Really? I Had No Idea!

The First Story
Last week Jo and I were invited to the 125th anniversary of Innisfail Baptist Church. We started serving as pastor there fifty-eight years ago just before we left for Brazil. When introducing me as the speaker after the evening banquet, the current pastor told the audience that I had been the first missionary speaker he had heard after he started following Jesus as a teenager. The experience impacted him so strongly God used it to lead him into a life of full-time ministry. That happened during our first furlough in 1971-72. We didn’t know how we had impacted him until he told us last week.

The Second Story
This reminded Jo and me of a time several years ago when we spoke at a missions’ conference in central Alberta. A couple took us to their home for Sunday lunch during which I asked them to tell us their story. “I went to Bible school full time to prepare for cross-cultural missionary work” the husband said, “and my wife took classes part-time.”

He then told us about serving in several different ministries and about some startling ups and downs in their lives during which they experienced one astounding answer to prayer after another.

Jo and I were surprised when they told us that their call into full-time Christian service came one Sunday in a small mountain town in British Columbia when they heard us speak about our ministry among the Canela. Since they were new Christians, I was the first speaker they heard in church other than their pastor. God used our missionary stories to lead them to get training and begin a life of ministry. This event also happened in our first furlough many decades earlier! We had no idea that God had worked through us to point the way to ministry for them.

The Third Story
As Jo and I drove home talking about this story, I remembered the day I was waiting for my flight at a Canadian airport many years after we had completed the decades-long ministry among the Canela. A man sitting nearby leaned over and asked, “Are you Jack Popjes?”

1966 Prayer Reminder Card

I admitted I was, and he said, “I last saw you in 1966 when you spoke at a church telling us you and your family were about to leave for Brazil to learn an indigenous language and translate the Bible into it. I was a teenager at the time, and after I heard you, I gave my life to God for ministry.”

He went on to tell me that he had gone to seminary, had just completed twenty-five years as a pastor in one church and was now on his way to start ministering in another church. He had kept track of Jo and my translation work among the Canela through our newsletters. Again, Jo and I had no idea that God had worked through us, three decades earlier, to call this young man into ministry.

How Many Others?
I wonder now about the other occasions when God chose us to impact people to make major life decisions. It appears God had another, more hidden ministry for Jo and me to do besides the obvious one of translating the Bible for the Canela people of Brazil.

Future Joy
One of the joys of eternity for God’s sons and daughters will be when we meet people who were blessed by God through what we said, what we did, and how we lived our lives.

And what will be just as exciting is to finally meet people whose words God used to impact me for good. I have, of course, thanked those I know personally, but there are also authors of articles and books I want to thank.

I especially look forward to thanking the first Bible translators, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. They not only recorded the life of Jesus and all the stories He told so that the whole world could learn about Him, but they also translated everything from Aramaic to Greek. And the principles of translation that they practiced are still followed by Bible translators today.

The Final Take-Away
It’s exciting and a bit scary to realize that you and I are constantly influencing people—by our passion, by our words, and by our actions—yet most of the time we don’t even realize it.

May we all be the kind of people through whom God works to challenge others, to inspire, and impact people in positive ways.

Comfort in Culture Shock

Comfort in Culture Shock
Most of us experience some form of anxiety when we travel outside the comfort zone of our own country, language and cultural setting. This feeling of unease is called culture shock and although unpleasant, it is not life-threatening. Or is it?

Our first missionary term in Brazil was filled with multiple opportunities to experience culture shock. We adapted to two cultures, learned two languages and invented a writing system for one of them. Living with the Canela people in their jungle villages, we learned to live without clean water, plumbing, electricity, mail, and phone service. That’s fine during a few weeks of vacation camping, but a strain for six months at a stretch with three pre-school children.

The society to which we were adapting found comfort in a woven palm-leaf mat for sleeping, sitting cross legged on the hard clay floor, a pair of shorts for the men and a piece of wrap-around-the-hips cloth for the women. We learned to do without most things we had been used to for the first three decades of our lives. In all this, we experienced the fact of the Holy Spirit as our Comforter. We often needed to feel His comforting peace and Presence to relax the tensions we felt.

