The Power of Language

I was relaxed and comfortable in the cool, breezy dining room, looking forward to some excellent food and more great conversation. I sat with my family around the laden table with our hosts, a German family who, like us, served as missionaries in Brazil. As we chatted, my friend leaned back in his chair and called down the hall to his teenage daughter still working in the kitchen.

Elsa! Wir sind bereit. Kommt schnell!  “Elsa! We’re ready. Come quickly!”

As I heard the loud voice, the urgent tone, and the last word, Schnell, a shock of fear shot through my system and I felt the icy hand of panic clench my insides. Terror traveled through thirty-five years of time and eight thousand kilometres of space to jab fear into my heart once again.

I was seven years old, walking home from school with a classmate. As we took a shortcut past a warehouse, we noticed the door was partly open, so naturally we peered in. Suddenly a German soldier carrying his machine gun ran out of a guard shack behind us shouting, Achtung! Verschwinden Sie! Schnell! “Hey! Get away! Quick!” I had heard those words before, sometimes followed by shots . . . and screams.

So long ago. So far away. So many changes. I was now an adult, a husband, a father, a missionary. And this German missionary was no occupying enemy soldier—he was my friend, my colleague and a brother in Jesus.

What then triggered this vivid, emotion laden memory?
Language. A specific language. The same language which had first filled me with fear. Had he called down that hallway in English, “Quick!!” or in Portuguese, “Rapido!!” I would not have reacted emotionally.

Much of the power of language is in the emotion it evokes in the hearer. No wonder God used language to communicate His emotion laden Love Letter to people. No wonder He uses thousands of languages to penetrate billions of human minds . . .  and hearts. No wonder He calls hundreds of thousands of His people to work together to bring His Word to every language on earth.

ScriptsGod’s message of Love has been translated into nearly five-thousand languages. But nearly four-thousand languages have less than one book of the Bible. Bible translation is on-going in nearly two-thousand languages, but there are another two-thousand languages that still await translators, prayer warriors, and financial partners.

God’s people all around the world need to listen to the urgency in His voice and get busy spreading the Message! Millions are read to hear and to respond. But we need to get at it!
Quickly! Rapido! Rapidement! Awjarê! Szybko! Snabbt! Raskt! Gyorsan! Brzo! Schnell!


Note: this story was first published five years ago in the Mandate blog series. 


Can You Explain These Coincidences Without Getting Theological?

imagesIn 1983, thirty-three years ago, a group of 40,000 Sudanese people called the Tira did not have a single word of the Bible translated into their language. Today, and for the past fifteen years, thousands of Tira people are reading the Bible in their own language and have turned to follow God.

How did that happen?

  • In November of 1983, David and Ray, two American students signed up to pray for the Tira with Wycliffe’s Bibleless Peoples Prayer Project.
  • In May of 1986, Jerry and Jan promised to pray for this group.
  • In March 1990, Jane and Margeanne committed themselves to pray.

In August 1990, a report came to the Prayer Project organizers that Avajani—a young Christian Tira man—was studying linguistics and Bible translation techniques. The organizers wrote to encourage him with the news that three teams were praying for his Tira people. They gave the names and the dates when they began to pray. Avajani’s response was astonishing! Here’s what he wrote:

  • I became a Christian in November 1983, the same month that David and Ray began to pray.
  • I was accepted for theological studies in May 1986, the same month that Jerry and Jan started to pray.
  • I heard about courses in Bible translation and was accepted as a student in March 1990, the same month that Jane and Margeanne started to pray.

After his training, he began translating and a number of portions of the Bible were published during 1999-2001.

An atheist reading this sort of astounding coincidence might well mutter to himself, “Hmm, if I didn’t know any better, I’d think that God was involved.”

God is definitely at work on planet Earth, and He invites us to join Him by praying. God has limited Himself to work on earth only in response to the prayers of His people. That is why every work of God is preceded by prayer. He moves some to pray, and some to work with their hands and minds. At rock bottom, He wants every person on earth to hear about Him in the language they know best.

Here are some links to help us join God in His work:

Note: I published this story five years ago as part of The Mandate blog series. 

Prayer for a Father

Not all lessons about prayer are taught in church. During a rushed afternoon out in the Brazilian bush, I learned one about praying for my father.

A few days earlier, my wife and I had returned from several months away at a Bible translation workshop in the city. Now we were back in the Canela village, and I was itching to finish setting up our household so that we could get back to work with our translation helpers.

In the mid-afternoon, a couple of my Canela sisters came to see me. Two Canela families had adopted Jo and me during our first session of living with the Canela, and we were now well integrated into the extended family kinship system. This had its privileges as well as responsibilities—noticeable especially since we had a four-wheel drive compact truck.

The Request
“Please take our manioc roasting pan out to the field in the hills”, one of my sisters asked. I knew from bitter experience that, along with the two-metre wide shallow metal pan, a whole load of relatives would want to catch a ride as well. Since our little truck was not much more than an overgrown jeep, it was easy to overload. I had already broken several springs driving it heavily over-loaded across rough terrain.

Blue Bomb“Okay, let’s go,” I said, wanting to get it over with as soon as possible, before the news got out and twenty people would want a ride. Within minutes we were rolling, the pan, some hoes and axes, and half a dozen sisters and brothers bouncing in the back. So far so good.

The Resentment
After an hour of resentfully grinding up and down sandy hills and fording muddy creeks I arrived at the small field-village. I had planned a quick turn around before the word spread through the fields that the truck was going to the village and . . . overloaded springs!

But no, my Canela mother came running out of the house, shouting, “My son, I’m so glad you are here. Come see your father!” Well, okay. I ran into the palm leaf hut and knelt by my old Canela father who was lying on his side on a mat on the dirt floor.

