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.

Not Just a Warning

The Warning
“Don’t you know? Those people want to kill you!” My friend meant it as a warning, but when he explained, I took it as a great compliment.

The Explanation
One Monday morning in 1972, I walked 35 kilometres from the Canela village to the Ourives river, swam across it, and slept on its bank. The next day walked another 35 kilometres to the town of Barra do Corda. I stayed with Jim, a missionary friend. After mailing my letters, I spent the day buying dental and other medical supplies needed in the village. I enjoyed another night’s rest and the following morning at breakfast announced I was walking back to the village.

Jim looked up with concern and said, “You can’t walk back to the village.”

“Why not? I just walked down Monday and Tuesday. I can surely walk back Thursday and Friday. The medicines aren’t that heavy.”

“Don’t you know?” Jim said, “Some of those people along the trail want to kill you! Many people living in the hamlets between town and the river are relatives of the storekeepers in town and they don’t like you.”

“Why? What did I ever do to them?”

“Your name is mud among the merchants. For generations they’ve been ripping off the Canelas who come into town to trade baskets for tools and cloth. But last year, you and Jo taught many Canelas to read and do arithmetic. Now the storekeepers can’t cheat them anymore. Everyone knows you are here and that you will be walking back. If some hothead sees you are alone, he might well take a shot at you.”

The Affirmation
I happily accepted Jim’s offer of a ride to the river in his jeep. I was glad to get through the dangerous area safely and for the 35 kilometres I didn’t have to walk. Beyond that, however, I felt a deep happiness that had nothing to do with physical safety or comfort. I felt profoundly affirmed for our years of language analysis and educational work among the Canela that were now making a positive impact. As linguists and teachers we had brought about justice for the oppressed and downtrodden.

The Joy
The joy I felt reminded me of the four levels of affirmation and praise that C. S. Lewis wrote about:

  • The first level is looking at work we have done and saying to ourselves, “Hey, I did a good job!” It is what the Creator did after each act of creation, as recorded repeatedly in Genesis 1, “God saw that it was good.”
  • The second level is someone else telling us, “You did a good job!” God wants us to praise Him for what He did. After doing a good job, we all have a basic need to hear someone tell us that we did a good job.
  • The third level is overhearing someone telling another, “Hey, she did a good job!” God wants to overhear us telling others how well He worked in our lives. Discovering that the merchants were no longer able to cheat the Canelas was like overhearing someone say, “Jack and Jo did a good job!” and I was full of joy, and still am.
  • The highest level of affirmation is God praising us for doing a good job. At Creation He praised His own works having seen that they were good. When God looks Jo and me in the eye and says, “You did a good job!” our joy will be complete

The Epilogue
It is now 45 years and two generations later. Many Canelas adults and all the young people now can read and write in their own language as well as in Portuguese. Bright, eager-to-learn Canela students now attend higher grades in town. They are earning income and come into the stores with money in their hands where storekeepers treat them as the equals they are.

The Need
Many millions of people all over the developing world are still like the Canelas were when Jo and I arrived in their village— illiterate, and without any of God’s Word in their language. We are nearly 80 years old, but if we could revert to being in our twenties . . . we’d do it again!

 

 

 

 

The One Thing That Trumps Commitment

A song popularized long ago by Dean Martin has the lines,

Try standing on a corner, watching all the girls go by.
You can’t go to jail for what you’re thinking,
Or for that wooed look in your eye.

True, you won’t go to jail for mentally ravishing those girls, but you may go to hell.

An Amazing Gift From God
We human beings, in contrast to animals, are the species with the ability to think, to imagine, and to visualize. We have the amazing God-given talent to picture in our mind something that does not yet exist, to mentally create situations that have not happened.

The problem with all of God’s gifts is that Satan perverts them. He tempts people to misuse every good thing God provides. For instance, God gave us the capacity to use words to praise Him and speak the truth, but Satan turns that to cursing and lying.

The Power of Imagination
Nowhere is that more clear than in the use of our imagination. Every kind deed, every self-sacrificing action anyone has ever done on earth started as a thought in someone’s head. So did every evil deed.

That is why Jesus warned his male hearers to stop looking at women and imagine having sex with them. “Anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart,” he said. And He could have added, “If you keep on thinking that way, you will eventually commit the actual, physical act with her or someone like her.”

Over time, we human beings tend to accomplish the things we think about imaginatively. The stronger and more emotionally we respond to our focused thinking and visualizing, the more sure the eventual outcome will match our mental picture.

Scientific Proof
Researchers showed that our imagination is even stronger than our will. They drew a vertical and a horizontal line on a square sheet of paper dividing it into four equal squares. They asked each subject to hold one end of a half-metre long piece of string with a small weight at the bottom, extend their arm and commit to holding the weight directly above the intersection of the lines in the centre of the paper.

The researcher then told him, “Close your eyes while holding the weight steadily over the intersection, but imagine it is swinging back and forth from left to right.”

