So what do you do with a word when it’s meaning has so dramatically changed in the ears of it’s hearers that using it is almost certain to miscommunicate dreadfully?
At that point, the speaker must stop and chose whether to
A) adjust and use a different word or phrase instead that hopefully means the same thing, or
B) talk longer and provide additional clarifying background information such that the word can then be successfully used just-in-time on the lately educated listener, or
C) abandon the idea altogether as there is no feasible substitute and the risk of miscommunication is too great.
Example 1: The speaker wishes to say that Scrooge from Dicken’s A Christmas Carol behaved “niggardly”, but as this word will almost certainly be heard in listeners ears as having something to do with the the taboo word “nigger”, he opts to use the word “stingy” instead. (Option A)
Example 2: The writer is telling a story about how a grandfather let slip what all the children were going to receive for Christmas gifts that year. She loves the metaphorical phrase “he let the cat out of the bag” but realizes that many of her readers will be from South Asia and English will be their second language. She is concerned they might not be familiar with the idiom and so she adds a parenthetical explanation for possibly confused readers. (Option B)
Example 3: The academic theologian is talking about how the temple cult of ancient Israel included ceremonial animal sacrifice. However, he realizes that to his audience, the word “cult” has only ever been used to describe dangerous religious sects like the Church of Scientology, or worse, groups of Satanists in fiction and horror movies. The idea that their own faith could be legitimately described in a sentence that contains the word “cult” would be distasteful to them in a way that no short explanation can fix (Option B). He could reword everything to talk about “ceremonies” or “acts of devotion” (Option A), but feels what he’s trying to say would sound clunky. He decides to just axe that part of his presentation completely as it’s not really essential to his main thesis and more likely to add noise. (Option C)
Example 4: An financial analyst being interviewed on TV attempts to explain the latest accounting scandal with an insurance firm on Wall Street. He tosses around the words “revenue”, “profit”, “income”, “earnings”, “dividends”, and “credits” without realizing that much of the audience doesn’t understand the subtle differences between all these things, given the context. (Isn’t profit and revenue the same thing? Wait, what?) Nearly all the listeners, including the interviewer are left confused. He should have used a generous mix of options A, B, and C articulated above.
So far, so good. These are basic communication principals really. This has endless application in the realms of gospel preaching and bible translation. It also helps explain why an old translation may become deficient overtime. If numerous bible scholars thought the word “propitiation” was accurate and useful in years past, but you are worried that using it will miscommunicate, you can use a word like “appease” instead, and risk introducing baggage associated with that word. You can stop and give everyone a mini-lesson on what “propitiation” means and why it’s in the bible. Or you can choose to not use the word and all and describe the passage some other way.
Here is 1 John 2:2 in several versions:
New King James Version
And He Himself is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the whole world.
Reformation Study Bible
And He Himself is the propitiation* for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the whole world.
* A propitiation is a sacrifice to God meant to take away the enmity brought by sin between God and the worshiper. Only Christ can be an effective propitiation.
New International Version
He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.
When he served as a sacrifice for our sins, he solved the sin problem for good—not only ours, but the whole world’s.
The King James, even in it’s modernized form contains the original word. An example study bible includes an explanatory footnote (Option B). The more contemporary NIV decides to replace it with “atoning sacrifice” (Option A). Peterson in The Message decides to rewrite the sentence too. (Option A)
Of course in this context, translating scripture entirely, Option C (throwing it out) is not an option.
What do you do if you are translating scripture into another language – one where no equivalent word exists? Do you actually INVENT a new word? Maybe! You might have to. That’s the nuclear bomb version of Option B though and will need to be done carefully as zero of your readers will initially know what it means and it could take several generations for that to be sufficiently patched up.
I think a bigger problem arises when the word in question has had it’s meaning mangled beyond recognition, BUT no worthy alternative exists. The word I have in mind is “love”. Incidentally, we go back to 1 John:
1 John 4:7-8
Beloved, let us love one another, for love is of God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. He who does not love does not know God, for God is love.
I just overheard a guy in the coffee shop today trying to explain how “God is love” to another dude. Much confusion ensued.
The word “love” is a complete train wreck today. As far as I can tell, it’s been a problem for centuries, so I’m not quite sure how much worse it is today, but nevertheless things aren’t good.
“I love coffee.”
“Love is the answer.”
(Answer to what? How’s that supposed to work?)
“Love is blind”
(Sure doesn’t seem like it, are you sure?)
(What lost exactly? How was it fighting? What did that/will that look like?)
“Marriage is about love, not gender. – On an LGBTQ poster I saw yesterday.
(OK, so does that mean it IS about sex, or it isn’t?)
