A picture from our travels in Iceland in front of a pretty waterfall the name of which has a bunch of letters and sounds cool but I'll never be able to pronounce.
A picture from our travels in Iceland in front of a pretty waterfall the name of which has a bunch of letters and sounds cool but I’ll never be able to pronounce.

I had an awkward encounter the other day with a kind lady behind the cash register. I was at a local store picking up a few necessities. We’d finished the transaction and she handed me the bag after which I smiled and, on instinct, uttered a word that sounds like “tock”.

She looked puzzled.

“Takk,” I repeated.

“Tick?” She asked.

I spoke louder. “TAAK!”

She appeared startled. I looked at her expectantly. She stared back at me. The folks behind me in line darted their eyes back and forth between us like they were watching a ping-pong match. Finally I realized my mistake and was somewhat embarrassed.

“Sorry,” I said. “I meant to say ‘thank you.’”

And with no further means of explanation, I turned and sprinted out of the store.

All this goes to say that we’ve arrived back in America safe and sound. Our plane touched down Thursday night. After sitting on the runway for nearly an hour while our pilot tried to figure out which gate we belonged at (“Sorry about the delay, Lufthansa seems to think they own the terminal these days”), nearly losing our customs slip (“that’s not really important is it?”), learning that immigration officers don’t have the best sense of humor (“what were you doing in Iceland?” “Well, I wasn’t getting a tan now was I?” “….”), we found our bags and met my family outside a crowded airport terminal. We were back home.

The first (and arguably only) Icelandic word I learned is “takk.” It means “thanks” or “thank you.” I learned this word years ago when it was released as the title of an album by one of my favorite bands, whose origin I would go on to learn was the small north Atlantic country I which would quickly absorb my fascination. They released the album on the heels of their first world tour, as a tribute to their country of origin, to the people who had launched them into their career. It’s a beautiful album, with a simple title and a pure message: “takk…thank you.”

The word is easy to say, flows smoothly off the tongue. Accompanied with smile and a nod, it communicates genuine appreciation, simple sincerity. Perhaps it’s because this word was introduced to me with the beauty of an album of music holding it up, or perhaps it was just the foreign nature of it, but I always found that it held a greater weight and significance than it’s English counterpart. And while in Iceland it’s the one word I could communicate easily and freely. I ended every encounter with a small nod and “takk”. It became instinctive for me, more so than saying “thank you”.

Which is why, when it comes to showing our gratitude for this trip, I think we’ll revert from English and embellish in one final Icelandic indulgence. I hope you don’t mind. Because there’s a few people to whom we wish to say “takk”.

To everyone who supported us and prayed for us before this trip, to those who gave financially to the fund that sent us over to Iceland, who encouraged us, and equipped us: takk. When we initially conceived the idea of taking this trip, we imagined it’d be difficult to raise support. We cannot tell you how grateful we are for the way in which numerous people rallied behind us. To all of you who supported us in prayers, letters, encouragement, finances and numerous other ways before our trip: takk.

To the people at Gordon-Conwell who educated us, the administration behind the Overseas Missions Practicum who provided for the class and infrastructure behind the program, and our professors and mentors on both sides of the pond: takk. Much thanks to Bill and Gunnar who hosted us in country and the endless efforts they put into providing a place for us to stay and the countless logistical efforts it took for us to even come and be with them during this time. Our time in country was not a walk in the park for them and we are incredibly grateful for their selfless service in shuffling us around, finding housing for us, and being our tour guides and translators while we were there. To everyone who providing for the logistics, infrastructure and education for this trip: takk.

To everyone who has supported, encouraged and prayed for us while we were on the trip, to those who sent an email, message or simply lifted us up daily while we were in Iceland… we are infinitely grateful to you as well. An email here, a message there, went a long way to encouraging us at just the right time. Furthermore, we cannot underestimate the power of prayer. This trip was not without it’s difficulties and prayers, through the grace of God, supported us in ways you can’t begin to imagine. For countless supporters who aided us and lifted us during this trip behind the scenes, for those of you loved us anonymously: takk.

To the people we’ve met on this trip, to the endless Icelanders whose gracious hearts, welcoming attitudes and loving spirits have permanently endeared us to you and your country, we are eternally gratefully. It’s incredible to think that six weeks ago we entered a new country alone and yet this past week we had to spend five days saying goodbye to a community we’d come to know and love. We realize that this didn’t happen just by letting people into our hearts but because others let us into theirs. And for the willingness to be open to complete strangers entering into your lives, we are very grateful. To our new friends, to those we met along the way, to the numerous people who opened up their houses and homes, bought us a cup of coffee, offered us a ride, gave us a place to stay, made us a meal, even gave us directions when we were lost, we cannot say it enough: takk.

Lastly, but of greatest importance, thanks be to God. Iceland is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever visited, filled with some of the most beautiful and wonderful people I’ve ever met. It is a place yearning for redemption, yes, but it is still a place that sings the praises of its Creator. We are infinitely grateful to and thankful for a Creator who did not abandon any of us to our own devices but actually chooses to utilize us in His redemptive work. And we’re thankful for the fact that He is a creative Creator, whose beauty is reflected in the diverse and brilliant landscape of Iceland. To Him first and foremost we give our infinite and foremost gratitude for allowing us to be part of His work in that country. And with grateful hearts we say, simply but sincerely: takk.

