This proverb speaks to the damaging effects of rushing upon our ability to make wise decisions. I was able to use it to illustrate a message this past week on John 7:40-52. In that passage we see the hasty and smug Old Testament exegesis of the crowd and the religious teachers, “Has not the scripture said that the Christ comes from the offspring of David, and comes from Bethlehem, the village where David was? …Are you from Galilee too? Search and see that no prophet arises from Galilee.”
Um, guys, what about Isaiah 9:1-7? You know, “Galilee of the nations. The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light… for to us a child is born…” These religious teachers were “blinded” by their hasty focusing upon one Old Testament prophecy – the Christ comes from Bethlehem (Micah 5:2) – to the exclusion of others that presented an apparent contradiction.
But as wise men have said before, apparent contradictions in the scriptures are actually theological goldmines. How can the Christ come from Bethlehem and from Galilee at the same time? How can God be both one and three? How can God choose who believes and still hold us responsible for believing?
Don’t rush, lest ye be blinded and miss out on theological gold. Take the whole counsel of the Word into account when seeking to rightly interpret apparent contradictions.
Translation: I eat bread, but I don’t eat the bread of flattery. Your flattery will not accomplish anything with me. Normal respectful conduct will do just fine, so no buttering up is necessary.
A local idiom for flattery is “making yogurt water.” So, if someone is trying to gain an advantage through flattering speech with you or someone else, you can call that person a yogurt-water man, or you can tell them, “Don’t make yogurt water!” In this context, the above proverb makes a lot more sense. The metaphor of eating bread (receiving complements) relies on another metaphor for flattery (making yogurt water). So the image is of someone eating bread, but refusing to eat bread dipped in said dairy drink.
What is yogurt water? It goes by various names throughout Central Asia, but it’s a drink product traditionally made by allowing milk to ferment in a goatskin, while also rocking that goatskin back and forth on a wood and rope device. It’s tangy and creamy to the taste and can even become carbonated, and is often served ice cold in a silver bowl with dill.
Like most foreigners, I was not excited about the stuff in the beginning. But one blistering hot summer day the bus I was traveling in stopped by a roadside yogurt-water cafe. They were serving it in small buckets, drunk by a ladle, and with a big chunk of ice on the inside. I was converted. Ever since then I have drunk the literal yogurt water, though I do strive not to drink the metaphorical one.
This proverb could serve as a helpful illustration of how to apply Proverbs 27:6 – Faithful are the wounds of a friend; profuse are the kisses of an enemy.
If the cow were still giving yogurt-water, she would still be with the owner.
Local Oral Tradition
“What’s your reason for selling?” This Central Asian proverb encourages buyers to be shrewd, knowing that sometimes the proverbial cow is for sale because she’s stopped producing the very thing you need her for. If it sounds too good of a deal to be true, it is.
This is our local equivalent of “beating my head against a wall.” In other words, said venture is utterly futile. Moving cities, though it is not actually futile, can sometime feel like it. This move in particular for us has felt like it has dragged on for a very long time. Multiple trips between cities, endless government office visits, drawn out house projects. Is this our new life? Doomed to be moving forever (during Ramadan at that) and never completely moved in? How many weeks have we been at this? Thankfully, we are actually “beating hot iron,” even if it might be a particularly stubborn-seeming piece of metal. Progress is happening. Today we got our internet set up and a hole drilled in a wall to drain out all the mess we’re making by taking the plaster off of a beautiful stone wall. The new paint is steadily creeping its bright way along the old walls and ceilings. New electrical wires are going on the walls – the house is so old there are no wires inside the old stone and plaster. One city’s permission papers to move are in hand. Tomorrow I will try to complete the first step of getting the others. These papers will allow our moving truck actually get through the security checkpoints. Yes, one bit at a time we will come out of this time-warp of moving limbo. In the meantime, God continues to use these processes to teach me more about what it means to be a pilgrim – and to teach me some new local proverbs and idoms, like the one above. For this, I am very grateful.
We went for the beard, but we lost our mustache too.
Local Oral Tradition
Ever had a confident attack backfire? This is a great proverb for that time when you should have held your tongue or refrained from picking that fight with that guy two times your size. This proverb alludes to a disastrous trip to the barber, where all you were hoping for was a beard shave, but in the process you also lose your mustache, a traditional mark of manhood.