Love Actually – Movie title.
(Sheds zero light on the subject.)
Pop radio always provides endless great examples:
“Love me harder!” – Ariana Grande song
(The music video confirms this is pretty much exclusively about sex, not devotion. Also, why is The Weeknd on this track?)
“I hate u, I love u.” – Gnash, another band currently on the radio at the time of writing this.
(Can you have both at the same time? Yes.)
“Love is evolution’s very best day” – Bono, U2
(What does that even mean?)
“I don’t wanna know know know, who’s takin’ you home home home, and lovin’ you so so so, the way I used to love you oh” – Maroon 5, currently on the radio about every 10 minutes
(So how exactly did you “used to lover her so”? By takin’ her home? Maybe she got tired of that and wanted someone who would be a good father and not go clubbing and drink too much booze every night (see the other verses). So maybe the new dude she’s with isn’t “loving” her anything like you were. Maybe it’s really different. Then again, maybe it’s more of the same.
“If you love your kids, you won’t spank them.”
(This is a steaming heap of nonsense.)
“Be careful to show love to these people by not triggering them.”
(That may be kindness, depending on the context, but I’m pretty sure love is something else.)
“I would love to get a new iPhone 7.”
(That’s nice, but that’s a pretty different use than the above.)
When people encounter the word “love” in scripture (and it’s there over 500 times in most translations), what are they going to think? Who knows. Just like people who had abusive fathers have difficulty imagining God the Father, our exposure to a myriad of meanings for “love” also causes God’s holy word to fall on confused ears.
I think there are something we can do to model love in such a way as to make it’s meaning more accurate. A strong community will have more of this. Certainly we can educate people on it’s true meaning, but this is difficult and it’s effectiveness is probably overrated.
I believe that at the end of the day, the Holy Spirit must give us all a deep (often unarticulatable) sense of what “love” is. Many of the Christian mystic writers speak often of a deeper sense of the meaning of God’s love that was given to them over the course of a life of meditation and prayer. It’s a common theme and they always struggle to describe it. Most of them end up falling back on that word, “love” again. I think we need someone perfect to show us what it means.
I didn’t read as many books or blog as much this year because life is busier. Kids take a lot of time. Work takes a lot of time. It’s that season. In addition, a lot of time I would have spent reading was spent practicing Amharic! We’ll see what next year holds – it may be even shorter.
The Sword in the Stone, T.H. White (read aloud to the kids)
A Celtic Miscellany, Tran. Kenneth Hurlstone Jackson
Born Standing Up, Steve Martin (audio book)
Treasure Island, Robert Louis Stevenson (read aloud to the kids)
The Christian Future or the Modern Mind Outrun, Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy
The Design of Everyday Things, Donald A. Norman
Super Mario: How Nintendo Conquered America, Jeff Ryan (read aloud with my oldest son)
The Door in the Wall, Marguerite de Angeli (read aloud to the kids, 2nd time)
The Juniper Tree: and Other Tales from Grimm, Lore Segal and Maurice Sendak version (read some aloud do the kids)
The Jungle Book, Rudyard Kipling (read aloud to the kids)
20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Jules Verne (read aloud to the kids, partial)
Solomon Among the Postmoderns, Peter Leithart
Several small (and difficult to find) books on the history of Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity, some of them edited by Kessis Kefyalew Merahi.
Lonely Planet Ethiopian Amharic Phrasebook (very well worn!)
The Essential Guide to Amharic, Andrew Tadross and Abraham Teklu (used this to death)
Concise Amharic Dictionary, Wolf Leslau (referred to at least a thousand times)
In my recent travels to Ethiopia, I ventured out of the capital into Oromo territory for the first time. The Oromo are the largest ethnic group within Ethiopia, making up 35% of the population – over 35 million people. My daughter, as well as many other Ethiopians I have met are Oromo or at least partially so even if their names are Amharic. In the rural areas, this distinction often still matters and not all the groups get along with each other. As you near Addis Ababa, the capital, ethnicities melt together and it can be difficult to distinguish between Oromo, Amhara, Tigray, and other groups. I had several people tell me in Addis that it is just something that doesn’t come up in conversation there. One man told me that he didn’t know (or care) about his wife’s ancestry and only even learned the details after they were married. In the cosmopolitan atmosphere of the city, it can sometimes be difficult to relate to the political unrest experienced more sharply in other parts of the country.
One area where the distinction still obviously exists is in their language. The Oromo are proud of their language and though many of them learn to speak some Amharic (everyone I met could to varying degrees), they will still speak the Oromo language primarily. The official name for the language is “Affan Oromo”. “affan” means ‘tongue’. Almost the same word, “aff” means “mouth” in Amharic. What I found though is that everyone there calls it “oromifa”, which is funny because this word is not even mentioned in the long Wikipedia article on the subject or any of the guide books I have, but seems to be the dominant name on the ground.
