Our Celestial Mechanic

I love to remember and write up family “Godstories” recounting how God helped to get us through difficult times, answered prayer, and in other ways showed He was there. This is such a story. Plus I have a bonus announcement at the end. Enjoy!

Our Celestial Mechanic

“BAM! PRRRRRR!” Now what? I thought.

“What’s that?” my wife asked, looking as worried as I felt. I stopped our severely overloaded 15-year-old Dodge at the side of the road, opened the hood, and asked Jo to step on the gas.

$300, 15-year-old Dodge Polara, before packing it full

PRRRRRR!! Aha! The fan. As the car limped along the shoulder of the road, I explained the problem to Jo, and our daughters Valorie and Leanne whom we were taking back to Biola University.

“The specially fitted bolts that hold the motor tight on the motor mounts on the left side have broken off. Each time I accelerate, the engine revs up and tilts, pushing the fan into the radiator housing.”

We needed help, so we quoted two lines from Psalm 121:1-2 “Where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord.” We also reminded God that although He had provided that car for only $300 at the start of our year’s furlough and we had already put 30,000 kilometres on it, we still had over 1,600 kilometres to go, much of it over mountains which would need the engine to run at high revolutions, “So, God, please help us get this fixed.”

At the next town, I stopped in front of a small car repair shop. The mechanic shook his head when he saw the broken bolts. “I’d have to go to a junk yard to find them. I don’t have time to do that. I’m sorry.”

I didn’t have time to do that either. I reviewed the two basic techniques of home and auto repair.

1) If it’s stuck, use WD 40 to loosen it.

2) If it’s loose, use duct tape to hold it.

Hmm, not duct tape, but what about a piece of chain? Aha! Plan B.

Right across the street was a small hardware store. After spending ten minutes and three dollars, I slipped the end link of a three-foot long chain onto a large bolt holding a bracket at the top of the engine, tightening it with a borrowed wrench. I looped the rest of the chain around the frame below the motor mount, then tightening a bolt through the links to increase the tension on the chain.

Jo started the engine and revved it up. No movement. No rattle. No problem.

When I returned the wrench, the mechanic came out to have a look. He saw the piece of shiny chain securely holding the engine in place, shook his head again and mumbled, “Hmm, I learned something.”

So did we. My family and I learned, again, that we can turn to God to help us solve problems, even automotive ones. We thanked Him for giving me the chain idea and for having us stop exactly there – a hardware store right across the street from a mechanic who loaned me his wrench.

We drove on to Los Angeles and delivered our girls to Biola. We then drove 4,000 kilometres across the continent visiting friends in Dallas, arriving in Miami to catch our flight back to Brazil. A week later a missionary friend from Brazil going on a mini-furlough drove that same Dodge from Miami to Dallas and back to Los Angeles, returning it to Valorie and Leanne who drove it all during the school year.

No rattling fan.

When God works with us to solve a problem, it stays solved.

Now for the bonus:

A Tickle in the Funny Bone – Ebook

I just published my first ebook! It is called A Tickle in the Funny Bone and is a collection of many of the funny blog posts of the past few years. It has all the April Fool’s ones including the often comical responses from readers who had been caught. Check it out on this site https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/258000  and follow the directions to set up an account with Smashwords and then buy and download it in any format you need so you can read it on your computer, or your phone, or ereader, or Kindle, or whatever you have.

There is even an option to buy it for a friend for Christmas—a lot of laughs for only $3.99.

How Do You Know If the Translation is Understood by the Readers?

Last week I described the difficult and complicated back-translation process that helps the Bible translation consultant determine if the translation being checked is accurate. This week I want to explain the next checking procedure, discovering if the readers understand the translation. It is equally important, and a lot more fun.

The Process

The translator and the consultant are joined by an intelligent, fluent speaker of the target language, one who has never read or heard the Bible passage being checked.

The consultant asks a question which the translator repeats in the language of the translation helper. The translator listens carefully to the helper’s answer which he then translates for the consultant.

The answer usually show how well the hearer understands the passage. What he understands, however, is sometimes strangely different from what the passage was supposed to say.

The Fun Part

When a translation consultant and I checked the rather simple story of the conversion of Saul in Acts 9, a highly intelligent and excellent Canela storyteller helped us. He couldn’t read and had never heard of Saul before, so I read the passage to him. Then the consultant asked a question which I interpreted.

“Why did Saul become blind?” I expected our helper to say “God blinded him,” or “The bright light from heaven blinded him.” Instead he said, “He banged his head on the road when he fell down.”

