The “Useless Church People” Story

The Beginning
The last job I had before attending Bible School in Calgary was with a seismic oil exploration crew based out of Three Hills, AB in the summer of 1957. I had told the crew I was a Christian. They noticed that I went to church on Sundays, my language was clean, and I didn’t smoke, drink or mess around with girls.

One weekend the boss gave us extra days off. My foreman, his girlfriend and another guy from the crew were driving his car to Edmonton. I asked him, “Can I ride with you as far as my folks’ house in Red Deer?”

“No problem,” my foreman said, “but be ready for us to pick you up at your house on Sunday. I’ll phone you to let you know what time we’ll come by.”

The Middle
That Sunday afternoon he called, “We’ll be at your house tonight at nine o’clock. Be ready.”

“I will be at church at that time,” I said. “Please pick me up there. The church is only one block off your route, right near the highway. You won’t even need to go all the way up the hill to my house.”

“Well, okay,” he said, but I sensed resentment in his voice.

That night, when I got in the front seat, my foreman, in the back with his girlfriend, yelled at me. “I hate like #*+# your changing plans on me, making me pick you up at a #@%* church, for *#@* sake!”

I didn’t say anything while he continued cursing “useless church people”. Eventually he turned his attention back to his girl.

Twenty minutes later, as we were driving down the two-lane highway at 100 kilometres an hour, the car ahead of us abruptly slowed down. Our driver slammed on the brakes, and to my horror, our car swerved to the left and slid sideways into oncoming traffic. The last thing I remember was seeing a pair of headlights only yards away through my side window.

When I woke up, my left wrist, knee, and head hurt. People ran up to help. I crawled out the driver’s door. A man helped me stumble to a nearby house where I sat on a couch to recover. A policeman came in, and after talking to the driver, asked, “Who was the front seat passenger?” I raised my hand. “You’re a lucky guy. If that car had hit your door, you would not have survived. Instead, it hit forward near the hinge door frame, which absorbed the impact.”

The Ending
The foreman’s car was a total wreck; he cursed and worried aloud about how we were going to get to Three Hills still eighty kilometres away. “I’ll phone my Dad.” I said, “He’ll come, pick us up, and take us to Three Hills.” I did, and Dad did, arriving a half an hour later.

At the end of the trip, Dad refused the money the foreman wanted to give him, saying, “Jack and I love Jesus, and we love helping people in trouble.” With that, he turned the car and drove home, completing a 225-km-long demonstration of Christian love. Five hours later he got up to go to work.

The cast I wore on my left wrist reminded my foreman for the next two weeks that “church people” might possibly have some use after all. Only God knows what impact, if any, this experience had on him. We all know, however, that Dad will hear Jesus saying, “I was stranded in a wrecked car and you drove me home.”

(This is an excerpt from Chapter 20 of my next volume of memoirs, The Adventures Begin.)

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The 30th Anniversary

A few days ago, on Monday, August 10, Jo and I celebrated a significant anniversary of a major life event that took place on this date in 1990, 30 years ago. It was a Friday, and the location was on the central plaza of the main Canela village in Brazil. The occasion was the distribution of the newly printed partial Bible, which Jo and I translated for and with the Canela people.

A Major Investment
Starting in 1957, we spent 11 years in studies, training, and preparation for the ministry of linguistics and Bible translation in Brazil. For the next 22 years, we focused on producing a literate society and a partial Bible in the Canela language. It was a 33 year-long investment. A long time, but it was worth the effort!

Eternal Results

A generation growing up learning about God from the Canela Bible

We are thrilled to think that of the several thousand Canelas now living in the main village, a whole generation was born and grew up in homes where a Canela Bible was present. These 20 to 30-year-old parents are now themselves raising families that have access to God’s Word in their language.

Our Heartfelt Thanks to God
Our hearts are full of thanks to God for choosing Jo and me, and our family, to be involved in this significant task. We especially thank our daughters, Valorie, Leanne and Cheryl, for being part of our team. They played a vital role in developing deep relationships with Canela friends, playmates, and families. Right from the very beginning of language learning, they helped us sort thousands of slips of paper with Canela words and definitions to produce a dictionary. During school vacation, they spent many hours helping adult Canelas learn to read. And they prayed with in-depth personal knowledge for the Canelas and us.

Our daughters had to sacrifice much: the loss of grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins back in Canada with whom they connected only briefly every five years. During their school years, they spent up to three months at a time in a boarding school on the mission centre separated from us while we worked in the village. When they graduated from high school, they left Brazil, and we were apart for years.

