How God Launched My Preaching Career from a Sewage Trench

It was 1956, and I was a teenage pick-and-shovel labourer earning money to attend Bible school the following year. One day I was shin deep in slimy muck, digging around a leaking sewer pipe at the bottom of a seven-foot-deep, narrow trench between the pavement and the sidewalk. Just as vehicle seat-belt laws were still a decade in the future, so also in the 1950s, no one was concerned about using shoring planks in deep ditches.

My Silence
The crew I worked with knew I was different from them. They realized I believed in God. They had seen me pray before eating my lunch. They noticed me turn away when they swore or cursed, and they could count on me to grab the heavy end of pipe fittings or slide down into the deepest holes.

They had never heard me curse or use foul language, but they had also never heard me talk to them about Jesus, and how He had died to give us eternal life. I often felt guilty about being silent and tried to justify myself.

“These guys are all recent immigrants and don’t understand much English,” I told myself, “so they probably wouldn’t understand my explanation. Besides, they are three times as old as I am, and they wouldn’t listen to me anyway.”

God’s Action
God recognized that I needed a bit of help, so being my fellow worker (“We work together with God” 2 Cor. 6:1), He went into action and collapsed the trench I was in.

I saw it coming. I had just straightened up to fling another shovel full of mud out the top of the hole when I saw the wall of the trench sag down from the sidewalk to my right and bulge toward me. I immediately lunged my upper body toward a small open area below the pavement created by a previous cave in on my left.

No sooner were my head and shoulders below the pavement than Whumph! The bulging sidewalk side of the trench wall gave way entirely and nearly filled the hole. Covered from the neck down, I couldn’t move my arms but felt no crushing pain.

The crew was aghast. “We not seeing you,” Mico told me later, “just seeing dirt.”

“We thinking, you face down in mud,” Wojtek added, “big pile of dirt on top you. Happy we hearing you yell.”

What they heard me yell was, “I’m okay! Be careful! Don’t use a pickaxe!

Twenty minutes of digging later I climbed out of the ditch. Then, as we were loading our shovels and picks onto the truck, Mico and Laszlo pulled me aside, “Jack, we thinking you were dead.” Then I finally broke my silence.

My Sermon
“If I had still been bending over, that wall of dirt would have fallen on top of me. You would have pulled up my dead body from the mud. But my real self would now be in heaven with God. What about you? If one of you had been down there? What if we had dug up your dead body? Where would your real self be?

Mico looked very serious and, nodding his head slowly, said, “Now I thinking more about this.” And Laszlo added,” I thinking more about God.” Riding home on the back of the truck the three men talked together in a language I couldn’t understand. But, from their glances at me and the grave looks on their faces, I knew it was something serious.

I was transferred to another crew shortly afterward. I don’t know if Mico, Wojtek, or Lazlo, ever made contact with God. All I know is, I finally did my part, and more importantly, God did His. Working together, God and I gave that crew a demonstration of faith that was probably more powerful than any evangelistic sermon from a teenage ditch digger.

A Remembrance Day Special Feature

This Saturday is November 11, Remembrance Day. It means a lot to our family since we lived in enemy occupied Holland during the 2nd World War. The story in this blog post is chapter 4 of my autobiography. The first 37 chapters are a written for children and will be published in January 2018.

In Hilversum during the bitterly cold winter of 1943—’44 my name was Hansje and this is a remembrance living in fear of the bad enemy soldiers. It would be another 16 months before good Canadian soldiers came to chase away the bad ones.

Chapter 4, Hansje Gathers Firewood

When Hansje was five years old he wished that he was older because he wanted to do things that big people did. His Papa and Mama were always talking about how they needed to find more food because their family was always hungry. And now that it was cold they needed to find more firewood to burn in the heater.

Hansje always kept his eyes open when he wandered around the streets of his neighbourhood to see if he could find something valuable that didn’t belong to anybody. One day he found three nails, a screw, and a long piece of string, so he brought them home to give to his parents. Another day he found an empty bottle.

His Mama and Papa were happy when he brought things like that home because they couldn’t buy nails or string in stores anymore since the stores were empty. Hansje was happy too, because when he brought things home, it made him feel like a grown-up and not just a little kid.

One day, Hansje did something that made his Mama very happy. It was a very cold, and they had only a little bit of wood and coal to burn in their heater to make the house warm and to cook their little bit of food on. But that day, when Hansje came home from playing outside, all his pockets were full of small pieces of firewood, and his arms were so full he had to kick the door until Mama opened it. Wow! She was so glad to see all that firewood! “We’re going to be warm tonight!” she said happily. “Where did you get this firewood?” she asked.

“Oh, I found it on the street,” Hansje said, not looking her in the eye. But that was only partly true. He did pick it up from the street, but he hadn’t really found it. Instead, he had done a very dangerous thing to get it. If his Mama had known how he got all that firewood, she would have made him promise never to do it again.