The organization I have been working with, Zena Wengal, has fortunately been able to acquire many braille copies of the Amharic bible for blind Christians there. Lutheran Braille Workers is a wonderful organization and has been able to supply them with many copies over the past few years. Keep in mind that an Amharic New Testament is 33 volumes in length, so this means thousands of volumes. Someone did the work of properly transcribing and formatting the Amharic bible into braille some years back, and so they have all the files to emboss at hand.
There are many blind among the Oromo though and they need a braille bible in their own language! A tiny handful have access to audio bibles, but the bulk cannot study the scriptures at all on their own. They must have someone read to them. Yes, the most educated among them could hack their way through an Amharic copy, but the symbology is completely different and the vocabulary relatively advanced for someone who just uses Amharic as a second language occasionally.
(Photo: Over 50 Oromo men and women gather at a Zena Wengal service at a church in Sebeta on December 17, 2016.)
So with all this in mind, I set out to get a hold of some copies of Oromo bibles in braille to send to my friends there. You can find anything on the internet right? Well, not really – not if it doesn’t exist! That’s right, they don’t exist. I’ve talked to a lot of people and hunted down every online trail I could and I’m pretty confident that none have ever been produced. (I would love to discover that I’m wrong!) If any exist, (and I think it likely one at least partially exists somewhere, though I haven’t been able to confirm), it must have been a unique one-off printing.
Compass Braille, located in the UK, has expressed interest in producing an Oromo braille bible. It’s on their shorter list of new languages to transcribe and format, but after speaking with them, it doesn’t sound like it’s going to be done any time soon. It could easily be years away. In the meantime, Lutheran Braille Workers doesn’t have the money and personnel to do the job. They are busy filling a large demand for Spanish braille bibles in South America this year and next. It turns out that LBW and Compass are really the two big producer’s of Christian braille materials for the blind on earth. A few other small organizations have come and gone. It seems they have an unofficial agreement not to step on each other’s toes. Their mission is certainly the same and they both operate entirely by donation, often working closely with the International Bible Society to fill larger orders.
This required me to split my mission. In the short-term, I’d like to get a copy (or several copies really) of at least the Gospel of John in Oromo to my friends there sometime in the coming year. In the longer-term, I’d like to help get the Oromo scriptures transcribed into braille, either by assisting with the process directly (with my wife who is a certified braille transcriber), or by perhaps helping to personally fund and/or petition for Compass’s attention to turn that direction sooner rather than later.
I’m going to record my efforts here on my blog for fun. Someone else searching for info on the same thing or trying to accomplish something similar with another language may find it helpful in the future.
I saved Leithart’s book Solomon Among the Postmoderns to read while I was on the 19 hours of flight between here and Ethiopia. I figured it was fitting since Ethiopia was ruled by the Solomonic dynasty for centuries, at least in legend. Here a few passages of interest I copied down in my notes.
As usual, there is something about Leithart’s work that is a breath of fresh air. His explanation of how his book lacks an “agenda” (some urgent thing it’s supposed to accomplish or stir up the crowd about) is a great place to start.
I don’t propose an “agenda” for the church in postmodern times, partly because “agendas” have a tendency to perpetuate the worst features of modern Christianity. Of course Christians must act, and act in ways that thoughtfully take account of the world in which we are acting. If “agenda” means no more than that, then I am all in favor of agendas. In that sense, St. Benedict had an “agenda” for Europe. Agendas, however, have a tendency to shortcut a thoughtful taking-account of the world and a tendency to treat Christianity as a spiritual machine. That is what I want to avoid. At times the Christian agenda may be to wait and do nothing, which, come to think of it, was a large part of Benedict’s “agenda.” Instead of an agenda, I propose a STANCE, a stance of faith, joy, and celebration in the midst of postmodern mist.
The theory of progress rests on the notion that there is a cut in time between all that went before and what comes after the beginning of modernity. Modernity establishes itself by digging a monumental ditch, a “great divide,” between the past and the present, between those still living in the past and those who are fully in touch with the possibilities of the present. The modern distinction of us and them and the boundaries that accompany it map out the world as modernity sees it. Modernity is an act of cartography, a zoning operation, an exercise in “chrono-politics.”
Moderns believe that the ancients are infants, not giants, and believe themselves, coming at the climax of ages of human discovery and experience, to be the true ancients, the wisest of history’s sages. Modernity is the messianism of the contemporary.
