First Attempt at Public Speaking (in Neno)

It happened one fateful night in July, the first time I had the chance to travel with Neno friends to a celebration in one of the other villages.  One of the traditions at these events is to “give welcomes”.  I am not sure of all of the proper protocol involved, but it seems that people from every village get the chance say something.  As a handful of Neno men went up front to take their turn “giving welcomes” someone called out my name, and the friends sitting on the simple wooden bench beside me said they wanted me to go up and say something too.  As panic froze my mind into a veritable ice cube, they pushed me to my feet and I was walking up front too, wishing we had practiced for this in a language study session.  Thankfully, I was third to last in the line that was arranging itself across the front, in front of the platform instead of on it, so there was a little time to formulate something to say which would hopefully make sense grammatically and be appropriate for the situation.  This is what I came up with:

Sisters, brothers.  How are you all tonight?  Welcome!  I am happy to be here to worship Jesus with all of you.  That’s it.

Pathetic, I admit.  But I would rather give a short, pathetic greeting in the Neno language than talk a lot, in semi-eloquent Portuguese.  It proves that I’m trying, at least, even if my efforts are about as lame as attempting to row a boat across the river using a spoon instead of an oar.  It demonstrates a respect and appreciation for their language and a refusal to rely on Portuguese as a crutch.  At least that’s my perspective on the matter.  Who knows what my Neno friends think?

Actually, they gave me a clue regarding their opinion a couple weeks later, when some friends were visiting from another village who had not been at the celebration where I made my public speaking debut.  The family who took me along to the celebration, and made me go up front, told their friends that I had “given a welcome” the first night we were there.  Although I must relate such observations as speculative because of a very limited understanding of the Neno culture, I will share my conjectures.  From my friends/teachers facial expressions and the way they talked about the event, commenting that I spoke only in Neno, not Portuguese, it seemed like they were bragging about me, proud that their little language learner is making progress.  Their friends seemed impressed and excited by the news.  And I busied myself in studying the dirt floor, letting a combination of embarrasment and reticence prevent my taking the opportunity to ask about proper grammar for that “long sentence,” which I wonder if I butchered…or made mincemeat of, more likely.

And just for the record, it is very normal to end any discourse by saying, “that’s it.”  Actually, that might be the only acceptable conclusion.  In my speech, you could translate it, “That’s all, folks.”  I literally had no more words to say at that point.  Hopefully by next time I get to try my hand (err…mouth and nose and vocal cords) at public speaking, I will have learned a few more phrases suitable to such situations.

The Harvester

This song,  written by Brandon Heath, became a sort of theme song for my early days of ACL last year.  It caught my attention on the Mars Hill Network sometime during 2015, and the lyrics impacted my heart.

Some of the phrases Heath uses reminded me of Scripture verses.  Please take the time to click on each lyric that is in bold type, and read the verse that pops up in a new tab.  These seem to have been the inspiration for some of the lyrics from “The Harvester”, and most definitely contine to provide motivation and direction for my life.

Up with the dawn and the rooster crow; been that way since I don’t know.

Throw a little water on my face, get out the door and greet the day.

Put my knees down on the ground, sing to the Lord in a weary sound.

Ask Him for the strength I need; break my heart like a weed.

For all that we’ve grown, how could we forget?

Those who don’t know or just don’t know yet.      

Let’s harvest this field from sunrise to sunset.       

The Master is coming. We are not done yet.    

Bring out the sickle, bring out the pail,

Bushel full of wire and fork to bale.         

Work through the pain in the rain or shine

C’mon y’all we still got time.    


The turning of the season is upon us, my friends.  

Now’s the time.  

All that was sown is there for the reaping.  

These powerful words and the haunting melody remind me of the urgency of the task, often referred to as the Great Commission, which Jesus Christ gave to His first disciples, and also to us, His current disciples in this world, before He went back to Heaven.

And Jesus came and spake unto them, saying, All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth.  Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost:  Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world. Amen.     Matthew 28:18-20

The harvest is his, but the labour is ours.  We can count on Him for all the resources to accomplish the great work He has set before us, but He will not do it without our willing and active service.  We are the ones God chose, the method He ordained, the strategy He masterminded.  We are to take the Good News of His love and salvation into the world.  How can we disobey His direct orders and risk letting a ripe harvest rot in the fields?