But God is no one’s debtor. He gave them dozens of uncles and aunts and life-long friends from among our fellow Wycliffe missionary families, also living on the mission centre in Belem.

The Large Team Back Home
We thank God for our extended families and for the friends we made during our decades of preparation and active ministry. Many became long-time faithful prayer warriors, encouraging correspondents (even with paper mail), and essential financial partners. We thank God for all of you, and we thank you for your part in bringing the Word of God to the Canela.

Our Co-Labourers in Brazil
Our thanks go up to God and to our fellow missionaries in Brazil on the centres, also the administrators, the teachers for our daughters, the pilots, the mechanics, the radio and computer technicians, and the PhDs in several academic disciplines, all freely sharing their expertise with us. We could never have completed this task without them. Frankly, we would never even have dared to start it without them.

We are also thankful for Bernard and Elke Grupp, the missionaries who have worked among the Canela for the past 18 years. They continually encourage us by sending reports of baptisms, Bible classes, the production of the Canela Illustrated Children’s Bible, and multiple productions in audio and video media like The Jesus Film in Canela.

Good Things From The Hand of God
Canela life has changed much since those long-ago days in the late 1960s when Jo and I began living with the Canela. Life expectancy has vastly increased. Infant mortality has drastically decreased. Most Canelas now can read and write in their own language. A whole generation has been going to school in town to be taught in Portuguese and is now growing up fluently bilingual.

Hundreds of people have prayed, given, assisted, encouraged, sacrificed and worked to make possible the Word of God in the Canela language.

Every one of us looks forward to that great worship scene in Revelation 7:9. “There was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb.”

Look! Yes, there they are! The Canelas!


After more than 20 years of meeting in the open air, the Canelas built a fireproof, waterproof church building patterned after local Brazilian churches.

Baptisms with plenty of witnesses

Adult believers baptisms take place frequently

Lots of children at special teaching sessions for them.

Many times the church just won’t hold everyone wanting to attend a teaching session.


The Surprise in Church

A group of us Wycliffe Bible translators from different countries sat around the lunch table, enjoying our coffees and conversation at a speaker training seminar. Having recently completed our translation projects, we were taking turns around the table practicing telling anecdotes of our translation experiences. The next one to tell a story was a translator from Mexico or maybe some other Spanish speaking Latin American country. I am writing this story thirty years after I heard it, so I don’t remember his name, nor the name of the indigenous people among whom he worked, but his story impacted me. Here is his story as I remember hearing it:

The Story
My wife and I worked with a sizeable indigenous group that had been Christianized in Spanish many years earlier. One of their own people served as a pastor and preached from the Spanish Bible, explaining the meaning in their language. Although they had a building, the church was stagnant, showing no growth, and little evidence of the fruits of the Spirit among the churchgoers.

This is the only photo I could find of a white-hatted, possibly Latin American man.

The local culture did not allow men and women to sit together at meetings, so even in the church service, the men sat on one side of the aisle and the women on the other side. Another cultural distinctive was all the adult men wore white western hats—no matter where they were, at home, at work, or in public. I sometimes wondered if they slept wearing them. Even in church, all the men wore their white cowboy hats and removed them only when the pastor said, “Let us pray to God,” Having shown respect for conversation with God, after the Amen, the hats went back on.

After my wife and I had been there for a year and had learned quite a bit of the language, we did some experimental Bible translation. The pastor told us he would be preaching from 1 John 3 the following Sunday, so we worked all week with some men who were known as good storytellers to translate as much as we could. We completed 1 John 3:1-11, I typed it up and gave it to the pastor on Sunday morning to use for the Scripture reading.

“Let’s surprise the congregation,” I said, “Just announce the Scripture reading reference, open your Spanish Bible and start reading from the typewritten translation.”

That morning, as usual, the church filled up with the white-hatted men on one side and the women on the other. After the singing, when the pastor announced the Scripture reading, the attendees opened their Spanish Bibles, the pastor opened his and began reading the typed passage in their indigenous language.

He hadn’t even finished the first verse when, suddenly, like a great white wave, every man took off his hat. For the first time in their lives, they heard God’s voice talking to them. The hats stayed off as they heard about God’s love, how He wants to treat them as sons, and how they should love each other.

In the same language in which they scolded their kids, argued among themselves or told their spouses ‘I love you,’ they now heard God speaking to them. As the pastor finished reading, the women were teary-eyed, and many of the men wiped their eyes as they replaced their hats.

