I want to tell you about the time I spoke in tongues.
It was about 1973 and I was on my mission in South Africa. I had returned from Rhodesia and was about a year old in missionary terms. Rhodesia had been an exclusively English-speaking area, so my Afrikaans had not grown or improved for eight months. I was given a junior companion and assigned to an Afrikaans area. I was scared.
The first few weeks were a struggle. I didn’t know Afrikaans well enough, and my junior companion not at all. The only thing that kept me going was faith – faith that the Lord would put the words into my mouth when they were needed. Mostly I stumbled, but we worked hard.
My junior companion was a very interesting fellow. He was a senior at Berkley when he decided to go on a mission. He had an IQ about double of mine. The first full day we were together we got up to do morning scripture study. New missionaries were supposed to spend most of their study time learning the discussions – you know, the ones we did by rote. That morning he was thumbing through the pages with his eyes half closed, then picked up the scriptures. I suggested he go back to memorizing the discussions.
“I’ve memorized them,” he replied.
“You know them all?” I countered in disbelief.
I didn’t believe him, and opened my discussions to some random place. I started a concept, and he finished it. We did this in two or three different places until I was certain he really did know them. I was amazed because it had taken me months to know them as well as he did on his first day.
“How could you know them so soon?” I demanded.
He looked at his lap. “I don’t want to say.”
“Because it’s embarrassing. I’ve been teased all my life because of it.”
I pondered this and finally said, “Whatever it is, I consider it a gift. It took me months to memorize the discussions.”
Finally, he said. “I have a photographic memory. I literally can’t forget. Sometimes I wish I could. When people find this out they either avoid me, or treat me like a side show.”
Something occurred to me. “Repeat the very first concept for me.”
He did it flawlessly. I helped him with pronunciation on a few words.
I asked. “What does it mean?”
He smiled sheepishly, “I have no idea.”
He had memorized seven discussions in a foreign language as a sequence of sounds, with no comprehension of what he was saying.
I laughed, and we spent the next several days translating the discussions back into English. When he had the translation, he could do it frontwards and backwards in either language. I found him to be delightful, and to this day he was my favorite companion. We did a lot of laughing, and he did a lot of correcting, like when I would start singing a hymn, he would correct every other word I sang. Finally, I told him to just keep the words of hymns to himself. We both laughed about this.
I told you this so you would understand what happened next.
Afrikaans people are very hard headed, and we had almost zero success until we knocked on this one door and an attractive lady met us pleasantly. She listened to our introduction and invited us back that evening when her husband was home. We happily agreed. Not only was she interested, but she was young and pleasant – and best of all – she spoke English.
We returned at the appointed hour to find her husband to be an intelligent and interesting fellow. He was an electrical engineer, and was excited to speak to us. We sat in their small living room and I asked if we could begin with prayer.
He nodded, switched to Afrikaans and began to pray, in part his prayer was for us to realize the error of our ways. I’m sure you have never heard someone pray in Afrikaans, so let me explain. There are two Afrikaans languages, one is the common language they all used, the other is a form of the language that only ministers use when they are preaching and praying. It is very dramatic, almost shouting at times, and uses old forms of words, kind of like thee and thy in our language, but there are old forms of almost every word. It isn’t hard to understand after you get used to it, but when someone starts using it, you know they have been to ministry school, and you’re in for a bumpy ride.
He started arguing right away. He drug out his scriptures and began quoting verse after verse, in Afrikaans. I couldn’t follow it. I asked if we could speak English, because they spoke it as well as I did. He said, that the scriptures and true religion should be preached in Afrikaans. I felt my heart sinking. Then, something odd happened.
He quoted a scripture and I understood him, and his explanation. I suggested (under inspiration) that if he would read the next verse, that he would find that his interpretation was not correct. (I still don’t know what reference he read, or what the next verse said. It was just the right thing to say.) He looked down again, and his face blanched. He quickly turned to another verse, and read it even louder.
To my ears, it sounded like he had switched back to English, though spoken with a heavy accent. I replied in Afrikaans, but it seemed like English to me. It’s hard to explain. The right words were just there for me to speak. We verbally sparred like this for several hours. With each exchange he grew more angry, and more convinced by the words I was given to speak.
He grew frustrated, and started shouting, sending us to a fiery damnation. I replied with words that came to my heart. His face grew red, then white. He told us that we were the devil’s missionaries.
I don’t remember the words I said, but the content was that he had just spent two hours listening to servants of God, and feeling the Holy Ghost as we discussed the scriptures, and that he knew what we had told him was true, and that if he rejected it that a judgment would come upon him and his home, and that he would know that it was from God.
You can well guess what happened next. He stood and I thought he was going to become violent. We stood and left immediately without even saying goodbye. As I was standing on his front porch the thought came to me to dust off my feet. We were instructed to never dust off our feet, that we didn’t want to have to accuse anyone on judgment day. I hesitated, and had another confirmation to dust off my feet.
My companion saw that I had stopped just on their doormat. “Are you sure?” he said to me. (He was unusually perceptive, as you can imagine.) I nodded and wiped my feet on their doormat. We got in our VW bug and left.
As we were leaving my companion said, “Elder, that was the most amazing and eloquent teaching I have ever heard in any language. I could just follow the conversation, but you were quoting scriptures that I know you have never memorized, and all in Afrikaans.”
I replied, “No, we switched to English, lucky for me.”
He shook his head. “No, Elder, it was entirely in Afrikaans.”
“What? Are you sure? It all sounded like English to me.”
“Elder, believe me when I say, I know the difference between English and Afrikaans. From his prayer onward, the entire discussion was in Afrikaans.”
I was speechless, then I realized what a miracle it had been. “I guess it was the gift of tongues.”
He chuckled, “and for me, it was the gift of ears, because I understood most of it.” We both laughed.
About two weeks later we found ourselves on their street looking for a different address. We both commented about this, and drove toward their home. When we came to their driveway there was only a blackened hulk of a house sitting there.
It had burned to the ground.
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