This week a local friend and I were standing on a street corner waiting for another friend to connect us with a realtor. After a while, the friend we were waiting for pulled up in his car with the realtor in his back seat. However, at the mere sight of us the suited realtor jumped out of the car, claiming that he wanted nothing to do with us. My friend who had driven him was shocked, and then quickly lost his temper at the shameful way the realtor had judged us without even giving us a chance to speak. This was no way to treat potential renters, and a foreigner who would make a reliable tenant at that! As he railed at him in middle of the street for how utterly disrespectful he was being, this proverb was one of the tamer things that came out. It’s basically the equivalent of “don’t judge a book by it’s cover.” Except this local proverb hints at the disastrous damage that can come by judging by appearances.
Afterward, we talked together about what might have caused the realtor to act so shamefully. Could it have been the beards? An acquaintance with a hipster-style beard had been with my friend to pick up the realtor. This could have raised some questions. Then when he saw me standing next to my other local friend – himself sporting a starving artist sort of beard – he may have thought we were some kind of Islamists. The older generations really don’t like beards because of their association with radical Islam. They prefer respectable mustaches. Or maybe when he only saw only younger men and no family, he thought we were lying to him and looking to rent a house for prostitution, as young wealthy men here sometimes do. It’s hard to say, but it was an unfortunate event all around. Had he given us the time to speak, he would have likely been excited as he discovered he had a chance of renting a house to an Western family. But since I can pass as a local sometimes, he made a snap judgment, “shot into the dark,” and tried to make his exit. My friend’s honor-shame berating of him in the middle of the crowded intersection finished off any interest he may have had.
Alas, the chance of finding a house through that important realtor’s office is gone. But least I got a proverb out of it! One that will definitely come in handy.
This week we have been house hunting. Unpredictable, exciting, disappointing, stressful, and even fun. We are moving back to the mountain city where we spent our first term as a family, and where I first served as a single twelve years ago. This was the city where I first felt the strangest sense of fit. As an American TCK (third culture kid) who was raised in Melanesia, I didn’t expect to find myself so alive in a place like this – a cultured mountain city of Central Asia. It still surprises me. I can’t really explain it, but the mountains, the locals, the culture, it all seems to enliven my soul such that I’m better able to do ministry in the power and joy of the Holy Spirit.
Should a geographic locale have that kind of effect on a Christian? I’m not quite sure. The idealist in me says no. I should be just as free to minister in another city and culture as I am in this one… right? And yet I can’t escape the repeated experience. When I’m in this city, I come more fully alive. I have more openings to share the gospel. Those gospel conversations seem to bear better fruit. This is all very subjective, but it’s so prevalent that even locals and foreigners have commented on it. “You are meant for this place,” seems to be the steady feedback we get.
Leaving this city two and a half years ago was one of the hardest things we’ve ever done. A local church plant had been established. Dear local believers were growing in their faith. We had solid teammates and partners with whom we had walked through fiery trials. We ourselves had loved and been deeply shaped by this context. But a critical leadership need in another city emerged, and we felt that God would be honored if we moved in order to serve that team and work. We left, we grieved, and we tried to do good work. Two and a half years later, another critical leadership need has called for us to return. It’s as if the beloved city and people we had given up for Jesus were now being given back to us in a way we never expected. It has felt very much like coming home, after we had been called to give up home for the sake of the gospel. Well, we say to ourselves, I guessnow we know it’s not an idol. We gave it up for Jesus. Now he is graciously giving it back. And we are at times afraid to believe that it’s actually happening.
Christian, pay attention to the desires that won’t go away. In previous years I had a wonderful job as a missions pastor at a healthy sending church. On paper it seemed to be the perfect fit. But every time I took a short-term trip overseas, I felt the desires to return and minister in this type of missions context growing stronger and stronger. I experienced a similar dynamic over the last two and a half years. Try to suppress it as I might, stubborn desires for a very specific kind of place and ministry simply would not leave me alone. I have learned that those stubborn and good desires that won’t go away – especially on the good days – are often indications of the Spirit’s leading. As those who are indwelt by the Holy Spirit, deep repeated desires for good things are often right and godly. We have new hearts, and this means He often leads us through his gift of specific and long-term desires. “If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task” (1 Tim 3:1).
But isn’t this selfish? What about duty and honor and loyalty to the greater good? These virtues are all weighty and important. But to wisely and patiently respond to the strong and biblical desires given by the Holy Spirit is not selfish, it is in fact obedience, walking in step with the Spirit. In fact, the desires are often present because of some providential need you don’t know about at the time, but which you are meant to fill.
Don’t give too much weight to the strong desires that emerge occasionally and only on the bad days. But those good desires that come back again and again, even on the best of days? Lean into those. It’s there you’ll likely find your calling – and some of your deepest joys.