The Result
The pastor never again read God’s Word from the Spanish Bible. That Sunday marked a turning point in the life of the church. People crowded into the church to hear God speaking to them in their language. Some years later, even before my wife and I had finished translating the New Testament, the believers had tripled in number and built several more churches in other villages.

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The Four Words Challenge

“In four words tell us the biblical basis for worldwide missions.” The scribbled note startled me, and I wondered what had led someone to ask such a specific question.

It happened several decades ago when Jo and I travelled on a Wycliffe promotional tour and visited a dozen cities in Ontario when I was President of Wycliffe Bible Translators of Canada.

Jack & Jo on tour in the mid-1990s.

That Sunday evening, the church was well filled with both older folks and young adults. As usual, we made sure that the congregation had access to slips of paper. After Jo and I were introduced, I asked the attendees to form small groups of three or four people and come up with a written question in any area of pioneer missions. “I will answer each question with an anecdote,” I said, “and ask you to make sure I answered your question.” After a few minutes, they passed the notes to the centre aisle, and the ushers brought them to me.

Jo showed and narrated about six minutes of slides (remember those?), giving a glimpse into our lifestyle and Bible translation ministry in the village among the Canela people of Brazil. Meanwhile, I was on my knees on the floor of the lobby, sorting dozens of slips of paper into categories.
At the end of the slide set, I walked in, held up some notes and said, “The questions on these notes are about our lifestyle in the village and have already been answered by Jo.” I read the first question and told an anecdote that answered it. I read similar questions together and answered them in one story.

After twenty-five minutes of telling stories, I came to the last question, the one about the biblical basis for missions in four words. I thought, someone probably attended a missions conference where the speaker had a four-word outline, and now they wonder if I have the same summary.

I left that question for the last since I did not know how to answer it. Then, as I took a breath to read the question aloud, I suddenly remembered 1 John 2:2. (Thank you, Holy Spirit, for reminding me!) So, I looked out over the audience, read the question, and said, “The answer is ‘Not Only For Ours,’” putting up one finger at a time as I pronounced each word.
Then, I quoted the whole verse, “Jesus is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and Not Only For Ours but also for the sins of the whole world.” Again, enumerating each word with my four fingers. The congregation burst into applause. Surprising, but not unpleasant.

As always, I asked, “Did that answer your question?” A young man put up his hand and said, “Actually I meant to ask, ‘In few words,’ not ‘In four words.’ Sorry, my writing is so sloppy.” Everyone burst out laughing.
I looked at the paper again, and, yes, I messed up. The scribble could also be read as “few” not “four.”

I was happy the Holy Spirit used a young man’s sloppy writing and my careless reading to emphasize that God wants everyone in the whole world to know the Good News of forgiveness of sins and a renewed life.


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Meditating on Light

The Story
After four years of working with the Canela people of Brazil, we finally received the boxes of literacy primers. The villagers were eager to use these illustrated booklets to learn to read their Canela alphabet that Jo and I had invented during those years of analysis and language learning.

Now the books were here, but there was a huge problem. Adult Canelas work in their fields from sunrise to sunset, so they could come to classes only in the evening when it was too dark to see the blackboard or their books. Even the tiny oil lamps with their flickering, candle-sized flames could not dispel the darkness.

To solve that problem, Jo and I took our direction from God himself, who, as the first act of creation, said, “Let there be light,” and there was light! So as the first act of the creation of a literate Canela society, we brought in some 12-volt fluorescent light fixtures, connected them to a car battery that we charged with a 35-year-old war surplus hand-cranked generator, and, “There was light!”

From Entering Light to Bringing Light

Valorie Tutors Young Men at Night Class

It was light shining on their booklets that opened the door to giving Canelas the choice to learn new skills and gain further knowledge or to remain as they were.
We helped scores of Canelas to read, and we were thrilled that some of them passed on what they had learned and taught other Canelas to read. These Canela teachers were like Light bearers, passing on the Light to others.

It reminded me of how Jesus describes Himself, “I am the Light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the Light of life.” John 8:12. He tells us, “You are the Light of the world. Let your Light shine before people in such a way that they may see your good works and glorify your Father, who is in heaven.” Matthew 5:14,16.

God Also Gives People a Choice
Just as we gave the Canelas a choice, so God, for the past two-thousand years, has given many people an opportunity: Enter the Light, and become a Light-bearer, versus Stay in darkness.

About this choice, Jesus said, “This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of Light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the Light and will not come into the Light for fear that their deeds will be exposed.” John 3:19-20.