The Injury
“My back hurts”, he mumbled in a pain filled voice. “I fell from a ledge and landed on my neck and shoulders.” I leaned over him to look, and . . . what a shock! I saw an obvious break in the middle of his back, his spine broken to form an obtuse angle between the fifth and sixth thoracic vertebrae. Amazingly he could still move his legs, so the spinal cord was not damaged. But what could I do? He would never survive a seven hour-long trip on the back of a truck to the nearest doctor.

I hurriedly pulled some pain pills from the medical pouch I always carried, gave them to my mother with instructions on when to give them, and ran back to my truck. Only ten people jammed on the back, “Good, let’s go before more come!” I thought. I backed the truck around and just as I jammed it into low gear to lurch away, my conscience shouted out,

“You are a crummy Christian! You didn’t even pray for your old father! What kind of a son are you?”

The Prayer
All true. Reluctantly I shut off the engine, walked back to the hut, knelt by the old man, and put my hands on that bony lump. Then the worst missionary in Brazil prayed to the Great Healer to take care of his old father.

I returned to the truck—good, still only ten people—and drove slowly back to the village. The whole way back, I was deeply convicted about being more concerned about a possible broken truck spring than about an actual broken back in a fellow human being–someone made in the image of God.

The Answer
About a month later I had another shock. A quavering voice by the door said, “My son, I’m back.” There, to my utter astonishment, stood my old father! Bent over and leaning on a stick, the vertebrae still sticking out at an angle, he had walked all the way back from the field village! Amazing that God should answer the prayer of such a miserable missionary.

I have probably sinned more in failing to pray for people and situations than in any other way. That’s why one of my questions for accountability is, “Have you prayed at least three times this week for individuals for whom you promised to pray?” I have to work at it. My conscience doesn’t always shout as loud as it did that day in the pickup truck.

The Need
Jesus’ disciples once asked Him, “Lord, teach us to pray.” I need to pray that prayer a lot. Not “Lord, teach me HOW to pray,” but just “Teach me to pray.” All of us may need to pray this prayer from time to time.

My old Canela father died before we completed the translation of the partial Bible into Canela.

Here’s a Fathers’ Day prayer for us to pray:
“Lord, teach me to pray for the hundreds of millions of fathers around the world, who speak languages in which none of the Bible is yet translated. May translation work start soon.”

Note: I first published this story in the “Look” blog post series about nine years ago.

The Discipline of Celebration: The Calendar

Last week’s story ended with our family eating copious amounts of ice cream as we celebrated having saved enough money to pay for our travel back to Brazil. Celebrating important events has always been a part of my life. Here’s why:

Kalender2The Calendar in the Bathroom
If you have ever had the pleasure of using the washroom facilities in a well appointed Dutch home, you would have seen hanging on the wall directly in front of you a verjaardagskalender — a listing of the birthdays and anniversaries of all family members and close friends. The calendar I studied while sitting there as a boy was made of a sturdy paper that would resist a lifetime of use. It was also very simple— just the name of the month at the top of two columns of dates and names to the right. With dozens of relatives on both my Dad’s and Mom’s side of the family, every month had eight or ten relatives’ names.

The Celebrations
All these events were celebrated. No cards, but always a get-together with those who lived nearby where we sang birthday songs, drank lemonade and ate cake. And uncles gave the children shiny dimes to spend on ice cream sandwiches. Birthdays were not just family affairs. For school age children, the tradition was for the birthday boy or girl to bring a paper bag full of wrapped hard candies to hand out ceremoniously, one by one, to each of their classmates. Then the teacher would lead us in a happy birthday song.

The Notable Events Calendar
With this visible, daily childhood reminder still a vivid memory, it was only natural that I would set up a Celebrate-able Events Calendar on my computer. It lists a couple of dozen extended family birthdays and anniversaries, and a growing list of over one hundred and fifty other notable events. Like New Years Day, 1964, which celebrates Jo’s first attempt to roast a turkey for her in-laws as a young pastor’s wife and a mother of a one-year-old. And March 28, 2016, fifty-two years later when she had successful surgery for bowel cancer.

As I read through my handwritten diaries I keep adding more significant events: milestones in ministry, our arrival in Brazil, the first book of the Bible translated into Canela, the distribution of the partial Bible in Canela, my first published book. Oh, and I just checked, today, June 7, marks the day that I made the first visit to a Canela village forty-six years ago. We moved in a few weeks later, the start of our translation ministry! This calls for at least a cup of coffee and some reminiscing with Jo.

The Biblical Basis
The Old Testament is chock full of instructions from God to His people to celebrate, not just with a cup of coffee, but huge feasts commemorating what God had done for them. God designed us to focus hard on work, then stop, back off, and celebrate our accomplishments. Our bodies, minds and emotions need both activity and rest. Check out Genesis 1 where He Himself exemplified this pattern. As believers we stand on solid biblical ground when we note, record and celebrate what God has done for us or what He has done through us.

The Discipline of Celebration
Doing this on a regular basis does not happen by itself. It takes discipline. We need to think, plan and act. It will not be easy. The evil one will distract us so that we don’t notice that God did something for us. When we do recognize God’s blessings, he wants us to take them for granted. He will bring other things into our lives so we will forget about what God did for us.

Fortunately, God Himself wants us to see and remember what He has done for us. “Always giving thanks to God the Father for everything” Eph. 5:20 (NIV). Many people keep a Gratitude list. Jo and I have kept one for years. Just reading through a few of the hundreds of items encourages us. That’s a good place to start this discipline of celebration.

My goal is to list at least one significant thing for every date on the calendar, something that is worthy of remembering, thanking God for, and celebrating, with ice cream of course!

How do you keep track of God’s blessings? And, by the way, how do you celebrate them?