Coming (Back) to America: Accents

Jul 30, 2014 | Thabiti Anyabwile

My wife and I were taking the long way to an errand the other day. The long way to an errand is, in the language of frustrated wives, a husband who is lost. In the language of navigator husbands it simply means “I missed my turn” or “Your directions weren’t clear.” Or it could mean, “DC streets make no sense at all. You can see where you want to go but there’s literally no road that gets you there.” You see, husbands are never lost.

At any rate, on the way back from the errand we talked a little bit about how the kids were adjusting to the move. We’re both overwhelmed at God’s rich grace to us in the move back to the States. Aside from a lost passport and a shipping container that seems to be powered by men with oars, we’ve seen nothing but blessing from God and His people. And we’re having a great time seeing the country through the eyes of our children.

The girls commented the other day that “everybody sounds alike.” We hadn’t noticed, so Kristie asked what they meant. They meant everybody sounds alike. To them, everyone has the same accent.

The last eight years in Cayman has meant interacting with people from all over the world. The Cayman Islands is easily the most diverse, multi-ethnic community we’ve ever lived in. At 22 x 7 miles and 55,000 residents, this island nation is home to over 110 nationalities! And because it’s a small island, it refuses to allow its residents to balkanize into ethnic conclaves. People freely interact and intermarry all the time everywhere. The result is a delicious blend of melodious speech. Grand Caymanians report different accents from each of its districts, not to mention the different sounds between “Brackers” and Grand Cayman. It’s the kind of place where you can develop an ear for accents.

Honestly, I didn’t develop as fine an ear as I wanted. Irish accents still sounded British to me. Neither my Irish or British friends really appreciated the confusion, though they politely corrected me. And then there were those folks who “looked” European but were South American, or who looked to be of Spanish descent but were Eastern European, given away only by the cadence and lilt of their speech. The diversity was dizzying and the accents delightful.


Apparently my girls think everyone in America sounds alike. I wonder if they all sound like their mother, who was recently told she had a “rich southern accent.” We just call it “country.” Or does everyone sound like they’re from New Joisey or Baaston? Or perhaps everyone sounds plain, non-descript, as if they all had the same monotone diction coach.

But perhaps the issue isn’t accents as much as it is access. Compared to the Cayman Islands, my girls have come back to a largely segregated community. Of course DC is about as diverse an American city as you’ll find. There are people here from everywhere. But, comparatively speaking, there seems to be less interaction across ethnic lines. There are entire ethnic areas or communities here instead of the swirling mix of peoples in Cayman. There’s a consciousness of space and place here that simply wasn’t the case in Cayman. So I wonder if everyone sounds alike because, well, everyone is largely alike, because the diverse peoples in the States still by-and-large “stick to their kind” in social settings.

Or maybe everybody sounds alike because there’s significant cultural pressure to acquire English and to lose accents? Perhaps people have internalized the hegemonic notion that “This is America; speak English!” And speak it without an accent.

What a loss. Linguistic diversity doesn’t necessarily lead to the babbling of Babel. It can, as Revelation reminds us, issue forth in a great chorus of praise to God.

Which brings me to the church. By God’s grace, one place the girls can hear a few different accents is at our local church. I don’t know how many nationalities are currently represented here. In Cayman there were about 30. I’d guess there’s at least that many here nowadays. In Cayman many of those 30 nationalities were first generation immigrants to the country. In the U.S., many–though not all–tend to be second or third generation. I suspect some of these persons have lost their accents as a matter of generational integration. Nevertheless, the church is a place where people should sound differently. The local church ought to be an assembly where sounding different is prized. It’s a community of people that should, in fact, develop ears for hearing every tongue–not just in praise to God but in conversation afterwards. The church should be the most multi-ethnic place on earth because the God of all nations is putting together for himself a people of all nations–in the local church.

It’s interesting to come back to some of the multi-ethnic church conversation in the States. To get right to the point, it doesn’t sound very multi-ethnic to me. Accents are missing. Definitions are weak. Someone has decided that to be a multi-ethnic church is to have at least 20 percent of the membership be ethnically different from the majority. Now, that’s a whole heck of a lot better than 90/10 or 100 percent one ethnicity in a community that hosts many people groups. But why 20 percent? Why not 30 percent or 50 percent?

