From Economics to Theology: How the Canelas Understand the Good News

Fifty years ago, my wife and I, with our three pre-school daughters, accepted the invitation to live among Brazil’s Canela people in their main village. We immediately began to learn their culture and language. Our training had prepared us for many things, but even so the Canelas surprised us with their highly effective economic system.

We didn’t expect to see money since it was a four-day round-trip on foot to the nearest store, but thought there would be bartering—exchanging one kind of good for another—such as a set of bone tipped arrows for a haunch of deer meat. Instead, we soon learned that the economic system was credit based. Meticulous records were kept, not on paper but in Canela brains. Yes, every Canela remembered a record of debts owed to them and debts they owed to others.

We should not have been so surprised. A barter system depends on people producing things that are different from those others produce. But every Canela family produced exactly the same things as every other Canela family. Every family had hunters, water carriers, basket weavers, woodchoppers, gardeners, and cooks.

Hunter, muzzle loading shotgun and sloth. (No, it was not an endangered species!)

Hunter with muzzle loading shotgun and sloth. (No, it was not an endangered species!)

What they did not have, however, was an effective way to preserve fresh food. When a hunter returned with a large animal such as a deer, he knew his family could never eat it all before it spoiled. Everyone else knew this too. So other hunters would come and ask for a piece of meat, saying, “When I next kill a deer, I’ll pay you back.” Okay, no problem.

Our North American culture uses the same credit system when a neighbour is baking a cake and knocks on your door to borrow a cup of sugar. The Canela system, however, covered everything, not just material things but also time and effort. Twenty men would work for days to help one family cut house building poles and to construct the house, knowing the next time any of them needed help in a building project, they could get it from the family they had helped.

So what happens if a hunter has a crippling accident and he cannot pay a debt? No problem. The debt passes on to the hunter’s extended family: a brother or other male relative takes on the debt. Do this year after year and you have a fully functioning credit based economic system that touches every aspect of life. Although money is now more commonplace, much of the current Canela economic system still is on credit.

We used this cultural practice in our Bible translation to make the Good News clear. In some sense we human beings are in debt to God because of our disobedience to Him. Check out a parable about this in Matthew 18:23-35. We can’t pay the debt ourselves, nor can any of our extended family since we are all in the same fix. But God had mercy on us and sent Jesus, who called himself The Son of Man meaning “the one who became human like you”.

The Canelas call Jesus Mepahaka, “Our Older Brother”. The sin debt we could not pay passed on to our older brother, Jesus, who paid it with His own life. Our debt is paid, we are forgiven and we are free.

Isn’t it great to see how God prepared the Canelas to understand the Good News by imbedding this illustration in their own culture? It is what missiologists call a “Redemptive Analogy”.

It is just one more way that helps Canelas understand that the God of the Bible is not a foreign God, but the One they recognize as their own Creator, their own Heavenly Father. That’s why they talk about Him as Pahpam, Our Father. And the Canela Bible is called Pahpam Jarkwa (God’s Word).

Let’s keep praying that God’s Spirit will guide every cross-cultural missionary to discover the analogies to redemption that are imbedded in every culture. God invented languages, He invented cultures too, and made sure that His message of love was implanted in each culture.

China and Alberta: Surprising Similarities

Anti-Christian Government Pressure in China
I just read a news report from China that sounds like it could have come from Alberta. According to reports, in July, Chinese government officials in two provinces, Guizhou and Sichuan, are advising church-going Christians they must sign a form declaring they will stop attending church services. Any who fail to sign the form will have their old-age pensions, and other social assistance benefits terminated.

This is clearly a subtle form of persecution driven by atheistic ideology. Ignored is the fact that, along with other citizens, Chinese Christians pay taxes throughout their lifetime to fund these benefits.

UDHRAlso ignored is Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which lists “the right to freedom of religion . . . either alone or in community with others in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”

Further, Article 22 states, “everyone … has the right to social security, and is entitled to the realization . . . of the economic, social and cultural rights indispensable for his dignity and free development of his personality.”

Anti-Christian Government Pressure in Alberta
In Alberta a similar scenario is developing between the government and Christians. Earlier this year, the Education minister issued some guidelines for schools to combat bullying which now are presented more as standards that must be obeyed.

