Something Worse than Mindless Bureaucracy

“Push Start,” the airport check in machine ordered. I pushed Start.

“Place your passport on the scanner.” I did so.

“Are you Jack Popjes traveling to Orlando via Houston on United?” I pushed Yes and obeyed a few more commands.

“Baggage fee $65. Insert your credit card.” I inserted my credit card.

“Take your receipt” I took my receipt,

“Take your boarding passes” I took my boarding passes

“Go to Gate C-15” I went to Gate C-15.

Oh, I did see some human hands reach out to attach routing tags to my two checked bags. At least I think they were human.

Did I mind being ordered about by this machine? Not at all! It recognized me as a human being; it met my needs and efficiently got me and my baggage checked in. I was a happy man.

Not so one night some months earlier as I drove through a small town at midnight. I was dead tired after two speaking engagements, and answering questions on missions. I longed to get home and to bed.

As I approached an intersection, the traffic light turned red and I stopped—automatic reflex. I looked to the left and to the right; no movement of any sort in either direction for blocks. No headlights behind me, none in the road ahead. The town was as lifeless as an abandoned movie set.

Why am I, a human being made in the image of Almighty God, waiting for a stupid machine to tell me I can go? Why do I have to sit here for two long minutes before I can drive on and finally crawl into bed?

I resented that mindless machine—dumb, unthinking, uncaring, oblivious of me and my needs—mechanically going through its cycle hour after hour. Its only power was in my conscience, my driving habits, and the fear that somewhere a policeman or a camera might record me violating that red-eyed order to stop and wait.

When it released me at last, I wondered why I felt so angry and resentful. Then it hit me. I had felt the same way during my decades of living in Brazil, probably one of the most heavily bureaucratised countries on earth. I used to take a full week off work to stand in endless lines just to renew a driver’s license.

But what is far worse is when churches unwittingly formulate policies that hinder the Holy Spirit’s leading. I remember a pastor telling me how many doctors, nurses, and Bible school teachers their denomination supported in Africa and Asia. I was much impressed and asked him, “What other ministries do you sponsor?”

“None”, he said, “we focus only on meeting medical needs and providing theological training.”

“But what happens when God equips a young couple in your congregation with the gifts and talents that fit them to meet other needs, like Bible translation? Would you support them financially?”

“Sorry, no we couldn’t. It’s against our rules.”

It was neither the first nor the last time I heard this explanation. It is worse than unthinking machines or mindless bureaucracy.

How could it have been the mind of Christ, the Spirit of Jesus, that inspired those rules?

Putting Shoes on Prayers

I am currently on a five-week-long, prayer filled, missions speaking tour of twenty-five cities on the US east coast trying to motivate God’s people to get involved in worldwide Bible translation. It is a task that reminds me of the old black backwoods philosopher’s saying, “Dey ain’t nobody kin make nobody do nuddin.”

One reason that I am doing this traveling and speaking is that I believe God is able to move people.

I know this because every night a few people come up to me and say things like this: “Thank you for coming. Tonight I learned things about missions and Bible translation that I never heard in all my years of going to church.” Some go on to tell me they have committed themselves to pray, or to give, or to get personally involved in translating the Word of God into every last language spoken on earth. A few even buy my books.

The other reason I travel and speak to Christians is that in I am doing exactly what Jesus told his disciples to do when they saw the great need of the lost. “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.” Mat 9:28 (NIV).

Notice that Jesus did not tell His disciples to start harvesting. Instead He told them to focus on the One who could mobilize the needed harvesters.

Jesus in effect told his disciples, “Don’t rush out and start evangelizing the world. Stop and ask God to mobilize His world-wide Church to evangelize the world. Stop and ask God to give His people a passion for the lost so that many will give up their current lifestyles and go.”

Missions starts with the prayer, “Please God, get Your people moving. Mobilize Your Church! You love the whole world. Widen the vision of every pastor from their congregation to the whole world. Expand the vision of every congregation from their own community to the whole world. Move huge numbers of Your people to volunteer for service and to give, not of their excess, but sacrificing to provide the needed financial support.”

That is my prayer, and the prayer of others who have a passion for the lost around the world. Some of us not only pray but we put shoes to our prayers. During these five weeks, for instance, six teams are traveling to 150 cities all across the USA to share our passion with potential harvesters. We go to inform God’s people about Bible translation so the Holy Spirit can lead them into the most foundational ministry any church or missionary can be involved in. Not even the Holy Spirit can lead people into a ministry they know nothing about!