“Our grandparents were infants. WE are the giants. WE are quite different than the crap that came before it and THIS time, we can prove it.” The tech startup culture is rife with this attitude, as are the pop scientists on TV. The virtue of humility (or even self-skepticism) need not be cultivated by those with the knowledge of the whole world supposedly at their literal fingertips. Much of postmodernism’s value lies in it’s power to undermine the ridiculous overconfidence of modernist thought.
“The clock, not the steam-engine, is the key-machine of the modern industrial age.” – Lewis Mumford
Who was Lewis Mumford? I had never heard of him, but his work in sociology and history in the early 19th century is pretty interesting. Wikipedia is a good place to start.
Postmodern notions of knowledge arise partly from loss of confidence in this modern us-them distinction, a loss of confidence that occurred within specific social and cultural conditions. Moderns encountered the cultural Other, but not nearly so pervasively or constantly or intimately as we do in contemporary, postmodern times. The more WE encounter THEM in life or virtual life, the more WE and THEY are mixed together in the same neighborhoods, the less different toe two seem. It becomes more and more plausible that WE might learn a thing or two from THEM.
This has been my main takeaway from studying theology and ecclesiology. I have something to learn from Calvinists, Anabaptists, Roman Catholics, Orthodox, Pentecostals, Africans, Chinese, people who write really big books, and people who can’t read. I want to open up this gate wider rather than constrict the circle, even if that would be safer or more predictable.
Communications media encourage a skeptical cynicism toward knowledge in general. Especially in urban settings, many of us are “supersaturated” with media and advertisements, bombarded by messages from anonymous sellers and senders whose only interest in us is our credit card limit. The proliferation of anonymous messages temps the thought that messages exist independently of persons, that the messages are not communications but mere “texts.” The “dead of the author” proclaimed by postmodern theory is partly a recognition that the author vanishes to nothing in contemporary media. Try this test: Can you list three advertising taglines? Then, can you name a single advertising copywriter?
I blogged about this separately here.
Hobbes discerned a threat in the rising professionalization of science, which he saw as the establishment of another priesthood. So long as there was a realm of knowledge outside the state’s control – in scientific societies, for instance – there was a remaining threat to public peace. Knowledge could be “pacified” only if the state managed its production and dissemination. For Hobbes, new scientist was but old priest writ large; it was no accident that scientists also wore white robes and claimed to perform esoteric magic behind closed doors. Even Hobbes’s philosophical monism was politically charged: once it is admitted that there are two sorts of substance, matter and spirit, then there is an opening for “seeing double,” for double loyalty.
Think about the current arguments in the public square about causes of climate change (or whatever it’s called now) and then reread that paragraph.
Increasingly, even policy decisions respond to and are shaped by nongovernmental agencies (NGOs). Instead of merely seeking national self-interest, the desideratum of the realpolitik of the modern nation-state, governments are pressured into cooperation by NGOs, many of which have an international reach. From her Vermont farmhouse, Jody Williams launched a movement to rid the world of landmines. She sent e-mails by the hundreds to government officials and activists, eventually won the support of super-celebrity Princess Diana, pushed for an international treaty banning the manufacture and use of mines, and won the Nobel Peace Prize in the process. This is classic postmodern politics: a nonelected nonofficial employs communications technologies, nongovernmental agencies, and celebrity to shame nation-states into signing a treaty.
Do you find this encouraging? I do. See, postmodernism isn’t all despair. Sometimes it’s the antidote to modern despair.
All is shepherding the wind. Wind is spirit. Humans are animated by spirit and beyond human shepherding.
(paraphrased from p.162)
There was a small city with few men in it and a great king came to it, surrounded it and constructed large siegeworks against it. But there was found in it a poor wise man and he delivered the city by his wisdom. Yet no one remembered that poor man. So I said, “Wisdom is better than strength.” But the wisdom of the poor man is despised and his words are not heeded.
This is a classic case of “subjugated knowledge,” knowledge ignored because it came from the margins, because it came from THEM and not from US.
We think we are smart, but do we completely discount and ignore knowledge from the margins? In doing so, we miss really important secrets that are lying right under out noses.
This placard was displayed near the cream and sugar at the local Starbucks yesterday:
“New Music We Love” next a promo photo for the new Alicia Keys album. But this is not a particularly faithful caption. It would be more accurate to say, “We are being paid a suitcase full of cash from RCA Records marketing department to promote this album in our 20,000+ retail locations, so here you go!” Whoever “we” is doesn’t “love” this music, however good it is, any more than they “loved” whatever the people in charge of shop decoration were being paid to promote last month. This doesn’t come as news to anyone of course. We are saturated in a world of marketing and advertising, now more than ever. We are, in theory at least, aware of it even as we swim in it. It’s been lamented and commented on by people of every persuasion in essays for decades now.