We are not just engaged in some vague philanthropic exercise.  We are dealing with life and death.  And we had better get on with this business of proclaiming the Gospel.   Chuck Colson



The evangelization of the world waits not on the readiness of God but on the obedience of Christians. — Bill M. Sullivan


And those of you who know me well won’t be surprised that I came up with a slightly rewritten version of the song for our particular circumstances, to sing along with the original song, challenging me not to forget.

Up with the dawn and the rooster crow; been that way for a year or so.

Throw a little coffee down my throat, get out the door to take some notes.

Fall on my knees with the mental strain, sing to the Lord with a weary brain.

Ask Him for the strength I need; break my heart like a weed.

For all that we’ve grown, how could we forget?

The Neno know some, but don’t have God’s Word yet.

Let’s learn this language from sunrise to sunset.

The Master is coming.  We are not done yet.

Bring the recorder, the camera too,

Words to learn and things to do,

Building friendships through the heat and pain

C’mon y’all this ain’t no game.




Guided in the Dance

One of the highlights of any Neno celebration is dancing.  Lest you get the wrong idea, these “dances” are really more like marches.  One couple links arms and starts the dance, soon followed by numerous other pairs, marching in step to the music, 1-2-1-2-1-2.  Dance partners can be husband and wife, two men, two ladies, two children.  Sometimes three people link arms and join in the procession.  Occasionally, one person will enter the circle alone, dancing behind a pair.  There don’t seem to be many rules.

From time to time, the direction of the dance will change and everyone quickly turns around, to follow the pair of dancers that had been following them moments before.  Other than these quick about-faces, the dance is simple and predictable, a great advantage for someone as clumsy as I.  God must have taken this aspect of the Neno culture into consideration when He sent me here, knowing that even slightly complicated dance rhythms would be serious challenges to my motor skills and coordination.

During the second celebration held in our village since my arrival, a friend beckoned me to come dance.  I joined her eagerly, and another friend followed.  With their arms linked through mine, we joined in the procession of dancers, following the pair in front of us in the circle, changing direction, marching around, swiftly turning again.  At first I had to concentrate, but before long, the steps and turns became so automatic and natural that I was able to ponder subjects more profound than dancing or lively keyboard music.

In that moment, there were ladies on each side, my friends and guides in this glorious, joyous, cross-cultural dance of missionary life.  They are not just my teachers as far as dancing, but also in talking, daily living, Neno etiquette, relationships, and all the other aspects of the multifaceted system we refer to as culture.

As we moved together, around and around, step step step, I yearned to be able to move with my friends in other ways, fitting in with their routines, their customs, doing life together gracefully, without breaking step, stumbling, or bumping people on the sudden turns.  There will be days when it’s not so fun, moments when I feel like I’m dancing on eggs, when the culture reveals itself to be much more complex than its simple dance style.  Yet I boldly pray that I will live in unity and community with my Neno friends as much as possible, becoming part of their culture in deeper ways than one can now imagine.

Then my thoughts went even deeper, to the One who brought me here.

Life with Jesus could be compared to a dance.  And my deepest desire is to be guided by Him, led by His Spirit, dancing with Jesus until I am one with Him, not even knowing how He leads.  May this continue until I am not thinking anymore about where or what or when, just following His lead automatically, turning fast and true, always in step with Him.

For even hereunto were ye called: because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that ye should follow his steps.  1 Peter 2:21

For so long this verse has given me the idea of looking to Jesus as a role model, an example.  You know, Him on the pedestal, up high in the sky, or way out in the lead in a race.  And here is little old me plugging away behind, panting as I try to keep up, stepping in the footprints He left so long ago.

But I think the Neno culture has given me a new mental picture, that may be more accurate in some ways.  What if I am not called to follow behind in Jesus’ steps, but to follow beside Him?  Jesus doesn’t lead far off ahead in the distant horizon.  He also doesn’t lead from behind, pushing and prodding us along like stubborn mules.  Jesus links arms with us, drawing us close by His side, shoulder to shoulder, hip to hip, as equals, as brothers, co-heirs, children of God, to use biblical terms.  Did you get that?  As equals with God the Son, the Eternal One, the Word who became flesh and dwelt among us.  He is the only one who lived a sinless life, walked with God perfectly, danced impeccably with never a misstep.  And He condescends to dance with me at His side, as an equal?  Inconceivable!  Yet true.

