On my first solo journey to Thailand I experienced a genuine sense of isolation. I traveled to other countries before and lived in the Philippines for many years, so being in a new environment didn’t bring this isolation. My family and I resided in the Philippines where English is spoken often, but I didn’t understand the Thai language. I moved through the Suvarnabhumi and Don Mueang airports smoothly because many signs were in English and most of the staff spoke broken English. But the airport was an international island within Thailand.
Arriving in the city where I resided for the week, I stayed in a local hotel and ate my meals at the restaurant downstairs. Virtually no one spoke English in this hotel. The desk clerks spoke some broken English, but it was hard to understand. I survived the week and carried on with the teaching ministry I came to do. But the isolation brought a strange depression and disorientation. Impromptu sign language doesn’t convey conceptual truth, and a simple gesture is easily misunderstood.
The Thai language has five distinct tones and each one varies the meaning of words. So, one word has a certain meaning with one tone, but the same word may convey a different meaning with another tone. I watched an American missionary friend, fluent in Thai, struggle while he interpreted for a visiting American pastor. I asked him why it was so hard and he told me, “he’s using theological words we don’t have in the Thai language!” Many words in English have no Thai equivalent, as is true in most languages.
When I traveled to Ethiopia and moved about the capital city of Addis Ababa, I felt little isolation as I had in my Thailand experience. But then we traveled a day and a half to a remote village in southern Ethiopia—once again I felt isolated. I was the only white face in the entire village, probably the region since it was so remote. The food was very different, but good. We stayed in fairly primitive rooms with no private toilet, air-conditioning, English television, Internet connection, or telephone available. We were hundreds of miles across desert lands from the airport I had flown into and from where I would depart. But I had Ayele who proved to be a great help. He was far more than my interpreter and guide—he became a good friend.
My friend Ayele is well educated and articulate in English. He is a bright and capable young man, and was a great partner in the ministry there. Ayele had grown up in the village where we traveled to, but they spoke a completely different dialect than the national language, Amharic. The teaching materials I sent over were translated into Amharic for Ayele, while I spoke in English. In the first teaching session it became apparent Ayele needed to translate things into the local dialect. It was difficult for him at first, since he had not spoken in it for many years.
Since the materials were not in the local dialect, I also needed to adjust. How could I have them refer to the workbook more suited to a western mindset, if I didn’t adjust? It would be a waste of time—theirs, Ayele’s, and mine. I used stories from the Bible to explain certain truths, and interpreted the workbook’s lessons into simple wording. Ayele interpreted my English into Amharic in his mind, then into the local dialect. God helped us through the process and the people were blessed. It was one of the most memorable and favorite teaching experiences I’ve had.
The book of Acts opens where the Gospel of Luke leaves off—Jesus gives His apostles important instructions and exhortations before He is taken up into Heaven. His final command is to wait in Jerusalem for “the Promise of the Father.” This Promise was the indwelling presence and power of God’s Spirit—the Holy Spirit. He would enable and empower the disciples as the Lord’s personal representatives on earth—His emissaries, if you will, of the Kingdom of God.[i]
Growing up in a traditional church with centuries old traditions and liturgies (forms of service), the church seemed like a great institution. A person could become part of this impressive organization, but there were certain guidelines for behaving within it. When I became of age (twelve years old), I endured many Saturday mornings of formal training to be confirmed as a member of the church. After the training, a formal church service publicly confirmed those who completed the training. The Vicar laid his hands upon each of us to receive the Holy Spirit.[ii]
Unfortunately, I went through the training and laying on of hands without understanding what took place. I was immature and ignorant of the meaning and value of the training. What takes place in Acts 2—the outpouring of the Holy Spirit—the giving of “the Promise of the Father,” was what I was to experience through the Vicar’s prayer. Years later, when I experienced this outpouring in a genuine way, I understood the value of that public ceremony. I finally realized the great privilege and blessing of God’s presence and power living inside me.
The birth of the church happens in Acts 2:1–4. The 120 believers, who experienced this outpouring of the Holy Spirit, began to function as the Lord’s living witnesses on earth from this day forward.[iii] This supernatural event takes place during one of Israel’s great feasts, the Feast of Pentecost. It was a celebration of the nation’s harvest time in early autumn, seven weeks after the Feasts of Passover, Unleavened Bread, and First Fruits—when the Lord Jesus was crucified and resurrected.[iv]
The event in this upper room with one hundred twenty believers caused quite a stir. Many visitors crowded into Jerusalem to attend the Feast of Pentecost, men from many nations who spoke various languages. The rushing sound of the mighty wind and the believers speaking in various “tongues” or languages caught their attention. But they didn’t understand what went on, as verses 11–12 tell us, “We hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God.” All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?”
What took place had never occurred before. Picture the simultaneous confusion and amazement these “men from every nation under heaven” experienced. It startled and unsettled them. Many people have this same unsettling experience when they first encounter Christian believers or attend a church. The Christianese (Bible phrases and cliches Christians use) can baffle nonbelievers or the uninitiated new believer, sounding like a foreign dialect of English.
Spiritual truth must be understood in a spiritual frame of reference. This won't come from intellectual reasoning and analysis, it must be the work of God's Spirit, the Holy Spirit. As the story of Acts 2:1-40 unfolds, Peter addresses the men gathered from many nations and explains what took place (in Acts 2:1-4). Because Peter was filled with the presence and power of God's Spirit he could explain things in a simple clear way.
This is the responsibility every Christian believer has whether professionally trained or not. How is this possible? Knowing God personally and having His Spirit dwell in you. Knowing God's story and being familiar with the truth in His written word (the Bible). It doesn't need to be complicated, it just needs to be real. People long for what is genuine.
Is your faith genuine? Is your relationship with God visible to others? When you relate to others unfamiliar with God's kingdom do you relate spiritual truth to them in words they can understand and that don't sound foreign? These are honest questions all true believers need to ask and answer for themselves—if we are going to be a genuine reflection of God's love and kindness.
[Here's another excerpt of my book, "The Mystery of the Gospel"]