Even as far back as 1955, we find Merton discussion the same thing:
Do we know what it means to praise? To adore? To give glory? Praise is cheap today. Everything is praised. Soap, beer, toothpaste, clothing, mouthwash, movie stars, all the latest gadgets which are supposed to make life more comfortable – everything is constantly being “praised.” Praise is now so overdone that everybody is sick of it, and since everything is “praised” with the official hollow enthusiasm of the radio announcer, it turns out in the end that NOTHING is praised. Praise has become empty. Nobody really wants to use it.
Are there any superlatives left for God? They have all been wasted on foods and quack medicines. There is no word left to express our adoration of Him who alone is Holy, who alone is Lord.
-Thomas Merton, Praying the Psalms, p.10
The extreme overuse of the word “awesome” is maybe the best example of the kind of language degradation Merton is talking about here. Think of how much this has intensified sixty years too. Merton himself would barely live long enough to see the advent of color television.
In his survey of postmodernism, Leithart addresses this same phenomenon in which this ubiquity of “praise” has corrupted language and communication at a deep level.
Communications media encourage a skeptical cynicism toward knowledge in general. Especially in urban settings, many of us are “supersaturated” with media and advertisements, bombarded by messages from anonymous sellers and senders whose only interest in us is our credit card limit. The proliferation of anonymous messages tempts the thought that messages exist independently of persons, that the messages are not communications but mere “texts.” The “death of the author” proclaimed by postmodern theory is partly a recognition that the author vanishes to nothing in contemporary media. Try this test: Can you list three advertising taglines? Then, can you name a single advertising copywriter?
-Peter Leithart, Solomon Among the Postmoderns, p.64
At first glance, this can all be rather discouraging. I know that personally this has been the source of much angst over the years. How can we sing Jerusalem’s praise in a strange land where our “awesome” words have no meaning? The best worship we can bring seems trite and dead on arrival.
I’ve heard a variety of prescriptions over the years to combat this. One is to “plunder the Egyptians” and make sure Christian music and culture really kicks ass. If you love the many-layered synth production on the latest Hillsong United album, then you might still think this plan shows promise. Many of us are not particularly convinced, for all kinds of historical reasons, not to mention a few theological ones.
Another attempt is to recover the golden age of high Christian art, studying and singing the works of Bach and the best harmonies from Tallis to Beethoven. This can feel rather fabulous within its ecosystem of trained singers and listeners, but like a foreign static to the bulk of our neighbors.
Ah, so our neighbors need to be educated! Fixing education, bringing back great books, classics, and doing the true work of education as Aristotle described it, “to learn to love what one ought to love”, is the way. If we can heal our trashed and abused language, then we’ll be able to call pizza another word besides “awesome” again so all the Holy praise can come back to life in contrast.
I’m not really against any of these aforementioned ideas, but I have difficulty maintaining my enthusiasm for them. They all sound like a lot of work – a strenuous uphill climb that seems to take on a life very much apart from the Gospel of Christ, which somehow manages to meet us in our lowliest state, even with f-bombs and other curses on our lips.
And so I was encouraged to find a different prescription from Merton: to pray the psalms. He is convinced that they still (and will permanently) transcend any defects our language and listening may acquire. Heavy scholarship is not required, only a very little faith.
The Church indeed likes what is old, not because it is old but rather because it is “young.” In the Psalms, we drink divine praise at its pure and stainless source, in all its primitive sincerity and perfection. We return to the youthful strength and directness with which the ancient psalmists voiced their adoration of the God of Israel. Their adoration was intensified by the ineffable accents of new discovery: for the Psalms are the songs of men who knew who God was. If we are to pray well, we too must discover the Lord to whom we speak, and if we use the Psalms in our prayer we will stand a better chance of sharing in the discovery which lies hidden in their words for all generations. For God has willed to make Himself known to us in the mystery of the Psalms.
What God has willed to make known to us through his particular gift of the Psalter, no mass media flood or deconstructionist philosophy can thwart. Our verbalization and reenactment of it is a clear way forward through the fog.
I recently returned from my 2nd trip to Ethiopia. The first time was when I traveled with my wife to adopt my youngest daughter almost exactly five years earlier. I’ve had a lot of people ask me about my trip and I’ve found it to be a bit difficult to explain as it doesn’t fit neatly into categories for reasons people typically travel.
It wasn’t really a vacation. I visited almost zero tourist destinations while I was there and didn’t stay anywhere fancy. Very little relaxation happened. On the other hand, it was very refreshing and interesting and exciting – as much as I could ever hope for from a vacation.