Jesus isn’t dead and gone, you know.  He was dead and is alive again.  He did go and sent His Spirit back to live in us.  So His footprints on this earth are not past, like wild pig footprints (or deer hoof prints, for those of you not fortunate enough to live in a place where you can hunt wild pigs)  that need to be tracked.  Jesus is still present in our midst, here on this earth (albeit not physically and bodily) and He calls us to walk (or dance, for our present analogy) with Him.

You see, in this Journey-Dance of life, I don’t know what I’m doing.  Life is fluid, ever-changing, variable, intricate, detailed.  Sometimes one’s dance is marked by pain, agonizingly slow steps to a hauntingly beautiful melody as we learn to dance in faith, even in the valleys and the shadows.  At other seasons, the song is wild and vibrant, as we dance with reckless abandon and celebration.

The many dance steps and musical moods glorify our King.  He, after all, is the one directing the orchestra, our individual lives, and the grand scheme of history.

Sometimes the melody is marked by grace and steadiness, other times by changes so abrupt it would be easy to miss a beat or lose our step.  That is why it is absolutely essential that we stay close to Jesus in the dance of life.  He is the guide, the leader of the dance, the only one who knows what the next measure of music holds and which steps are most suitable for each specific note.  This world isn’t predictable, after all.  And neither is Jesus.  With Him as our life, every day is an adventure.

In those early morning hours (for the dances at these celebrations often last past midnight and sometimes until dawn), I realized that the closer I stayed to my Neno friends, the more our steps blended, in a sort of physical harmony.  Similarly, the closer I am to Jesus, the more in tune I will be with the music, and fully in step with the dance.  United with Jesus, one in direction, purpose and vision.  That is my heart’s desire.  To walk and dance so close to Jesus that without even thinking about it, I would go where He goes, I would do what He does, I would be like Him, imitating Him, and thus showing the world a small glimpse of who my Saviour is.

ACL Idols

Dissolving into a puddle of tears, she cried as if her heart would break – no delicate, ladylike crying, but ugly nose-blowing sobs that shook her body and left her face red and blotchy instead of its normal white.

Who was having such a major meltdown?  It was me, of course.  I certainly wouldn’t write about other people’s meltdowns.  So what happened this time?

Juliana had just informed me that our missions consultant won’t be able to do our linguistic evaluation this year.  Last year he couldn’t come at all.  This time, he is still coming, but the only viable dates fall during a major celebration here in our village.

And I’m left feeling heartbroken at this news that something we were counting on has fallen through.  It feels like we aren’t important enough to somehow work things out to do our evaluations.

Despite the fact that an evaluation is a bit like a “test,” bringing with it a bit of anxiety, I was genuinely excited about it, expecting it to be a very useful tool in pinpointing where each one of us is in our ACL, evaluating our knowledge and skill in both language and cultural understanding.  At least our professors and mission leaders always told us it was a useful tool.  And now I am frustrated and distraught about not getting to find out firsthand.

Logically, I know my feelings are unreasonable.  It’s certainly not Sergio’s fault that the celebration happens to be during the only chunk of time he can visit.  He is responsible for evaluating many teams of missionaries in a huge region of Brasil, along with his other duties and ministries back in Manaus.  Another consultant left our field a couple years ago, so Sergio has been on his own, although training new consultants, but probably spreading himself far too thin already.

But how can I wait another year?  The mission has certain expectations after all, for the timeframe in whitch a language should be learned.  What if I’m not making the anticipated progress here at the beginning of ACL, and get further and further behind?  Then when an evaluation finally does happen a year or two from now, the leadership will be expecting me to be far more advanced, but by then it could be almost too late if I’ve been doing everything wrong, and no one knew, so no one could help.

Will the support, leadership, and orientation I was counting on really be there when needed, or is it just a nice idea that may or may not happen?

Suddenly, with toilet paper in hand to wipe away tears, I realized what the real issue is.