Huh? My translation said, “He fell to the ground.” No mention of his head, let alone of banging it. More questions got the answer. Once upon a time a man in the Canela village had fallen out of a tree, hitting his head on the hard ground and was blinded for a while. Every villager knew the story.

I had to change the translation to “God blinded Saul,” making the information explicit.

Where Did He Get That Idea?

Another question, “Why didn’t Saul eat or drink those days in Damascus?” I expected, “He abstained from eating food to show God he was sorry for how badly he had treated the believers.” Instead he answered, “Because he had suffered a bad fall, and he was obeying the food restrictions. How else could he expect to regain his sight?”

I should have known. Canelas believe that in addition to medicines, recovery depends on the sick person, along with his closest blood relatives, restricting themselves to eating only certain kinds of foods, or abstaining from food entirely. So I had to change the translation to make clear that it wasn’t his obedience to the food taboo rules, but that God healed him after Saul repented.

Executioners in their Underpants

One of our Bible translating colleagues works with an indigenous group in southern Mexico. The story of the stoning of Stephen in Acts 7:57-58 was being checked with two men who often went hunting.

When they got to the part about taking off the clothes, the consultant expected to hear, “They took off their coats and outer robes so they would be free to pick up and throw heavy stones.” Instead they said, “Oh, we do that too. When we shoot a deer, we take off our clothes before we butcher the carcass to avoid getting blood on them.”

They thought that the stone throwers stripped down to their underpants to avoid getting Stephen’s blood on their clothes. Another helper thought the clothes belonged to Stephen, the executioners stripping him naked before executing him, in the same way as had been done with Jesus a few months before.

Building on a Rock? Not Very Smart!

Our Canela translation helpers were totally confused when we began to translate the story of the wise man building on a rock and the foolish man building on the sand. Canelas build their villages on packed sand or sandy soil mixed with red clay. The only rock in the area is volcanic, very sharp, and painful to walk on. They would never dream of building a house on rock. And how could they dig holes in rock for house poles?

Canela Pole & Palm Thatch Houses on Firm Red Clay

We had to abandon the sand and rock metaphor. We could choose to translate more generically, “The wise man built on a safe place, far away from where the river might flood the house. The foolish man built it in the path of the flood water.”

Or we could switch completely to a Canela cultural metaphor. “The wise man cut down all the tall trees around his house, but the foolish one left them stand. Then the wind came up and blew down some trees, but no falling tree could reach the wise man’s house. Some trees, however, fell on the foolish man’s house and crushed it.”

(The metaphor we eventually used was solid red clay versus loose, dry sand.)


People automatically interpret everything in Scripture by their personal or cultural experience. It is not enough just to learn the language, the translator also needs to understand the culture. And even then every passage needs to be checked with probing questions.

Yes, it’s a lot of work, but God’s Word is worth it.

But How Do You Know If These Bible Translations Are Accurate?

Although I didn’t know what to expect at my first writer’s conference, I was surprised, pleased, and the first in line when a professional editor offered to critique our manuscripts. I gave her a tear sheet of a 2,500 word article I had written and which a magazine had published the month before.

“Every paragraph of your article throbbed with passion which made it publishable,” she told me the next day, “but here’s how you could have improved it,” and handed it back covered with red scribbles.

Every Writer Needs an Editor, Every Translator Needs a Checker

As we sat together at lunch to go through the manuscript line by line, I mined the corrections and picked her brain, meticulously writing down every comment in my note book. When we finished I told her, “When I saw all those corrections I thought I had made hundreds of errors. But I hadn’t. I just made half a dozen errors hundreds of times.”

It was a most satisfying and productive lunch. I learned so much and I told her so. She enjoyed it too, saying, “I was afraid you might get defensive and argue with me over every correction, but you are lapping this up which makes it fun. If you keep that attitude you will improve and become a good writer.”

The experience of having my writing thoroughly checked and corrected by a professional editor prepared my wife and me for plunging into translating the Bible into Canela where we leaned heavily on translation consultants to help us check, not just every line, but every phrase and word of the translation.

The Bible Translator

Every translator’s theology, beliefs, orthodoxy, and Christian life are thoroughly checked before he is ever assigned to translate. But even so, can Bible translators push their own theological agenda, ride their doctrinal hobbyhorses, and translate passages to reflect their own biased opinions? Yes, they can! That is why trained translation consultants check every part of the translation to make sure that it is completely accurate, with nothing inserted or left out.

People often ask, “But how can translation checkers do this when they don’t know the language of the translation they are checking?

