The Easter Confusion

It happened during an Easter Sunday service, fifteen ago, but it made such a powerful impact on me I still remember it with awe.

While I served as executive director of Wycliffe Caribbean, I was away from home most weekends and preaching in churches. One Easter Sunday in Trinidad, however, I had no speaking engagement, and walked to a nearby church.

Since I had visited a few times and preached there once, the usher recognized me and seated me in the front pew, next to the pastor and his wife. After a rousing time of musical worship and celebration, the pastor introduced the special visiting speaker, the president of the denomination.

The Invitation
“But before our president brings the message,” he said, “I’d like to welcome our brother Jack Popjes from Wycliffe. Jack, please come up and bring a few words of greeting from Wycliffe.”

Inviting visiting pastors or missionaries to say a few words is customary in many Caribbean churches, so I was not surprised. I took the microphone, knowing I was expected to speak for at least five to ten minutes. I gave a two-minute update on Wycliffe Caribbean and the world of Bible translation, and continued, “This Easter morning I am remembering what happened the first time we spent Easter in the Canela village of Brazil.”

My Story
In he next two minutes I told about sitting near the Canela old men’s council and listening to them arguing over how someone had died. Some insisted he had been executed. Others disagreed saying he had died in a fight, “How else did he get holes in his hands and feet if he wasn’t grabbing and kicking at the spears?” Hey! They were talking about Jesus, His crucifixion and death!

I prayed for an opportunity to speak. Suddenly the chief called on me to sit with them, and said, “Our Portuguese speaking Brazilian neighbours told us that this week everyone is remembering the death of a really important man. But we don’t understand what happened. Do you know anything about this?”

“Yes, I do!” I said and ran home to get the freshly translated story.

That was the first time I publicly read the Passion and Easter story in Canela. Even though it was only a first draft translation, hearing the clear facts about Jesus’ death and resurrection made a huge impact on the Canelas. (Read the full story in chapter 4 of my latest book, The Why & How of Bible Translation, available on Amazon.)

“Hundreds of millions of people,” I told the congregation, “speak over 4,000 languages in which none of the Bible has yet been translated. It breaks my heart that right now, today, this very Easter Sunday morning, they are still just as confused about Easter as the Canelas were back in the early 1970s.”

The President’s Response
I sat down, and the denominational president entered the pulpit. He opened his Bible, arranged his notes, looked over the congregation and said,

“I sense some of you need to respond to what you have just heard. Do you feel God wants you to commit to personally do something to bring His Word to those Bible-less people groups? Maybe you are willing to work overseas. Or you may want to commit to pray or give as you have never prayed or given before. If you want to make such a commitment, come forward right now, and I’ll pray for you.”

That’s when we saw God’s Holy Spirit at work.
One by one, men, women, young people and older folks got up and walked to the front and stood with bowed heads. As more people kept coming, the pastor whispered to me, “I’ve never seen this before. Come with me.” He organized lines for people to be prayed for by the visiting speaker, by himself, and by me.

As the people kept coming, we laid our hands on them and prayed. After over half the congregation had come, received prayer, and had returned to their seats, nearly an hour had passed. The visiting speaker never did preach his sermon. He stood with tears in his eyes, asked everyone to rise, and gave the benediction.

The Results
Some months later, a Wycliffe team led a well-attended, in-depth workshop in that church on how to get involved in Bible translation. Later that year, Wycliffe Caribbean signed a ministry partnership agreement with that major denomination.

God is still at work!
In the fifteen years since I told that two-minute story in Trinidad, people groups speaking hundreds of different languages have received God’s Word in their language for the first time. Currently, Bible translation projects are ongoing in nearly 2,000 other languages!

He is alive! Happy Easter!
But remember that 1,600 people groups are still as confused about Jesus as the Canelas were. They still wait for someone to translate God’s Word in their language.

