Great Stories, Jack, But Are They True?

Recently I was the keynote speaker at a church mission conference where, during my three speeches I brought out my points by telling 25 personal stories. All of these stories were true, having happened in my life. All, except one.

The last meeting was an international dinner featuring a buffet with foods from every continent. Many of the guests were dressed in costumes native to countries where they had been born or had worked. The person introducing me jokingly asked why Jo and I had not dressed in the native costume of the Canela people of Brazil among whom we had worked for decades.

Jack Being Dressed in Canela Native Costume

“When we returned to Canada from Brazil,” I told the audience, “we were invited to dress in native Canela costume to attend an international dinner much like this one. Using plenty of body paint we got ourselves ready, and drove to the banquet. Fortunately it was a nice warm day. We had to park some distance from the church and were walking along the sidewalk when a passing RCMP patrol car suddenly pulled up alongside of us, two policemen jumped out, covered us with blankets, and arrested us for indecent exposure.”

This story was a lie from beginning to end and, after my audience had stopped laughing, I confessed. But what about the other 24 stories I told during that conference? Were they lies too? Or did I tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth?

No, they weren’t lies. But they weren’t the whole truth either. To tell the whole truth is nearly impossible and would totally spoil the story.

Just think about it. What if a dozen microphones and cameras were to record every sound and angle of a two-minute memorable event in my life from start to finish? When you viewed all that footage, surely you would know the 100% truth about that event. No, you would not!

Cameras and microphones might show the date and the time, but they don’t record what I smelled, or tasted, or how warm I was, or how I was feeling physically. Nor would there be any record of what I was thinking, how I was feeling emotionally, what I remembered of similar incidents in the past, or what I resolved to do from now on. Yet aren’t these mental and emotional aspects often the most important part of a story? What was the final impact of the event on my life? No video can show that.

Yet, I can tell you the story of that same two-minute event in such a way that you will end up feeling the same emotions I was feeling, come to the same conclusion as I came to, and may even allow the lesson to impact you in the same way it impacted me.

I would not have described every possible second of the two-minute event, nor quoted every single word accurately. I would have left out many, many facts. Had I left them in they would have diluted the story and left you bored with all the true, but irrelevant detail.

Jesus did the same thing when He told His stories. Mark 4:3-8 records a 35-second story of the farmer who scattered seed on four different types of soil. Jesus did not tell the whole truth. He left out scores of facts: The farmer’s name, his age, his experience, what he was wearing, his marital and family status, the size of the field, the time of day, the amount of seed, the exact kind of seed, the species of birds that ate the seed, where the path led to, etc. All facts, all true, but He left them all out because they were irrelevant to the point of His story.

I want to be a good storyteller. That’s why, like Jesus, I never let the facts stand in the way of a good story.

I Embarrassed Myself in Grade Four Because of my Dad’s Old Bible

I learned to read at such a young age, I can’t remember a time I didn’t know how to read. (No, it’s not because I’m so smart, it’s just that I grew up in the Netherlands and Dutch is far easier to learn to read than English.)

Books Gave Me Wings

Throughout my early school years I read books the way fire reads dry wood. I loved riding my bike around the neighbourhood, but books gave me wings that would take me anywhere: they were my videos and my movies. When I finished reading a book I felt more alive than when I started.

One of my favourite authors was Anne de Vries who wrote spellbinding books about a boy and a girl who lived on a farm. Their names were Jaap and Gerdientje and the stories of helping in farm work fascinated me so much I felt I knew those kids and their friends personally.

Because they were so real to me, I once greatly embarrassed myself in grade four in the Christian school I attended. Several times a year inspectors came and questioned the students. One time they asked the class, “What was the name of the girl who gleaned grain after the reapers?” obviously expecting to hear, “Ruth, the one who married Boaz.”

I had just finished reading a story about a girl gleaning grain and knew the answer to that question! I shot up my hand and shouted, “Gerdientje.” The inspectors looked bewildered, the teacher embarrassed, and as the class erupted in mocking laughter, my face turned red.