I have spoken at hundreds of special events and in dozens of churches about the need for translating God’s Word into every one of the world’s seven thousand languages. When I mention that Christianity thrives only where the Bible is translated into the language of the local population, my hearers are surprised. When I tell them that the Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were the first translators and that only a few of Jesus’ words were preserved in the language in which He spoke them, they are astonished.

And yet, Jesus clearly told His Church to go and evangelize the whole world and disciple all the nations. At the end of time God will be worshiped by people from every tribe, every language, and every nation. How can that happen while there are still 1,800 languages spoken on earth in which not even one verse of Scripture has been translated?

“Great Boss in heaven, please move Your people to get to work in this desperately needy world.”

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

Over forty 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 planned 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.

What they did not have, however, was an easy way to preserve fresh food. When a hunter returned with 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 culture uses the same credit system when a neighbour runs out of sugar while she is baking a cake and comes to borrow a cup of sugar. The Canela system, however, covered everything, even time and effort. Twenty men would work for days helping one family cut house building poles and constructing the house, knowing the next time any of them needed help in a building project, they could get it from the person they had helped.

So what happens if a hunter incurs a debt he cannot pay because of a crippling accident? 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 (Romans 11:30.) 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 free.

Isn’t it great to see how God prepared the Canelas to understand the Good News by embedding this illustration in their culture? It helps them understand that the God of the Bible is not a foreign God, but one they recognize as their own.

Don’t Leave them Asking, So What? What Now?

“Welcome to our church, pastor,” the elder said as he shook the hand of the twenty-four year-old, newly graduated pastor. “Preaching is not that hard,” he said encouragingly. “You just sit down and study the Bible passage, then stand up and tell the people what it says.”

That was fifty years ago, and I was that pastor. The advice was excellent since back in those days everyone used the venerable, but difficult to understand, King James Version of the Bible. Explanatory preaching was popular because it was necessary.

The KJV was translated 350 years ago into common English by the very best scholars of the day using a highly respected and accurate Greek text. After centuries of heavy use, however, the English language had changed so much, the Bible sounded archaic and obsolete.

One Sunday I preached from 2 Thessalonians 2:7. “For the mystery of iniquity doth already work: only he who now letteth will let, until he be taken out of the way.” I explained it like this: “Someone is holding back Satan’s evil work on earth. One day God will take that someone away.”

Preachers had to explain that the word let, which now means allow, used to mean hinder, the direct opposite. Only lawyers still used the archaic term without let or hindrance in the fine print to say nothing is to hold back an action.

English grammar and usage like sentence length had also changed during those centuries. In the KJV Ephesians chapter one has a doctrine-packed 214 word sentence. Some linguists say it is grammatically part of the next sentence which would make it a 269 word sentence! Explanations needed!

The New Living Translation is more readable using a dozen sentences averaging twenty-two words which matches the average length in today’s books and magazines. Now that people can read the Bible in the language they are used to hearing and reading every day, my elder’s advice, so relevant fifty years ago, no longer is.

An old African pastor who used to preach from a Bible in the national language had just received a Bible newly translated into his own indigenous language. After reading several pages, he asked worriedly, “But what am I going to preach? When my congregation reads this Bible translation they will understand it clearly. What is there left for me to explain?”

The answer: Don’t explain but apply the Word of God to today’s culture, and the congregation’s current situation. That’s what preaching is supposed to be.

Today an elder advising a young pastor would say “Preaching is hard. You will need to study the passage, think about the people in the story, or the people for whom this passage was written, and ask yourself, ‘What did God want them to learn, or say, or think, or do? What is the basic, ‘good for all times and occasions’ principle? How does this apply to my congregation and me today, in our church, homes, schools, and workplaces? Is there an attitude, or thought pattern, or habit, or belief that we need to change in ourselves? What could I and our congregation do right now to start changing?’”

A congregation that hears the answers to these questions is not going to walk out of church thinking, as many did fifty years ago, “I now understand that passage clearly, but so what? How do I apply it? What now?”

Needed: Spinners of Goat Hair

One of my favourite Bible verses is Exodus 35:26, “All the women who were willing and had the skill spun the goat hair.”

Any pastor, church leader or director of a Christian organization will immediately agree that this verse crystallizes a basic Christian theme.

Hundreds of passages in Exodus give detailed instructions on constructing the tabernacle—that great God-tent the Israelites erected in the wilderness well over 3,000 years ago—most of which refer to God-given skill and personal willingness to serve. Those goat hair spinning women were both “willing and had the skill”. That is a key combination. There is nothing quite so useless as a person who is willing but has no skills, unless it is a skilled person who is not willing to work.