Thoughts on Reaching Eighty

On Monday, the day I turned 80 years old, I thought of Moses, another octogenarian who lived until he was 120-year-old. Unless Earth moves into closer, faster orbit around the sun, I doubt I’ll live that long.

I also thought of the event in Holland as a little boy, one-tenth my current age, when I attended the 40th wedding anniversary of my Frisian grandparents, Pake and Beppe. They were by far the oldest people I knew, and I marveled how they could still be alive being in their sixties.

I remember our fortieth wedding anniversary, sixteen years ago. That was the time I traveled for Wycliffe among nine countries in the West Indies, averaging one international flight per week for three months. I was a youngster back then.

Now I am an oldster. So, has anything changed? Yes, during the past decades I have stopped doing some things I should have stopped doing long ago. When surrounded by my Ph.D. colleagues, I no longer feel inferior for being a high school drop-out. It doesn’t bother me that I can’t do algebra and that I can’t remember the names of people I should know. I accept the fact that I’m a word-man, not a number-man, and that I can clearly remember an idea someone told me about, although I don’t remember the person’s name or face.

I have stopped feeling vaguely uneasy when implementing a new idea, or crazy scheme, without asking for permission, but moving ahead until it is successful, or someone in authority says, “Hey, you can’t do that.” Overdoing this practice got me expelled from Bible school for a term and later moved Wycliffe to accept me only as a junior member under two-year probation. I learned from those experiences and made a come-back, graduating from Bible school, and later accepting a leadership position in Wycliffe.

I am unique, and not like other people. I am my own person, and that’s the way God wants me to be, so I accept that. Ever since starting to write my autobiography I can see how God has shaped me into the kind of person I am right now.

I got used to being different while growing up in Holland as the only Protestant boy in a solidly Catholic neighbourhood. In my school, I was the only boy whose family emigrated. In Canada, I was the only boy in school who was trying to learn English and didn’t know any Canadian sports or sports heroes or movies or music the other kids knew.

Later on, I was the only boy in school who worked full-time during the summer vacation. I helped to install the electrical system in the new school during that summer and in the fall attended grade nine there.

Near the end of that school year, our family and some of my friends attended an evangelistic crusade meeting. I was the only one who walked to the front at the invitation and started a new relationship with Jesus. I was the first in my family to attend an evangelical church, the first to be baptized by immersion, and the first to go to Bible school.

God was obviously preparing me for pioneer, never-been-done-before in this tribe, missionary work. When we began our linguistics work among the Canela, we involved more Canelas in the process than any other of our colleagues in Brazil. During some periods we trained as many as seventeen young Canela men to teach others to read, produce literature, type manuscripts and help us to translate. We were also the first to decide not to translate the entire New Testament, but to have a partial Bible, one-third of which was Old Testament.

At eighty Moses had an encounter with God which was so special and holy God told him to take off his shoes and stand barefoot. God then gave Moses a Purpose, to lead His people out of Egypt and to the Promised Land, starting by confronting Pharaoh. He also promised that His Presence would be with him on the journey. So, Moses put on one shoe, symbolizing God’s Purpose, then his other shoe, God’s Presence, and marched, Left – right, Left – right, Purpose – Presence, Purpose – Presence, down to Pharaoh’s palace.

Jack at 80

Whether it is forty years, forty months or forty days, I, too, want to march in the Purpose and Presence of God for the rest of my life.


What Does “Thank you” Mean Anyway?

While translating the Bible with the Canela people of Brazil, my wife and I ran into a problem—we could not find a simple word or phrase for the concept carried in English by such words as gratitude, thanksgiving, grateful, thankful, and “Thank you.”

Were the Canelas never grateful? we wondered. And if they were, how did they express it? We knew we had to do some research to find a solution. After all, thanksgiving is a major, basic concept in God’s Word.