In nearly every case, the weight would soon start to swing in whatever direction the researcher told the subjects to imagine it was moving.

ringA Firm Commitment is No Match for Undisciplined Imagination
Imagination and fantasizing trumps firm decisions and commitment. Marriage is an excellent example. A couple will make a firm decision to be faithful to each other and make a public commitment during their wedding ceremony. But if either of those spouses consistently fantasizes about being intimate with other people, that marriage is doomed. Over time, the tendency is for that fantasy to become real. As the poet Emerson said, “A man is what he thinks about all day long.”

So what should you and I think about? Here’s the apostle Paul’s advice: “Whatever is noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. Phil. 4:8.

A Disciplined Imagination
Imagination can also strengthen and confirm commitment. My wife and I committed ourselves to serve the Canela people of Brazil by translating the Word of God for them. We used our God-given imagination constantly as we mentally pictured Canela villagers reading the Bible in their own language and applying its truths to their lives. Decades later our dream became a reality as Canelas read the Scriptures and started cleaning up the negative, messy things that Satan had introduced into their culture.

Some Personal Questions
To build enduring, satisfying marriages, both spouses need to commit to spend the rest of their lives with each other. That is a given. But how many of us married folk make the commitment every day to fantasize, dream, and imagine intimacy only with each other?

And do we keep that commitment even when we are standing on a corner and happen to see an attractive person of the opposite sex going by? Or do we watch and imagine?

The Unwelcome Request—the Rest of the Story

“We want you to teach us the book of Our Great Father in the Sky.” the 15 young men had asked during our summer work session in the Canela village. Read it here: https://www.jackpopjes.com/the-unwelcome-request/

During our brief break on the mission centre in Belem, at the mouth of the Amazon, Jo and I printed 30 copies of the book of Luke. When we returned to the village to start the next three-month work session we announced we would hold night classes for those who wanted to study the life of Jesus. We had no idea of the size of the job we had just taken on, but were soon to find out. I was going to feel like the worst missionary in the world!

Canelas wanting to join the class overwhelmed us. We limited it to adults who could read Canela fluently, write clearly and who promised to come every night.

We started with about 20 students, mostly men. We sat on logs in the open air behind our little wooden house. The first class started at 7pm with singing some of the newly composed Canela hymns, then several students prayed. Each student then read through a passage of Luke, one verse at a time, after which I explained a bit of background, answered questions and made a practical application. After more singing and praying they left at 9pm.

The next night I asked, “Who would like to teach the lesson I taught last night?” A brave young man volunteered and did well. We then read the next passage of Luke and I taught the second lesson. More singing and prayer and they left.

The third night, I asked for two volunteers, one to teach the first lesson and the other to teach the second lesson, after which I taught the next lesson. From there on, every night two students reviewed the previous two lessons and I taught the new one. By the end of the first week, we were in a productive routine and the class was growing as Jo graduated more adult readers from her “learn to read” night class.

But there was a price to pay. Not only did I have to prepare a lesson during day, I also had to wait until night class was over to prepare for the next day’s translation. Yes, I lost sleep. And yes, I was soon ready for a break. But no break came. Jo had her reading classes on the front porch, and I had my Bible classes out the back every night, seven nights a week. Week after week after week!

I longed for rain! I prayed for rain! “Please God, give me a break! Let it rain so we can’t have a class!” Sometimes it did rain, but it stopped by 7pm and didn’t start again until 9pm. Really! By the end of our work session, we had taught 70 consecutive two-hour night classes!

Some of the Night Bible Class graduates

Here’s how I expressed my feelings to God one day.

One hour after sunset, and here they come.

Young men, fresh from their bath after a hot day in the fields:

Young women, some with their babies on their hips.

Each one with God’s Word in their hands,

Many with it in their mouths,

practising their memory work.

Some with it in their minds,

thinking about the truths.

A few with it in their hearts,

applying it to their lives.

Here they come;

ready to thank God,

ready to pray,

to pray long, long prayers

for themselves, their children, their relatives, their friends,

even their enemies.

For our children far away,

for missionaries in other tribes,

for the sick,

for neighbors that still don’t know God,

for Brazil’s government,

for fields and gardens and rain and lost knives and axes.

Here they come,

To learn, to read, to study, to understand, to follow God’s Book.

Here they come, at last,

after eighteen years of

working and waiting,

studying and translating,

hoping and praying.

What a breakthrough!

What a success!

What joy and happiness!

Why then do I feel so resentful?

I must be the world’s worst missionary!

I shouldn’t feel that way!

Surely no other missionary ever does.

But I do!

Haven’t I worked hard all day?

Don’t I have a right to relax?

I resent having to give up all my evenings.

“Your” evenings?

How much of your day did you dedicate to ME?

8 hours? 16? 22?

No, Lord, all of me is Yours.

All my life, every day, all 24 hours.

Even those two precious evening hours are Yours.

One hour after sunset, and here they come

To learn of God.

And here I come too,

to learn of Him, submission,

service,

sacrifice,

discipline.

Thank You Lord, for Night Class.

It was the graduates of those 70 night classes who became the core leadership of God’s Church among the Canelas!