Answer: Through back translation into the language of the consultant.

There are three ways for the translator to produce this back translation. Two easy ways—which are worthless—and one hard way—which is useful.

The Two Easy Ways

For example, the second part of Revelation 11:1, Rise, and measure the temple of God, and the altar, and them that worship therein.” is a very simple command.

One easy way is to simply translate idiomatically into fluent English, like this: “Go, measure God’s temple and altar and count the worshippers.” This is useless to the consultant since it gives him no idea how concepts like temple, altar and worship are expressed in the target language.

The other easy way to back translate is to simply do it word for word, like this example from the Canela language of Brazil:

“Attention, stand, go and with it, something-smoke-sweet-burning-thing that and our-inclusive-Father-about-they-themselves-into-their-ear-thing-house, with measure and they our-inclusive-Father-like-people those count.” This is practically unintelligible, and also of no use to the consultant.

The One Right Way

The third, and more difficult way, is like walking on a slippery rail fence: lean too far to one side and the translation falls into being too idiomatic, too far to the other and it falls into literalism. Staying on the fence, produces something a bit more useful like this:

“Listen, stand up and go and measure the thing for burning stuff to make sweet smelling smoke, and measure the house of the place where they meditate on Our Father, and count those people who love Our Father.”

This back translation gives the consultant some idea of the term for altar, temple, worship and God. Every verse of Scripture is backtranslated and checked in this way. By the way, currently over 500 Wycliffe personnel serve as trained translation checkers and consultants to thousands of Bible translators all over the world.

But one more important question remains. How can a consultant find out if a passage is properly understood by the indigenous readers? This requires the translator and the consultant to be joined by an intelligent, fluent speaker of the target language, one who has never read or heard the Bible passage being checked. This part of the checking process often produces startling, sometimes hilarious insights. Some examples coming next week.

Trends in Church Music Part 2, Towards a Solution

Last week’s 700-word column Patience Testing Trends in Church Music, generated 4,500 words of response from scores of readers. Wow! You wrote me from all across Canada and the USA and the Caribbean. Although some notes shed light, suggesting solutions, there was also plenty of emotional heat:

Pro: “I couldn’t agree more!” E., “You have hit the nail on the head! 100%”D.

Con: “I couldn’t disagree more!” S., “Wow, you missed the boat on this one!”K

Confirming the Problem

“I rarely sing in church but just wait for it be over.” W.

“I long for the “worship” singing to mercifully finish the repetition of human thought, aspiration,s and self focus.

“When my mind goes numb with repetition, I sometimes open my Bible and read a couple of Psalms silently until the music is finally over.” R.

“On the way to church my husband noticed he had forgotten his earplugs. When he bought some new ones at the drugstore the clerk asked if he needed them for a plane flight. ‘No,’ he told her, ‘They’re for church.’” She thought that was pretty funny.” E.

“Our church has a large lobby with chairs and TV monitors for folk to sit and wait to go after the “music” is finished.” E.

“When the worship service start only 10% of the congregation is there. The rest trickle in much later. So who is really enjoying this music?” O.

Ethnic churches in North America, and those in the Caribbean do not seem to have this problem.

There is also human diversity. One reader who loves the music in her church read my column to a church friend who totally agreed with me and often comes late to that same church in order to miss the music. Go figure!

Towards a Solution

Some churches have policies and systems that check the content of every new song for biblical soundness, and regulate how many new songs are presented to the congregation each month. No one argued against the lyrics/words of worship songs needing to be biblically sound.

“The lyrics we sing ought to be as biblical as the prayers we pray and the words we preach.” A.

No doubt excellent new worship songs exist. Some of you even included links to your favorite albums.

“There are many amazing contemporary worship songs out there that really draw my heart into love and worship of my Saviour.” K.

The Worship Leader is the Key

The Key Element

A pastor for youth and young adults who is also a musician and worship leader and has two advanced degrees in theology focused on a key issue:

“I don’t think the new music is the problem. Although I have a high appreciation for traditional music, I appreciate music with a beat and an electric guitar. Worship needs to be a whole church experience, engaging the entire congregation. Some worship leaders obviously miss this. They are like unskilled workmen with high quality tools, but who produce inferior products.” T.

Other respondents also wrote about the worship leader being the key to bringing the whole congregation along to worship together.

“Each worship lead singer in our church does their own interpretation of how the music should be sung. The variations in timing leave most of the rest of us behind.” E.

