The Transformation of JJ the Bully

This Sunday our pastor preached on loving our enemies, from Matthew chapter 5. As he challenged us to consider if our lives will contain any stories of radical love for our enemies, I remembered observing just such a story in my elementary school days. It’s a story of how my mom modeled returning good for evil – and thereby helped her younger sons to experience the power of actually following Jesus in this regard.

My second grade year was the roughest so far since we had returned to the US in the middle of my pre-K year, when my dad had died on the field. We had moved to a different town in the Philadelphia area, and that meant a new public elementary school. Overall, I didn’t have it as bad as my older brothers. My classroom experience was merely downgraded from wonderful to okay. Though I do remember the frustration of having to leave class movie time every Thursday in order to attend a speech therapy class. Those American R’s are tricky. But I had good friends in my class and a decent, if somewhat reserved, teacher. No, it was the bus ride where things were downright bad.

My fourth-grade brother and I managed to become the target of a crew of fifth grade bullies, led by a ringleader named JJ. Sometimes this had to do with our insistence on trying to sit in the back row of the bus, even though these boys claimed this as their exclusive territory. I remember being wrestled out of the back row, flipped over seat backs, and thrown up against metal window frames. We were much smaller than these older boys, so I’m not sure what caused us to keep on trying to assert our rights to the back seats. Perhaps it was the principle of it. Or perhaps there was something we had absorbed from the Melanesian highlands where we had grown up, where the locals were always ready for a fight.

Other fights involved teasing over the conspicuous size of our family’s ears and how the morning sunlight would shine through them, creating quite the pinkish-orange glow on the sides of our heads. Or the cross necklaces that we wore, one of which JJ tore off during a fight. While it was mostly angry boyish wrestling, there were some times that punches were thrown, though I think this was mostly directed at my older brother. I have a distinct memory of him getting punched in the stomach.

These conflicts on the school bus, as well as the difficulty my older brothers were having in their other school relationships, began to bleed into our relationships at home. My brothers and I began to fight with one another more often, a development which concerned my mom. With the exception of occasional squabbles, we three boys had always been pretty close to one another and related not only as brothers, but also as good friends. These growing conflicts would ultimately cause my mom to pull us out of public school in order to homeschool us for a year and a half. But first she had a bully to transform.

My mom has always been a woman not just of word, but of deed. She not only moved with her young family to the mission field, but later moved back to the field as a single mom. In the US as well as in Melanesia, she was not only personally involved in ministering to others, but active in trying to find ways for her boys to do so also. This often went well, though I do remember one time when after a snowstorm our family tried to serve a neighbor by brushing the snow off his car. We very quickly found out that in America, you don’t touch other people’s cars.

All the fights with JJ must have had my mom’s sanctified imagination chewing on what could be done. One day she told us that we were going to 7-Eleven, an American convenience store common in the northeast (common, but in Philly not as beloved as Wawa, where you can get a hoagie and Yoohoo to enjoy with your Poppop). When we arrived at 7-Eleven, she asked my brother and I to pick out a slurpee for JJ. A slurpee is a blended ice drink also known as a slushie, icee, etc., a kind of gas station drink full of sugar that sends kids into acrobat mode and bright food dye that stains their tongues. We chose a large blueberry slurpee and our mom drove us to JJ’s house.

The next scene I remember we are standing at JJ’s door. JJ’s mom, a pleasant enough-seeming woman, had answered the door. JJ was standing beside and a little behind her, looking not a little shocked and seeming very small. My mom explained that we had wanted to bring something for JJ, and she handed him the slurpee. JJ’s eyes were wide, but he seemed genuinely thankful. And since this was the 1990’s, his mom didn’t seem weird about it either, but let her kid keep the drink, and made him verbalize his thanks. I’m sure my mom and JJ’s mom said lots of other grownup things, but that’s all faded from my memory.

What hasn’t faded is the transformation that was visible on JJ’s the bully’s face and in his demeanor. He had been downright cruel to us for months, a classic bully, but this act of unexpected, undeserved kindness seemed to deeply disturb him in the right kinds of ways. He was never the same after that. JJ the bully actually became kind to us, consistently, from that point on. That was one powerful blueberry slurpee.

The last memory I have of JJ must have been toward the very end of that school year, because the weather was warm and it felt like summer. He had invited us over to his neighborhood to join in a big game of capture the flag.

Years and years later I would find myself in an intense text fight with one of my Central Asian friends. The abusive texts kept coming long after I had, exasperated, stopped responding. Then I remembered JJ, and the power of a blueberry slurpee, the power of loving your enemies, and turning the other cheek when struck. My young wife and I grabbed some cupcakes from somewhere and we headed off to Walmart, unannounced, where my friend worked. The mean texts kept coming in as we drove. But when we found him at the back of the store, smiled, and handed him the cupcakes, a look came over him that I recognized. The hardness melted away, replaced by a kind of sheepish kindness, as if something powerful had suddenly been heaped upon his head. Just like JJ, actually obeying Jesus by doing something kind to someone cruel had made all the difference – had even proved transformative.

I had learned how to do this from my mom, who of course, had learned how to do this from Jesus.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles” (Matthew 5:38–41).

