I love the intricacies of languages. I’ve lived internationally in more than one country and I studied linguistics as part of my major in college. I love how one word or phrase in one language can cover a handful or even double handful of words in another language. Even though it can make things difficult, I love how some things just don’t translate well, how a language can have so much wrapped up in a word that there is just no neat equivalent in another language.
Where I grew up in Papua New Guinea in the South Pacific (map here, if you don’t know where it is) one of the three official languages is Melanesian Pidgin, or Tok Pisin as they call it. While I wouldn’t call myself fluent anymore, if I ever truly was, I do still have a Pidgin New Testament and enjoy looking verses up in it from time to time. The Tok Pisin translation of James 1:27 got me thinking recently.
In Tok Pisin they express their feelings as coming from their belly, or bel, as we English speakers talk about them coming from our heart. I love the expression bel isi, or “easy stomach,” as it includes so much. To be bel isi can mean to have peace or calm or satisfaction or to be at rest. If you tell someone to stap [be] bel isi it can mean to take a rest, relax, don’t worry, don’t sweat it things will be okay. And if you think about it, isn’t your stomach more relaxed when you’re not worrying?
Tok Pisin speakers also use the expression bel hevi, or “heavy stomach,” for when something is bothering you or you are under stress. The word hevi itself is used to describe a variety of troubles, anything that is causing distress or worry, anything that is difficult to deal with. It can also include emotions like guilt or regret. But I love that bel hevi or a hevi can indicate a whole assortment of bothersome things in a word or two.
Where this concept connects to James 1:27 is in the Tok Pisin version,* where part of it reads:
“Yumi mas tingting long ol pikinini, papamama bilong ol i dai pinis, na long ol meri, man bilong ol i dai pinis, na yumi mas helpim ol long karim ol hevi bilong ol.” (emphasis mine)
Which is a portion of the verse that in English is so often used in orphan care circles: “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” (NIV)
[**At the above link you can see the full first chapter of James written in Tok Pisin. You can also listen to it read using the play bar at the top of the page. Advance the player to -0:37 to hear just James 1:27.]
What got me to thinking is the phrase in bold above, “na yumi mas helpim ol long karim ol hevi bilong ol.” Literally it means “and we/us must help them [the orphans and widows] to carry their hevis.” To help them carry whatever may be distressing them or causing them to feel regret or burdening them.
This idea of “helping them to carry their distress” seems to indicate more than just fixing things for them. More than just giving them clothes or food and going back to our lives. It means to walk alongside them, to help share their burdens, to be with them and encourage them. Orphans and widows may need clothes or food, but they also need companionship and support, help with carrying their heavy things.
Most of my readers who know me in real life have already received information about my upcoming trip to Honduras. I’m going with a group from my church, partnering with the La Providencia orphan care community (I’d encourage you to explore their site, if you haven’t already.) We will be helping with the crafts and games at a VBS run by a local church in the mornings while we’re there. But mostly what we will be doing is whatever the staff at La Providencia need. We’ll be supporting them in their work, encouraging them as they encourage others. Helping to carry.
The “results” may not be so obvious as a construction or medical focused trip might be, but I am hopeful they will be just as long-lasting. I am hopeful that the relationships built will bear fruit of encouragement and strength for all of us as time progresses, as a group of high school students from our church goes back this summer, as we continue to walk alongside the Hondurans in their journey. Whether we have tangible results or not, the Tok Pisin translation of James 1:27 helped to reinforce my learning that the walking alongside can be just as important.
In Honduras, they speak Spanish, as in most of Central America. I speak a little Spanish from my time in Mexico and the linguist in me is looking forward to seeing how different it is. But I love that it is the intricacies of a language spoken half a world away, that most Hondurans have probably never heard of, that helped give me insight into the Biblical purpose of our trip. I love the intricacies of languages.