The Meaning of Words

We continue to praise God for bringing Hudson Quinn into the world on February 18th. He is a blessing to our family and we look forward to the years God gives us to be with Hudson and the rest of our children.


On Monday we will return to Nosy Be and rejoin our team, friends, and neighbors. As we begin again with ministry to the Sakalava, we ask for your prayers for this next season of our time in the village… We desire to see the people we have formed relationships with come to know the glory of Jesus Christ and the truth of His Word. In explaining these truths to our friends, we use their heart language, Northern Sakalava, with all of the terms and ideas that come with their understanding of God, the church, spirits, salvation, and the afterlife. At times it feels like, to use the words of Dutch theologian J.H. Bavinck, “The missionary exhales many pagan ideas with every word that he speaks. He cannot do otherwise, since he has no other vocabulary at his disposal, but he will shudder at times when he is conscious of what he is doing.”


I went to a Sakalava traditional festival late last year where one of my neighbors threw a party for his deceased “olo be,” the male figure who was considered the patriarch of the family. I hiked with his friends, family, and a Zebu cow to a distant hilltop, where a sacrifice was to be made to “Zagnahary” (their word for God) as well as to the patriarch. The ceremony began with the family kneeling in front of the grave and a prayer to Zagnahary, acknowledging his existence. Still kneeling, my neighbor began speaking to the patriarch, telling him of the success he has had in his life, giving thanks to him for the success, and asking him to be happy and accept the sacrifice as proof of his appreciation. Afterward, the cow was killed and some of the organs were cooked on site and left for the dead. the remains were brought back to the village and a party began that lasted through the next morning.


The very next week our team held a gathering in our village and sang and taught about Zagnahary. But the Zagnahary of the Bible, the true God, bears little to no resemblance to the Zagnahary of my friends and neighbors. This is what Bavinck is saying, that sometimes our team shudders at the words we use to convey truth in the Sakalava language because we know the gulf that exists between the understanding of the people listening to us and the actual meaning. This can, at times, be frustrating and discouraging…


Fortunately we are not alone. There is the power of the Holy Spirit to open the ears to hear and the eyes to see. Without the Holy Spirit, communicating the truths of the scriptures across cultures would be a frustratingly futile exercise. With the Holy Spirit, there is joy when you are able to see the “light come on,” when he or she understands and internalizes truth in his or her own language and culture, co-opting words and giving them new life. Bavinck also summarizes this process, “So it is not at all strange that within the framework of the preaching of the gospel certain words acquire an increasingly new meaning for those who hear them, and such words are thus gradually purified to a certain extent.”


Pray for the Saklava, that they would come to know the true Zagnahary and his gift of grace in Jesus Christ…


* The quotes from J.H. Bavinck come from Daniel Strange in his book For Their Rock Is Not As Our Rock