It wasn’t really a mission trip. It wasn’t organized by a church or other aid organization and I didn’t petition anyone for money. On the other hand, several people DID donate money for a significant amount of specialized supplies and I did spend most of my days there supporting (or rather learning how to support) two different indigenous Christian aid organizations.
It was a personal/family trip. I wanted to find as much of my adopted daughter’s family and extended family as I reasonably could. I wanted to give them pictures and gifts and tell them how she was doing and also learn as much as I could about her family history. When people would ask why I was going, this is what I would tell them, even though this ultimately consumed only two of the twelve days I was there, mostly due to a lot of prep work ahead of time.
It was an exploratory trip. I have read probably 20 books about Ethiopia since visiting there 5 years ago, but I wanted to experience it again first-hand and figure out what I was missing. In particular, I wanted to learn what it would be like to move the family and live there for a while – not just visit. Would that be feasible or not? Learning things is deeply satisfying in itself and the trip turned out to be a lot more interesting than surfing the internet for esoteric information. I met a lot of people that could help me answer these questions and made some new friends, which is what I was hoping for.
My American friends asked why I didn’t take the entire family. The answer is that I would love to, but I think it would be a lot more enjoyable for them (and less exhausting for my wife and I) if they were a few years older than they are now. The other big reason is that six round-trip airplane tickets would alone cost nearly $8000 and I don’t have that kind of money laying around. My wife and my oldest daughter spent two weeks in South Africa with friends last year, so this trip was sort of “my turn”.
My Ethiopian friends there asked why I didn’t at least bring my wife with me. This is the sort of question that demonstrates the classic divide between western and African ways of thinking about time and family. Many of them live in compounds with a host of extended family nearby. There are also numerous household servants close at hand, even among relatively poor families. There are always lots of people around to keep an eye on the kids. In America? Nada. Mom and Dad are pretty much the entire show. Grandparents, aunts, and uncles often live many hours or even days of travel away. Even one evening away from the children can require complicated babysitter coordination and cost the equivalent of a month’s wages in their currency. Leaving your employer for more than few days can be downright impossible, depending on where you work. Praise God that that particular hurdle could finally be cleared this time as my current employer and coworkers are fabulous and accommodating. We in America may be very rich, but it comes at a great cost. We pay the price in stress and disconnected relationships and we often don’t even know where to begin to heal these rifts. Incidentally, this is another reason I wanted to visit and observe life there up close – to possibly learn a clue or two toward this kind of healing.
So was the trip a success? Absolutely. Although I didn’t get all of my questions answered, I discovered a lot of things I didn’t even know existed. I guess that made it a real adventure – the unpredictability.
I got to meet several of my daughter’s relatives and I learned many things about her ethnicity and culture and history. I didn’t get to meet everyone I wanted to, partly due to the restricted travel – the police were strictly enforcing a 6:00 PM curfew in the town where some of the family lived and none of my friends or helpers I recruited were keen to drive there. Still, all the gifts and pictures made it to the people who were my daughter’s early (though temporary) caregivers.
I got to preach (with a translator) at a Christian worship service of mostly blind people. I also got to sing for them there and later at what turned out to be a very long and very charismatic prayer meeting. I got to visit a special school for the blind whose existence is only the most vaporous of rumours on the internet. I got to quietly give gifts nearly everywhere I went and got something even better in return – to listen to people’s stories and see part of their “normal” day-to-day life up close. The staff of the guest house I stayed at were especially friendly and invited me to their humble lunches and low-key coffee ceremonies throughout the day. Those were some of the best times. Though virtually all social media was blocked on the internet in Ethiopia (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Viber, etc.) I was still able to send a receive email with little interruption. This allowed me to regularly share pictures and talk with my wife back home. The only tragedy was losing my passport – prompting a rather frantic trip to the U.S. Embassy where everything was fixed in far less time than I deserve.
And as for the future? I now have a handful of clear (and some not-so-clear) goals moving forward. It will likely be a few years before I return, but I won’t be losing contact with folks there this time.
For more details and pictures, see these related posts:
I’ll continue to post a few more scraps about the trip here, but if you want to know specifics, send me an email.
Evangelical tracts can sometimes be home to some amazing artwork. While I was in Ethiopia, I came across a gospel pamphlet (both in Amharic and Afaan Oromo!) that features this incredible picture of Jesus performing an exorcism, Dragonball Z style.
On one hand, I can say this cartoon is pretty silly, while at the same time admitting that I believe this is a completely legit stylized representation of what Jesus ACTUALLY DOES. I’m completely serious.
For election night here in the USA, I present to you this tale recorded by the Venerable Bede. I discovered this story earlier in the year in the Celtic Miscellany and have been saving it since.