And can we legitimately be called “multi-ethnic” if there are only two groups to speak of–White and Black, or White and Hispanic, or Black and Hispanic? Isn’t that more accurately “bi-ethnic”? Are we “multi-ethnic” if the majority still sees the church as “their church” and see themselves as “welcoming others to their church”? Shouldn’t the goal of “multi-ethnic churches” be to be so diverse that no super-majority exists, that there’s a kind of  parity in the numbers of groups and persons in the groups such that “predominantly” no longer adjectivizes (I made that word up) the noun “church”?

And what are the politics and problems of dividing the entire congregation into “the majority” (up to 80%) and “the rest of them”? Isn’t the “20 percent” sometimes a way of simply saying “other” rather than actually seeing, knowing, and embracing the ethnic?

By the way, who decides such things? Who gets the right to choose the percentage or set the bar? I suppose some really thoughtful people had to arrive at some criteria because, well, they thought we needed a criteria. But who rethinks what the thinkers think when they tell us how we should count or include people? Seems a bit too important to simply imbibe without reflection and debate.

Which brings me back to accents (not really, but I need to close this post). I want my children to continue to hear different lilts and melodies when others speak. I want them to know the sounds of the world, to pick up on and enjoy the variegated patterns of speech God has gifted to humanity (for even the curse of Babel gets turned into a gift through Christ’s redemption and the church). I want them to enjoy the click languages of southern Africa, the patois of the Caribbean, the nasally consonants of New England, the song of Welsh speakers, and the romance of Latin accents and everything else. For that to happen, there’s got to be the genuine mixing of people in loving community–both the community outside the church, but especially inside the body of Christ. I’ll be listening for accents come Sunday.

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Spoken Word Monday: “Woman at the Well”

Jul 28, 2014 | Thabiti Anyabwile

Today’s piece interprets the Lord Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4. The poetry is from Student Life Creative (I couldn’t find the young woman’s name) and the cinematography is by Reidland Tucker. It’s a thoughtful and moving rendition and both the well and living water themes get modernized beautifully. Enjoy!

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Really? You’re Going to Die on THAT Hill?

Jul 25, 2014 | Thabiti Anyabwile

I wish it wasn’t so, but Christians are some cantankerous, fighting people. At least I am. I’ve stopped pretending I’m not. I don’t mind a good fight, though I’m learning to not start them–unless they need to be started.

It’s taken two years for it to dawn on me that I’m a fighter. You must have two questions reading that sentence: how did it dawn on you and why did it take so long?!

Well, it took so long because I’m thick.

But this blog deserves credit or blame for helping me to see this strife-happy streak in me. For a couple years running, the most popular posts on this blog were the most controversial posts. When I received those reports I was sometimes genuinely surprised. I would say, “I’m not a controversialist.” It was my polite version of “Don’t start none won’t be none.” Which, of course, makes it permissible for me to join the fray if others started it. I know. Sounds like grade school, doesn’t it? “But he started it!”

After saying “I’m not a controversialist” for a second year running, I thought I’d better step back and test myself. So, I decided that 2014 would be a “controversy free year.” I committed to not entering any controversy started by others and I would not start any myself. “My name is Bennett and I ain’t in it” would be the motto for the year.

Thus far, much to my wife’s delight, it’s been a very quiet, controversy-free year. But you might have noticed it’s also been a quiet year of blogging. Turns out I’m a lot like some other people whose blogging juices flow best when there’s a little heat added. When I subtract the things to fight about, I don’t have as much to write about. And the things I could write about don’t move me to write nearly as quickly. Thus the long silences at Pure Church.

But I must say, the sabbatical from strife has been a great joy. I see my own heart and motives more clearly than I did two years ago. Life is far more peaceful and I’m less distracted by all the pixelated opinions floating through the blogosphere. I’m present where I’m present, and that’s a good thing. I’m exercising more self-control over both my keystrokes and those little strokes of anger that sometimes prompted a post. In short, a hiatus from turmoil has been sanctifying.

