How God Stamped His Word “Holy” to the Canela

The Problem
Each time I told a story to the Canelas about Jesus performing a miracle they told me a story of the great exploits of some Canela culture heroes from their legends and myths. We tried to tell them that the stories from the Bible were special, true, real, and unique. They were Holy, having to do with God. They didn’t get it. We prayed – a lot.

Then it got worse. The Brazilian government changed, and the new officials refused to renew the permissions missionaries needed to live and work among indigenous peoples We found ourselves exiled from the Canela village. We prayed – a lot.

The Permit
We kept on working on the mission centre in the city, completing seven easy-reading booklets and the books of Luke and 1&2 Thessalonians. When the newly printed books arrived, we made a formal request to the government to visit the village and deliver the nine books. We prayed – a lot.

We praised God when we received a notice that permission had been granted but with exceptions. I flew to Sao Luis to see the government official. He gave me the permit and asked me to read it. I noticed that although we were allowed to leave the seven reading booklets in the village, the books of Luke and 1&2 Thessalonians were excluded. I had to sign a promise that I would not leave the books of sacred Scripture in the village.

I took my pen, shot up a prayer to God to work this out in His own way, and signed the document. On my return to the centre I told my missionary colleagues, and we prayed – a lot.

The Excitement
The next day, John, a fellow missionary, and I loaded a steel drum with seventy sets of books packed in plastic bags onto his pickup truck and left for the Canela. Several days later the Canelas received us with great joy since it had been several years since we were there. Their joy turned into wild excitement when they saw the seventy-five parcels of nine books in their language. The chief and elders immediately ordered me to the village central plaza and report.

I showed them each of the seven reading books. The elders were pleased to see several of their favourite legends in print as well as the health and hygiene booklets. When I finished, the chief pointed to the two remaining books, the Scripture books. “What about those books?” he asked.

“Oh, those are different. I can’t leave them here.”

“Why not? What are they about?”

“One is about Jesus, the Son of God, when He lived on earth long ago. And the other is the counsel of Paul. He was one of the elders of the Jesus group.”

“Well, you can at least tell us what is in those books,” the chief said.

The Explanation
So, for the next hour I gave an overview of the life of Jesus, reading excerpts from Luke, then read parts of Paul’s letter.

“We really want those books!” the chief exclaimed, “Why can’t you leave them?”

I explained about the government permission and that I had promised not to leave the Bible books. “I will leave them with my friend Sr. Duca in town,” I said, “You can go there and pick them up and bring them in yourselves.”

The Canela elders were not pleased with that idea at all. “It’s seventy kilometres to town,” they said, “it’s a two-day walk and two days back.

“Do those government people have these stories in their language?” the chief asked.

“Yes, they have. These stories about Jesus were translated into Portuguese hundreds of years ago. All Brazilians have been able to read them for many generations.”

“Then, why won’t they let us have them?” the chief exclaimed. “Why can’t we read those books and choose for ourselves if we want them or not? They did!”

“Just leave them here,” one of the elders advised, “We won’t tell anyone you did.”

“No, I’m sorry, I can’t do that,” I said, showing them my copy of the document, “I promised the government chief that I would not leave them here and signed his paper.”

The Chief’s Anger
Suddenly the chief sprang up, pulling his machete from its sheath. He laid the sharp edge on his forearm, and, with his face inches from mine, shouted, “If I cut my arm what comes out? Blue stuff? No! Red blood. We Canelas are human beings just like those city people! Why do they treat us as if we aren’t people? Why can’t we have what they have had for a long time?”

I couldn’t answer, and we sat quietly for a while. Suddenly the chief said, “The counsel will talk about this some more, and in the morning, we’ll tell you what we have decided.” So, John and I went to our house in the village, and we prayed – a lot.

Making the Transfer Outside the Gate

At sunrise on the central plaza the chief gave us his orders. “Put all those books back into that steel drum. Load it onto your truck and drive back up the road twenty kilometres through the gate where the Indian land ends. My son will follow you on the government tractor. He will bring the drum back on the tractor and distribute the books. That way you will have kept your promise to the government, but our seventy readers will have all the books.”

God’s Solution
And that’s what was done. We heard later that the first books everyone wanted to read were, of course, the special books, the forbidden ones. Our prayers were answered!

It was a clear example of Psalm 76:10, “Surely the wrath of man shall praise thee” (KJV) when God used the government’s prohibition to draw attention to the uniqueness of His Word. From then on, the Canelas treated the Bible stories as special, true and unique.