Addendum: After writing this post I found out from my mom that I had unintentionally changed or omitted a few important details from this story. I have written about these corrections here.

Photo by Thomas Park on Unsplash

What to Do When Your Mind is Aflame With Ideas

Knowing what to do with a mind aflame with ideas is important for everyone. But for creative, visionary, idea-oriented, dreamer types, it just may save your life – or at least your relationships.

What do I mean by a mind aflame with ideas? Well this situation may be something you’ve seldom experienced, but imagine what happens in your mind when a new opportunity unexpectedly opens up before you. Suddenly you have trouble focusing on daily life because there’s so much noise in your mind from all of the half-baked thoughts and ideas now rushing around up there connected to this new development. Or, if you’re like me, a little bit of caffeine or even some good music can kick your ideas into overdrive on an almost daily basis. The problem is not just that you should be focusing on your shower, your work, your current conversation, etc., but also that in the moment these thoughts feel very compelling. Your mind feels like it is aflame with very good, breakthrough-type ideas. Perhaps even a bunch of them. When in reality, the vast majority of them are really not that great, or at least not great yet.

Over time I’ve learned that wisdom is needed to channel this rush of ideas in some healthy way. A rush of ideas, a mind aflame, is essentially a rush of creativity. So, while it can be dangerous, it is good, a gift even. God is a creator, and we are made in his image as little re-creators. In the mysteries of human ability, we first “create” in our mind, before creating in the physical world around us. These acts of mini re-creation point to God as the one true creator, the only one able to make something out of nothing, and the one working everything toward a coming age of perfect new creation. Unlike God, we always make something out of something else. This is true in a mind aflame as well. Things we have learned, remembered, intuited, seen, heard, or spoken before suddenly start lighting up in a storm of brand new connections in our brain, due to some kind of stimuli. Again, these flames are good flames, but they need to be managed wisely so that other good things don’t get burnt.

First, you need a place to contain them. Rather than acting on a rush of ideas quickly on the one hand, or trying to shut them all up on the other, have a place where they can be safely stored. Develop some kind of system, some kind of holding pen for these ideas. I like to use a task-management app, Trello, to write down new and captivating ideas. An ideas notebook or journal could serve the same kind of function. Writing them down in a “To Chew On” list accomplishes several good things.

First, in the chance that they end up being good ideas, it keeps me from forgetting them. Most of us who are living in this frenetic age know that this is a real danger. Second, it allows my mind to relax and focus on other things because I know that I’ve written down that idea for later consideration. It results in the good kind of compartmentalization, the freeing kind. Third, writing new ideas down in order to come back to them provides for a period of marination, of sifting, or refining. Some of these ideas will eventually be discarded when in the light of future perspective or experience they are shown to be unhelpful. Or when they simply lose their luster, for one reason or another. Others will prove to be good ideas, but ideas to be given away to someone else because they don’t fit my abilities or opportunities. Still others will prove to be good ideas whose season has not yet come. And this is one of my favorite categories. Because there they sit, waiting, like seeds ready to germinate and sprout at some unknown future date when circumstances, the right people, and resources line up. Every time I come back to consider certain ideas and once again find them to be compelling and sound, my confidence increases that I am indeed supposed to do something with them someday – even if that something is merely to give them away to others. Ideas that have been chewed on and refined for a decade can end up bearing very good fruit when providence finally sets them free.

Let me say this part plainly. If you are an ideas person, a creative, or a visionary, then you need some kind of system like this. Not having some method whereby ideas are recorded, sifted, and sat on can keep you from committing to the actual season and work that God has given you to do now. In the words of Master Yoda, you’ll be like young Skywalker, “Never his mind on where he was, hmm? What he was doing.” Not having a system like this can also lead to all kinds of existential angst as you struggle with the pull of the magnetic visions which march through your head in colorful succession. “How do I know I’m doing what God wants me to be doing if I constantly feel drawn to all of these other seemingly-important things?” By placing these ideas on some kind of metaphorical shelf for periodic viewing, you create space for the possibility that those desires can serve some future unforeseen season, while you free yourself for greater investment in the current calling God has placed on your life.

A lack of a way to channel a mind aflame with ideas can also wreak havoc in your relationships. This happens as you frighten or agitate those around you with yet another wild idea. So, along with a way to contain your ideas, you also need a way to wisely communicate them to those you live and work with. This, not surprisingly, is a lesson I had to learn early on in my marriage. But it’s also been something I’ve had to relearn and communicate well for every team or working relationship that I’ve been a part of. For example, a creative person often blurts out ideas that are fresh off the boat, having just that day or that moment docked in their mind, as it were. The creative knows that merely verbalizing these ideas does not mean that he is actually committing to them, or even that he is seriously considering the idea. But those around the creative don’t know this, and they are left to guess at which stage a given idea is. If they are someone who is wired to not share an idea until it is mature and fully-baked, then they can get positively alarmed at the creative’s constant barrage of big ideas.