I, of course, knew the story of Ruth and the reapers. My dad had read it several times during our daily Bible readings. But he read from the 1637 Statenvertaling Bijbel, with hard-to-understand vocabulary, syntax and grammatical structures that were more than 300 years old.

The Jaap and Gerdientje stories, however, were written in the here and now language of today—the language my friends and I used when we told jokes, argued, or played tricks on each other in the streets of Hilversum. When I read the fictional stories I clearly saw the characters living their lives in full colour, complete with smells, tastes and stereo sound. Whereas when my dad read the true stories from the Bible they were merely words or fuzzy grey drawings in my mind.

No wonder I eventually became a Bible translator. My wife and I spent nearly thirty years in training, preparation and finally translating a partial Bible for the Canela people of Brazil. We wanted them to experience the stories and truths of the Bible in all their vivid reality.

We are dedicated to the translation of the Word of God into the here and now language of every one of the approximately nearly 7,000 people groups on earth. The goal is to have an active translation program operating in every language that needs it by the year 2025.

Thirteen years and nearly 2,000 languages to go. A new program needs to start every two or three days. With God all things are possible.

Jack, Your Translation Has Too Many Words

My missionary friend frowned as he read my translation of the gospel of Luke, looked up and said, “Jack, your translation is good but it has too many words.”

I remembered that incident years later when I saw the movie Amadeus in which Emperor Joseph II criticized Mozart, “Your work is ingenious, but there are too many notes.”

My friend and I were translators in distantly related indigenous Brazilian languages. With effort we could somewhat read each other’s translation. I was a member of Wycliffe Bible Translators and he belonged to another mission organization. Our training in Bible translation principles had been quite different. We both, of course, insisted on accuracy, faithfully reflecting the content of the text from which we translated. But we used different standards for judging a passage to be well translated.

After translating a passage my translator friend would ask himself, “Can this verse be understood?” if the answer was yes, he would go on to translate the next verse.

I asked myself, “Can this verse be misunderstood?” If the answer was no, I would go on to the next verse, but if yes, I would retranslate it until the answer was no.

I learned this concept from CS Lewis who taught me much about writing for clarity, first by the example of his own works and then by the advice he gave to fellow writers.

“Readers do not start by knowing what you mean. Most will misunderstand if you give them the slightest chance. It is like driving sheep down the road; if there is any gate open to the left or the right, they will go into it.”

When I was translating, and now whenever I write, I keep asking, “Is there any open gate, a word, expression, or construction that would cause a reader to go astray?”

My friend’s mission organization had teams of missionaries living in all the villages for which he was translating, and, as he put it, “If there is any misunderstanding, they will explain and teach the readers.”

Jo and I knew there was no guarantee that there would be any missionaries in any of the Canela villages to “explain and teach the readers” so we determined that the Canela translation needed to stand on its own merits with all gates closed, even if it took more words to close them.

John 3:16 in Canela

And we did use many more words. Take, for instance, a basic gospel verse like John 3:16. In English the number of words range from 25 (KJV) to 31 (CEV) to 40 (MSG). The Cakchiquel translation has 62 words and the Canela translation we did has 66 words. Here’s why we had to use more words:

world=Canelas would take this as God loving the land on which they lived, the environment. And God does love His natural creation, but the focus is on “all the people who live on earth” (1 English word to 6 Canela words)

gave=Implied in this word is that God “sent him towards us into this world where we live”, (1 word to 9)

son=Since Canelas do not talk about themselves in the third person, we had to put this into the form “I who am his Son,” (1 word to 4)

believe=This term implies more than just mental assent but having a behavior changing effect. Therefore the form, “he empowers himself with” (1 word to 4)

perish=What is implied in this term is to “die and stay dead and exist forever far away from God” (1 word to 11)

everlasting life=Canela makes contrasts explicit, “In favorable comparison (to the previous situation) they return to life and live alongside God forever” (2 words to 12)

And that’s how 8 key words in English turned into 50 words in Canela.