Somehow, my heart had turned away from my Father and Friend to other gods, to idols.  No, I didn’t start worshipping the spirits from traditional Neno culture, but I had clearly turned away.  Some questions I asked myself made it quite clear that all was not well.

Do I really think that the God who brought me this far will leave me stranded somewhere on the road between first words and fluency? 

Will I end up destitute in any way after the abundant manner He has always provided? 

Have I joined the Israelites in the desert, whining and complaining, thinking that God is not enough and that I need meat and vegetables and the stuff of Egypt to survive?

Am I putting my trust in man and methods instead of in God Himself?

If I think ACL will make learning the Neno language possible, does that mean I think God can’t enable me all by Himself?

In expecting Sergio to have the answers, have I forgotten that Jesus has the answers?         

In desiring that progress and outcomes be measured and defined, do I remember that God’s Word evaluates aspects of ministry that are far more important?  (Love, heart, and motives, for example).

Some trust in chariots, and some in horses: but we will remember the name of the LORD our God.  Psalm 20:7

So what have I turned to instead of God, as my “chariots and horses”?

If God were speaking to my heart today, which He is, He might say,

“Some trust in ACL and some in language consultants, but we will remember the name of the Lord our God.”

Sure, methods and strategies and organization have their place.  But they are not what gives us boldness and equips us, and will prove a poor substitute for the God who brought us here.

Elevating a method or a person to the place of God is sin, plain and simple.

In the words of a famous hymn whose name I cannot remember right now:

The arm of flesh will fail you; you dare not trust your own.

If it’s foolish to trust my own might, power, intelligence, and organizational skills, it’s equally foolish to trust the might, power, intelligence and organizational skills of another human being, no matter how gifted or experienced.

These are basic biblical truths.  How did I turn away so easily?  How can I know the Truth yet persist in living as if I believe the lies?

It’s as silly as stumbling through the darkness of a starless night in the middle of a jungle, with a high-quality flashlight in my hand, turned off.

The concept of ACL with or without consultants, evaluations, and support should be so simple.  Not saying that the Neno language will ever be easy, but the concept is simple.  We did this already, after all, Jesus and I.

Rewind to October 2008 – March 2009.  Brasilian culture and Portuguese immersion 101.  How many linguistic evaluations for that?  None.  How many visits from consultants?  Zero.  Were there ACL manuals to read and highlight and get ideas from?  Nothing.  I had set out on my own, with lots of people back home praying but with only Jesus as my Consultant, my Coach, my Vision, my Everything.  He put other English-speaking missionaries in my path from time to time who encouraged me along the way, but our times together were sporadic and spontaneous blessings, not guaranteed support.

Was it hard?  Sometimes.  Was it fantastic?  Most of the time.  Was it the adventure of a lifetime?  Oh, yes.  And I would do it all over again in a heartbeat.

You know what?  Right now, I don’t think I need an ACL evaluation after all.  I don’t even need Sergio to visit, as helpful as it will certainly be to ask him questions and get his input.

Oh, my sinful, wandering heart!  What I truly need is to repent, to turn around, to change direction.  What is it going to take for me to truly learn to depend on Jesus and Jesus only in this new place and challenge?  Please pray that I will learn this lesson well, and live by it always.  My deepest need is a heart that cries out for God and God alone as if there is no one and nothing else to fall back on in the day-to-day of ACL.  Essential to this battle is a heart of holy desperation, a conviction that loving the Neno well and pointing them to Jesus is impossible without Him…not challenging or difficult, but IMPOSSIBLE.

And didn’t I say, a time or two, that I didn’t want to go somewhere too easy?

It seems more and more that the impossible part is not so much the actual task at hand, or the Neno people or language, but the absolutely inconceivable notion that God could ever use someone like this messed-up, broken, prone-to-wander daughter of His.

But according to 1 Corinthians 1:27, God hath chosen the foolish and weak things of the world to confound the wise and mighty, “that no flesh should glory in his presence.” (1:29) I certainly possess nothing to boast about, and am nobody from which greatness would be expected.

Yet by His grace, may God choose me, weak and foolish, with all my sinnings and stumblings, to make a difference for Him in this corner of the Amazon rainforest.  May what He does in and through me stun and amaze all those who see it, proving His greatness and glory in unconceivable ways.