It’s up to the visionary-type then to communicate to those around them at what stage is this most recent idea. “Hey, let me a run an interesting idea by you that I’ve never thought about before,” is very different from “This is something I’m beginning to seriously consider,” which is different from “I’ve chewed on this idea for a decade and I think that now is the time to implement it.” If you can learn to orient those around you to the various stages of an idea in your mind, you can keep them from panicking and getting holes burnt in their jackets by the embers of your mind aflame. For new ideas, they need to know that it’s just something you’re tossing around, and that they can help you know whether to pursue it further or not with some dispassionate talking about the various pros and cons. For ideas that are getting serious, they need to know that you are asking for some serious feedback and interaction, even feedback that gets more emotional. For an idea that you are ready to move on, hopefully this is not the first time you are communicating it! If it is, you’ll need to be ready to back up and slow down so that your hearer can experience some of the process your mind has already gone through in refining the idea. Even if it is the first time hearing it, letting them know how long and carefully a certain idea has been considered goes a long way in assuring them that you’re not about to upend your life (or theirs) on a whim.

For those who live or work with an idea person, please understand that God may have placed you in our life for the important job of keeping us from financial ruin, pain, or premature death by bursting the bubbles of our bad ideas (which yes, we think are good). But the manner in which you do this is very important. We tend to get very excited about our ideas, so whenever possible, let us down gently and we are likely to eventually see the light – and even thank you for saving us from some very bad things. You may immediately feel that an idea is simply the worst ever, but a quick and stiff take-down of an idea is likely to cause the visionary-type to feel that you simply can’t see the possibilities that they can, and they’ll go off to chew on it more in isolation – which not the best outcome for anyone involved.

Creatives and idea people, for our part, we need to humbly seek out people who can help us work through our parade of shiny ideas, and genuinely be open to the critical feedback we receive. Sure, sometimes we can see several steps ahead in a way that others can’t. But the downside of this gift is that we often can’t see the ground immediately around us. To put things in terms of eyecare, we are farsighted, so would be wise to travel with some nearsighted counselors.

Yet even though we need systems, thoughtfulness toward others, and the wisdom of a community in order to balance our strengths (like everyone else), a mind aflame with ideas really is a gift from God. Who can explain how exactly this process of mental generation takes place? While never even near the level or kind of supernatural inspiration that the biblical authors experienced, inspiration can sometimes seem the only word in English fit to describe the experience. An idea that simply wasn’t, now is. Things previously not connected are suddenly, surprisingly, beautifully joined – and for the life of us it sure felt like it was something outside of us that made it happen, as if it were breathed into us by something or someone far wiser and more creative than we are. Perhaps there is a downstream category of “natural” inspiration that functions in the human mind simply by nature of our descent from Adam and creation in the image of God. For it’s not only believers who experience a mind aflame with ideas, but even those still cut off from their creator. This is an experience we share with the lost – though believers are the ones who can turn this natural gift into one that is also spiritual. In this way a gift of vision or creativity can, redeemed, sometimes function as a gift of faith.

The next time you experience your mind aflame with ideas, don’t run for the fire extinguisher. Something good is happening. Lean in, seek to record and channel it wisely. Seek to love others through it, even as you guard yourself from being swept away by it. While most of it may not stand the test of time, there may be one nugget, one seed of an idea, that does prove enduring and good. And only God knows the kind of things such an idea is capable of.

Photo by Juan Encalada on Unsplash

A Proverb on Debt Between Friends

Debt is the scissors of love.

Regional Oral Tradition

This Central Asian proverb speaks to the danger of friends going into debt with one another. Borrow money from your friend, this wisdom claims, and risk the love between you getting cut up.

I’ve experienced the great strain that friendships can come under when money I’ve loaned out to friends in Central Asia isn’t returned or acknowledged in an honorable way. Even though our family tried to be very cautious in loaning out money, it is still an expected practice in a patron-client society where the foreigners are often much wealthier than the locals. Some foreigners take a “never loan money” approach to the culture. But over the years we’ve developed more of a practice of conservatively lending money the first time, and then letting that experience determine if the door is still open or not for future requests. For those who repay their debts, this can greatly increase the trust in the relationship. And it is a wonderful thing to have friends you know you can trust with money, especially between believers who must function as a new household for one another. For those who don’t repay, we know not to extend the same trust in the future, at least when it comes to money. The money may be lost, but wisdom in the relationship is gained. But even with this general approach, we tried to spare our dearest friendships this debt/trust test whenever possible. It’s stunning how money can so quickly come to divide people.

In general, Central Asians are much more comfortable than Westerners with having money be a part of their close relationships. So much so that many feel they can’t honorably say no to a friend asking for a loan. So it’s curious that this proverb also exists in the culture, standing as a wise warning, even if many will struggle to feel they are free to heed its advice.

Some local believers are seeking to change this culture. Harry* once told me his response to requests for loans. “I’m honored that you would ask me this, my respected brother. But I value your friendship so much that I dare not risk it by getting money involved.” This kind of response takes an action viewed as shameful – saying no to a loan – but explains it by appealing to the value of the relationship, something very honorable and close to the heart of the culture. To me, this seems like a very wise way to say no. The goal is to communicate that my refusal is not a rejection of our relationship, but rather a statement of just how important it is to me. So important, I would protect us from the money that might cut our bonds of friendship.

*names changed for security

Photo by Matt Artz on Unsplash

Why Americans Don’t Trust Sad People

Americans don’t trust sad people. Daniel Nayeri makes this insightful observation in his hilarious and heartbreaking memoir, Everything Sad is Untrue. As an Iranian refugee, it makes sense that Nayeri would notice this. Because in the Middle East and Central Asia, the opposite tends to be true. They don’t trust people who are overly happy or optimistic.

