Tuesday, March 17, 2009


In the early 80s my family and I found ourselves in the middle of an Asian culture half way around the world from the hills of Arkansas and the country-rich language in which we were raised. As missionaries living in another country, learning the language and customs of people far removed from our own, we often encountered situations where the gap between cultures was very distinct. For instance…

…there was the time that we had a visiting pastor from, I believe, Mississippi, also rich in souuutherrrnn culture (no slam, you-all). Anyway, he was asked to preach in a large church, and was given a translator to convey his message to the congregation. The pastor’s message, delivered well with examples to carry the meaning, had one particular story that he told in great detail. The translator, obviously hearing the story, but at the same time knowing that its translation would not be understood for its use of southern idioms, in his moments of translation communicated with the people this way: “Now, our guest is telling you a very funny story to illustrate his message, but I will not translate it, for you will not understand the story because it speaks of things that you would have to live in his country to understand. Be polite and listen, and I will tell you when he is finished and you can laugh. Then we will continue with the message.” The guest preacher was never told of the kind deception.

Of course it happened more than once, and not only to guests, but in the midst of trying to communicate and learn the language, to missionaries, too...

…I remember hearing about a sermon that one missionary preached soon after finishing language school. He was speaking of Jesus as the light of the world but in the language the word for light is alo and the word for potato is alu. Throughout the message he referred to Jesus as the “potato of the world”. Of course, the people understood his mistake, but were amused at his struggle, thus it was one he’d remember for a long time. (Actually, the potato being a main staple food in many places, the idea of Jesus being a main spiritual diet, like say, bread, would not be far wrong – and maybe in this case light bread. Didjagetit? Sorry, couldn’t help a slight pun myself.)

I’ll bring this idea home and take my own share of heat for such mistakes. My girls will remember this one from our time in Thailand...

…Virginia and I had finished a course in “survival Thai” – about three months, taken to be able to do basic things such as bargaining in the market, learning our numbers, etc., where to tell the “cabby” where to take us – like home! It was here in Bangkok that I was pastoring an English language church, and we lived in a house with a fence, which was across the parking lot from the church.

Now, I had long before promised the girls that if we ever lived where there was fence, we could get a dog. Guess what? They remembered my promise! One day, I loaded the family into our car, and having studied sufficiently the language to develop a conversation to help find our way uptown to a dog kennel we’d contacted, we set forth. If you’ve ever been in a place where shop after shop, constructed as open “garage like” stalls, lines the streets filled with foot and vehicle traffic, you might be close to imagining our plight. Not seeing what should have been easy to spot, I finally pulled the car over to the curb and parked. A policeman was nearby on foot, so I approached him with my “canned” Thai question, “Can you tell me where I can find a shop that sells small dogs?” And to give further explanation, I added, “That go Woof, Woof!” Not speaking English, the man looked strangely at me, stifled a laugh, and shook his head in a universal “No!” Not to be stymied from my quest, I went into a nearby department store and found a young lady clerk, who also spoke no English. As was frequently the case, a group of fellow clerks gathered as I attempted my second plea with similar results, amplified by half-a-dozen gigglers. With this I shook my head and left. Arriving at the car, I told the family we’d need to go back home and get our Thai janitor/bus driver Leang and retrace our trek.

On our return to the area, Leang asked me to tell him what I had said in Thai. When I told him, he began to laugh. You see, the word for dog in Thai has the same spelling as the word for horse – maa - the difference being in the tone its given. I had used the tone for horse. Imagine, a shop with a small horse that went “woof, woof!” Oh, yes, we got there with his help and made the girls happy with a golden-red cocker spaniel named Toby.

Well, I trust you’ve gotten a smile from these, but consider for a few more lines just how difficult it is to communicate in a world of such diverse cultures, not to speak of languages I’ve illustrated. Indeed, one of the major tasks that missionaries must undertake in ministering the gospel to the far-flung peoples of the world is language and culture. Sometimes the Christian missionary forgets that one does not have to become culturally familiar with our roots in whatever region in which we grew, to be able to understand and believe the gospel. Those of other lands do not have to “dress” and “drawl” like those, perhaps, of the southern U. S. (Again, no slam intended – I drawl, too, and pretty good sometimes.)

In the midst of all cultural differences, including language, I have indeed found a common denominator that helps when we need to communicate. Just use the plain language of the cross. Paul wrote in I Cor. 1:21-24 “For after that in the wisdom of God the world by wisdom knew not God, it pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe…we preach Christ crucified…unto them which are called…the power of God, and the wisdom of God.” Then he wrote, “And I, brethren, when I came to you, came not with excellency of speech or of wisdom, declaring unto you the testimony of God, For I determined not to know any thing among you, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified.” (I Cor. 2:1-2) Man may be different in many ways, but his spiritual needs are the same, and he responds to genuine respect for the place he calls home, its differences and the genuine love that he receives from those who care enough to learn his language, his culture and tell him about our Saviour in his mother tongue. John records: “Issor manuske eto bhalobhaslen je, tar ekmatro putroke tini dan korlen, jeno je keu shei putrer upore biswas kore shay binosto na hoy kintu anonto jibon pai.” (John 3:16 in bengali) When a person of those regions that speak it hears this, he is able to begin his own leap across the greatest barrier between this world and heaven, faith that makes brothers and sisters out of all races, languages and cultures.

Oh, my friends, be encouraged today as you seek to cross your barriers to God and a world of people He loves.


Anonymous said...

Hello! :)

Mich said...

thanks for a little giggle down memory lane...

Jo said...

Sawa dee Jim,

I loved the story about the visiting pastor (I think I have heard it before, tho).

When I was in Thailand, visiting ya'll, you taught me some Thai and I tried to make sure I said things clearly, so's not to make a faux pax. One thing that sticks in my mind was "Mai pen rai." Admittedly, though, Alan was the one who always remembered that phrase for me when I was trying to think of it later. (And, HE wasn't even the one who went to Thailand!)


Amber said...

Thanks for the giggle. I also was hit with the memory of stopping in France somewhere and you trying to get us a hotel room at the jail.

Only you.

Love ya.