King Oswin had given an extraordinary fine horse to Bishop Aidan, to use either in crossing rivers, or in performing a journey upon any urgent necessity, though the Bishop was wont to travel ordinarily on foot.
Some short time after, a poor man meeting the Bishop, and asking alms, he immediately dismounted, and ordered the horse, with all his royal trappings, to be given to the beggar; for he was very compassionate, a great friend to the poor, and, in a manner, the father of the wretched.
This being told to the king, when they were going in to dinner, he said to the Bishop, “What did you mean, my lord Bishop, by giving the poor man that royal horse, which it was fitting that you should have for your own use?
“Had not we many other horses of less value, or things of other sorts, which would have been good enough to give to the poor, instead of giving that horse, which I had chosen and set apart for your own use?”
Thereupon the Bishop answered, “What do you say, O king? Is that son of a mare more dear to you than that son of God?”
Upon this they went in to dinner, and the Bishop sat in his place; but the king, who had come in from hunting, stood warming himself, with his attendants, at the fire.
Then, on a sudden, whilst he was warming himself, calling to mind what the bishop had said to him, he ungirt his sword, and gave it to a servant, and hastened to the Bishop and fell down at his feet,’ beseeching him to forgive him;
“For from this time forward,” said he, “I will never speak any more of this, nor will I judge of what or how much of our money you shall give to the sons of God.”
The bishop was much moved at this sight, and starting up, raised him, saying that he was entirely reconciled to him, if he would sit down to his meat and lay aside all sorrow. The king, at the bishop’s command and request, began to be merry, but the bishop, on the other hand, grew so melancholy as to shed tears. His priest then asked him, in the language of his country, which the king and his servants did not understand, why he wept.
“I know,” said he, “that the king will not live long; for I never before saw so humble a king; whence I perceive that he will soon be snatched out of this life, because this nation is not worthy of such a ruler.” Not long after, the bishop’s gloomy foreboding was fulfilled by the king’s death, as has been said above. But Bishop Aidan was also taken out of this world, twelve days after the king he loves, on the 31st of August, 651, to receive the eternal reward of his labours form our Lord.
I’m really enjoying several of the books I picked up in Ethiopia at a small shop near the Orthodox seminary. They are in English and published by very small operations. They have no ISBNs and I assure you none of them are available on Amazon. The authors don’t show up if you Google their names. This was exactly the sort of thing I was hoping to find – stuff the internet doesn’t know anything about.
On of the books is a collection of popular sayings or stories entitled “Dramatic Entertaining Short Stories <Parables> for English Speaking Tourists” compiled by Megabie Aelaf and Rev. Mekbib Atnaw. Many of the stories are connected to some illustration from scripture. Here are a couple of my favorites:
There was an American pastor who used to be an amateur boxer. One day a city gambler came to his Church and said, “There is a teaching in the gospel that it is hard to accept. It says ‘if somebody slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other one to him. Are you able to carry out this teaching practically?'” The pastor said, “Yes I can”. “May I slap you?” asked the gambler. The pastor offered his right cheek, and the gambler slapped him. The Pastor remained patient and turned his left cheek and was slapped again. But when the gambler wanted to slap him a third time, the pastor rolled up his sleeves and made a fist. He said, “The book did not allow you to slap me three times, but only twice.” (Matthew 5:39)
The editor goes on to explain that taking up arms to repel a foreign invader is just and that all good Christian men, even priests, should be ready to do so if the need arises.
Here is some interesting analysis that uses bone placement to argue for the equality of men and women:
Universal Interpretations On Natural Equality of Men & Women
If a man is the head of his wife, she is the crown of her husband (Proverbs 12:10). SO this word proves their unique and natural equality of both husband and wife from the beginning of Creation.
1. She was not made out of his head to have ruling authority over her husband.
2. Nor out of his fee to be trembled upon by him.
3. He created her from a one out of his side to be equal with him.
4. He created her from a bone under his arm to be protected by her husband, and
5. from a bone near his heart that she may be beloved and dear to him.
It is wonderful to see the work of the Holy Spirit how He has combined the Interpretations of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church Scholars with Mathew Henry the Anglican Great Bible Commentator who lived in a long distance more than 10,000 files away.
Matthew Henry’s old commentary may not be that great, but man, the guy gets around!
Finally, I loved this story about two holy men – one who prayed all the time and the other who didn’t pray at all.