It is God who gives people talents, abilities and skills and those who receive them become proficient in them with constant practice. God wants the equipped people to volunteer their expertise to serve in His work.

I have been looking for and working with skilled volunteers for forty-nine years while active in these ministries: Innisfail Baptist Church, Bible translation in Brazil, Wycliffe Canada, Wycliffe Caribbean, Wycliffe Associates, and Inscribe Christian Writers’ Fellowship.

All Christian churches and organizations run on volunteers. Sure, some have a few paid staff to function as leaders and organizers, but the on-the-ground work is done by skilled volunteers who are willing to get to work.

So, how do you get skilled people involved in a project? The same way that Moses did. He described the great God-tent in heaven he had seen in his mountain top vision. He drummed up excitement among the people to be involved in building a model on earth.

The job of leaders is to cast a great vision, to demonstrate the excitement and satisfaction of those who are already involved and to challenge them to work at something so great it is worth the cost of time, effort, danger, and hard work.

Leaders also need to look for people who have the skills and abilities the project or the organization needs. They need to specify, in detail, what kind of skills are needed, what kind of work needs to be done. Exodus is incredibly detailed!

Then from among those who are skilled leaders need to find people who are willing to volunteer. How do you do that? Simple. Ask them.

Surveyors asked volunteers in a Christian organization. “What moved you to volunteer?” Most of them responded, “Because somebody asked me to get involved.” Then they asked some potential volunteers, “Why did you not get involved?” The response, “Because I wasn’t asked.”

It may not be spinning goat hair, but we all have some skills, talents or abilities with which we can serve God. We need to be willing to use them, not to erect a God-tent in the wilderness, but to build the Kingdom of God in the world.

And leaders, you need to seek out skilled people, knock on their door, and ask. You will find, you will have doors opened and you will receive. Jesus said so.

Lend Me Your Ears

“Brother-in-law, can I borrow your axe?”

“Of course you can. Here it is.”

My wife and I came prepared to be generous to our friends and relatives-by-adoption in the Canela village of Brazil. One day I loaned my only axe to my brother-in-law next door. He happily left to cut down trees to clear his field. He had not yet brought the axe back when, a few week later, we needed to return to the city for a workshop, but we trusted him to look after the it.

Six weeks later when we returned to the village I saw my brother-in-law and reminded him about the axe. “I will need it tomorrow,” I said, “Can you bring it back tonight?”

“What?!” he was astonished. “You still remember that axe? After all these months, you still want it back?” That’s when I learned that among the Canelas time erases all negative things: hurt feelings, disagreements, or family quarrels. All the bad feelings are deleted simply by letting time go by. And apparently, that included the borrowing of axes too.

Our culture is so different: When we loan something to a friend, we expect to get it back without having to ask for it. And the item should be in the same, or better, condition as it was when we loaned it.

That’s how our culture operates. Well, with one major exception. We sometimes ask someone to lend us their ears, referring to Mark Anthony’s oration at Julius Caesar’s funeral, which began, “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears.” (Julius Caesar, Act 3, Scene 2, William Shakespeare.)

Mark Anthony wanted his audience to give him their ears, their attention, for a little while. But he had no intention of returning them unchanged. His goal was to transform their thinking, impact their minds, and influence their behaviour.

Every communicator, from musician and artist to speaker and writer, has that same goal. Yes, I too, want to reach through your eyes and ears into your mind and heart. My goal is to modify your thought and actions, hopefully for the better. I try to reach your mind by presenting information, facts and logic. But I also try to reach your heart, your emotions. We tend to change our minds because of our feelings, our emotions, but then confirm the change with reasoning and logic.

Effective speakers and writers don’t just present ideas from their minds to the minds of their audience and readers, they let all their thoughts and words go through their hearts, their own emotions first and then into the hearts of the hearers and readers.

So where’s the emotion part of this column?

The Canela culture has a “time erases everything bad” philosophy. But with God, who lives in eternity, time erases nothing. The passage of time does not delete our sins against God. Instead, Jesus died and shed His blood in order to erase sin against God. Not the flow of time, but the flow of blood, the lifeblood of Jesus, the Son of God.

The Canelas now know the truth. They have had the Word of God in their language for twenty years. They now know that “without the shedding of blood there is no remission of sins.”

But what about the thousands of people groups who are still locked in their cultural errors? Who still don’t know about Jesus and His voluntary sacrifice to pay for their sins?

That grabs my emotions. It makes me want to do something. What about you?