Unfortunately, these standards are part of the sexual revolution, championed by progressive secularists, that presents sex without any moral aspects, and simply as any other physical activity that can be enjoyed by everyone, with anyone, in many ways. This philosophy is now taught in many schools as part of their sex education program. Although students are taught to avoid disease, to use birth control, and to practice sex only with consenting partners, moral values are not mentioned.

The specific educational standards currently presented are part of this sexual revolution and have to do with protecting vulnerable students from bullying and are focused on students who are gay, lesbian, or transgender.

In principle, this is admirable, since Christians are completely in favour of preventing bullying in any form against any vulnerable person. Christian schools are already fully on board with comprehensive, functioning, anti-bullying policies and practices.

The problem for Christians is that the Education minister did not just set a goal, “You must have policies and practices that will prevent bullying of LGBTQ students.” He also dictated very specifically what these policies and practices must be. Unfortunately, the policies demand that homosexuality be celebrated as completely normal, and forbids any kind of “conversion” counseling of sexually confused students to help them think through their feelings.

Financial Pressure on Christians
What’s more, the minister also indicated that if an independent Christian school did not fully comply to the letter with his policies and practices, he would consider defunding it. That is, he would disqualify the school from receiving the per-student subsidy every school receives from the government.

Ignored is the fact that every Christian parent pays taxes to fund the education of their children. It costs the government more than $13,000 per year to educate a student in the public school system, whereas it costs the government less than $4,500 per year to educate a student attending an independent Christian school. The student’s parents pay tuition and school fees to cover the rest of the expense. Clearly this policy is driven by anti-Christian ideology and not for financial reasons.

Christian parents of students exposed to this kind of teaching are upset since it contradicts what they teach their children. Christianity gave the world the restrictive moral prohibitions against all sexual expressions outside of marriage—a permanent, one-man one-woman, sexually exclusive monogamy.

Ignored is Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which states in section (3) “Parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children.” Ignored also is the clear biblical teaching throughout the Scripture that parents are responsible and accountable to God for the training and teaching of their children.

The Alberta Government Cuts Parents Out of the Picture
In Alberta, the state, not the parents are now in charge of a child’s education. For instance, if a student, even in an independent Christian school, tells a school staff member that she is lesbian, this information must be reported to government officials, but cannot be shared with the student’s parents without her permission. The parents are expressly left out of the situation.

With this policy the Alberta’s secular progressive government ignores the parents’ rights guaranteed by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and the biblical teaching of the parents’ responsibility, but fully endorses the sexual revolution and the LGBTQ agenda that goes with it.

This is a good time to remember to thank God that He is still in charge. He sets up rulers and takes them down. “The Lord controls the mind of a king as easily as he directs the course of a stream.”  Proverbs 21:1 (GNT) It is also a good time to pray and, as God leads, to speak up.

The link below shows how the Alberta government ignores Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Five Missionary Decisions that Turned Out Well

  1. God led us to choose a long-term ministry.

Jo and I knew when we left for Brazil in 1966 with our four-month-old baby and her two and three-year-old sisters, that they would be grown up before we finished the project. When we completed the multi-aspect Canela linguistic, education, medical and Bible translation program in 1990, all three had gone on to higher education, our middle daughter was married, and the other two daughters were married during the first year we were back in Canada.

A Story That Motivated Us:
A tribal group, living several hundred kilometres north of the Canelas, was evangelized in the 1930s by Portuguese-speaking missionaries who made short term visits to their villages. In the 1950s, when missions surveyors came to the area, the only evidence of Christianity they could find was one elderly tribal woman who could hum the tune of Jesus Loves Me. It wasn’t until Bible translators had spent twenty years working among these people that they could sing with full understanding, “Jesus Loves Me this I know, for the Bible tells me so,” because they had a Bible in their own language. Even now, twenty years later, those churches continue to spread and grow.

  1. God taught us to do things with the Canelas, not for them.

Right from day one, we depended on the Canela people to work with us. They taught us the language, we trained them to be translation helpers. Scores of Canela people had input into the translation. For years the envelopes we used to mail our missionary newsletters had a slogan “Helping the Canelas Translate God’s Word.”

