
Local Oral Tradition
This local proverb speaks of the end result of money gained unjustly. It claims that such money will ultimately be spent on doctor’s bills – implying cursed health – or that it will simply be lost. Either way, it amounts to nothing, or to worse than nothing – to a net loss. The logic is simple: stolen treasure may appeal in the short-term, but in the long-run it is a curse. Don’t go down that road.
In this way this local wisdom tradition echoes Solomon in Proverbs 1:19, “Such are the ways of everyone who is greedy for unjust gain; it takes away the life of its possessors.”
A recent situation in our city saw a trusted local believer deceive his mentors, convincing them to give him money to flee the country because his family was forcing him to marry a Muslim girl. Instead, he pocketed the cash, willingly married the girl, and told the group he wouldn’t be coming around anymore. If this brother doesn’t truly repent (if he is indeed a brother), then he will sooner or later find out the truth of these proverbs. The several thousand dollars he swindled will end up costing him dearly, much more than he could have ever predicted.
When the axe handle was a branch of our own, we have come to the destruction of our home.
Local Oral Tradition
This local proverb speaks of betrayal from a group member using the imagery of an axe cutting down a tree, when the handle of the axe is, in a perverse turn, shaped from a branch of that same tree. This is actually pretty good imagery for what betrayal feels like. This saying also acknowledges the great fear and destruction likely to come upon a family when betrayed by one of its own. It is one kind of danger to be attacked by outsiders. It is another thing altogether to have the attack come from within. Anyone in ministry who’s ever dealt with a wolf among the sheep knows this danger, and likely shudders when recalling it.
Tragically, our focus Central Asian people group has quite the history of betrayal and treachery. It is one of the besetting sins of the culture that will need to be weeded out by the new gospel culture established by the Church. In the meantime, it is one of the thorniest factors often preventing churches from taking root. It’s hard to keep a group going when group members are regularly tempted to sell one another out for money, influence, or other personal advantage. The presence of actual spies – regardless of who they are working for – really doesn’t help either.
I’m not a huge fan of the “Why didn’t I learn this in seminary?” complaint. Seminary isn’t designed to cover every specific problem that might crop up in ministry. However, I will say that those heading into ministry could certainly use more training in how to deal with betrayal of the church – a practical theology of wolves, as it were. At least as Westerners, we are so optimistic and believe-the-best in our bearing that we can get caught woefully unprepared when a divider and traitor emerges. Betrayal from within doesn’t have to mean “the destruction of our home” as the proverb says, but if we pretend it won’t happen to us we greatly increase the chances of this indeed being the outcome.
When faced with a traitor, we have the great advantage of having Jesus’ example as he was betrayed by one of his closest followers. The presence of Judas, and Jesus’ interesting toleration of him, helps us know that betrayal is not only to be expected, but can be overcome and even used in God’s glorious plans. The church in Ephesus is also a helpful case study of dealing with wolves (Acts 20, Rev 2). If we let these examples inform our expectations of ministry, that will help. They can steady us in the great fear and disorientation caused if a betrayal occurs. And keep hope alive that no matter the level of destruction caused, treachery will not have the last word. The tree, as it were, may be cut down by the axe, but its downed fruit may just plant an orchard.
This proverb appeared last week as Darius* was over at our place, helping me with sermon checking, right around the time where I tried to make a point saying “that doesn’t mean it’s destiny!” and instead said, “That doesn’t mean it’s anut!”
Yes, if you ever preach in another language, I highly recommend checking your sermons beforehand to catch these foot-in-mouth sentences. It just may save your life – or at least your face.
Anyway, around this point Darius offered me some of the cookies my wife had set out for him. Then he started laughing and told me that he was offering me my own oil for my own mustache. As is usually the case when I hear a local proverb for the first time, I responded with a “What?”
This proverb is apparently used when a guest offers the host food or drink that actually belong to the host. Or other similar situations where a person is offered assistance by means of his own resources. It’s the sort of ironic hospitality situation that locals get a kick out of because usually such grandiose and over the top offers of hospitality are made. Another equivalent saying is, “I would like to invite you… for falafel!” Falafel being the very cheapest sandwich you can purchase in the bazaar. Delicious, yes, but costing the host practically nothing. Hence the joke.
Mustaches are a traditional sign of manhood in this culture that carry a respect of their own. And apparently oiling your mustache was/is a thing, though I have not gone deep enough yet into the local facial hair culture – or my Western peers’ for that matter – to know much about mustache oil. I either need to spend some more time with some old men in the tea houses or do more reading on the Art of Manliness website.
Some proverbs are used for tactful rebukes. And this one may be useful in that way, given the right situation. But I anticipate it being much more useful for the art of relationship building and the kind of banter that communicates friendship and trust are indeed growing – growing as surely as a Central Asian man’s mustache.
A wish for the days of homemade naan
In a thousand homes, a pilgrim only one
Now for all, "Pilgrimmy pilgrim" is claimed
But pilgrims they're not, nor their bread e'en homemade
-Local Oral Tradition
This local poet’s verse takes aim at the many in his day who went on pilgrimage, hajj, to Mecca, only to return proud and useless. His logic is that at least back in the day they were useful and contributed something! But now they all claim the respect due to one who has gone on pilgrimage, the deference due to a Hajji, but none of them actually live like true spiritual pilgrims. And in their pride they have lost even the practical good they used to contribute to the community, here represented by making homemade bread.
I’ve heard many stories of locals known as crooks and swindlers who have made the expensive trip to Mecca only to return twice the sons of hell that they already were. Now they could wrap their corruption in the veneer of a false penitent who has supposedly pleased God. Locals tell these stories and frown, sensing in their conscience the way their society is being played by this monopoly of the religious establishment, wondering aloud why all this money spent on this required pilgrimage to the land of their conquerors does not instead go toward serving the local poor. Would this not be a more true and just way to honor God?
They are not wrong.
Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.
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.
When God sends it, he doesn’t ask whose son you are.
Local Oral Tradition
This is a proverb locals use when commenting on a case of unexpected or undeserved blessing. “Your landlord is a stingy man. What did he do to get good renters like you? Well, I guess when God sends it, he doesn’t ask whose son you are.”
The point of this proverb is that God often generously blesses those who are unjust – simply because he is God. His generosity is overflowing and his will is mysterious. It’s not as simple as the worldview of Job’s moralistic friends. God sends rain on the just and the unjust.
It’s curious that the proverb doesn’t say, “who you are” but “whose son you are.” This shows the importance that the place of kinship and father-lines in particular hold in this culture. “Whose son is that?” might be overheard when someone commits a very noble deed or an equally shameful one. The deeds of the son reflect on the father’s name and the father’s name is very important for knowing where to place the son in terms of social honor.
This proverb is therefore an admission of sorts that God doesn’t play by the rules of Central Asian culture. It’s a saying that highlights the limits of the human viewpoint. And that’s a good kind of proverb to have on hand.