When There’s Just No Word for It

“But what if there is no word for it in the language?” someone will inevitably ask during a discussion about Bible translation. Usually the “it” people ask about is some abstract biblical term like “faith” or “redemption” but the “it” could be something quite concrete.

Jack the Bible Translator Ponders Yet Another Problem

Jack the Bible Translator Ponders Yet Another Problem

No Wheat
We ran into this problem when we were translating the passage in which Jesus was teaching the need to sacrifice ourselves to accomplish a greater good, “Unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds” John 12:24 (NIV).

The Canela language of Brazil has no word for wheat since wheat does not grow well in the jungle. The Canelas, however, plant rice which looks a lot like wheat and acts exactly the same. So we translated the passage, “Unless a kernel of rice is planted in the ground and dies, it will remain only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.” Bible translators call this “the principle of using a culture equivalent in place of a lexical equivalent.”

No Sheep
We did the same thing when we translated the passage where Jesus crossed the lake of Galilee and approaching the far shore, he sees a great crowd of people milling around. Mark reports, “He had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd” Mark 6:34 (NIV).

Since sheep are unknown among the Canela, the only domesticated animals being pigs, chickens and dogs, we asked our Canela translation helpers, “What is there in your village that is lost without a caretaker?” They talked among themselves for a while and came up with an illustration that seemed to fit.

So we translated the passage, “they were like baby chicks without a mother hen.” This was a perfect simile since without the mother hen nearby her chicks are lost, wandering all over the yard cheeping piteously.

No Sacrifice
Not long afterwards, however, we had another problem involving sheep. John the Baptist was in the Jordan, baptizing people when, suddenly he saw Jesus coming and shouted out, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” John 1:29 (NIV).

A lamb is a sheep, but we could not use the chicken metaphor, since this time the lamb had nothing to do with being lost without a shepherd, but with the God-given command to kill a lamb and present it to God as a burnt sacrifice to cover the sins of the people. For two-thousand years the Jewish people had regularly sacrificed an innocent lamb to cover their sins, which, of course, was a picture of Jesus, the Lamb of God, who came to die, not just to cover the sins of all humanity temporarily, but to take them away forever.

I explained to our translation helpers how the Jewish people would slit the throat of a lamb, pour out its blood, butcher the carcass and then put it on a fire to burn it up. They corrected me saying, “No, no! Not “burn it up” but “roast it”. How can you eat if it is burnt up?”

When I explained that the lamb was not for eating, but for burning, they were upset and confused. “Don’t tell us any more stories about those crazy Jews, they don’t even know what to do with a nice little lamb.”

I understood why they were so confused. The concept of ritual sacrifice is unknown among the Canelas. They killed animals only to eat hem, unless, of course it was a dangerous animal, like a poisonous snake.

Since this was a major translation problem, we sent out newsletters to our supporting partners back home explaining it and asking them to pray. And we kept on translating, but each time we came to a passage that talked about Christ’s sacrifice of Himself, we put it aside.

No Solution?
It was years later that we discovered a solution that God had imbedded in the Canela culture centuries before. A story for next week.

The Parable of the Truck Stuck in the Mud

The Parable
The master gathered his disciples and said unto them, “Behold, a missionary went forth in his pickup truck to bring medicines and reading booklets to a distant plantation village. Ten old men and women rode with him to bring back manioc roots. As the truck laboured over rocks and through creeks, they came to a muddy washout across the path. The mud was deeper than it looked, the rear wheels dropped down, and the truck was stuck.

This Stuck Calls for  More Than a Push

This Stuck Calls for More Than a Push

“So the missionary took his axe and cut down a strong hardwood pole about seven metres (20 feet) long, while the old men found some large flat rocks, and the old women gathered stones and short branches. Everyone worked long and hard to gather materials. They stacked the slabs of rock close to the wheel to act as a fulcrum, and the missionary fitted the pole under the frame and across the stack of rocks. When the men pulled and pushed down on the lever, the truck wheel rose up out of the mud and the old women filled the hole with stones and branches. They did the same for the other side, and soon were on their way again.”

The Interpretation
The master’s disciples asked him, “What is the meaning of this parable?” The master replied, “The stuck truck is any problem you may encounter in your life. The fulcrum is the Word of God, and the lever is prayer. The men pushing down on the lever represent the Hand of God. The hard work is in two parts: to search the Word of God to find the principle that applies to the problem, and to pray for as long as it takes until God’s time has come. The easy part is when God applies the Force needed to remove the problem.“

The Example
During our decades of work as Bible translators in Brazil Jo and I not only had plenty of experience lifting our truck out of mud holes, but also in applying the principles of the parable to deal with immovable problems.

In my second book, A Kick in the Pants, I told the full story of our daughter Leanne needing a pair of snow boots during a furlough. We were still raising more financial support and our situation was worsened with a long strike by mail workers. This was in the years before easy bank-to-bank transfers when cheques by mail were the only way to move money.

We needed winter clothes and scoured the second hand stores, yard sales and church missionary closets to find what we needed. As fall turned into winter we were all set, except for Leanne who still needed some affordable winter boots in her size.

For weeks we prayed every night before bed time, basing our prayers on the Word of God, My God shall supply all your needs through His riches in Christ Jesus. “Leanne needs boots.” Having food and raiment, therewith to be content. “We still need raiment for Leanne’s feet.” Ask and you will receive that your joy may be full. “Leanne Joy Popjes will be joyful when she has snow boots.”

We stacked the fulcrum of principles of God’s Word alongside the problem and applied the lever of prayer. Then one night, with snowy weather forecasted, there was an unexpected knock on our front door and the snow boots were delivered. God had pushed down the end of the lever just in time.