Back to Canada
After four years of adjusting to these stresses we returned to Canada for a furlough. I thought I had it all together. My motto was, “Bring it on! The God of all comfort and I can deal with it.” That is why it was such a surprise when one culture shock situation nearly cost me my life. Right in my own country!

My brother Henry had bought a used car for us and now accompanied me to the government registry office to register it and get the license plates.

A Major Culture Shock
I was surprised when, instead of waiting for an hour in a long line, it was our turn and the clerk called us to the counter, “We’d like to register this vehicle,” Henry said, handing the clerk the bill of sale and the certificate of insurance. She glanced over them, mentioned the fee which I handed over in cash. She worked her typewriter for a few minutes, then reached under the counter and clattered the license plates on the counter. She dropped the registration card, bill of sale and insurance certificate on top of them, looked over my shoulder and called, “Next.”

My mind still flooded with memories of enduring endless hours of Brazil’s bureaucracy, I picked up the papers and license plates and in a shocked daze slowly turned away from the counter.

“Let’s go,” Henry said and started walking to the door. I followed him wordlessly as nightmare remembrances of endless red tape whirling through my mind. I walked through the door, reliving the frustrating, sometimes day-long standing in multiple lines in Brazil to accomplish what I had just done in five minutes.

I was in full-blown culture shock as I crossed the sidewalk, stepped off the curb and took the first step to certain death. That’s when Henry grabbed my arm and yanked me out of the way of the oncoming bus.

His brusque life-saving action broke through my home-country, re-entry culture shock. As Henry drove me home, I explained to him what agonies I used to endure when dealing with bureaucracy in Brazil.

The fact that God had prompted Henry to grab and jerk me out of harm’s way so brusquely was a great comfort to me.

The Fires in Brazil–Fake News

The Fires in Brazil

I often ask myself, when watching or reading news online. “Is this event real, or has it been manipulated to be sensational?”

Since television producers depend on advertising for their income, the more people watch their programs, the better. And the more sensational the program is, the more people will watch it. Most of the time I just need to accept what I see as true since I don’t know enough about a situation to judge correctly.

But not in the past few weeks!
When news programs depicted the imminent destruction of the Amazon rainforest, I said, “Wait a minute! I know something about that!”

Our family lived for over two decades in and on the edge of that rainforest, and I have traveled extensively in Brazil. So, let me assure you right now, the alarming reports about the imminent destruction of the Amazon rainforest by wildfires are FAKE NEWS.

The Amazon Rainforest is NOT in danger of burning up.
The pictures of fires we see on television and online are NOT taken inside the Amazon rainforest. They are taken much farther south and are simply showing the best way to clear land and prepare it for agriculture—a method that has been practiced for centuries, long before Europeans came to Brazil.

What Europeans and North Americans don’t realize is that Brazil’s vast Amazon jungle rainforest extending out to a nearly a thousand kilometres from the banks of the three-thousand-kilometer-long Amazon river, is utterly unlike any forest in western North America.

Most trees in western North America are softwood, resinous trees, like spruce, pine, fir, cedar, hemlock and tamarack, which catch fire easily. Well over two thousand out-of-control wildfires raged in British Columbia in 2018. Over half of them were caused by lightning strikes. Hundreds of thousands of hectares of forest burn in western North America every year. The largest one on record is a single fire in British Columbia and Alberta that burned 1,600,000 hectares (four million acres).

The Amazon Rainforest is Fireproof
In stark contrast, the Amazon rainforest is a fireproof forest consisting of gigantic hardwood trees as tall as a ten, fifteen, or even twenty story building. The daily thunderstorms over vast areas of the rainforest produce thousands of lightning strikes, yet never a wildfire. The rainforest is well named. It rains constantly somewhere in that forest every day—an average of fifteen million tons of rainwater every minute, every day, all year long.

