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Learning the Language of Discipleship

By interserve

It’s an exciting stage of the journey. Interserve has accepted us as Partners, we know where we are going and have some idea of what we might be doing. We have thoughts about how we might meet people in our neighbourhood, build relationships in our community, engage with the local church and, God willing, see lives transformed through encounters with Christ. Then comes the rollercoaster ride of visiting churches, hosting information nights, raising support, packing up our home and, of course, saying goodbyes.

After an exciting, sometimes stressful, extremely emotional deputation period, we finally arrive at Bangkok International Airport with 3 kids and more than 150kg of luggage safely in tow. In the first few days, the excitement of catching up with old friends, eating favourite foods and revisiting favourite parks keeps our spirits high. And then, when the initial excitement has worn off, we find ourselves living out of quite a lot of suitcases with nowhere to hang our wet clothes, sick children and, something I never thought I’d see, my husband desperate for fresh vegetables! The first few weeks of living at a guest house while trying to find a home, a school for the kids, a school for language and a suitable doctor, are difficult but to some degree expected and thankfully, only short term. But often, after this initial and intense phase of setting up home in a foreign country is over, it is easy to believe that life will settle into some sort of routine and we will be able to get on with what we came here to do.

So why are we here? Well, the official reason is to work in the national church’s Office of Child Protection. But we also hope to use our time here to get alongside the local church. To encourage believers and non-believers in their understanding and knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ and to be one more light, a witness for Christ, in a country where more than 80% of the population is Buddhist and less than 1% is Christian.

Fortunately for us, when we arrived this second time around, we already knew a few locals; we had experienced, long term missionaries to help us out; and quite a lot of the people at our church speak English very well. This initial transition phase was perhaps easier for us than for some, as we had already done a little of the groundwork, building relationships when we came to Thailand as OnTrackers in 2010. So although we initially thought we could hit the ground running, it would appear life has come to a grounding halt or at least moving very slowly – a lot like the Bangkok traffic! And like sitting in a taxi through three changes of lights and not going anywhere, this has been, at times, quite frustrating and sometimes even disheartening. Dan is still doing full time language study, while I am looking after the kids, doing part time language study and helping out at the kids’ school. Perhaps with the exception of natural linguists or extreme extroverts, language learning is slow, hard work. We often feel like we are progressing at the rate of two words forward, one word back. Eight months down the track, we still can’t understand a sermon at our Thai church, I can read the hymns but I can’t read and sing them at the same time, in time with the rest of the congregation. Even on a good day, I often struggle to converse fluently with my Thai friends in their language. And then of course there is the unavoidable embarrassment of language faux pas. Surely they just cause misunderstandings and offense!

Language learning often seems better at breaking relationships than building them. Dan told a man he had just met to ‘go away’, I told a girl putting on make up that she was ‘bad luck’ and, most embarrassingly, the son of a church elder that he ‘had many breasts’ instead of ‘many turtles’! There are plenty of people in Bangkok that we can witness to in English and Dan could probably get by doing his child protection work in Thinglish. So why put ourselves through the embarrassment, literal pain of fortnightly exams, headaches and sore eyes (Thai script is very intricate!)?

Well for one thing, language learning teaches humility. There is nothing like asking for an extra plate at a street café so that you can share a meal with your daughter and ending up with a whole extra meal to teach you that you are not in control of the situations in your life, even when you think you are. Then there is wounded pride that comes with answering the phone in Thai, and giving what you think are clear directions to your home, only to be told, “I can speak in English”. I am not sure that when Paul exhorted the Christians in Philippi to have the same attitude of humility as Jesus Christ, he had language learning in mind. However, being in a country where you are learning the local language does lower you to the same level (at least communicatively) of a one year old. A fairly humbling place to be! So whilst it is easy to come into a new culture, especially one where the church is either small or still young, thinking you have all the answers and knowledge about the best way to do ministry. Language learning reminds us that we are also learners, mere babes in understanding and in need of help in order to grow. It is also a humbling reminder of Paul’s words to the Corinthians and something the Lord is still teaching me. So often I rely on my own wisdom or my own capabilities to serve the Lord. However, in God’s wisdom, He chooses to work through the foolish and weak things of this world to shame the things of this world. So that our boasts may not be in ourselves but rather in the Lord; so that our faith might not rest on man’s wisdom but on God’s power. (see 1 Corinthians 1:27-2:5)