The past six weeks have been a memorable journey we’re not soon to forget. There’ve been ups and downs, sunsets and rainy days. Through it all, we’re grateful for the experience and thankful to everyone who supported us and provided a way for it to happen. We cannot say it enough nor is there a word in English or Icelandic that means it as sincerely as we do.

So we’ll just keep it simple and mean it from the bottom of our hearts:







With the Icelandic students and the American team during our last day of ESL class. Also, I promise the Icelandic students were actually smiling before this picture was taken.
With the Icelandic students and the American team during our last day of ESL class. Also, I promise the Icelandic students were actually smiling before this picture was taken.

I caused quite the guffaw the other day when I admitted to a group of new friends that I couldn’t quite tell the difference between Polish and Icelandic. As I learned when the laughter died down, this is somewhat akin to admitting that Lady Gaga reminds one of Bach. Afterwards Bill thanked me for making him look like a native in comparison, which reminded me of the time my French Professor wrote on my report card that I brought a “humorous element to the classroom” while also recommending that I withdraw from continuing language studies. Win some, lose some, I guess.

All this goes to say that Icelandic is not the easiest language to just pick up. While it features the usual assortment of accentuations common to other European tongues (é, í, ó, etc…) there are several letters I’d only ever seen in old editions of Beowulf that cranky English professors handed out on the first day of literature class as some weird form of a joke. For example, frequent appearances are made by this strange d- looking letter which appears to have been mortally wounded by an arrow (ð). This quirky fellow is apparently pronounced like a “th”. But then there’s a p whose flag is lowered to half-mast (þ) which is also pronounced like a “th”. Why are there two? I’ve no idea. It’s all Polish to me.

As if the appearance of these befuddling letters weren’t enough, there’s the addition of strange accentuations and combinations of letters to further confuse the linguistically impaired American. Take, for instance, the o, which is joined by some dots having a pow-wow atop its head (ö). I think that sounds like a “u” or something. Someone equated it to a French word for me which made things about as clear as mud. Then there’s this funky “a” and an “e” who simply aren’t leaving room for the Holy Spirit (æ) and as a result, I’ve no clue what sound they’re making.

So while we haven’t been learning much Icelandic in our time here, we have been teaching a little English. Last week, Mollie and I assisted another team of Americans who came over to put on an ESL (English as a Second Language) Camp as a ministry of our church. The camp had been advertised to the local community for quite some time, and since English is a required language for most Icelanders, many local parents jumped at the opportunity for their kids to get free language training. Come opening day, we had over fifteen children to tutor in English language.

Most of the children were aged eight to thirteen and at first meeting were rather quiet and shy. If I had to guess, I would have said that they didn’t know much English at all. If I asked them a question, they looked at me as though I’d inquired as to the chemical make-up of Eyjafjallajökull then whispered something to each other in Icelandic. And since my Icelandic is about as competent as my basket weaving, I was incapable of communicating with them. So for the most part I’d just sit, smile, color a smiley face, and maybe stick out my tongue on the whimsical hope that cross-cultural barriers didn’t translate my goofiness to some sort of rude or lewd gesture. It didn’t seem too. They laughed.

The next day, a few of these shy kids showed up with new friends who were as shy as they’d been just a day previously. But now the shy kids were lively and interactive. They strolled right up to me at the registration table and asked for their nametags in perfect English, then requested I make one for their friend. I was so taken aback that they had to ask a second time, and they even repeated the name slowly. One child took the liberty of spelling it out for me before asking: “Are you learning English too?” As it turns out, many of these kids knew English pretty darn well. All they needed was a little confidence.

There’s something beautiful about being around languages I don’t understand. Last year, my wife and I worshiped with a church in Nicaragua. She knows some Spanish, so she picked up on parts of the worship service. The only Spanish I knew I’d learned while working at Wendy’s in high school (and, let’s just say, it was hardly appropriate for the house of God). So she was able to sing some of the songs while I just clapped along and shouted “Jesús!” whenever I could manage the timing. It was wonderful.

As I type this I’m sitting in a café, listening to a group of students talk in German beside me. Yesterday I talked to someone from Holland who spoke five languages; a girl from Switzerland overheard our conversation and spoke with us as well. Today, we attended a prayer service with other leaders in the city; at the end of it we read along as the group prayed the Lord’s Prayer in Icelandic. Sunday services here sometimes consist of worship songs in Icelandic, and other times one of the congregants leads us with a beautifully thick British accent. One of the members of the congregation here has read the Bible in 7 different languages (and counting!).

The beautiful thing about the kingdom of God is that it transcends language barriers. Every time I get to experience this truth, every time I meet believers from a different culture, every time I hear the Lord’s Prayer in a different tongue or worship with people who speak a different language, I’m humbled by the magnificence of the God we praise. The God we all proclaim, the God we all attempt to magnify, whether it be in Spanish, French, Icelandic, German, English or the Dutch tongue, this God is the real God. He is the only God.

And, as God, He transcends all language. None of our human attempts at communication contain Him; none of us get it right. But we are still trying, and our attempts make something beautiful. Something beautiful indeed.

Every time I worship with a church in another culture, every time I have the honor of teaching Icelandic children my language, I’m reminded of the day when all Christians will be gathered and will worship God together in the heavenly tongue. Oh glorious day! the glimpses of it I see in smiling children, setting suns and hands clapping to the tune of hymns on Sunday mornings.

I’ll tell you one thing: I can’t wait until I get to speak in the heavenly tongue. I can’t wait until I learn that language.

But until then, I guess I’ll try and learn some Icelandic. Or maybe Polish. After all, they’re not that different.