“I think I know where this word comes from, but … what would that word mean to the people who are in the village churches?”
It was a typical overcast Bangui morning. That meant that the second-story office was relatively cool. The translation office windows were open and shaded by a mango tree. One could gaze through the dust haze of the dry season harmattan and see school kids playing soccer across the street.
The Mandja Bible translation team—Edmond, Magloire and Samuel—immediately looked upwards, stroking their chins, contemplating a response to my question. I was working with them on an accuracy check of their translation of 1 Thessalonians. Pastor Edmond broke the brief silence and met my eyes. As an experienced translator, he smiled a smile that silently communicated,
“Ha! I understand, and know what we must do next.”
He then responded out loud as the team coordinator — and thus the final decision maker of the translation team — saying,
“It’s just a church word that people say, but don’t really know what it means. It means nothing, really.”
I smiled back at Edmond and the rest of the team and said,
“OK. Communicating wrong meaning in the translation is bad and communicating no meaning is almost as bad.
“What can we do to make it better?”
Now, as the Apostle Paul did with his Hebrew heritage, I, myself could go on about my Hillbilly pedigree. A veritable son of the holler. Burrell Holler to be exact. A winding narrow valley of bubbling fountains and hardwoods crowned with a shining, yet hidden, lake at the end. The taller mountain of the holler is nameless on the maps except what my grandfather and his eleven siblings called it: “Piney Spur.” All while the single road that runs through it bears my family’s name. I’m the seventh generation that has lived on the land. We even have a ghost story, generations old, that features my relatives and which is set on the same road and in the same holler. My notions of home are tightly bound up in this little familial kingdom nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains.
But to zoom out only slightly further (a twenty-minute drive through the country to be exact)… the crowning jewel of the Blue Ridge and of the larger region is the Biltmore Estate. A 250-room Loire-Valley-esque mansion surrounded by miles of woods and gardens and filled with the wonders of its builder, railroad tycoon heir, art collector, and epic bibliophile, George Vanderbilt.
Now, since I was a kid, I’ve had this theory that the great draw and wonder of visiting the Biltmore is not only its beauty, but also has much to do with the pleasant imagination of the guest. When you wander through the ornate leather-lined and Renoir covered walls of the breakfast room, the room with Napoleon’s chess set (I mean, of course Napoleon would play chess, right?), the library with its painted ceiling imported from a Venetian home filled with tens of thousands of leather-bound volumes, the underground swimming pool, countless servants quarters, the rotisserie room, the stables, and especially in the large separate bedrooms of Mr. and Mrs. Vanderbilt with their gorgeous mountain views, deep seats, and large fireplaces….
You then, in your mind, become transformed.
Your faded T-shirt and sweat-pant shorts crisp into formal dinner attire. Your 5 o’clock shadow smooths clean and a large gilded-age gentlemen handlebar moustache grows in its place.
Your sockless crocs and comfy leggings bloom into a lacey gown undergirded with a whalebone corset and your ponytail forms up into a tight and tasteful bun and your neck is suddenly spangled with tasteful pearls.
You no longer are a visitor who has paid for his ticket.
You’ve become a Vanderbilt.
You’re not getting in your car to dutifully leave at the end of visitor hours. You are home.
And in those imaginative moments, you participate in the greatness, the grandeur, the glory of a great lord of a glorious estate.
Back in Bangui…
The passage we’re looking at is 1 Thessalonians, chapter 2, verse 12, where Paul says to one of the first churches he planted,
“We exhorted each one of you and encouraged you and charged you to walk in a manner worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory.”
You see, Paul was worried. The church at Thessaloniki (still in modern Greece), that he had started only months before he wrote this letter, had only been existence for a matter of weeks before he and his fellow teachers were run out of town by a murderous mob. How was the church doing now? Did the mob turn on the fledgling congregation soon after? In a time when communication only went as fast as a person could carry papyrus, a million “what ifs?” must have darkened Paul’s mind. His anxiety and love couldn’t wait any longer, so he decided to send his protégé Timothy to make quick tracks to Thessaloniki to see how things were.
Thankfully, Timothy returned saying that the church still existed and, in general, was thriving.