Our Life Theme Scripture

When Jo and I got married over 50 years ago, the popular thing among Christians was to choose a “Life Verse,” a few lines from some Bible passage to use as a theme for the rest of life together. I can’t remember, but we probably prayed about it and then, in our youthful idealism, picked one that appealed to us.

We chose a verse from a totally inappropriate chapter of 2nd Corinthians. Chapter 9 is the key chapter in all of Paul’s writings dealing with sharing material goods and urging generosity in giving. Since we were both continually dead broke, the chapter did not fit us at all. Except for one little couplet in verse 6 that Paul pulled in from the generally known law of agriculture.

“Remember: whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows generously will also reap generously.”

We picked that verse and applied it to ourselves. Our focus was not on giving money but on doing and working since we had our whole married life ahead of us. We committed ourselves to work for God and His Kingdom not by carefully metering out our service, but going full blast, grabbing every opportunity, and thus sowing our service generously and bountifully.

We started immediately. Within months of our wedding we had quit our jobs and were working in camp as counsellors, then we ran daily vacation Bible schools in several churches, and preached in others. We checked out various missions agencies but each one insisted on applicants having pastoral or other major experience in Christian service.

So that fall we took on the job of pastoring a small-town church. In those days the pastor and his wife did everything, from visiting parishioners, to organizing programs, to preaching two sermons a week. The church was in a building program and the pastor’s salary was minimal. To make ends meet I drove a school bus daily, and taxi and ambulance occasionally. For a while, I sold books door to door. I was the Youth for Christ director for a nearby city, and served on the board of our alma mater Bible school.

A year later we took an unpaid leave of absence for two months to study linguistics in the University of Washington in Seattle in preparation for becoming Bible translators with Wycliffe. Eventually, after more training, we traveled to Brazil with two toddlers and a baby, to start a lifestyle of bountiful sowing that made those early years of married life look pretty laid back.

Learning from the Canelas and Teaching Them

Today, five decades later, we are living proof of the truth of that verse. We sowed generously and we are reaping generously. A church among the Canela where there was none. A 750 page partial Bible translated into their language. A strong, ongoing educational program in the village. Nine years of top Wycliffe leadership positions. Speaking scores of times a year for the past two decades, writing blogs and authoring books continually for the past ten years. Three daughters and their families including eight grandchildren, all committed to loving Jesus and making their lives count for God and His Kingdom.

Yes, we are reaping generously. And it’s not over yet! God is good!

PS. Today (Thursday) we are leaving George Town, Cayman, after 6 days of ministry, 5 major speaking events, 4 one-on-one meetings, 3 working lunches/dinners, 2 workshops/seminars, and 1 hour-long radio talk show interview. Tomorrow I help run the two-day Inscribe Conference. By the way, next week I’ll post the “rest of the story” about the night Bible class.

How a Simple Easter Story Affected a Church and the Denomination

God’s Spirit moved unexpectedly during the Easter Sunday service in a crowded church in Trinidad. As executive director for Wycliffe Caribbean, on most Sundays I would be away speaking in churches, but this time I had the weekend off and decided to attend a church a few blocks from my office. I had visited a few times and preached there once.

The usher 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.

“But before our president brings the message,” he said, “I’d like to welcome our brother Jack 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.”

I then told a two-minute story about the Canela old men’s council 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?” Suddenly I realized they were talking about Jesus, His crucifixion and death!

As I prayed for an opportunity to speak, the chief called on me, and said, “We’ve been hearing news from our Portuguese speaking Brazilian neighbours 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 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. (See “The Easter Confusion Continues” pages 59-60, A Poke in the Ribs.)

“Hundreds of millions of people,” I told the congregation, “speak over 4,000 languages all around the world 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.”

I sat down and the visiting speaker entered the pulpit. He opened his Bible, arranged his notes, looked over the congregation and said, “I sense I should give an opportunity for some of you to respond to what you have just heard. Do you feel God wants you to give yourself to Him to act in whatever way He calls, in order to bring God’s Word to those who still don’t have it in their languages? It may be that you are willing to personally go overseas, or to pray or give as you have never prayed or given before. If you are ready to make a commitment, come forward and I’ll pray for you.”

That’s when the Spirit’s work showed.

They kept coming, we kept praying.

One by one, men, women, young people, and older folks got up and walked to the front and stood with bowed heads. After about twenty people had come, the pastor whispered to me, “I’ve never seen this before,” stood up and organized a line for people to be prayed for by the visiting speaker, by himself, by the chief elder and by me.

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

One Saturday, some months later, a Wycliffe team came to that church and ran a well-attended, in-depth workshop on how to get involved in Bible translation. The following year, Wycliffe Caribbean signed a ministry partnership agreement with that denomination, the largest one in that part of the Caribbean.

God is at work! In the ten years since I told that two-minute story, people groups speaking hundreds of different languages have received God’s Word in their language for the first time. And Bible translation projects are ongoing in nearly 2,000 other languages! May God speed the day that not one person on earth remains confused about who Jesus is, why he died and what His resurrection means.

 

He is alive! Happy Easter!