Some Canelas were not interested in learning to read, but this didn’t deter us. Some rejected learning because they thought they were too old, or their eyes were bad, or they had several younger family members who were readers. We encouraged ourselves by focusing on a significant goal—still fifteen years in the future—the translation of God’s Word into the Canela language, to be printed in books and distributed to the literate Canelas.

2 Corinthians 4:6 repeats the theme that God, who first ordered ‘Light to shine in the darkness,’ has flooded our hearts with His Light. We now can enlighten people because we can give them knowledge of the glory of God, as we see it in Jesus Christ.

So What?
This is what we all can do: meditate on every aspect of Jesus, the Light of the world—His love for us, His constant presence with us, and His invitation to cast all our cares on Him. The more we ponder on all these and other qualities of Jesus, the more His Light shines into our souls, minds, emotions, and bodies, and the more we shed Light to others.

Jo and I have never regretted bringing electric light to the Canela students, and even more so, we are over-the-top blessed that God made us Light bearers so that Canelas could enter the Light. We want to continue to be Light bearers to people around us today.

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How COVID-19 is Making Us More Human.

What Makes Us Human?

As a shovel is made to dig, a knife to cut, and a hammer to strike, so you and I are made to create.

To say, “Oh, not me, I’m not creative,” isn’t humble, it’s ignorant. You might as well say, “I’m not human.”

God Created Creators
When God created light, night and day, land and sea, fish, birds and animals, he checked his work and pronounced it, “Good.”

But when He created human beings in His own image—as micro-copies of Himself—He did NOT say it was good. No. Instead, He looked at the human being he had created and said, “Very good!” He had created a creative being.

Then God set Adam to work. His first task was, of course, a creative one. He brought each animal to Adam to see what he would name it, and whatever name Adam came up with, that was its name. God didn’t interfere or correct, He trusted Adam’s creativity to come up with a suitable name.

God Created Us to be Imaginative
God made human beings with the capacity to imagine—to picture in our mind, to visualize something in our imagination. We see the finished product with the eye of our mind. Our imagination is God-given, it is one of the things that sets us apart from animals.

First Story
When our first grandchildren, twin boys, were about two years old, they loved to “fix” things. From their favorite kitchen drawer they would equip themselves with “tools” such as mixer beaters, a metal spatula, an egg beater, etc., and crawl under the dining room table to tap and rattle their tools on the bolts and metal slides. In their imagination they were repairing cars, trucks, rockets, and who knows what?

Is COVID-19 A Benefit?
For generations, creativity was trained out of us by our culture. In the past three months, however, COVID-19 has forced us to use our creativity to do things counter-culturally. Naturally creative school children are no longer taught to follow the old rules and color between the lines. Instead, old rules are out, and teachers, parents and students work together creatively in unique ways to to teach and to learn.

Workers in factories and offices were made to work like robots, doing the same thingsover and over again. Employees were fired for exercising creativity—thinking of other, better ways to do things. In the past three months, employers in many industries are encouraging people to work from home wherever possible.

Moms at home with their kids have had to be creative to keep the kids busy while not allowing them to play with other children, or even go to the playground.

Five months ago, if you had asked a roomful of adults, “How many of you are creative?” few people would have raised their hands. But, once the COVID-19 restrictions are lifted and the opportunity comes up to ask this of another roomful of adults, probably every hand will go up.

Second Story
When we need to solve problems, especially in situations we have not encountered before, our creativity has a chance to emerge. During our decades in Brazil, for instance, Jo creatively adapted her recipes substituting Canadian ingredients with whatever was available in the Canela village during the no-fruit season. Yes, she used crackers, lemon juice, and cinnamon to make a pie that tasted deliciously like apple pie.

As it did in God’s mind, all creation starts in our imagination. He imagined light, expressed it in words, and it sprang into being. So it is with us. We imagine an improvement to our home, a story to write, or a solution to a problem. We express it, talk about it with others, and begin work to create a reality.

What Does God Expect of Us?
God expects us to serve Him, not by blindly obeying a set of rules—a list of do’s and don’ts—but rather by creatively using our minds and hearts, our experience and skills, and our relationships and resources to do His work. No, most of us don’t need to name more animals, but there are problems galore to solve creatively in this sin-cursed world.

We are to love our Creator God with all our heart, soul, strength, and mind, and love our neighbor as ourselves.

May our Creator God guide us as we commit to using the creative imagination he gave us to love him by lovingly meeting the needs of others in this needy world, from the homeless man or woman around the corner to Bible-less people groups around the world.