Secondly, I think language learning demonstrates and often tests the commitment we have to the people we wish to work with and live amongst. As most foreigners living in Bangkok do not bother to learn much of the language, people are often pleasantly surprised to learn that we can converse with them in their own language. I only have to ask a taxi driver how many children he has and how old they are and he usually comments on how well I speak Thai. Unfortunately, at this stage I don’t understand much else of what he says to me, so the temptation to feel proud of my linguistic abilities is short lived. I hope though, that even though I can’t (yet) understand all that the taxi drivers, shop keepers and language instructors are saying to me, that I am demonstrating that I value them and are willing to invest time into learning how to communicate with them in their own language.

I think testing our commitment is also important. As one of the main goals of all this language learning is being able to disciple people and discipleship is not always easy. Like language study, it is often slow, it involves sacrifice of personal time and there are times when results are seldom seen. In times of frustration over the language learning process, when we feel we can’t possibly learn one more exception to the rule, it is easy to doubt and wonder whether it is all worth the effort. It is at these times that we need to look to the cross and the demonstration of God’s love and commitment to us. “But God demonstrates His own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8 NIV) (If you are not sure how to pray for Partners in language study, perhaps you could pray that we would continue to be compelled by Christ’s love to persevere through what sometimes feels like a testing of our commitment to serve overseas).

Learning the local language also helps with understanding the culture. Apart from all the practice reading exercises about family relationships, religious practices and the news and media, the vocabulary and sentence patterns used in language often gives insights into what a culture values and the way its people think. For example, a common phrase in Thai is “mai bpen rai” which translated into Aussie means “no worries”. This is an attitude I need to develop more of when we invite people over for dinner and they arrive over an hour late because they oversleep then get stuck in Bangkok traffic. Rather than getting annoyed or becoming judgmental, God is teaching me to be more gracious, flexible and understanding of others. This is an important lesson in godliness in any part of the world, but particularly in a culture where relationships are far more important than keeping to a schedule or plan.

Finally, time spent in language study also gives us time to build relationships. While there is a desk and plenty of work waiting for Dan in the Child Protection Office, going to language school and meeting up with the team for lunch most days, has allowed him invaluable time getting to know them before he has to work with them and help manage team projects. It has also allowed him time as an ‘outsider’, to see and understand a bit better how the politics of the church denomination work (sadly even here there are church politics). For me, practising language is an excellent excuse to meet up with a Thai friend for coffee, chat to taxi drivers or sit down and talk with the lady who comes to look after Lilla while I teach. It is only after relationships are built that discipleship can effectively take place. Just as Dan will, God willing, be able to do a better job as project manager knowing how the team works and what they value and prioritize. Hopefully, they will respect his opinions more knowing who he is and what his values are. I believe the same is true for discipleship. I think it goes without saying that we value advice more from people we know and respect. Likewise, we are better able to encourage and advise those that we know well.

Humility, commitment and understanding are all characteristics that are refined in us through the process of language study and are essential for effective discipleship, mutual encouragement and the building up of God’s church, in which we are all equal members, still in need of purifying through God’s grace. And of course, none of this can happen outside the context of relationship. So, during those times when we despair at the seemingly countless number of rules required to determine whether the word we are reading is said in a high or low tone, it is helpful to remember that we are not just learning to speak another language. We are building relationships, practising humility, demonstrating commitment and gaining a better understanding of our new culture. So that we ourselves will be better disciples of Jesus and better able to disciple others as followers of Christ.

Rachel and Dan are Interserve Partners in Thailand.

But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God. He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption, in order that, as it is written, ‘Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.’

When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified. And I came to you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling. My speech and my proclamation were not with plausible words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God.
1 Corinthians 1:27-2:5

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