A large monastery was ready to celebrate its big anniversary. The abbot and other leading monks chose one of the monks who dedicated all his time for prayer shutting himself in a cell for 40 years and he supposed to be a great righteous and holy man of God in the sight of men. He was sent along with a humble, good and faithful servant to fetch green grass (reeds or bulrush) to spread out and furnish the floor of their meeting hall. The monk murmured in his heart saying, “I am honorable righteous hermit who shut myself in a cell for about 40 years. I am a holy man of God. How can they send me with this illiterate and secular person who could not know how to pray except manual work – cooking for the monks, cleaning the compound of the monastery, carrying quintals of grain and vegetable.”
Yes, it was true. The humble servant did not have time for church service except cooking, cleaning, washing the clothes of all monks of the monastery. He did not pray at all. His total concern was how to take care of the monks, and help the weak and old men in his good work. He really was very obedient to all those who lived in the monastery.
He used to fetch water from a very remote area. He was the one who always took care of some domestic animals which belonged to the monastery. He sometimes was plowing the land with oxen. So all his happiness was by helping others rather than himself. When both of them reached their destiny to cut the green grass, it was heavily raining and the whole area was flooded with water. The humble, good and faithful servant entered the sea and began to walk on the surface of the water just as our Lord Jesus Christ walked on the water (Matt. 15:26) as on dry land. But the other monk or hermit who was supposed great righteous man could not enter even the edge of the sea. He was afraid to follow the humble servant. The faithful servant said to him, “Father, please come on how can such a righteous man like you be afraid of walking on the water?”.
The proud hermit said to himself, “Honestly speaking I did not reach the rank of this humble servant of God. My own righteousness has been taken away from me. It may be because of my vain pride. I should have to examine myself again and again in the living word of God the almighty”.
Then, when the humble faithful servant came out from the sea with a load of green grass, the proud hermit fell on his fee and asked him forgiveness, because of his vain talks against him. For he had esteemed him just like a secular person. The Hermit was without understanding of God’s special way how he leads men to righteousness.
There are lots of NGOs and Christian ministries doing things in Ethiopia for women’s health, HIV, agriculture, and many other causes. However, there are very few people doing anything for the blind, despite an unusually high number of blind and visually impaired people in the country – somewhere around 2 million people total. You hear about the occasional 1-week cataract surgery trip by western doctors here and there and that’s cool, but it doesn’t help anyone trying to make it living in the blind world. Those trips just quickly transfer people back to the sighted world with a (relatively) simple medical procedure. Where that can be done, it’s great, but for most people, there is no magic surgery that will help them out. What they need is love, support, education, and advocacy, and of course the gospel unobscured.
It took me a long time and a lot of phone calls to find someone doing this kind of work in the country, but finally my prayers were answered when I happened to be connected first with Tafesse, a traveling evangelist currently residing in the USA and his friend Berhanu, a blind man back in Ethiopia who two years ago organized Zena Wengel ministries to reach out to the blind in Addis Ababa and the surrounding cities. After much email correspondence with him, I was invited to come sing and preach at one of the Saturday gatherings they put together last week.
(Above is a pano from the balcony, click for a higher-res version.)
We met at the Misrach Center, a vocational training center for blind adults. My wife and I had actually visited this place before on our first trip to Ethiopia as it’s in a well-known location near the center of town in the Arat Kilo area. It is a secular organization, but occasionally outside groups are able to borrow meeting space there. I met a ton of people and had had a big lunch. There were maybe 50 folks there, most of them blind. I think my Amharic went over pretty well. A couple of Ethiopian ladies led some songs, then I did some, and then I spoke via a translator on the parable of the 99 and 1 sheep. Afterwards, a couple people gave testimonies and they handed out letters of appreciation to the volunteers.
I was late getting there because we had to pick up a bunch of people on the way in a crazy back-alley part of town.
A fair amount of people there had collapsible canes, but most in terrible states of use. None of them had working tips. Usually the bottom section was snapped off or something. We gave a brand new cane to this pastor that was visiting from Ambo (out of town several hours drive) and he was pretty happy. We also gave him one of the audio bibles I brought with me. His cane was used to death. Having the cane be bright and reflective is a big deal here since apparently traffic accidents are THE big risk for blind people trying to live independently. Berhanu wanted to do some stuff in the afternoon too with all the folks there, but cut it short so everyone could leave in time to get back home before the curfew, as some of the people lived a ways out of town. Several there had friends who had been thrown into jail for a few days for being out after dark in the past week.
There was lots of clapping and shouting at the service of course – not quite like baptists in the states! They are not affiliated with any particular denomination, though many of them attend Mekane Yesus congregations.
Later in the week we visited several other friends associated with the ministry and talked about what their needs were moving forward. One of these is a permanent space for a resource room near the center of the city where most of the blind reside or frequently travel to. You can learn a lot more at their website, especially in the PDF newsletters.