Evangelical Word Games

So as you probably know, Japanese is a difficult language.  To start with, their unabridged dictionary has over 40,000 ‘pictographs’, called “kanji”. Only 6000 or so are necessary to be considered literate, at least to a 6th grade level, but the various combinations of these kanji lead to tens of thousands of words, the pronunciation of which can only be guessed at and must be memorized.   I’m sure that’s why Xavier (a 17th century missionary to Japan)  described Japanese as “without a doubt, the devil’s language.”  I know from personal experience that most of our missionaries have struggled valiantly to learn the required 6000 ones!

But if that wasn’t bad enough, then there is the LEVEL to be considered. Within Japanese society, there are at least five levels of speech, that which is directed to a child, a servant, a peer, a boss and a teacher, not to mention the discourse one would use when addressing the Emperor.

On any given day, whenever two Japanese meet for the first time, they offer some “mid-level” greetings, then as soon as possible exchange business cards. From that point on, everything is determined according to your “social level” and how it relates to the person standing in front of you. Bowing is preferred over handshakes, and there are strict rules as to the depth and the time given to a bow. After exchanging the cards, both parties now know ‘where they stand’ so to speak, and the level of speech now takes on clearly understood rules, with the ability to communicate everything from deep respect to quiet distain.

Now some of you may be jumping ahead of me, saying, “Wait a minute! We have the same system in English, just with different tools.” A handshake can be firm or soft, or even using both hands, and the length of time from initial grasp to letting go can speak volumes, right? Personal space is that great unwritten statute that carries with it either intimacy or formality; and woe be the one who misreads the signals!   What you say and how you say it has levels too.”

Australia had a Prime Minister awhile back who, in the spirit of that Aussie mateship we hold dear, once reached over and put his hand on the shoulder of the Queen of England. Fortunately for him, the Royal Executioner was not with the entourage that day, but all of Australia, from every walk of life, as they watched on TV, couldn’t help but gasp in their shock and offense!

Language and how we use it is such an interesting challenge! I think that we evangelicals also have certain ‘protocols’ when it comes to meeting new people, especially if the new people say they’re Christians.   So now I want to tell you about something that happened to me last week, and preface it with a little “back story”.

We listen to a couple of Christian radio stations when we’re in the car.  One plays more contemporary music, while the other feeds our “Old Time Religion” traditional needs. One thing that we enjoy is the occasional one-minute devotionals led by a man named Andy Kirk. He is an excellent presenter, really catching your ear with his confident and thought provoking presentations.   Here’s an excerpt from one of his pieces:

“A frog fell into a bowl of cream.  He panicked because he couldn’t find purchase to climb out, but a little voice told him not to give up.  We live in difficult times, and, like the frog, we must carry on, not allowing ourselves to despair (dramatic pause). You see, as dawn broke after a night of paddling, the frog was able to climb up on the mound of butter and escape.”

And then at the end of each segment, the presenter concludes with a firm, “I’m Andy Kirk.”

Now to the point. Last week Tony and I were walking around our neighborhood, doing anything to break our boredom and get some fresh air. Several houses away we noticed that the street was covered in chalk art. With all the schools being closed, the kids are often outside fighting off boredom. This art was especially good, and what caught our attention was a Bible verse from Isaiah, telling us in effect, to be of good cheer.  Another drawing said, “God loves you!”

We were so encouraged by the sight, especially after not finding a Christian on our street in the 4 years we’ve been here. In fact, it’s only recently that our neighbors have warmed a little to us after initially being afraid of us; only knowing that we’re transplanted Americans who say we have a relationship with Jesus.

Writing a note of thanks to the chalk artists,, we slipped it into their mailbox, taking care to apply the appropriate “level” in our language.  A few days later, we were walking back by the house and three boys came running out, obviously with a mission in mind, closely followed by their mother.  We looked at her, she looked at us and we asked, “Are you …?” as we both pointed to the mailbox.

“Oh”, she said, “We’re just coming to see you!”

After doing the isolation math (The two of us could visit their house, but the 5 of them would not be allowed, strictly, to come to our place), we ended up in their yard, and started what I call the ‘evangelical game’.  A few well-couched questions determined that they were quite possibly Christians.   She then ascertained that we were retired Baptist missionaries, as we’d said in our note. On to the next step.  Where do the boys go to school?  Oh, a Christian school. Good, they probably know church words. Maybe we can find some common ground.

By now the dad had come out and joined us, and we were still doing the formal language of strangers, until I gingerly moved to the penultimate question.

“And where do you go to church?”

He said, “Calvary”.

They had passed the questionnaire perfectly, showing themselves to be theologically correct evangelicals, so we didn’t have to….well, I’ll let you fill in the gaps there.

So, finding myself relieved, I must have inadvertently dropped my guard a notch and let the language settle into the “Besties” category.

“Oh I know that church,” I practically shouted, “I hear it’s really good.  In fact, they have some DUDE that always talks on the radio.”

At that point the dad pulled himself up to full height and with a twinkle in his eye said in his strong, all too-familiar voice, “I’m Andy Kirk”.

My choice of appropriate level words deserted me, so I went all Japanese and did a deep bow, mostly to hide my red face.

Isn’t it fun to find brothers and sisters in Christ? I suspect there are more of them in your area than you might know. What a jab, to get to Heaven and find that a really great believer lived right up the street from you.

So … get out there and ask! What’s the worst that could happen? What’s the best?

And lastly, doesn’t God have a sense of humor to humble us in our judgmental ways?


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