And it turns out that there are fewer hills to siege and die on than I thought. I thought there were few to begin with, but now I’m convinced there are fewer than the few I initially thought. And some of the hills worth dying on already have much better soldiers attacking them. So I’ve had the privilege of focusing on a couple hills that have my name on them: hills like family time, prayer, Bible reading, hospitality, diet and exercise, good deeds and so on. I haven’t climbed over all those hills yet, but I’ve circled a couple and marked a path. I hope you’ll begin to see that reflected in posts here at Pure Church.

In a time when many evangelicals feel as if the sky is falling and the culture is lost, it might be good for us all to step back, swear off controversy for a while, and determine what really matters most. I can see now that a lot of what I thought was dire was really the angst of someone else who loved controversy and felt like they were on “the losing side.” It wasn’t really my hill, but I borrowed it unawares. And when you step back from some hills you discover that they’re not really that big or they’re not really that significant. You ask yourself, “Really? You’re going to die on that hill?”

Before I die on a hill, I’m now committed to making sure it’s my hill, too. I don’t want to be the equivalent to those anonymous U.N. peacekeeping forces that get sent everywhere to fight every battle. While there’s real value in their role, there’s also real tragedy in fighting the battle of others who could or perhaps should fight those battles themselves. Give me a few well-chosen hills on which to die–or win. If I’m going down, I’d rather be the 54th Regiment of Massachusetts charging Fort Wagner in a war that means everything for me and His Kingdom.

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Coming (Back) to America: Coming Back to Commercials

Jul 24, 2014 | Thabiti Anyabwile

I can’t believe it’s been over 25 years since Eddie Murphy and Arsenio Hall teamed up in the movie Coming to America. Murphy plays an African prince who divests himself of his royal prerogatives and moves to Queens to find a bride that would accept him for who he is and who he can respect for her strength, intelligence and independence. It’s Murphy and Hall in their prime and it’s worth watching again just for the barber shop scene.

With the  move back to the States after eight years of living in Grand Cayman, I’ve toyed around with the idea of starting a blog called “Coming (Back) to America.” I daydreamed about writing lots of posts full of Bill Bryson-style insight and humor about what America is like (or I’m like) after eight years in another culture. Alas… I’m not that creative or observant. So rather than a blog, I’ll try my hand at a couple of posts sprinkled here and there.

Here’s the first thing I notice about living in the States again: commercials. Well, truthfully, I didn’t notice them. My seven year old son Titus noticed them. All of them!

Here’s the thing: In Cayman we never had cable or watched network television. We relied on DVDs, Netflix, or something on Apple TV. This meant commercials never interrupted our programming–not even during the annual commercial feast called the Super Bowl. Since Titus was born in Cayman, his entire seven years of life have been lived in our commercial-free Siberia.

But coming back to America means he has a Saturday full of commercials! He’s exposed constantly to product pitches and appeals.

I wondered why all of a sudden he kept insisting that we “had to have” a new mop with “hurricane spin.” Or, why he began asking me for just $14.95 plus shipping and handling. Today. Right now. Or else we might miss out!

Of all the shots he’d taken during his rounds of immunization and well-baby screenings, he’d never been inoculated against American-styled commercialism. Most of us get that shot as we grow up. So we learn to tune out commercials–mostly. We develop radar for various kinds of sales pitches–soft sale, hard sale, bait and switch. Samples lose their appeal–unless it’s the bourbon chicken samples in mall food courts. We swim in a sea of advertisements never feeling wet by all the enticements. We feel accustomed to it and so hardly notice, until a 30-second ad interrupts our favorite shows at the wrong time. But Titus sat wide-eyed at the wonder of toys and gadgets he’d never heard of and now suddenly couldn’t live without.

After a couple of weeks, Titus doesn’t fall for all the commercials. He’s learned that “they’re just trying to get our money.” But I wonder if that only strengthens his resolve to have those few products that do pass his defenses. Funny how saying “no” to ourselves in many areas make us prone to shout “yes!” in areas of keen interest (read, advertising vulnerability).