When, ten years later, the partial Bible was published it was called, Pahpam Jarkwa Cupahti Jo Kahhoc. The Book of God’s Highly Respected Word

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.

What Billy Graham Said About Bible Translation

In Memory of Rev. Billy Graham 1918-2018.
The Reverend Billy Graham went to be with the Lord last week, February 21, at the age of 99.

We all know him as one of the most renowned preachers, evangelists and Christian authors of our time, bringing the Good News to multi-millions of people during his lifetime.

Billy Graham, Promoter of World-wide Bible Translation
What is not as well-known, however, is that he was also a strong promoter of world-wide Bible translation. He was a friend of Wycliffe’s founder “Uncle Cam” William Cameron Townsend, and served on the Wycliffe board.

Thirty-seven years ago, at the Wycliffe Jubilee Service celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Cakchiquel Bible translation in 1981, Rev. Graham shared these words about serving in Bible translation:

Billy Graham Urges Christians to Go, Go, Go!
I was thinking today just what you would read about if you were to get out a file of newspapers from the last 50 years and see what the world has called the significant events during that time.

I have no doubt in the annals of heaven that one of the most significant events of the last half-century has been the explosion of Bible translation, which has brought the Word of God to hundreds of tribes and languages.

And much of this is because of the vision and genius of Cameron Townsend. He was a university dropout, with an urgent desire to serve the Lord wherever the Lord should lead him. And this should encourage many of you that are thinking about going into this type of ministry — that God can take a dedicated heart and consecrate it to his service and shape the world.

You have to face squarely how your talents and your gifts and your training prepare you for Christian service. In fact, it might be said that Jesus only had two verbs: come and go. “Come unto me,” and, “Go into all the world.”

Go out quickly into the streets and into the lanes. Go out into the highways and hedges. Go into the vineyard. Go into the village. Go into the city. Go into the town. Go to the lost sheep. Go thou and preach the kingdom of God. Go, go, go, go — go ye into all the world!

If you profess the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, you have that command and you have to face it, and you have to do something about it.

We have been commanded to deliver a message to every one of the four billion people who live on this planet and especially to the hidden peoples with no written language. And we have a responsibility to see that every language has the Word of God written in it.

Current Statistics are Encouraging
In the decades since Billy Graham made this speech, world population has grown to more than 7.6 billion. We now know that there are over 7,000 languages in the world of which 5,300 already have a Bible, a New Testament or an ongoing translation program, leaving 140 million people speaking 1,636 languages that are still without any of God’s Word in their language.

That means that about 98% of the world’s population has at least some hope of hearing or reading some of God’s Word in their own language. It leaves only 2% without anything, and no one yet assigned to start a translation project. Most business people would be satisfied with 98% of market share — but not God!

In Jesus’ story of the ninety-nine-sheep safe in the sheepfold, He focused on the concerned shepherd who searched everywhere to find and bring the one lost sheep to safety. Surely, Jesus wasn’t just talking about sheep, but about the 2% of the world’s population that is still without any of His Word.

As Billy Graham might have said, “Go and find those who are lost in dangerous places, down in linguistic gullies and stuck in cultural brambles, and bring them into the fold!”

The Letter from Ireland

“You guys are so fortunate! You don’t even know how blessed you are!” Hearing our friends, fellow linguists and Bible translators in Brazil telling us this surprised and confused us. What are they talking about? we wondered.

The Report
We had just reported at a regional conference on our first year’s work with the Canela people. “The Canelas gave us Canela names and adopted us into their families,” we said. “They are happy to help us learn their language, and the chief keeps urging us to invent a way of writing Canela, so we can teach people to read their own language. We have more helpers than we know what to do with.”

The Complaints
It turned out that some of our friends struggled to be accepted by the people in their villages. Some complained that they couldn’t find anyone willing to pronounce words repeatedly, so they could learn the language. Others had made learn-to-read booklets but found no one who had any interest in learning to read.

Jo and I had no idea why God was blessing our work among the Canela in such a startlingly obvious way. It certainly wasn’t because we paid the villagers so well. Our income was well below where it should have been, and we simply couldn’t pay any more than the bare minimum.

The Letter
Then, one day, we received a letter from an Irishman named Joe that explained it all:

“Dear Brother Jack and Sister Jo,
I just heard that you were assigned to translate the Word of God for the Canela people of Brazil and I am delighted. In the 1920s I was a young missionary traveling from one village to another evangelizing the Portuguese speaking Brazilians. One day my companions and I stumbled on a village we had not known was there. The people couldn’t understand Portuguese, and we couldn’t understand anything they said. Moreover, they were a fierce looking group, carrying clubs, spears and large bush knives. We did not want to stay the night there. So we traveled on and slept in the jungle.”