We asked ourselves, “What is implied when we say, ‘Thanks’?”
Here is the list we came up with:

  1. I had a need—something I didn’t have, or some action I could not do by myself.
  2. You had what I needed.
  3. You became aware of my need.
  4. You realized you could help me by supplying my need.
  5. You made an effort to give me what I needed.
  6. What you gave to me, or did for me, was good; it perfectly fit my need.
  7. I am now satisfied and happy.
  8. I feel a sense of debt to you.
  9. I acknowledge what you did by saying something to you.

Once we compiled the list we saw immediately how Canelas expressed gratitude. When receiving something they sometimes said, “Ita ahna, impej,” meaning, “It’s right, it’s good,” expressing #6 on the list. When they were very pleased with our gift they would say, “Ate ima hor pyren, ijakry!” meaning “Because you gave it to me, I am happy!” expressing #7.

Other cultures focus on different aspects.
For instance, Brazilians say “Obrigado” meaning “I am obligated to you” expressing #8.
Several cultures say, “I’m terribly sorry” which focuses on #5, the fact that you freely took the time and trouble to meet their need.

Human Babies: The Most Self-Centered Beings on Earth
Expressing gratitude does not come naturally to us. Not surprising since we start life as babies—the most self-centered beings on earth. It is all about our food, our comfort, and our pleasure. As small children, we have to learn that it’s not all about us. We need to learn to be aware of others, to share toys, to await our turn, and to be aware of the rights of other people.

Children need lots of help to learn to feel and express gratitude. Parents know how hard it is to teach their children to say “Thank you.” They constantly model gratitude by saying, “Thank you,” when a child does even the smallest thing voluntarily or in response to a request.

Selfish ingratitude has a history as long as the age of the universe. It started with Satan, the most impressive, beautiful and powerful angel created by God. Satan owed everything he was and all his abilities to God who created him, yet was not thankful. He refused to acknowledge God as superior, the Great Provider, and instead launched an angelic rebellion to usurp the throne of God.

God exiled Satan to earth, where for thousands of years he has polluted the minds and will of people with this same ungrateful attitude. The apostle Paul mentions this to the church in Rome as he describes people under the power of Satan, “. . . they neither glorified God nor gave thanks to Him . . . ” Romans 1:21 (NIV).

Imagine putting yourself out to help a friend, doing things for him, and giving him what he needs, but he takes it all for granted, never expressing gratitude. How long is your friendship going to last? In the same way, how can our relationship with God grow and strengthen if we take Him for granted and fail to thank Him for all that He has done, and is doing for us?

Our Sin: Taking God’s Blessings for Granted
Submerged in an ungrateful culture, it is so easy to take for granted all the things we got as gifts from God—many of them through little work or effort of our own. Think of our physical life and health, our spiritual life and growth, our families and friends, our freedom and affluence, the abilities and opportunities open to us, and especially God’s Word translated in our own language. Millions of people in developing countries would give their right arm to have what we take for granted.

How can we be more thankful?
We could start by taking our eyes off those few people who are richer than we are, and compare ourselves to the 90 percent of the world’s people who, through no fault of their own, are much poorer.

We could continue to compare ourselves with those who are sick and without health care, those who live under oppressive regimes, who have lost their friends and families, who have never had a chance to learn to read, and who have no Bible in their language.

We could share what we have been given with others who are in greater need than we are. Unless we regularly thank and praise God for all that He provides for us, and then go on to share our blessings with others, our ingratitude will lead to increasing selfishness, a hardening of our hearts, and eventually a ruined relationship with the Great Provider.

Canela Christians love to sing a hymn to Jesus with the line, “Acator pyren, me ijakryti!” meaning “Because you came, we are very happy.” Or “Thank You for coming to earth!”

Jesus the Saviour was God’s greatest gift to humanity—well worth thanking Him for and sharing with others.

New Book Being Published this Week
You may remember a small e-book that we published years ago, The Why & How of Bible Translation. We expanded this book by 45% to nearly double its size, now with 52 story based articles. It will be available for purchase on Amazon soon. The article above is included.