“A worship pastor whose heart’s desire is to see the congregation worship God in song can impact praise singing in a very positive way. Unless praise and worship singing is actually doing what it says in those words, God is not glorified and people are left empty.” S.

“During our weekly ladies prayer meetings we pray specifically for the preparation of those on the worship teams.  But what to do about the unsingable tunes, the mind-numbing (soul-numbing?) repetition, the lack of meaningful content?  When the worship team leader is present, she is excellent. I have printed out your first e-mail and plan to have lunch with our worship team leader soon and encourage her. When she is absent and someone else has full responsibility for the music there is often a disconnect between the leader and the congregation in “worship” music.” L.

A professional contemporary musician confessed to being infuriated by the ad nauseum repetition. After singing the song at least ten times she started paying attention to the words. Fortunately they were biblically sound words.

“As I thought of them it dawned on me that my heart wasn’t worshiping, it was getting angrier and angrier at singing the song so many times! Although there is a limit, I now look at the “endless repetition” a little differently. Nevertheless, there is a great need for reformation in how we use music in our corporate worship services.” J.

The Two-Fold Solution

The solution to fully engage the whole congregation in worship singing is not to simply revert to the old hymns. Their archaic and obsolete language tends to turn modern worshippers off. The key is to have solid biblical truth in the lyrics and a skilled worship leader who focuses on bringing the entire congregation along in worship. Such leaders are hard to find. As one reader wrote,

“I can think of only one worship leader that consistently helped me prepare my heart for true worship. Boy, do I miss her.” D.

Patience Testing Trends in Current Church Music

What I saw and heard at a Christian school chapel service recently left me wondering about the current trend in church music.

Youngest daughter Cheryl teaching an adult Canela neighbour to read his own language.

It also reminded me of our Adults Only policy when we started teaching Canelas to read and write in their own language. When Canela young people went through the traditional coming of age puberty rites, they abandoned all the practices of childhood and became working, responsible adults. We, therefore, focused on reading being an adult, lifelong practice, not something for kids that they would abandon when they became adults.

That policy flashed through my mind as I joined in the singing led by a group of young teens before being called on to speak. The students were sitting in rows starting with the lowest grades in front and the higher grades at the rear. The grades 1 to 6 students sang along with the worship team while those in grades 7 to 12 mostly just stood there and listened. I wondered why.

At the end of the chapel service I discussed this with one of the teachers. Our conclusion was that the 6 higher grades were simply following the example of the adults in church.

It is a plausible theory since most of the adults in the various churches I attend during my travels simply stand and listen as the worship team performs. A few sing along, some mouth the lyrics as they read them off the screen, but for the most part they act as if they are passively listening to a concert.

I don’t blame the adults for not participating.

Church music has changed much in the past decade or two. The tendency in current church music is to have plenty of rhythm, but few sing-able tunes. Too often the lyrics are devoid of meaningful content, endlessly telling us to praise God, for instance, without even once mentioning what we should praise Him for. Frequently some line is repeated over and over until my eyes glaze over. Far from helping me to focus on who God is, what He has done, does now, and promises to do in the future, these songs make me long for it to be over. Did I mention mind numbing repetition?

I used to take pride in coming to church long before the start of the service. Not any more. I now deliberately come 15 to 20 minutes late in order to avoid at least part of the misnamed “time of worship.” And I’m not the only one. As I park my car and walk to church, cars continue to pour into the parking lot.

I feel guilty about this. Surely the highly trained worship leaders with their skilled volunteer musicians know more about music than I do. I am a mere layman, not a musician or song writer, and in order to receive grace and blessing during the musical time of worship I need to humbly recognize myself in CS Lewis’ description:

“The stupid and unmusical layman humbly and patiently, and above all silently, listens to music which he cannot, or cannot fully, appreciate, in the belief that it somehow glorifies God, and that if it does not edify him this must be his own defect.”

Lewis goes on to write that if we laypeople silently endure music we dislike we are offering a sacrifice to God for which we can expect His grace. If this is true, then by escaping some of the pain by arriving late, I am doing myself out of blessing.

Yet this whole current church music situation flatly contradicts the traditional three-fold training I received in Bible school:

  1. Communal worship singing should involve the entire congregation, not just the trained choir or worship team.
  2. The lyrics must leave people thinking about God, His attributes, and His actions.
  3. The whole experience should prepare the congregation to hear God’s Word and have His Spirit apply it to their lives.

Personally, the only item that fits is #3, but for the wrong reason. I am so relieved the singing is over, I welcome the preaching.

Is it just me, or do some of you feel this frustration too?