Emotion and the Power of Language

This week, Jo and I entered a restaurant, showed evidence of our full vaccination status, sat down, removed our masks, and started a visit with two long-time friends. Was it ever good to be with them again, enjoying a meal together for the first time in several years! They were old friends from our Bible school years who had been missionaries in Africa during the time we were Bible translators in Brazil.

My mind suddenly flashed back to a similar mealtime back on the mission centre in Brazil. I was relaxed and comfortable in the cool, breezy dining room, looking forward to some excellent food and stimulating conversation. Jo and I sat with our hosts, a German family who, like us, were serving as missionaries in Brazil. As we chatted, our host leaned back in his chair and called down the hall to his teenage daughter filling another serving dish in the kitchen.

Elsa! Wir sind bereit. Kommt schnell! “Elsa! We’re ready. Come quickly!”

The loud voice, the urgent tone and the last word, schnell, sent a shock of fear through my system while the icy hand of panic clenched my insides.

Terror traveled eight thousand kilometres and thirty-five years to jab fear into my heart once again.

I was six years old, walking home from school with a classmate in Nazi occupied Hilversum, Holland. As we took a shortcut past a warehouse, we noticed the door was partly open, so naturally, we peered in. Suddenly a German soldier waving his machine gun ran out of a guard shack behind us shouting, Achtung! Verschwinden Sie! Schnell! “Hey! Get away! Quickly!” I had heard those shouted orders before, sometimes followed by shots . . . and screams.

So long ago. So far away. So many changes. I was now an adult, a husband, a father, a missionary in another continent. And this German missionary was no occupying enemy soldier—he was my friend, a missionary colleague, and a brother in Jesus.

What then triggered this vivid, fear-laden memory? Language. A specific language. The same language which had impacted me emotionally that day as a child. If, instead of shouting “Schnell!” in German, he had called in English, “Quickly!” or in Portuguese, “Rapido!” I would not have flinched in fear and panic.

Language has the power to evoke emotion in the hearer. And we depend on emotion along with logic to make decisions. Way back at the tower of Babel, when God invented languages, He put that power to stir emotion into languages. No wonder, therefore, that God uses languages to communicate His passion-filled Love letter to the world’s people.

At last count there are nearly 7400 languages in the world with a population of 7.0 billion people. He has called thousands of His servants to translate His Word into many of these languages. Over 700 languages have a complete Bible, nearly 1600 have at least the New Testament, and 1200 have some portions translated into them. These three groups total about 3500 languages.

Right now, translation work is progressing in over 800 languages, serving nearly 68 million people. Praise God for what He has done through His people!

Putting aside languages spoken be groups who are fully bilingual, another 145 million people speaking nearly 1900 languages still continue to wait for translation work to begin. Two thousand translation teams are needed. They, in turn, need many thousands of prayer partners and financial ministry partners.

Churches around the world need to listen to the urgency in God’s voice as he calls down our halls, for workers and ministry partners to come and get busy. Quickly! Rapido! Rapidement! Szybko! Snabbt! Raskt! Gyorsan! Brzo! Awjarê! Schnell!

 

 Slander, Lies and Attacks Hurt, But In The End . . .

It happened one day after spending three months in the Canela village. We taught young men and women who were eager to learn to read. They were delighted with the self-teaching illustrated primers we used. They wanted to use them to teach others. Canelas who were sick sent for us nearly every day asking us to diagnose and treat their illnesses with the modern medicines we bought in town. We also translated quite a few chapters of Luke.

STOL plane landing near the Canela village

The First Story
At noon the STOL (Short Take-Off & Landing) plane arrived in the village, and now we were gassing up at the airport 70 kilometres from the village to fly us 600 kilometres back to Belem, where our three daughters were waiting for us in boarding school.

As Jo and I got out to stretch our legs, a jeep drove up. The driver hurried to the plane without saying a word to us and peered into the cabin and the cargo hold. I spoke to him, but he ignored me and kept examining the interior. When we started to reboard, he drove away.