Truthfully, now that I think about it, even if we’ve lived in America all our lives, we’re not too unlike Titus. We may be older, slightly wiser fish, but we still get hooked from time to time. Why do you think companies continue to pour billions into advertising? Advertising works. Corporations and ad firms have mastered the art of appealing to our flesh and our worldly instincts. They’ve studied us and they stalk us. They create desires where once none existed, then they satisfy those desires with their products.

I notice that I’m more conscious now about how I dress. Not that my dress has gotten any better; I’m just more aware. Why? It seems I’m in an advertising culture that places far more stress on the right look, the right clothes, and the perfect accessories. When you’re on an island and most people around you are wearing flip flops,beach shorts and a Cuban shirt (or want to be wearing those things), you tend to think “dressing up” is unnecessary. When you’re now on Capitol Hill, which is also the capitol of seersucker suits and Jimmy Choos, then swag gets more of your attention.

Or take the car I’m now shopping for. Yes, the family needs a car. But driving my sister-in-law’s BMW X5 kinda makes me snooty toward “domestic” vehicles. We peep the sleek new styles–far more styles, colors and choices than we’d ever see on the island–and some consumeristic grows in my heart. Basically, my commercials differ from Titus’, but I’m still susceptible to them. I still have a flesh that desires and live in a world that tempts and teases. We all do. And what coming back to America teaches me is that I’d better raise the guard on my heart and teach Titus the same. Self-control will be the watch word–for all of us.

Here’s one other thing I see again for the first time: American Christians are pretty consumeristic with their churches and spiritual habits. We’re not just consumeristic; we also want it custom made to suit us. That’s no new revelation. I’m simply seeing it again. And I’m wondering if we ever see how deep a root it has in us if we never get outside our context. And if we never see how strongly our desires–often unspoken or unconscious–affect us, might this be a “silent killer”? Might worldliness, expressing itself in quiet unchecked consumption,be the besetting sin of the church?

I don’t know. But I suspect my vulnerability to Madison Avenue affects my walk with the Lord far more than I’m aware. And, worse, if left unchecked, I suspect swimming again in the familiar advertising waters in which I was raised will slowly dull my senses and draw me away with the school of other consumer fish swept in the currents. How about you? Swimming with or against the commercial currents of your setting?

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Spoken Word Monday: “Predestined” by Fixed Eyes

Jul 07, 2014 | Thabiti Anyabwile

Today’s piece celebrates a great and precious truth: the predestination of God’s elect. Fixed Eyes (@_WilliamsWay_) takes us from Genesis to John 6 in celebration of God’s sovereign love and redemption. Enjoy!

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Spoken Word Monday: “Be Present” by Propaganda

Jun 23, 2014 | Thabiti Anyabwile

I think this piece has ministered to me and challenged me more than any other spoken word piece I’ve every heard. It brings fresh challenge and opportunity now that we’re on the verge of moving back stateside and starting a new chapter of life. Brothers, let us take this to heart!

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The Problem with Seeking Converts by Saying As Little As Possible

Jun 19, 2014 | Thabiti Anyabwile

“In the twentieth century the church has tried to see how little it could say and still get converts. The assumption has been that a minimal message will conserve our forces, spread the Gospel farther, and, of course, preserve a unity among evangelicals. It has succeeded in spreading the truth so thinly that the world cannot see it. Four facts droned over and over have bored sinners around us and weakened the church as well.”[1]


[1] Walter J. Chantry, Today’s Gospel: Authentic or Synthetic? (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 1970), p. 45-46.

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Summer Reading for Those Who Love Classic Books and Missions

Jun 18, 2014 | Thabiti Anyabwile

Sometimes you have that rare opportunity to combine loves and passions that don’t normally intersect. It’s the cookies-n-cream of life. Pure genius doubled and multiplied.

When I attended the Clarus Conference in New Mexico this year, two of my loves collided: books and missions. I’m not here talking about good books on missions, though that’s always worthwhile. I’m talking about rare and classic books sold in support of missions to the unreached peoples of the world.