The Answer
He went on to tell us that he later discovered this people group was called the Canela. Then he told us a little more about himself, and we were astonished to read that he started to pray for the Canela people ten years before my wife and I were even born!

He continued to pray, without ever receiving any further information about the Canela, for forty years until Jo and I arrived as thirty-year-old missionaries. That’s when he wrote his letter to us.

He then prayed faithfully for another twenty-two years until we published a partial Bible translated into Canela and Jesus built His Church among the Canela people. Then, after Joe the Irishman had prayed for sixty-two years, the Lord took him Home, no doubt, to his exceeding great reward.

The Prayer Project
After Jo and I left Brazil, we were involved in an intensive public speaking ministry throughout Canada and the United States. After two years, we spoke at a conference in Surinam, so we took the opportunity to cross the border into Brazil to visit the Canela. It was planting season, and about two-thirds of the people were away in their fields.

We walked from house to house greeting our Canela friends and renewing acquaintance with them. We also took pictures of individuals, groups, couples, and families. We kept a careful record of the names of each person on the picture and how they were related to the others.

When we returned home, we printed out the four-hundred pictures and the names. Then during the next speaking tour, I told the story of Joe the Irishman and his sixty-two years of praying. I then said, “If any of you here would like to pray every day for a Canela man, woman or child by name and picture, come and see us after the meeting.”

When volunteers came to ask for a picture and a name, I warned them that they would be praying “in the dark” with no updated information, just as the Irishman had prayed. Even so, after a few months, four-hundred individual prayer warriors across North America volunteered to pray for the Canelas on the pictures.

The Rest of the Story
I still receive notes from people telling me they continue to pray. One lady wrote, “I signed up to pray for a little three-year-old girl over twenty years ago. I have been praying for her every day and updating her age. I am now praying for her as a twenty-five-year-old wife and mother of children.”

God continues to bless the work of the missionaries currently in the village who promote the reading and studying of His Word. As a result, the Church among the Canela continues to grow.

This is God’s work, but He invites His people to be involved. The Irishman was involved in prayer for most of his life. God invited Jo and me to spend thirty years of our lives in training, linguistics, teaching, and translation. Others are involved in giving and prayer.

Some of us, like Jo and I, have seen the results of our work. Others, like those praying “in the dark” will only see the results, and receive God’s reward, in eternity.

The Two Notes

“We hate you, we reject you, and we never want to see your faces in our village again!”

The note, signed by the young Canela chief of a new village, was addressed to Jo and me. Soon friends ran up to tell us the same kind of message had been sent to the chief and the leaders of the old, main Canela village where we lived as Bible translating missionaries in Brazil.

That note hurt!  Jo and I had been adopted many years before by Canela families, and the chief of the new village was a younger brother in my extended family. He and I had always gotten along well, and now this.

The Power Struggle
The previous year when some families talked of starting another village in a location near a different creek, everyone thought it was a good idea since the main village was getting a bit crowded. People from both villages helped to build homes, clear jungle, and plant manioc fields in the new location. But after a year, relationships deteriorated into a political power struggle between the two chiefs, each wanting the most people in his village.  And now, after weeks of vicious gossip, the new village chief and leaders had sent notes breaking off all relations with those of us in the old village. According to their oral history, this mutual hate between related villages was a long-standing tradition.

Our Response
Jo and I talked and prayed together and then sent back the following letter:
“Dear younger brother chief,
We received your note and read it, and it seems that you hate us and reject us and never want to see us again.  We don’t know why you feel that way.  Maybe someone lied to you about us.  We want to remind you that we are of Jesus’ group and, therefore, we don’t hate you back, nor do we reject you.  Instead, we love you now and always will.  To prove that we love you, we are sending twenty litres of lamp oil and thirty kilos of salt for you to distribute to all the people in the new village.
Your older brother.”

Angry Words
After we sent the letter and the gifts we faced a barrage of angry words from our relatives and friends in our village.

“Why did you send them gifts?  Don’t they hate us all?  That’s fine. We hate them back. We don’t need them.  Just let them sit out there in the dark without lamp oil. Let them eat tasteless food. They hate and reject us. Fine, we’ll hate and reject them!”

That evening the elders’ council called me to attend their meeting in the village plaza to listen to the chief and his counselors.  Each one spoke his piece.  All had the same theme.

“They hate and reject us, so, therefore, we’ll hate and reject them.  Also, we don’t understand why our friend sent them gifts in exchange for their insult.”