This tendency to trust (or not) tends to be reflected in which kind of stories end up being most popular. For a story to be truly great, most Westerners want a happy ending. The good guy almost always wins in the end. But Central Asians call for a tragic ending in order for a story to achieve true greatness. The Western movies my Central Asian friends like the most are Titanic (where Jack dies of hypothermia), Braveheart (where William Wallace from disembowelment and beheading), and Forrest Gump (Where Jenny dies of AIDS). As for movies made in Central Asia? Dark endings. Almost all of them. I think I’ve only ever seen one with a happy ending.

This orientation toward tragedy vs. comedy seems to reflect the deep-down worldview beliefs of each culture – what each feels is most true about real life. Westerners really believe deep down that life will have a happy ending, that if we just believe and try hard enough, everything’s going to be alright. Central Asians really believe that no matter how good things get, it’s all going to end in tragedy, just as it always has.

Even our histories tend to strengthen these worldview narratives. Think of the meteoric rise of the power of the Christian West over the last 500 years. Then consider the incredible decline of the power of the Islamic Middle East and Central Asia. 1,000 years ago, the centers of global wealth and culture were not cities like London and New York, but Baghdad and Samarkand. Perhaps back then the Europeans would have been the pessimists, and the citizens of the Silk Road those who believed in rosy endings.

When you meet someone whose bearing contradicts the primary narrative of your culture, you tend to distrust them. This is because they seem to be out of touch with reality. Many a Western aid worker arrives in Central Asia bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, believing that with just a little bit of money and some fresh ideas transformation can be a simple thing. Meanwhile, locals just shake their heads at this naive foreigner, knowing that for all their frenetic activity these Western plans will be about as effective as a dirt clod thrown at a passing tank. I have had countless conversations with my friends and students in Central Asia where I’ve been dumbfounded by their lack of belief in the possibility of change, while they in turn are dumbfounded that I actually believe real change is possible.

The West, for its part, and especially America, traditionally believes in the inevitability of progress. And we are deeply committed to the belief that things really will work out for those who work hard enough. Successful people function as our prophets and idols, the ones who confirm for us what we already believe – that the story of life ends in happiness. So we find ourselves uncomfortable with sad people, with those whose lives seems to be a relentless movement from one season of suffering to the next. We don’t trust them to be prophets of the way things really are. We don’t want to.

Biblically, both cultures are wrong, and both cultures are right. The ending of history will indeed be good – yes, as good even as resurrection. But resurrection is impossible unless preceded by death. It’s got to all die before it can all come back to life. Creation must groan, and painfully so, before the revealing of the sons of God. As such, Proverbs and Ecclesiastes go hand in hand. The wheat and the tares grow together. Suffering and death are inevitable. Hell is real. But eternal life is also inevitable for those who entrust themselves to the one who suffered and died – and now lives forever.

Paul speaks of us as being a people who are “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing.” This means that Christians are those who can be fully awake to the grief and suffering of life, and those who can also be fully awake to the joy and delight of it. This means that a Christian who is shaped by the Bible’s view of reality is one who can be trusted by both kinds of cultures, the optimistic West and the pessimistic East. We know the depths of sadness. So we are not dismissed as naive. But we also know the heights of true hope and joy. So we are not dismissed as fatalists. We are, in one sense, Western and Central Asian at the same time. Or at least we should be.

And yet I find myself very lopsided. I have some idea of what it means to be always rejoicing. But what might it mean to be always sorrowful? And can it be that faithfulness in this age actually involves both at the same time? What might that look like when it boils down to things like daily spiritual disciplines, church services, and our “How’s it going?” conversations with other believers? I at least still have a ways to go in learning how to faithfully lament, not just with my mind, but also with my heart and emotions. I still have a hard time trusting sad people, in spite of spending half my life in cultures where grief and sadness are far more acceptable than here in the US.

Yet I have tasted aspects of this at funerals, when laughter comes easily during stories told of a departed loved one. Or at weddings or concerts, where joy and beauty are so strong they lead to tears. I felt it yesterday at a poetry recitation at my kids’ school. The kind of joy that makes you serious, as Lewis once put it. Joy and sadness intermingled, and something that feels so very right about this.

Americans might not trust sad people. And Central Asians might not trust happy ones. But believers from both worlds have come to trust a man of sorrows who is also the embodiment of purest joy. He holds both perfectly together at the same time, always able to weep with those who weep and to rejoice with those who rejoice. He does this authentically, with no whiplash or disjointedness. He can show us how to laugh and cry at the same time, welcoming both with hearts that are somehow more whole for their embrace of these seemingly-opposite postures.

As we draw near to him the promise is that we will become like him. And that will make us also those that sinners come to trust, whatever their cultural bias. Not because we are so impressive, but because we are the ones who are the most real, those who walk in the truest story. One where grief and joy also walk, hand-in-hand.

Photo by Danie Franco on Unsplash

A Proverb on the Rewards of Work


It’s a chicken.

Local Oral Tradition (NASB-style translation)


Don’t be shirkin’ to work hard,

Get a chicken as reward.