The Hope Stream Radio team was so excited to see this book in its earlier format they asked me to record every article in the new, expanded book. I did so and you can listen to this, and several other, articles on this link


What We Want and What We Need

Leanne’s Reaction
Having five granddaughters attending universities reminds me of the time about 35 years ago when we had three daughters in college while Jo and I were finishing the Bible translation program back in Brazil. Our daughter Leanne, a college freshman in Los Angeles, wrote us a letter with the following story:

I was enjoying my new friends as we sat chatting in the dormitory and I was thinking, “I’m starting to fit in,” when one of my friends said, “You really need a swimming pool here in southern California.”

“No, you don’t,” I said, without even thinking about it.  

“Yes, you do,” my friend insisted, “it gets hot here in the summer, and you need a swimming pool in the backyard.” The other girls all chimed in with their affirmations.

“No one needs a swimming pool,” I said, “We need air to breathe; we need water to drink, but no one needs a swimming pool.”

Leanne’s Background
It wouldn’t be the last time Leanne’s life in an indigenous village in the Brazilian jungle collided with the affluent California lifestyle. Growing up in a mud-walled hut, roofed with palm-thatch, drinking smoky-tasting boiled water and eating whatever roots and wild game the Canelas brought to trade with us, doesn’t prepare a young woman to fit well into a college surrounded by peers who grew up in an affluent society.

On the other hand, Leanne, who, as a child, helped physically to bury playmates killed by malaria, tuberculosis and diseases borne by polluted drinking water, brought a different perspective to her college friends, so insulated from the rest of the world. She provided a badly needed reality check between wants and needs.

Jo and I fully understand Leanne’s jungle village-oriented view. But we also understand her California friends. They grew up in the same relative affluence many of us live in right now.

Our Modern Dilemma
Our modernized world brings us unbelievable benefits—things we take for granted our parents grew up thinking of as utter luxuries. We consider our abundance as harmless, even a blessing from God who gave us the power to create wealth. Progress in transportation and communication, for instance, has gone so far, and so rapidly, we now expect to own and use fast, dependable vehicles, and multiple personal devices to keep in touch with each other and keep us entertained.

The material benefits, however, turn into a curse when they come between us and our close relationship with God. They tend to make us believe that we are the centre of our lives. That is the theology of secularism—you and I in the centre of all the physical, here and now, material world, with God somewhere out in the margin, off to the side of our daily lives.

Being Generous with Our Stuff
The best antidote to secular materialism is to practice generosity, giving away at least ten percent of our income to people or services that will not benefit us in any way. Giving to church doesn’t cut it, that is simply giving as a consumer for benefits. We need to give at least ten percent of our income beyond church giving to spread God’s worldwide Kingdom.

We also need to be generous, not just with money, but with the material goods we own, allowing others to borrow the things we own and share them freely with those who need them. I used to have a little sign in my workshop in Brazil that said, “You don’t have to own it to enjoy it.”

All twenty missionary families on the missionary centre lived by that philosophy. We borrowed each other’s tools freely. Jo and I owned 1,000 books. But at any one time, 300 of them were on other people’s bookshelves. Some people owned vehicles, the rest of us borrowed them, keeping track of the mileage and reimbursing the owner for the gas used.

Why God Gives Us the Power to Create Wealth
So why does God bless His people with wealth? David explained it clearly in Psalm 67:1-2, 7.

“May God be gracious to us and bless us . . .  so that Your ways may be known on earth, Your salvation among all nations . . . God will bless us, and (as a result) all the ends of the earth will fear Him.”

When we use the wealth that God helps us to earn freely for the purpose He gave it—to spread His Word among the nations, we build up our bank account in heaven.  But when we embezzle and use it only to enhance our lifestyle, it turns into a curse.

Leanne was right, we need air to breathe, and water to drink, but even more than that, we need God’s Message in a language we can understand. Millions of people speaking over 1,600 languages still need to have a Bible in their own language. They really need it.