Then the chief turned to me and said,
“They even treated you that way, when all you have ever done is good. You taught them to read and write. You gave them medicine. You’ve never done anything against any of them.  I don’t know why you sent them that gift.  I hate them on your behalf!” He lapsed into silence, and I asked permission to speak.

My Explanation
“I want to talk to you,” I said.  “I’m not just going to give you my thoughts about this; I’m going to tell you what Our Great Father in the Sky thinks about this.”

I then went on to tell the chief, the elders council, and the village men gathered to listen what Jesus taught about how to treat our enemies.  I quoted Jesus and his orders to do good to those who hate us, to feed our enemies, and let them insult us. They listened, scowling and muttering to each other.  In the end, they said they still didn’t understand, but they wouldn’t be upset with me anymore for having sent the gift.

“Anyway,” they said, “it might make that group over there feel ashamed of themselves.”

Jo and I went to bed that night with happy hearts, possibly the only happy hearts in either village.

The Second Note
Three days later another note arrived from my younger brother chief—one with a startlingly different message.
“We’ve changed our mind. We don’t hate you, and we want to make peace.  You can come to our village any time you want.”

Whew! Thank you, Jesus!

It still took some months—a centuries-old culture based on mutual hatred doesn’t change overnight—but the bad feeling between the villages had begun to dissipate. Eventually, the Canelas turned the new village area into a joint manioc raising project, and the inhabitants began returning to the main village.

Jo and I were delighted that besides translating God’s Word in the Canelas’ language, we had a God-given, perfect public opportunity to translate His Word into action for everyone to see.

After this demonstration, no one in either village had any doubt that change was possible and that a new ethos of mutual love and acceptance could someday replace the old spirit of hatred and rejection.

Psalm 23: A Reason to Fire God?

“Whoops! There’s no word for it”

Those of you who are fluent in more than one language have no doubt experienced this when you translate from one language and culture into another. The more different the languages and cultures, the more often it happens.

As a Bible translator for the Canela people in Brazil, I constantly ran into this problem. Jesus taught, “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it produces much grain.” John 12:24.

Since wheat is unknown among the Canela, their language had no word for it. This was an easy one to solve. We simply substituted “wheat” with “rice” since a grain of rice in the shell looks and acts the same as a grain of wheat. It was a simple case of using “cultural equivalence instead of lexical equivalence” which is linguist-speak for “if there is no word for the thing, find something that acts the same in the culture.”

It sounds easy. Sometimes it is, but usually it’s not.

Long ago an explorer traveled to the icy shores of the Canadian north. He may have been a Christian because he left behind a translation of the Shepherd’s Psalm (23) in the local indigenous language. The indigenous people memorized the lines and passed them on to their children. Unfortunately, he had depended on an interpreter to translate for him.

A generation or two later a missionary linguist/translator arrived, settled among these people, and learned the language. When, after some years, he began to translate the Bible his indigenous language helper told him, “We already have some of God’s Book”, and to prove it recited some verses of the well known and much loved Psalm 23.

The missionary was aghast. Obviously the interpreter had tried to use some cultural equivalents but with disastrous results. Here are the first two verses, with some explanations: 

The Lord is my shepherd,
I shall not want

goatThe interpreter substituted “sheep” with “wild mountain goats”. The closest translation for “herding” was “doing something with animals” which in the case of wild goats was to hunt them. The word “my” carried the meaning “one who works for me.”

The first verse of the Psalm went like this:

God is my goat hunter,
I don’t want him!

The second verse didn’t fare much better.

He makes me lie down in green pastures,
He leads me beside still waters.

The part “he makes me” was interpreted as, “he forces me to do something against my will”. The only green grass is found on the sun-facing-sides of mountains. “To lead” is to pull an animal along by a rope around the neck. The only “still water” is the sea.

The first two verses, therefore, went:

God is my goat hunter,
I don’t want him!
For He flings me down on the mountainside,
and drags me down to the sea.

How do translators avoid this kind of disaster?

Obviously, they need to understand the meaning of the passage. They also need to know the language and culture. But beyond those two basics, translators need to know the translation principles to obey and the techniques to use. This requires intensive training and continuing study.

That’s why I am glad a wealth of how-to-translate-the-Bible material is being made available to indigenous translators via computer based training programs. Hundreds of trained Christian men and women are now engaged in translating God’s Word into their own languages, using proven techniques and principles of Bible translation.

Without this training the translator risks turning God, our loving Shepherd, into an abusive goat hunter who well deserves to be fired.