Local Oral Tradition (The Message-style translation)

This local proverb is a very short rhyming couplet, making up only two words in total. The first part is a one-word command to work, the second part is a one-word statement about the reward of work – in this case, earning a chicken (Our local language can smash the noun, the article, and the be verb into one word.) My first attempt above at rendering it into English is a wooden, direct translation, but it loses its rhyme and its meaning is obscure. The second attempt, more of a paraphrase, keeps some rhyme but also adds a number of words to spell out what’s implied in the original. Such are the choices presented to those who attempt to translate from one tongue to another. There are very few direct one-to-one translations of words, never mind structure, and getting over this expectation is an important step for any language learner.

Another local proverb gets at a similar meaning. It goes, “A tired hand on a full belly.” Both of these sayings speak to the crucial connection between work and food so common for most humans throughout history. Work hard, get food. Slack off, go hungry. Of course, food here is representative of all good results that come from hard work, and also of those lost if one embraces laziness. This is a lesson many a dad has attempted to get through to his children. “Boys are born with a lazy bone,” one friend once said to me while we talked about trying to parent our sons well.

Solomon may have been the second wisest human to ever live, but he was still a dad. A recent read-through of proverbs at bedtime devotions with my kids (ten verses at a time) seemed to hit on this theme almost every night. “Whoever works his land will have plenty of bread, but he who follows worthless pursuits lacks sense” (Proverbs 12:11).

Hard work results in chickens (or bread). Solomon agrees with our peoples’ ancestral proverb. Or, rather, they agree with Solomon. This is how the universe works. Ignore this wisdom and you won’t get any chickens, bread, gas money, etc. Follow it and you may have tired hands, but they will rest on a belly full of good food, maybe even some kantaki.

Photo by Max Kleinen on Unsplash

Two Types of Language Learners

Language learning. It’s the 500-pound gorilla that first term missionaries everywhere must learn to dance with. Though often, this experience feels less like a dance and more like our metaphorical gorilla is simply sitting on your head.

I had the advantage of growing up a bilingual TCK, which does help. The shift from two to three languages seems to be easier for the brain than the shift from one to two – something about the mind having already learned once to express reality in an alternative system of thought/speech forms makes it that much easier to do it again. A second or third language gives your brain additional categories, more hooks on which to hang the grammatical concepts or vocab of whatever language you’re learning next. For example, my high school Spanish got me familiar with verb conjugation based on person and number, a category that served me well when I started learning our local Central Asian tongue. But no matter how much experience you have with languages, it always takes a lot of time and hard work to master another one – and this often requires two to five years. Therefore, anything that makes it somewhat easier is extremely valuable.

I’m no trained linguist, but as a language-learning practitioner (and one who has worked closely with many others) I’ve observed two main kinds of language learners, two main patterns of wiring when it comes to learning an additional tongue. There may be technical terms for these language learning styles out there, but for the purposes of this post I’ll call them the Analytical and the Intuitive language learning styles. Essentially, every language-learner I’ve engaged with on this topic seems to fall into one of these two camps, creating something like a 50/50 divide.

These styles or preferences differ from one another in how they relate to the structure – the grammar – of the language. The mind of an Analytical learner craves and needs understanding of the language’s structure very early on, often proving unable to absorb vocab and dialogue without it. If required to learn and reproduce phrases without this structure, the mind of an Analytical learner protests and complains – “How am I supposed to learn this if I don’t understand what these parts of speeches’ roles are, what they are doing in the sentence, the rules that govern them, and how it all fits together?!” An Analytical learner needs a map of the language, a blueprint of sorts, and only when they have this can they begin to truly learn the individual parts. It’s as if the mind then relaxes and is free to learn because it now knows where to place the hitherto-disjointed pieces. These pieces are then no longer felt to be disembodied and random, but part of a logical system, part of a whole.

The mind of an Intuitive learner functions in the complete opposite way. An intuitive learner’s mind cannot take in or understand the language’s structure, its grammar, without a large foundation of listening, phrases, and dialogue. If presented with grammar lessons at the beginning of language learning, their mind will tend to reject the information, since it feels like it has nothing concrete on which to hang these abstract rules and systems. These learners crave jumping in headfirst and using the language, getting conversational with practical, everyday language. Only after a solid season of this will their brains start to desire and accept the Why behind the words and phrases they have been hearing and using. They need to feel out the rules first, and only directly study them later. Rather than needing a map, these learners need to go and explore the streets on foot as it were. After they have done this they will then be able to rightly orient themselves with the big picture.

All human beings learn their first language as Intuitive learners. Our brains naturally absorb the structure of our mother tongue by constant observation and trial and error. We absorb the rules naturally and indirectly. Then, once we are in school, we are directly and explicitly taught the structure of our language. We approach grammar study in school in an Analytical way. This means that for everyone who has studied grammar in school, we all have at least some experience learning our own language in both styles. But whether because of brain plasticity or something genetic, around half of us develop an Analytical learning preference, while the other half continues to prefer Intuitive learning.