But she didn’t know, so the next day, Hansje took a cloth sack, folded it up flat and stuck it into his belt. He was only five, almost six years old, but he felt much bigger since he was doing something important for his whole family. He walked down the block to a certain street corner and hid behind a hedge with three other boys. The other boys were six and seven years old and told little Hansje to sit really still while they waited.

They waited until finally, Hansje could hear the rumble of a large truck driving down the street. One enemy soldier was driving, and one was sitting beside him holding his big gun. The back of the truck was full of—you guessed it—small pieces of firewood! And sitting on top of the pile was a prisoner with a chain on his leg. The chain was fastened to the truck, so he couldn’t jump off and run away. He was a good man from the city where Hansje lived. But the enemy soldiers had taken him as a prisoner and made him work for them.

Hansje and his friends scrunched down further into the hedge so the bad soldiers in the cab of the truck wouldn’t see them. His heart was pounding with excitement. He prayed silently that God would help him, although he wondered if God would be okay with helping him do something sneaky.

As the big truck slowly drove by, Hansje and his friends crept out of their hiding-place. They ran right close behind the truck so the bad soldiers in the cab couldn’t see them, not even in the truck mirrors. As soon as the truck began to turn the corner, the prisoner started throwing armloads of firewood off the back of the truck.

The boys picked up every scrap of wood that the prisoner threw off the truck. They could only do it by that corner because the road was so narrow that the driver had to be very careful how he drove and didn’t have time to look in the rear-view mirrors.

What Hansje and those other boys did was, of course, a very dangerous thing to do. What if one of the bad soldiers had looked in the rear-view mirrors and had seen some boys picking up firewood from the street? They would have stopped the truck, jumped out, yelled at the boys, and shot their guns to make them drop the firewood. Also, the prisoner would get into big trouble.

The boys knew this, so as soon as they had stuffed all the firewood into their bags, they quickly ran away home, and the prisoner just sat there looking as if nothing had happened as the truck kept driving away.

When Hansje got home, his Mama was very happy with the bag of wood. That made Hansje happy too, and he felt even more like a grown-up.  Hansje never told his Mama how he got that wood. Good thing too, or she would have been worried.

That night in his bedtime prayer Hansje thanked God for helping him get firewood and he prayed that God would soon sent good soldiers to chase the bad ones away.



Not Just a Warning

The Warning
“Don’t you know? Those people want to kill you!” My friend meant it as a warning, but when he explained, I took it as a great compliment.

The Explanation
One Monday morning in 1972, I walked 35 kilometres from the Canela village to the Ourives river, swam across it, and slept on its bank. The next day walked another 35 kilometres to the town of Barra do Corda. I stayed with Jim, a missionary friend. After mailing my letters, I spent the day buying dental and other medical supplies needed in the village. I enjoyed another night’s rest and the following morning at breakfast announced I was walking back to the village.

Jim looked up with concern and said, “You can’t walk back to the village.”

“Why not? I just walked down Monday and Tuesday. I can surely walk back Thursday and Friday. The medicines aren’t that heavy.”

“Don’t you know?” Jim said, “Some of those people along the trail want to kill you! Many people living in the hamlets between town and the river are relatives of the storekeepers in town and they don’t like you.”

“Why? What did I ever do to them?”

“Your name is mud among the merchants. For generations they’ve been ripping off the Canelas who come into town to trade baskets for tools and cloth. But last year, you and Jo taught many Canelas to read and do arithmetic. Now the storekeepers can’t cheat them anymore. Everyone knows you are here and that you will be walking back. If some hothead sees you are alone, he might well take a shot at you.”

The Affirmation
I happily accepted Jim’s offer of a ride to the river in his jeep. I was glad to get through the dangerous area safely and for the 35 kilometres I didn’t have to walk. Beyond that, however, I felt a deep happiness that had nothing to do with physical safety or comfort. I felt profoundly affirmed for our years of language analysis and educational work among the Canela that were now making a positive impact. As linguists and teachers we had brought about justice for the oppressed and downtrodden.

The Joy
The joy I felt reminded me of the four levels of affirmation and praise that C. S. Lewis wrote about:

  • The first level is looking at work we have done and saying to ourselves, “Hey, I did a good job!” It is what the Creator did after each act of creation, as recorded repeatedly in Genesis 1, “God saw that it was good.”
  • The second level is someone else telling us, “You did a good job!” God wants us to praise Him for what He did. After doing a good job, we all have a basic need to hear someone tell us that we did a good job.
  • The third level is overhearing someone telling another, “Hey, she did a good job!” God wants to overhear us telling others how well He worked in our lives. Discovering that the merchants were no longer able to cheat the Canelas was like overhearing someone say, “Jack and Jo did a good job!” and I was full of joy, and still am.
  • The highest level of affirmation is God praising us for doing a good job. At Creation He praised His own works having seen that they were good. When God looks Jo and me in the eye and says, “You did a good job!” our joy will be complete

The Epilogue
It is now 45 years and two generations later. Many Canelas adults and all the young people now can read and write in their own language as well as in Portuguese. Bright, eager-to-learn Canela students now attend higher grades in town. They are earning income and come into the stores with money in their hands where storekeepers treat them as the equals they are.