Those 42 extra words are gate closers and absolutely essential to keep readers from straying from the path of truth.

Mozart’s compositions were criticized for having too many notes because they were dense and complex.

Our translation was criticized for having too many words because it was simple and clear. It was those extra words that made things clear and closed the gates of confusion.

The Unwelcome Request—the Rest of the Story

“We want you to teach us the book of Our Great Father in the Sky.” the 15 young men had asked during our summer work session in the Canela village. Read it here:

During our brief break on the mission centre in Belem, at the mouth of the Amazon, Jo and I printed 30 copies of the book of Luke. When we returned to the village to start the next three-month work session we announced we would hold night classes for those who wanted to study the life of Jesus. We had no idea of the size of the job we had just taken on, but were soon to find out. I was going to feel like the worst missionary in the world!

Canelas wanting to join the class overwhelmed us. We limited it to adults who could read Canela fluently, write clearly and who promised to come every night.

We started with about 20 students, mostly men. We sat on logs in the open air behind our little wooden house. The first class started at 7pm with singing some of the newly composed Canela hymns, then several students prayed. Each student then read through a passage of Luke, one verse at a time, after which I explained a bit of background, answered questions and made a practical application. After more singing and praying they left at 9pm.

The next night I asked, “Who would like to teach the lesson I taught last night?” A brave young man volunteered and did well. We then read the next passage of Luke and I taught the second lesson. More singing and prayer and they left.

The third night, I asked for two volunteers, one to teach the first lesson and the other to teach the second lesson, after which I taught the next lesson. From there on, every night two students reviewed the previous two lessons and I taught the new one. By the end of the first week, we were in a productive routine and the class was growing as Jo graduated more adult readers from her “learn to read” night class.

But there was a price to pay. Not only did I have to prepare a lesson during day, I also had to wait until night class was over to prepare for the next day’s translation. Yes, I lost sleep. And yes, I was soon ready for a break. But no break came. Jo had her reading classes on the front porch, and I had my Bible classes out the back every night, seven nights a week. Week after week after week!

I longed for rain! I prayed for rain! “Please God, give me a break! Let it rain so we can’t have a class!” Sometimes it did rain, but it stopped by 7pm and didn’t start again until 9pm. Really! By the end of our work session, we had taught 70 consecutive two-hour night classes!

Some of the Night Bible Class graduates

Here’s how I expressed my feelings to God one day.

One hour after sunset, and here they come.

Young men, fresh from their bath after a hot day in the fields:

Young women, some with their babies on their hips.

Each one with God’s Word in their hands,

Many with it in their mouths,

practising their memory work.

Some with it in their minds,

thinking about the truths.

A few with it in their hearts,

applying it to their lives.

Here they come;

ready to thank God,

ready to pray,

to pray long, long prayers

for themselves, their children, their relatives, their friends,

even their enemies.

For our children far away,

for missionaries in other tribes,

for the sick,

for neighbors that still don’t know God,

for Brazil’s government,

for fields and gardens and rain and lost knives and axes.

Here they come,

To learn, to read, to study, to understand, to follow God’s Book.

Here they come, at last,

after eighteen years of

working and waiting,

studying and translating,

hoping and praying.

What a breakthrough!

What a success!

What joy and happiness!

Why then do I feel so resentful?

I must be the world’s worst missionary!

I shouldn’t feel that way!

Surely no other missionary ever does.

But I do!

Haven’t I worked hard all day?

Don’t I have a right to relax?

I resent having to give up all my evenings.

“Your” evenings?

How much of your day did you dedicate to ME?

8 hours? 16? 22?

No, Lord, all of me is Yours.

All my life, every day, all 24 hours.

Even those two precious evening hours are Yours.

One hour after sunset, and here they come

To learn of God.

And here I come too,

to learn of Him, submission,




Thank You Lord, for Night Class.

It was the graduates of those 70 night classes who became the core leadership of God’s Church among the Canelas!