How do we know which wiring fits us? Even without learning another language, there may be some clues that you already have. First, how did (and do) you feel about studying the grammar of your own language? Does this feel good to your mind, or more akin to the angst of getting a cavity filled – necessary, but definitely not enjoyable? Does “seeing” the invisible structure of your language bring you joy or make you want to go to sleep? If grammatical concepts make your mind tingle pleasantly, chances are you are an Analytical learner. If you’d really rather get back to what you feel is the real language, then you’re probably Intuitively-wired.

These categories tend to flow over into other areas of learning as well. A friend who works as a chef told me this week that he has always loved learning the why, the science, behind what is happening in cooking. Knowing this makes him feel more free and equipped to create and enjoy cooking food. This means there is a very good chance that my friend would be an Analytical language learner. Get that man some grammar early on, and he will feel so much more free and equipped to persevere in language learning. Paying attention to how you prefer learning in other areas is another clue to how God has wired your brain to learn language.

Why are these categories are so important to understand? Because enjoyment and perseverance in language learning are on the line here, and this because language learning programs tend to favor one style or another. Put a language learner in a program that favors the other kind of mind, and they will very quickly want to pull their hair out, and/or quit. Put a learner in a program that fits with their respective Intuitive or Analytical style, and greatly increase their chances of actually learning that language. Too often learners are handicapped by the wrong approach, and mistakenly come away thinking they are not really gifted to learn language at all.

Several dynamics mean that language learners continue to get placed in programs that lead to deep frustration. The first issue is simple ignorance of these learning preferences. The learner, teacher, or facilitator might not know that these variations exist, so how can they know which style the student best aligns with? Second, it is a lamentable human tendency to project our own wiring onto others. So, if we successfully learned a language in a certain way, we naturally feel that everyone else should be able to learn in this same way also. We might even go on to publish and distribute our favored method, making big claims about the universality of our approach. And this leads to the third issue, that of methodological rigidity. Just as missionaries might latch onto a silver-bullet church-planting strategy, so they tend to latch onto a language learning methodology as the way to do it, rather than a way. Here the same common sense logic applies to both church planting and language learning – it’s a very hard job and people are very diverse, so we should want to keep all of our healthy options on the table. Sadly, many new missionaries on the field are locked into a language learning approach that is given the weight of law, when it should really only be treated as a helpful option, one that very well may need to be tweaked or even discarded.

My wife and I are wired as Intuitive language learners. This meant that we wanted to jump in right away into collecting phrases and doing conversational practice. I remember having some grammar lessons in the US before going to Central Asia, but almost nothing from those lessons was retained by my brain. Instead, six months into an Intuitive learning approach (GPA), I suddenly found my mind unexpectedly hungry for some rules for things like the way that near/far and singular/plural demonstratives were acting in my new adopted language. A grammar summary from a teammate on the logic of how to say “these bananas, those bananas, this banana, etc.,” made all the difference here. And even though we found ourselves in a learning program that mostly fit our style, we were also crucially allowed a great degree of flexibility to pursue more Analytical lessons as needed. And we made generous use of this freedom, changing up our program significantly every few months. I believe that this flexibility is what allowed us to reach the advanced level of language in the time frame that we did. Because for us, flexibility to pivot when needed meant we were able to continue (mostly) enjoying the language learning process.

And yet many of our colleagues have found the same programs we used, the same lightly-structured approach favoring Intuitive learning, to be positively life-sucking. They dream of having an official language school, where an Analytical approach to the language could result, for them, in greater freedom and joy in language learning. And I wish the same for them, because God has apparently wired our minds differently. Why should they be compelled to learn in the same way that I did? No indeed, get those folks some grammar, and fast! But please don’t make me study it until I’m ready. In this way we may all learn to get that 500-pound gorilla off our heads, and perhaps even begin to dance with it.

Photo by Patrice Audet on Unsplash

A Proverb on the Self-Sufficient Laborer

One flower doesn’t bring spring.

Regional Oral Tradition

This proverb is spoken to the person who tries to accomplish too much on his own. Such a laborer is under a delusion that his isolated efforts can bring about the needed results. But just as one flower cannot by its own appearing bring about spring, humans cannot truly achieve great and meaningful things without a community supporting them and laboring alongside them.

It is a proverb quite appropriate for Westerners, who fall into this self-sufficient way of thinking far more than those from Central Asia. But ultimately every culture must face the short-sighted nature of individualistic labor. We are simply not strong nor talented enough to effect great change on our own. And those who cut ties with others, charging off into the world to do great things by themself will one day realize they have simply run out of fuel. I’m reminded of the English proverb, “many hands make light work” and the popular African proverb, “If you want to go fast, go alone; If you want to go far, go together.” The Preacher of Ecclesiastes writes on this same theme, “Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow. But woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up! Again, if two lie together, they keep warm, but how can one keep warm alone? And though a man might prevail against one who is alone, two will withstand him—a threefold cord is not quickly broken” (Ecclesiastes 4:9-12).

It is not good for us to be alone. Not even in our labor.

Photo by Zhen Hu on Unsplash

Drinking Hot Tea in the Desert Actually Cools You Down

I was twenty, sitting in a tea house in a far-flung desert town. It was summer, so the temperature hovered around 120 degrees (48 C) in the dusty bazaar. My friend had suggested that we stop for some tea as he gave me a tour of the marketplace of his hometown, famous for its castle, its hard workers, and its heat. “Welcome to hell,” another local friend had quipped earlier as we drove into town, wiping the sweat off his brow.