Because of this good report, Paul wrote a letter to the church that in the Bible is called “1 Thessalonians.”
So, in the verse we were looking at, Paul wants them to continue to follow the word of God by:
- Looking at the worth of their salvation
- …and then acting accordingly.
You see, our behavior is always determined by what we think will give us the most pleasure, or said in another way, by what we most value. We humans are ceaseless appraisers. And our actions are inexorably drawn to that which we most value. So, for there to be real lasting change in us, we should never just try to mitigate behavior rather to change what gives us pleasure and what we value. While it is only God who can do this in us, God’s means does not equal our passivity: we are to consider and develop our deep-down value of knowing God himself.
And this is what Paul is telling the Christians in Thessaloniki to do in this verse:
(resaid in my own words) “Live your lives in a way before God that is a proper reaction to one who has been given such a tremendously valuable status as one who is called to be a member of God’s kingdom and will enter into the very glory of God.”
Now, most of us can understand most of those words in English fair enough until we get to the word “glory.” What does it really mean?
That’s the same question that the Mandja team was considering.
In our verse the translation for the word “glory” was the Mandja word golowara.
Golowara is the Mandja adapted way for the French word “gloire” (meaning ‘glory’).
Since the word was, by the translators’ estimation, “just a church-y word” that meant nothing, it was my job to start an informed conversation about how to find a different translation solution for our word “glory.” I needed to help them move from a word with zero meaning to a translation that is accurate, clear, and natural in Mandja.
I started going through every use of glory in the Scriptures that I could think of,
“Glory is simply the greatness of something. People can have glory. Valuable things can have glory. Even glory is used of women’s hair-dos in 1 Corinthians! Don’t you think ‘Wow!’ when you first see your wife just after she gets her hair done? That’s glory.”
This caused a great deal of laughter, and subsequent jokes, as women in CAR put a premium on having their hair done.
“But in our verse here, it is not the greatness of any created thing, but rather of the Creator himself. The one whose resume includes making all things that were, are, or ever will be. The one who sustains all things moment by moment. If he for one moment decided that we wouldn’t continue to be, we wouldn’t become a puff of smoke, we would become nothing. That sort of greatness or glory is something that we we’ll never completely understand but should rightly stand in awe of.
“And in this verse his glory is something that we ourselves enter into. We enter into it partially now, but will completely enter into it in the next age.”
Suddenly Magloire (by the way, his name means ‘my glory’ in French) suddenly shoots up his head with his eyes all aglitter in a eureka moment saying,
Samuel (the back-translator said) smiled while nodding and pointed at Magloire indicating strong agreement.
Then they both looked at the final decision maker Edmond. He quickly said,
“Gbahuru hini is good.”
“OK, what does it mean?”
Edmond responded, “Gbahuru hini is basically greatness or glory. Imagine a wealthy and powerful man with a great home and a great kingdom, that greatness is gbahuru hini. But this word also means that it is a kind of glory that others can participate, can enter into. For example, if you are associated with this person of gbahuru hini, then you enter into it. You share the greatness and benefits and become great like the person of gbahuru hini himself. In this verse believers enter into the gbahuru hini of God and they themselves share of his glory.”
There was a brief silence as we all thought about the greatness of that truth. Both Samuel and Magloire clicked the back of their tongues indicating that a profound thing had just been said.
Following that was a brief silence, one of those special times that make me especially love the process of doing Bible translation with my fellow CAR Christian brothers. A process that, if done right, will involve serious contemplation of God’s word.
Thus by thinking on the power, beauty, and good of Him who made all power, beauty, and good, our hearts saw the glory of God and together we, like Paul says elsewhere, “were being changed from one degree of glory to the next.”
In those imaginative moments we, in a little way, were transformed: no longer was I just a backwards white boy far from his beloved holler home and in many ways very different from those around the table. But we were brothers who, at that very moment, imagined our future common home that none of us had yet seen. We saw ourselves at home in the greatness, the grandeur, the glory of a great Lord of a glorious estate.
It was a gbahuru hini moment for sure. A kind that even George Vanderbilt himself couldn’t conjure.