That’s Scattering Seed Ministries. From their website:

This is a ministry that auctions edifying and doctrinally sound Christian vintage books with a two fold mission. Our first aim is to send profits to other ministries and missionaries that spread the gospel to the unreached areas of the world. We desire that God’s name be great among the nations (Malachi 1:11) so that from every nation, tribe, and tongue, people will stand before the throne and before the Lamb and cry out with a loud voice saying, “Salvation to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb” (Revelation 7:10). We believe that God will use this ministry to play a part in the work that He is already doing to this end. We invite you to be a part of this work by praying for the nations and or buying good vintage works for your edification. Join us to work together to disperse the beautiful message of the gospel to the unreached for God’s glory. 

If you love books and you relish the idea that your next book purchase could help reach the nations, check out Scattering Seeds. Your cookies could meet your cream!

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Spoken Word Monday: Omri’s “Wonderful Complexity”

Jun 16, 2014 | Thabiti Anyabwile

Jonathan Edwards once wrote about the “admirable conjunction of diverse excellencies” that exist in Christ. I’ve always loved that phrase. It so well captures how Christ holds together in reconciled perfection many things that we difficult to hold together. This spoken word piece from Omri meditates on our Lord’s “Wonderful Complexity.”

It’s complex, but it’s beautiful.

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The “Sacrament” of Suffering

Jun 10, 2014 | Thabiti Anyabwile

I’m a word and sacrament kind of guy. I believe there are two ordinances or sacraments of the church: the Lord’s Supper and Baptism. And in those two divinely instituted dramas, we find ourselves brought face-to-face with our sin and face-to-face with the sacrifice of Christ to atone for our sins. The church meeting gets transformed into an amphitheater in which the entire drama of redemption gets replayed for our souls. As we participate by faith, we receive afresh the nourishment of the Lord’s body and blood and appropriate again the grace of God. The sacraments set before us our desperate need along with God’s divine provision in Christ.

Though not a sacrament of the church, our suffering has the same effect. At least that’s how Jesus sees suffering.

Consider the episode recorded for us in Luke 13:1-5.

There were some present at that very time who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And he answered them, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.

Two tragedies are featured in this exchange: a brutal murder perpetrated against the people by its leader and crashing tower that killed eighteen. In one action, Pilate profaned everything holy–life and worship. In one crashing tower, everything assumed to be safe and stable proved fatal to the unsuspecting.

The crowd seems to think there’s a connection between tragic suffering and personal sin.  Job’s friends held the same theology. People today often think this way–especially religious people. But our Lord says this is not the case. Sin brought suffering into the world. But not all suffering is a matter of someone being worse sinners than others.

The Lord Jesus helps us see something about ourselves and about our need in the light of tragedy. Tragedy becomes an opportunity to assume–not that the sufferer was a worse sinner–but that we are all alike sinners. We are all alike in danger of perishing in our sin, in a moment, when least expected, tragically. Life is so frail no sinner may presume he or she has time. This is what we need to recognize about ourselves.

But we also need to see a truth about God when tragedy strikes. God means the tragedy to beckon the sinner back home. To paraphrase C.S. Lewis, God shouts through megaphone in our pain. He shouts, “Come back.” In the words of Jesus, “Repent.” Tragedy and suffering become–like the Lord’s Supper–an interruption to our spiritual sleep and an invitation to come back to God. To seek Him while He may be found. To lay hold of His kindness and love in welcoming with open arms those who had been going their own way. Some invitations come gilded in gold; others come laced with pain.

Any casual viewing of television news programs or online sources would suggest that God is always shouting in tragedy, “Come home.” Consider a sampling:

  • The Malaysian airline
  • The shootings at Univ. of California—Santa Barbara and Seattle Pacific University.
  • The elementary school shooting at Newtown, Ct.
  • The mine explosion in Turkey
  • The migrant boat that capsized and killed 27 in the Mediterranean.
  • The tragedy of the South Korean ferry.
  • The 62 African migrants killed in Yemen when a boat sank
  • The kidnapped girls in Nigeria
  • The wars in Sudan

We receive news of such tragedies everyday. But do we have ears to hear?

If we do, then suffering becomes a “sacrament.” It becomes an invitation to sinners to remember their sin and to turn to the only God who forgives through faith in Jesus Christ. And when the sinner turns to God in tragedy, God demonstrates in yet another way the truth of Romans 8:28.

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