No wonder the Amazon rainforest is a soggy, swampy, fireproof hardwood jungle! That is a good thing because it not only produces at least six percent of the oxygen we breathe, it also has a huge, irreplaceable biodiversity of vegetation, animals, and insects. All this rainwater flows out into the Atlantic at a rate of 200,000 cubic metres per SECOND in the dry season, and 300,000 cubic metres per SECOND in the rainy season.

Replacing Trees with Oxygen Producing Food Crops
The Canela village where we lived is not located in the Amazon rainforest, but south of it near a vast, sparsely treed grassy plain. In April or May, the Canelas head out to the margins of creeks and streams where, instead of grass and scrub brush, the soil produces good-sized trees and thick underbrush. Each family spends many weeks preparing three or four hectares to plant their gardens by chopping down these trees. Some are old-growth forest; most are trees that grew up in old gardens that were abandoned after a few years of use. They cut off the branches and slash down the underbrush. They leave the trees to dry for months in the blazing sun during the last part of the six-month-long dry season. Then in August, the men return to set fire to the dry chopped-down bush. The fire burns fiercely but stops dead at the edge of the living forest. During the September rains they plant their gardens—rice, squash, beans and lots of root crops like manioc.

Tens of thousands of backwoods farmers and ranchers follow the practice of replacing trees and undergrowth with oxygen producing agricultural crops all over the part of Brazil that is south of the Amazon rainforest. The population in the vast Amazon rainforest is very low, so slash-and-burn agriculture is not practiced there to any great extent. The largest city on the north bank of the Amazon River is Manaus. On satellite pictures it is a small grey blob in a vast green ocean of trees. The human population is minuscule along the thousands of kilometres of Amazon river and the further thousands of kilometres of tributary rivers in the Amazon rainforest.

Back in the late 1960s, before there was a passable road into the Canela village, Jo and I used to fly to the village in a small single-engine plane. We avoided traveling in August since there was no GPS guidance and the pilot couldn’t see to navigate because of the smoke. And that was fifty years ago! Fire has been the primary way of clearing land for as long as Brazil has had a human population.

This month’s experience with news reporting reminded me to take all sensational news with a grain of salt.

Parabens Brasil!
By the way, this Saturday is the 7th of September, Brazil’s Independence Day. Parabens Brasil! Eleven of our family plant to celebrate this weekend with plenty of Brazilian food!

The Last Before the Summer Blogging Break

  1. An Important 50th Anniversary
    Tomorrow, Friday the 21st of June is National Indigenous Peoples Day. And here is an amazing coincidence!
    This June is the 50th anniversary marking a series of pivotal events in our lives with the Canela, a Brazilian Indigenous People group.
    In the first week of June we met Canelas for the first time, and the Canela chief communicated with me through a little Portuguese and a lot of gestures, inviting us to live in his village to serve his people by doing medical work, and teaching them to read and write.
    In the second week, I ceremoniously received the Canela name, Prejaka.
    The third week, after ten years of study and training, we moved into a temporary Canela village to begin our twenty-two years of service.
    And, Yes, next year, in 2020, the Canela will be celebrating the 50th anniversary of the new village site where we lived for decades in one of the first houses to be built.
  1. Why I Identify with Indigenous Peoples
    I paid close attention in a grade five history class in Holland when I heard that the Frysk (Frisians) were the earliest known indigenous people of Holland with their own Frysk language and culture going back to 700 BC. I am a full-blooded, indigenous Frisian since my parents, grandparents are Frisians, born in Fryslan—now called Friesland.

    My great-grandfather’s family. My grandfather is the second from the left, in the back row.

    When the Batavian immigrants arrived in Holland, coming down the Rhine river from Germany along with Romans from Italy around 100 BC, they displaced my indigenous Frisians ancestors who ended up living in swampy areas along the north coast of Holland, in Friesland. A half million Frisians still speak their own language. Yes, the Bible has been translated into Frisian.