Always one to prefer heat to cold, I had been eager to see if the summer weather in this town was as bad as everyone made it out to be. Rising early our first morning, shortly after sunrise, I had stepped out of the house and into the sunlight. Immediately, I was hit by a rush of blasting, hot wind and oppressive radiant heat, as if the entire sky were a giant hair dryer aimed right at me. Mind you, it was only 6:30 am. I quickly stepped back into the protective shade of the cement house. If I had ever doubted before why so many desert cultures wore so much protective fabric, now I understood. At a certain level of heat, you do whatever you can to keep the sun’s rays off your skin, even if it means going around covered in many folds of cloth.

As we later made our way through the bazaar, and then found our seats at the tea house, I was beginning to adjust somewhat to the constant feelings of living in an oven and clothing always soggy from sweat. I gratefully received a bottle of cold water alongside my scalding black chai. I chugged the water eagerly.

“Are you hot, my son?” asked a mustachioed older man, sitting across from me and smiling in his turban and flowy local robes.

“Yes, I’ve been told about the summer heat here, but now I see how true it is!” I responded, gulping.

“You know how we stay cool?” he asked me, raising his small steaming chai cup and saucer. “We drink this all day!” he said, laughing.

I looked at him, a little puzzled, wondering if he was joking or serious. He picked up on my expression and explained further.

“We drink the hot chai and it makes us sweat. And our sweat cools us down. That is how it works,” he said, seemingly satisfied that he had just handed down an important life lesson to this young foreigner.

I could tell he believed what he was telling me, but I wasn’t sure if I believed him or not. My love for local chai was intense, and so I was willing to drink it all year round, even in the fever heat of summer. But surely hot chai doesn’t actually cool you down in the desert. Maybe it was just a trick of the mind, a placebo of sorts that these desert men had learned to tell themselves in order to justify downing so many cups of sugary caffeinated goodness seasoned with cardamom and cinnamon. The logical thing to believe is that hot drinks raise your core body temperature and cold drinks cool it down. I left our interaction mostly sure that I was right and the locals mistaken. But a part of me has always wondered if there was something to what the old man was saying.

Then this week I came across an article in The Smithsonian that would make the old desert man crack a big smile, exposing all of the teeth he’s missing because of his chai habit. Turns out a hot drink on a hot day really does cool you down. And this has now been scientifically verified with the help of a bunch of scientists and cyclists. Somehow, the cooling effect of the sweat produced by a hot drink on a hot dry day is actually greater than the warming effect the drink has on the body, making it a net win for a cooling effect. The article gets into the likely biological process for those interested.

So now I know. Hot drinks warm you up in the winter. They also cool you down in summer. How strange and wonderful. No wonder I like them so much.

There is one big caveat in all of this, however. In order for a hot drink to cool you down, you must be in an area of dry heat, not one of humidity. Since a humid environment prevents sweat from evaporating, the hot drink will actually raise your body temp, not decrease it. But as long as you are in some kind of desert or low humidity setting (and able to sweat), the trick should work.

All of this reminded me of what a tricky thing it is to interact with local lore and tradition. By default, we want to dismiss local knowledge that seems bizarre to us as superstition or old wives tales. But quite often there is something to it after all. Not in every case, but often enough that we ought to reserve judgement on local claims until we’ve looked into them somewhat. As Tolkien wrote in The Lord of the Rings, “Pay heed to the tales of old wives. It may well be that they alone keep in memory what it was once needful for the wise to know.” Oral tradition should not be dismissed out of hand, simply because it initially strikes us as absurd.

A missionary friend in Cameroon shared with me this past week about a volcanic lake in that country. At some point in the 80’s, large amounts of toxic gas were released from the lake, killing all who lived in the villages around its shores. However, all of those villages had been founded and populated by newcomers to the area. The long-time residents did not live close to the lake, since they had an oral tradition that it was spiritually deadly to dwell too close to the water. Apparently this lake is prone to these kind of toxic gas releases every 150 years or so, meaning that the indigenous villagers had an oral tradition that preserved a deadly historical event from the distant past, although it had become clothed in their animistic worldview.

I remember another story from my childhood in Melanesia, where a village pastor, eager to prove the local traditions wrong, had decided to cook and eat a bird locally believed to be poisonous and used in witchcraft. The pastor ate the bird, and almost died as a result. Turns out this black and orange bird is the only poisonous bird known in all of nature. Local oral tradition wins again.

Why do we so often assume that local tradition is untrustworthy and bogus? Because sometimes it really is, and it keeps locals in bondage to empty and dangerous lies. Consider the Middle Eastern and Central Asian belief in patrogenesis, the idea that offspring one hundred percent come from the father, and the mother is merely a carrier, a vessel. All kinds of bad stuff has come from this cultural belief, including laws that disadvantage the mother when it comes to custody of her children – even if the man is abusive. Or, the cultural belief that the honor of the extended family is most dependent upon the sexual purity of the women in the household, resulting in honor killings which almost-exclusively target erring female family members. In Melanesia, tribes until recently believed that if your enemy was strong in something, you could kill them and eat their corresponding body part for that ability, thereby getting stronger in that ability yourself. This local tradition led to widespread cannibalism and all of the dark effects associated with it.

