O for a thousand tongues to sing. My dear Redeemer’s praise! The glories of my God and King, The triumphs of His grace. -Charles Wesley
A couple of Sundays ago at Highland Church, we showed this video of one of our missionaries in Thailand. They spent the first year of their time there just researching they symbols and practices that people used to talk about God and the Sacred in Pheyao. And then they did this very interesting thing.
They wrote down hundreds of different words on 3×5 cards, gave them to the Thai people they were interviewing, and asked them to put them in categories. The words were about things like love/service/honor/sacrifice. They wanted to see what ideas the words they were using where linked to.
Because there’s no such thing as a 1-1 equivalency for language, something is lost when we translate, but something can also be gained.
Bowing Before Kings
There is something powerful about watching Thai people bow down before Jesus. But only if you know the Thai culture. When Eden and I first got to Thailand, in our hotel, there was a warning for all foreign visitors not to speak poorly of the royal family. The King of Thailand is dearly loved, and respected, and that’s a good thing.
But what our missionaries in Thailand discovered when they were studying the language is that the King of Thailand was more than respected, the same words and gestures they would use to talk about God they would use to talk about him…sometime even more so.
They asked a new convert to Christianity what she would do if the King walked into the room. A visible change of expression came over her and she said excitedly, “I would fall flat on my face and bow before him.”
So that’s when they knew how to worship Jesus in Thailand.
And that’s when I knew that they had tapped into something many Western Christians hadn’t realized just yet.
Because they at least knew how to link certain emotions and words to other ones. The Thai people knew that all the reverence they had for their king, the anxiety they had when he got ill, or the anger they felt when he was disrespected, was actually something that belonged in the category of worship.
And I’m not trying to be hard on the Thai culture, I’m trying to point out something that I thought was profound for American culture.
If you were to suddenly lose the ability to speak english, and you had to gauge people’s meaning and intent based on tone and body language and what kind of events would draw crowds together…what would you assume was our sacred spaces? What would you assume we worshipped?
If you had to discern just by seeing what people got angry at, or what made them extremely happy, what would you assume we worship?
And do our churches worship like that?
Kings Bowing Down
There’s an interesting passage in Isaiah that has captured my imagination recently. It’s Isaiah’s picture of the New Heavens and the New Earth. In Isaiah’s vision, the kings of the earth come marching in to the new Jerusalem, each bringing some of the cultural artifacts that their nation was famous for, and then they lay them down at the feet of the LORD.
In fact, the way Isaiah ends is with what he calls the “Glory of the Nations” coming in on horses and chariots and wagons and mules and camels (all distinct cultural forms of war and travel) and God makes people from all over the earth His priests.
They lay the best parts of their world, their culture, down at his feet, and it becomes a part of the Kingdom of God.
So back to Thailand, I went there last summer to speak to missionaries all over Asia, and at one point I talked about this. How God’s redeeming purposes weren’t just for individual souls but also for all of His creation, and some of the things that people have created.
Then I asked the missionaries to just shout out what kinds of things they saw in the respective countries they represented that was in tune with God’s good world. They shouted out everything from food to ways of honoring the elderly to certain kinds of music.
I think they were exactly right.
That’s one of the great parts about being a missionary. It’s not just that missionaries go to share the Gospel, it’s that missionaries also get to see just how big the Gospel is. Jesus is already there, working through and in people, we just get to point Him out. And with eyes that are Gospel trained we get to see the world ablaze with the glory of God.
This is why translation is so important, and our approach to it must be generous. After all, no one culture can fully capture the Kingdom of God, no one worship style, no one language, and each time the story of God gets translated, it just gets bigger and better.
God’s priests are everywhere, some of them are still waiting to be called, and some of us need to go, and others of us need them to minister to us.
We need new priests to teach us how to worship and what to bow down for.
This is why Revelation ends with people from every tribe and every tongue singing to God.
Because this song is so good and God is so big, we need a thousand tongues to sing it.