The Need
Many millions of people all over the developing world are still like the Canelas were when Jo and I arrived in their village— illiterate, and without any of God’s Word in their language. We are nearly 80 years old, but if we could revert to being in our twenties . . . we’d do it again!





Twists and Turns in Life’s Road

(NOTE: Yes, this is Jack’s InSights and OutBursts blog. It looks different on the blog site because I have switched to a different, cheaper and yet, more up-to-date and safer system. Here’s hoping there will be no more computer breakdowns!)

Twists and Turns in Life’s Road
No part of our life corresponds to a long, straight, flat road. When we think about our relationships, our living conditions, our health, or our careers, we have all experienced ups and downs, twists and turns, and unexpected detours. These changes in direction are usually caused by some startling experiences which force us to make a decision—a decision that often turns out to be pivotal, moving us into a very different path.

This spring I had that kind of critical experience and wrote about it in the blog post “I’m Sick.” I was surprised that I had to cancel a speaking engagement. I can’t remember ever in my long career as a public speaker not being able to fulfill a speaking commitment. I took it as an indication that it was time to change our career focus.

The Turns in Our Career Path
It’s not the first time Jo and I have retired from one type of work and taken up another.

  • We started full-time Christian ministry fifty-five years ago, at age twenty-four, pastoring a church.
  • At twenty-eight we left for Brazil, having made a pivotal decision to join Wycliffe and become linguists and Bible translators. This was a long road, lots of ups and downs, but we were on it for twenty-six years until the Canela people of Brazil were reading a partial Bible in their own language.
  • We left Brazil at age fifty-two to travel throughout Canada and the United States, speaking at churches, schools, conferences, and Wycliffe promotional banquets.
  • Then, at age fifty-six, I was appointed as President of Wycliffe Canada and later of Wycliffe Caribbean and traveled in a completely different career direction.
  • When I was sixty-four years old, I returned to traveling to hundreds of cities and speaking at seventy to ninety events per year.
  • Now, at age seventy-nine, I have retired from speaking—except for local or specifically Wycliffe Canada events—and have turned the corner into yet another vocation as I enter my eighties.

A New Focus: Write My Autobiography
During our fifty-five years of full-time ministry, I wrote almost every day—diaries, newsletters, reports, and sermons, and for the last twenty years, weekly blog posts. Wycliffe published three books of collections of these blog posts in the past ten years and I published the fourth one, A Tickle in the Funny Bone, this year. My writing has always been a part of whatever ministry career I was involved in, but it was never the primary focus.

Recently I asked myself, “What might God still want me to accomplish before I die?” And the answer was clear. “Leave a legacy of personal God-stories of my life for my family, friends, and the public.

So, although I still do some speaking, my primary focus is to write my autobiography. I wrote the first book this year as a family project.

  • My wife Jo has always been my primary critic. (No, she doesn’t criticize me, she critiques my writing!)
  • Two granddaughters, who are also designing the cover, illustrated the thirty-seven stories.
  • Another granddaughter and our oldest daughter edited the book.
  • My sister wrote the foreword.
  • All eight of our grandchildren are delighted to know these true stories are being published since they enjoyed listening to them as small children at bedtime.

The book covers the first twelve years of my life, including the years of Nazi occupation of the Netherlands, up to the time we left for Canada. The Misadventures of Hansje, the Boy Who Kept His Guardian Angel Busy is written for children. It has thirty-seven true stories of events I experienced as a child which show how I became increasingly aware of God’s actions in my life. It should be ready to publish in January 2018.

Exciting Writing Ministry
I’m excited about my new career. The second book covers my arrival in Canada at age twelve through to our departure for Brazil at age twenty-eight. It is already half written in first draft. I’m inspired to write about all the things God did for Jo and me, and through us, and sometimes despite us.

What About You?
So, what excites you in your current work? Are you thinking about retiring? Many Christians simply park their car along the side of life’s road and just watch the ministry-filled lives of others go by.

Take it from Jo and me. We look to God for a new direction in life’s road and keep going for as long as He gives us strength. Don’t be afraid of the twists and turns, or the ups and downs. They are simply indications of the changes and growth that make our Christian lives exciting, invigorating, and worthwhile.