  1. A Major Reason to Celebrate!
    Our family is giving thanks to God that after three and four months of surgeries, complications, chemotherapy, multiple tests and exams, Jo, wife, mother and grandma has been pronounced cancer-free. Yes, we are celebrating!
  1. Summer Focus on Writing Memoirs
    This will be the last InSights and OutBursts post until September. I am taking my traditional blogging break over the summer. Not because I am going to stop writing. Oh no!
    I am working hard on the second volume of my memoirs—the years from 1950 when I arrived in Canada as a twelve-year old boy, to 1966 when Jo and I in our late twenties arrived in Brazil with our three pre-school children, one of whom was only four months old. Those sixteen years were a time when God prepared us for our decades of service in Brazil.
    So, the working title is The Preparation Years. The third book will be The Production Years. The first volume, The Misadventures of Hansje, is the Prequel.
  1. Summer Family Vacation and Reunion
    In the first two weeks of August, we will have a family vacation with some camping, and at least one day of family reunion with my siblings and their families. God is good. More reason to celebrate!
    Here’s hoping you will all have great reasons to celebrate this summer too!

Whatever Happened to All Those Pentecost Converts?

One moment 120 Christians were quietly praying together, and the next moment the hall was filled with a howling hurricane. Then they saw what looked like flames of fire that spread to every person. Running out they started telling what God had done. The crowds were utterly bewildered to hear them speaking in their own languages even though they came from fifteen different countries. Peter then preached a sermon which resulted in 3,000 converts with Jewish backgrounds.

Overlooked by Church Historians
Acts chapter two lists the fifteen countries represented by these 3,000 new believers. We know them by their modern names:
Nine countries in the Middle East: Palestine, Gaza, Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Iran.
Four countries in north-east Africa: Libya, Egypt, Ethiopia, Sudan.
Three countries in south-east Europe: Crete, Italy, Greece.

Twenty years before the apostle Paul started his missionary journeys in western Turkey and Greece, these three-thousand new believers—an average of 200 new believers per country—returned within weeks to evangelize their own people and spread the Good News for 2,000 kilometres in every direction from Jerusalem. Jesus established His Church in the whole Middle Eastern region as well as in north-east Africa and south-west Asia.

Christians Are Surprised
The reason that this is a surprise to many Christians is well-stated by Paul-Gordon Chandler in his book, God’s Global Mosaic. “In Western theological colleges the study of church history begins in Jerusalem and proceeds quickly westward with the apostle Paul. Then there is a jump from the early church fathers to the medieval Roman Catholic Church and the Protestant Reformation. Consequently, a student can be left with the impression that the church somehow ceased to exist in the lands of its origin.”

Strong Through Suffering
Although little is taught about the Church in the Middle East and Africa, these countries had strong, thriving churches. In Libya, for instance, archaeological evidence indicates the presence of a vibrant, creative Christian communityfrom early in the first century until the Muslim conquest of A.D. 643. All these churches endured enormous persecution. First under the Roman Empire, then under the Byzantine or Eastern Roman Empire, Christians were harassed and martyred for centuries.

Christianity survived in all the areas where portions of the Bible were available in the language of the people. Where the church used translation into Greek or Latin instead of the local language, the church did not survive.

With the spread of Islam came more widespread oppression and killing that continues even today. The first time the word genocide was used to describe the targeted killing of  people group was one-hundred years ago when the Muslim Ottoman Empire was accused of killing Christians in Armenia in eastern Turkey, an area far from where the apostle Paul traveled.

The Christians in northern Iraq were persecuted so much they were forced to migrate every couple of generations, much like European Anabaptist groups such as the Mennonites, Hutterites, and Amish had to do centuries later.

“Killing Christians Pleases God”
God has been faithful, the Church in the Middle East has endured, and the twelve million Christians currently living in these nations continue to carry out powerful ministries under some of the most repressive regimes on earth.

What sobers me is that these millions of Middle Eastern brothers and sisters in the faith have a heritage of suffering few of us can look back on. These believers have endured for generations and continue to persevere in their faith even though most are treated as second class citizens and some of them live among people who sincerely believe that to kill a Christian wins favour with God.