However, what often happens is that Christians of the reformed camp approach culture with eyes only for these cultural lies. We often have a default posture of Christ-against-culture when it comes to local knowledge and traditions. We know that all cultures, like all people, are fallen and under the curse of sin. We know that this affects every aspect of a person, and every aspect of the culture – that total depravity is not just individual, but corporate as well. The mirror which once reflected the image of God so well has been shattered, and gross distortion has resulted. And yet a shattered mirror has not ceased reflecting entirely. No, if you lean in close and focus on small individual shards, a somewhat accurate, limited reflection can sometimes be found. The fact that the fall has damaged every aspect of a culture does not mean that the image of God is no longer present at all, shining out – sometimes dim, sometimes bright – through the distortion. Just as the restoration of the image of God in believers will not be perfected until the age to come, so the utter loss of that image in unbelievers and their cultures will not be complete until that same coming age.

This means that we cannot approach the culture of an unreached people group only prepared for the gospel to begin rejecting and discarding local beliefs and culture. We must be prepared for much of this, but not only this. We must also be ready to discover local beliefs and customs that fit quite well with a biblical worldview – that at times fit even better than those of our own culture. In these cases, the local cultural practice or belief is to be retained, but filled with a new motive, that of the glory of God and love for neighbor.

Few contemporary missionaries are at much risk of the kind of overt cultural pride present in the colonial era. In fact, we are more often at risk of the opposite, an unbiblical open denigration of our own cultures as we seek to embrace the local one. But pride is a slippery thing, and if our only setting is Christ-against-culture, then we will find ourselves prematurely scoffing at local wisdom that will eventually prove to be just that – wisdom. And scoffers don’t win trust. Those who sneer at local methods of chai drinking are less likely to find a hearing when it comes to the bigger questions of life and death and eternity.

Such is the challenge of engaging local lore and tradition. You may find lies straight from the pit of hell. Or, you may find truth that has been marvelously preserved, against all odds. We must learn to anticipate both, and to humble ourselves when we get it wrong. We should listen carefully to the old men of the desert, ready both to learn and to stubbornly upend the traditions of ancestors when needed. We are tasked with this great untangling, with the laborious task of seeking to glue the shattered mirror back together. It will take a long time and countless conversations. And hopefully, lots of cups of chai. Even when it’s hot outside.

Photo by Zeynep Sümer on Unsplash

A Proverb on the Absurdity of Nepotism

It’s the same donkey, but with a new saddle.

Regional Oral Tradition

This Central Asian proverb is used of someone who has been appointed to a position they’re not qualified for. In Central Asia, this almost always takes place because the person appointed is a relative or client of the one making the appointment. This sort of nepotism is rampant, holding back all kinds of effectiveness in the public and private sectors, and leading to lots of bitterness on the street as locals eventually lose hope that a qualified person could ever be chosen over a patron’s relative or yes-man. Turns out that even in patronage cultures, the human heart knows that character and experience are what really qualifies someone for a job, not the mere bestowing of a title. You can change the saddle, but the donkey is still a donkey.

This proverb is not only a statement of lamentable reality, but also serves as a humorous dig – donkey being a very common way to insult someone in Central Asia, where donkeys are a favorite butt of all kinds of jokes. This leads to many proverbs that speak of donkeys (examples here, here, and here), and to the rule that you should never mention a donkey in your sermon, lest you want to lose the local believers in fits of suppressed laughter. Which makes one wonder, what would happen to the preacher who has to preach on Balaam?

Photo by Mario Beqollari on Unsplash

A Proverb on Reading the Signs

A tree doesn’t move unless there is a wind.

Regional Oral Tradition

This Central Asian proverb is equivalent to, “Where there’s smoke, there’s fire.” Certain things only happen as effects or symptoms, meaning there is necessarily a cause somewhere. Smoke doesn’t appear unless something is burning. Trees (excepting those in Narnia and Middle Earth) do not visibly move unless something else is moving them – usually the wind.

This category of wisdom is important for dealing with people who might be gifted in deception. They may present to us in a certain positive way, but have a curious trail of broken relationships behind them or a cloud of troubling interactions with others around them. We should pay attention when our personal interactions with someone don’t seem to match the questions regularly raised about them or the consistent negative reputation they have with others. While we’d like to think that we are special and can uniquely activate this person’s potential, usually this is not the case. And we are likely to ourselves get burned soon enough. Is there smoke? Are the branches moving? This means something.

This proverb could also be applied to the sins we regularly struggle with. Sins always have context, a story, behind them. They have not arisen out of nowhere, they have roots, and often function as symptoms of deeper struggles going on. This is why we often don’t make progress against them. We end up focusing on the smoke instead of the fire, the branches instead of the wind. Anger is one sin that is almost always a symptom. If we dig for its roots of sadness, fear, or otherwise, we may be very surprised to see what has been functioning as its fuel.

Treating symptoms has its place, but we should be wise to recognize that symptoms point to something deeper that is also present, and seek to understand and treat the cause. Let us be people who seek to read the signs wisely, neither ignoring them nor mistaking them to be the main thing.

Photo by Khamkéo Vilaysing on Unsplash