I appreciated John Piper’s recent answer to this tough question. His last couple paragraphs sum up his argument.
Look, he’s God. He’s God! It is just like God to bless his mission-minded followers with the desires of their heart. God knows what we need. God is good. God is wise. God is sovereign. God is able to do what seems impossible for man to do.
So, I return to my wife’s first thought: How serious and how deep and how confident is this sense of calling in this young woman? Because if it is serious and deep, then probably she should set her face, her heart, to pursue it and trust God that, on that path, she will find her greatest joy and do the world the greatest good and bring Christ the greatest honor.
We simply don’t know what God has in store. If God has been clear and given a calling to go to the nations, and then along comes a potential spouse who is not interested in that kind of life of service, then wisdom would seem to suggest either converting them to missions (as my mom did to my dad), or leaving that potential spouse behind. When God has been clear, we need to move on that clarity – and trust him with the fallout. When we do, we will often find the desires of our hearts met in unexpected ways.
This is a bigger risk for single women than it is for single men. Single men are outnumbered overseas by single women by a scandalous ratio something like of ten to one. For any godly ministry-minded man who is wondering where all the amazing women of God are – get thee to the mission field! Wonderful single missionary ladies are out here, serving faithfully and risking much. But even for single ladies who feel called to both missions and marriage, many faithful brothers are out here too. For both men and women, let us also not discount the goodness of cross-cultural marriages. Some of our closest friends in the US are a formerly single missionary who fell in love with a godly Middle Eastern brother. And let us also not discount the goodness of godly celibacy. Our evangelical culture still tends to not celebrate this as much as the Scriptures do.
We cannot promise one another anything – only God knows the future. Some find spouses on the mission field. Some live lives of devoted singleness. Some lose their spouses on the mission field. My parents went to the mission field together, only for my mom to become a widow three and a half years later. She later continued on the field as a single mom for 7 years.
The key is walking in obedience to the Holy Spirit. Has he unmistakably called you to the nations? Then go. And trust God with the consequences. He is worthy of this. Those who risk their deepest desires for him are never put to shame. Somehow, in some unexpected way, he will give them back better things than those sacrificed – even a hundredfold – and in the age to come, will give eternal life.
The one upon the slower ways comes upon the blessings.
Local Oral Tradition
This local proverb emphasizes the wisdom of slow and steady gains over those more hastily made. However, the local language word for graves also rhymes with blessings, so if you want a quick snarky reply when someone quotes this proverb, you can respond with “The one upon the slower ways comes upon the graves!” i.e. if you go that slow you might as well be dead.
Personally, I prefer the original. My colleagues tell me I’m an old soul and I do indeed find myself more and more identifying with Tolkien’s Treebeard (a character modeled on C.S. Lewis) and his philosophy, “We must not be hasty.” To our local friends who want to go big and go fast and expensive in starting churches, we have jokingly referred to our church planting philosophy as more like that of faithful tortoises. Not very impressive in the beginning. But give us a hundred years…
In other words, traits and habits present in early childhood (breastfeeding) often persist until someone is elderly. I’m currently leading an English conversation class and the last time we met we were discussing how to discern character. When I shared the English proverb, “A leopard can’t change his spots,” this local gem emerged. I hadn’t heard it before, but it’s a good one to have in the arsenal. We should be able to use it when speaking of the importance of parenting and in discussions about character formation. It could be used to illustrate verses like Proverbs 22:6, “Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it.”
On a personal level, now that I am in my thirties I am frankly amazed at how much my childhood is still affecting the ways I think, behave, and struggle. It’s as if the frenetic activity of my twenties came to a loud and tumultuous end, only to reveal that little curly haired missionary kid playing in the Melanesian clay, still there, and waving at me. It is strange and encouraging to meditate on the idea that God sees me now while simultaneously seeing me in every season of my life. During one part of my prayer walk this morning I listened to the song, “Future/Past” by John Mark McMillan. I was also meditating on 2nd Peter, including the passage that teaches that God’s relationship to time is different than ours (2 Pet 3:8). I realized that I tend to find it easier to look forward with faith that God will delight in my future self. I wrestle daily to believe that God delights in my present self. It’s even harder to believe that God delights in my past self. Yet surely this is what it means to be known as an adopted child of God. He knows our beginning from our end – and he still delights in us. From our habits of milk ’til our habits of old age.
The LORD your God is in your midst,
a mighty one who will save;
he will rejoice over you with gladness;
he will quiet you by his love;
he will exult over you with loud singing. (Zeph 3:17 ESV)