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.
Yes, it’s true. I took an unplanned break from posting for a number of months. I do apologize for going dark there for a while. I have truly missed writing though, so I hope that I am now making a return to regular posting again in earnest. However, the upside of this time away is that I now have a fresh crop of Central Asian proverbs! I know, you can barely contain your excitement.
I heard this particular proverb dropped during a question which touched on a complicated Bible passage. The speaker used it to indicate that the discussion required to unpack that topic would take a good deal of time – more than we had at that moment. Turns out this proverb on extra-absorbent dough can be used for all sorts of situations that involve lengthy discussion of complicated matters – or the intention to avoid such a discussion. It seems to function similarly to how English speakers use “it’s complicated.”
Tonight we are hosting the believing local men at our house for a Q&A session. “Bring your hardest and deepest questions,” we told them, “and we’ll work together to try to answer them from God’s word.” I do anticipate some tough and unexpected questions coming our way tonight. And just for fun, I will definitely try to sneak in this proverb if I get the chance.
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.
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.”
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 lion brother”
“My beautiful son”
“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.
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.
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.
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.”