The Application
We all face different problems that are too heavy, too large, or too complicated to be dealt with by ordinary means. We need to use the lever of prayer, true, but we also need a solid fulcrum—solid Bible promises that apply squarely to the problem we face.

Shove your lever of prayer under your problem, rest it on the fulcrum of God’s Word. Then wait, in prayer, for the Force from above to push down.

What are your prayer stories?

Why I Write My Private Prayers

Jack at Prayer in Pre-Laptop Times

Jack at Prayer in Pre-Laptop Times

The Question
A few weeks ago I was chatting with a pastor friend about daily prayer. I mentioned that to help me focus, I write out my prayers.

“When did you start doing that?” he asked me.

I answered by telling a story I had published in my first book, A Poke in the Ribs. Here it is:

The Story
A few years after Jo and I returned to Canada from our decades of Bible translation ministry in Brazil, we were assigned to work in a program to help young people become members of Wycliffe. I oriented the young people to Wycliffe policies and principles, but since Jo is far more people oriented than I am, and is gifted with the ability to discern personal problems, she served as a confidential interviewer and counselor with young women.

One morning I walked into the room where Jo was studying the responses to a highly personal questionnaire. As soon as she saw me, she closed her file to preserve confidentiality, and looked up at me with tears in her eyes.

“What’s the matter, hon? I said.

“Oh, I need to interview this girl and will need to discuss some painful things. I just don’t know how to handle this situation.”

The Promise
With that, she gathered her papers and stood up to leave for the interview room. I hugged her and impulsively said,

“I will pray for you the whole time you are talking with her.”

“Thanks, hon” she said, we kissed and she walked out.

As the door closed behind her, I thought, What have I done? This interview will last an hour. I have never prayed for a whole hour about one thing in my whole life! Besides, I know nothing about the situation. I don’t even know the girl’s name.

I knew, however, that I could write for an hour, so I sat down with my laptop, and started a letter to God.

The Letter
“Dear God, Jo just walked out to interview a girl and I promised to pray for her the whole time she is with her. I have never prayed for any one person for that long my life, so please put thoughts and ideas into my head that I can bring to you in prayer.”

As I wrote, thoughts did come into my head. I wrote, I thought, I reread, I cried a few times. I kept writing, thinking, and writing some more. Suddenly I heard the door open. Jo had returned! The hour was over, and I wasn’t done praying yet!

The Result
I showed Jo the prayer I had written. After she read it, she looked at me with tears in her eyes and said, “Wow! This is amazing! God really led you to pray about the right things, and our interview was perfect.”

“Ever since then,” is said to the pastor, “My private prayers tend to be written ones.”

Just recently I saw this pastor again. The first thing he told me was that he had been counseling a young couple a few days earlier. One spouse needed to confront the other in private. He promised to pray for them during that private conversation.

“I remembered your story, Jack,” he said, “so I sat down with my laptop and wrote a letter to God about the couple and the confrontation that was going on at that very time.”

The Regret
I was delighted to hear that my story had helped him to pray in a focused way over an extended period of time. At the same time I felt a bit guilty that I hadn’t shared that “letter to God” style of praying with more people over the past twenty years. Then I thought of several other “God experiences” that had impacted me, but which I had failed to share with others.

The Challenge
Writing your prayers may not be your thing, but what have you experienced with God that you could share with others to encourage them?

Life Experiences versus Material Things

“You’ve certainly had an interesting life.”

I hear that every time I preach a story-laden message or make a speech at a school or conference. I also hear it from people reading my books.

And they are right, Jo and I certainly have lived through a huge variety of unique experiences, some super-positive, pleasurable, or amusing: others decidedly less so.

An ancient Chinese curse says, “May you live in interesting times.” Not every interesting experience is positive. In the early years of living and working among the Canela people of Brazil there was no road to the village so we flew back and forth in a small bush plane. We always prayed for a nice, boring four-hour flight with an even more boring landing at the end. No one wants an interesting flight looking down on 600 kilometres (400 miles) of untracked jungle!

Jo and I have focused, not on the things in our lives, but on the experiences. True, we all need some essential things, like food, clothing, shelter and transportation; but Jo and I tend to be tight fisted when spending money on things, and open handed when it came to spending money on experiences.

We went on a family road trip to southern Brazil after our oldest daughter, Valorie graduated from high school and would soon leave for university in Los Angeles. That journey cost us plenty of money and a significant amount of time. With that money we could have traded in our car for one twice as nice, but we didn’t. And none of our family have ever regretted making that trip.

Lace Dress

Lace Dress

Valorie has a framed picture in her home featuring four photos and a handwritten explanation. On that family trip she picked up a special souvenir, a cute little lace girl’s dress, “. . . in the hope that someday I would be married and have a little girl to wear it.”

She did get married and she did have a little girl, followed by triplet girls! As they grew up, they were each photographed on the beach listening to a seashell and wearing that little lace dress. Even though they are all in college now, that framed collection of photos still hangs as a mute testimony to the value of our travel experience over forty years before.

I have spoken at hundreds of missions events to encourage people to get involved in foreign missions, either as short term volunteers or as full time career missionaries. Even now, at almost every event people volunteer to experience missions first hand for a short time. But many others apologize, saying they can’t afford the trip, or the time away from their job. I feel bad for them, and sometimes wonder if they have already spent their money on things, with nothing left over for experiences.

Spending on things is so easy in our materialistic consumer driven society. May Jesus, who lived His most interesting life on earth—poor in things but rich in experiences—help us to live  counter culturally and not just go with the flow of our times.

Like a salmon heading upstream, swim against the cultural current, and you, too, will live an interesting life.