What about Us?
In comparison, we western Christians, especially in English speaking nations, have had it relatively easy for many generations, since we are living in countries where the laws are based on biblical principles. But as secular humanist ideology grows stronger, governments now feel free to marginalize Christian principles and repeal the laws based on them.

In some European countries, Christian schools are closed, home-schooling is banned, and children are forced to attend public schools where the parents have no input into what is being taught. There are local governments even in North America that promote the same atheistic, humanist agenda.

And what if these rather mild acts of discrimination provoked, not just a howling hurricane of protest, but a deep spirit of unity among Christians, leading to an outpouring of the Holy Spirit?

What if, along with uniting to protest, we also united in praising God and praying for strength to endure increasing persecution?

Would we grow strong in faith like our suffering brothers and sisters elsewhere in the world?

Would we, like them, also live by the words of Jesus, “In this world, you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world?” John 16:33 (NIV).


Learning to Laugh at Myself

It happened to me in the early years of television in the late 1950s. The small Baptist church I attended had the opportunity to fill a half an hour of Sunday afternoon air-time on the local television station.

Since I frequently sang in church, my part was to sing a solo, and I chose How Great Thou Art. I felt at ease since I had sung this piece many times, and my favourite pianist was with me to play the piano. I was a recent high school graduate and still years away from voice training in Bible school, but was confident I would do well, even though this was my first no-do-over, live television performance.

On cue, I smiled at the camera, the pianist played a brief introduction, and I launched into the first verse and chorus, followed by the second verse and chorus. All was going well.

My First Mistake
As the pianist played the customary interlude before the last verse, I happened to glance to one side of the camera and suddenly saw a monitor with my face on it looking off to one side. The unexpected shock blanked out the words for the third verse. When the pianist played the third verse, I just stood there smiling into the camera, then sang the chorus again and thankfully, I was done.

I had never forgotten the words of a song before, and I felt terrible making such a mistake, and on live television!

My Second Mistake
The next morning at my ditch-digging job, a plumber came by. He looked at me and said, “Hey I saw you sing on television yesterday afternoon!”
Before he could say another word, I apologized for forgetting the words and went on and on about how it had happened. When I finally ran down, he said, “It sounded great to me. I didn’t notice any problem. I’m just glad to know another Christian is working on this project.”

A lesson on not taking myself so seriously, and learning to laugh at myself.

Another Mistake—and Laughter
Decades later I was the main speaker at numerous missions fund-raising banquets. At one banquet while greeting guests, I met a dozen teachers. So, at one point in my after-dinner speech, I thanked the teachers for coming and told a stirring story of a teacher who had taught our daughters in Brazil. The audience spontaneously applauded, and I opened my mouth and closed it again, having forgotten where in the speech I had interrupted myself.

“Um, before I told this teacher story, where was I?” I said.
A lady near the front spoke up, “The Canela kids were stealing the learn-to-read booklets.”
“Right!” I said, “How could I forget that?” I laughed, the audience laughed with me, and I continued with my stories.

Decades of Mistakes—and Laughter
I had decades of practice laughing at myself. Arriving in Brazil, and learning to speak Portuguese, Jo and I made people laugh many times as we fumbled and stumbled our way through a sentence. And that was the easy part.

When we arrived among the uninhibited Canela, they screamed with laughter at our mistakes, repeating them to others for their merriment. They couldn’t wait for us to open our mouths so they could have a good laugh. We, of course, learned quickly to laugh with them.

I remember the first time I told a funny story to a group of Canela men, and no one laughed until the punch line. What an achievement!

The Recipe for a Fun-Filled Life
We Christians must take our mission, our ministry seriously, but never ourselves. God is very clear about this. “Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought.” Romans 12:3 (NIV).
Remember that every time we make a mistake, we are simply confirming our humanity.
We all like to have fun.

Well, when we learn to laugh at ourselves, we will never stop having fun.