  1. God led us to train and equip Canelas so they could meet the needs in their village.

Ropkra dentistDuring our decades in ministry among the Canelas, we trained them in numerous ways, dig wells for clean water, run a micro-enterprise in buying and selling, improve the stock of chickens and goats, and caring for the sick and injured. I taught a young Canela man to pull rotten teeth after I had taught myself to do it.  When he became proficient, I gave him all my tools and for the rest of my years there, he did all the dental extractions. Twenty years after we had left he was still serving his village this way. We taught a few young men and women to read and to teach others to read. By the time we left there were scores of fluent readers, all taught by Canelas. After we left we heard that the old chief had died. The next several chiefs chosen were all men who had worked closely with us in literacy, translation and other projects.

  1. God showed us we needed to make ourselves redundant.

When the Canelas asked us to teach them Bible stories, we determined to work ourselves out of that job as quickly as possible. On the first day the group met I taught the first lesson, using basic teaching questions, led the discussion, and prayed over the application. On the second day, I asked one of the Canelas to teach the first lesson. When he was finished, I taught the second lesson. On the third day, one Canela volunteer taught the first lesson again, another the second lesson, and I taught the third. From then on, for seventy consecutive nights I taught the new lesson and students volunteered to teach the previous two lessons. Twenty-five Canelas Practiced teaching Bible lessons during those ten weeks.

  1. God focused our work on a few things, things that would last.

We focused our efforts on leaving results that would live on long after we were dead and gone:

  • An alphabet for the language
  • The ability to read and write in their own language—a major stepping stone to learning the national language
  • Numeracy and basic arithmetic so the Canelas would no longer be cheated in town
  • A new appreciation for hygiene, soap, clean drinking water
  • A sizeable portion of God’s Word in their language
  • An example of Christian living, in love to others, generosity, marital faithfulness, and care for our kids
  • Throughout our nearly twenty-five years in Brazil we not only prayed for the Canelas, we asked our partners at home to pray for them
  • Even after the translation was complete, four-hundred prayer partners volunteered to pray for individual Canela men, women and children by name and by picture. When God acts as a result of prayer, the work lasts.

A Question.
As Jo and I pray for our families, our colleagues and our friends, we ask God to help them make decisions that will bring forth fruit—long-lasting, God-honouring results.

God led Jo and me to make these five decisions. Which ones ring a bell with you as they apply to your life?

How Was Your Summer? As Good as Mine?

Welcome back to my InSights and OutBursts after a two-month summer blogging break!

Summer of Celebrations
Baptism 1“I hope my blog readers are having as good a summer as I am.” That thought often popped into my mind the past two months.

This summer was great for our family. Lots of birthday celebrations, a day at the multi-ethnic Heritage Days festival (acres of ethnic dances and vast spreads of ethnic foods) a river float, campfires, horseback riding, movies, and I had the privilege of baptizing our youngest grandson, Aidan, at his request. Jo even had a break in her chemo-therapy schedule so she felt pretty good during this whole time. God is good.

Summer of Stories
We swapped lots of stories and an amazing number were of foreign missions trips our daughters and our grandkids had been on. Afterwards, I counted seventeen different countries where ministry had been done. Japan, India, Pakistan, Thailand, Mexico, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Cuba, Jamaica, Antigua, Brazil, Zimbabwe, Kenya, Tanzania, Mozambique, South Africa.

Summer of Goodbyes
All five of our grand daughters are now in university or pre-career studies in four different cities, Los Angeles, Riverside, Chicago and Ponoka, AB. Our oldest grandson, Ryan, is in China in the first week of a month-long China tour – the first leg of an extensive trip throughout South-East Asia.

Summer of Gratitude
At the end of this summer Jo and I were deeply grateful to God for our loving family, our personal health and strength for our age, and for continued ministry in speaking, writing and prayer.

So What’s Ahead?
I have a long list of topics and ideas for blog posts this fall and winter. I’m not telling you what they are, but I will promise they will be relevant and, of course, larded with personal stories from my past — sometimes embarrassing, but always instructive. Yes, the more I write my autobiography, the more stories I remember–stories that make God look as good as He is.

So, what was your summer like? Was did you enjoy, learn, or teach?

See you next week.