The Brazilian friend who had brought our drum of aviation gas explained. “Locals can’t understand why a North American couple would come down here to live for months at a time in an Indian village. Some think you are illegally mining gold, hauling it out by plane.” Since the Rio Ourives (Goldsmith River) ran halfway between the town and the village, I could see where they might get that idea. “Ah,” I said, “I guess this guy was looking for mining equipment or sacks of ore.”

We had already heard the rumour that we dug up Canela corpses, cut off their heads and sold them at a high price to universities for anatomical studies. Indeed, we often were at open graves, not to rob them, but to mourn along with the Canelas at burials. It happened all too frequently, especially when tuberculosis ravaged the village.

Brazilian Christians knew that we wanted to translate a good part of the Bible into the Canela language. How else would they have the opportunity to read about their Creator from a Bible in their own language, the same right as billions of people around the world have had for many years?

Brazilians tend to be generous. Even poor people give to the beggars on the street. All Brazilians are helpful to their families and their employees, and others they know well. But in the 1970s, the idea of charity to strangers was unknown. No wonder they suspected the motivation of foreigners, seemingly well funded but living in primitive conditions out in the jungle. Ignorance produced these suspicions and slanders. Jo and I began to experience pressures, even from government officials, that hindered our work with the Canelas.

The Second Story
A far more vicious and effective attack came from the 43rd International Congress of Americanists in 1979. At their meeting in Vancouver, BC, they passed a resolution to move governments to “expel Wycliffe Bible Translators’ field organization the Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL) from all the indigenous locations in North and South American countries.” They falsely accused us of “practicing compulsory religious conversion and annihilating the expression of Indian life and culture.” I heard about some religious groups, not Bible translators, who forced conversions by allowing only baptized believers to attend their schools, receive medical treatment, or buy in their stores. This was 100% false when applied to SIL workers.

About 900 people attended this Congress, although only 124 people (14%) were present in the last hours of the final day when this resolution was presented. Nine delegates jumped to their feet to protest that this did not align with what they personally knew to be true about Wycliffe and SIL. Even the chairman spoke out in favour of SIL. The resolution, however, passed 65 to 59. Brazil’s anthropologists jumped at the chance to cancel the contracts SIL had signed with the government permitting us to work in the indigenous villages.

The First Result
All SIL personnel were expelled from the villages in the forty different language groups where we worked. It was devastating not only for us SIL translators but for the indigenous people among whom we worked. The Canelas cried when we left, and some got angry. But there was nothing we could do. It was a terrible time of distress and confusion for many of us.

We kept up our spirits by reminding each other that God was still in control, He always knows what He is doing, and His love for us and the people groups we served lasts forever. We encouraged each other with promises such as,  “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven.” (Matthew 5:11)

Brazil’s SIL translators were “in exile” for nearly five years. Then, finally, the Canelas and other indigenous societies won their long battle with the government, insisting that they wanted the translators back. Jo and I returned joyfully to the Canela village, where the Canelas received us in a grand celebration. We took no more furloughs but pressed on until the end. We completed our translation ministry on August 10, 1990.

The Last Result
Now thirty years later, a whole generation of Canelas has grown up reading God’s Word in their own language. Jesus built His Church in the Canela village, and scores of Canela believers have already gone Home to Glory. Yes, they are our great and growing reward in heaven.

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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From Chaotic Confusion to Clear Wisdom in Four Steps

Six years ago, after taking delivery of our factory-built home, the deer whose territory we had suddenly invaded, gave it a wide berth for several weeks. Eventually, however, they understood the house would do them no harm, and they used the old trails again, even though some led right past the house.

Like our deer, we human beings also tend to fear what we do not understand. New ideas, new gadgets, and new situations are chaotic and confusing; they frighten and bewilder us. Unless we process this Chaos correctly, our fears will drive us to reject these new things even though they are highly recommended by those who understand them.

Step One: From Chaos to Facts
Five decades ago, when my wife and I began living among the Canela people of Brazil, we could not understand a single word coming from the mouths of dozens of excited Canelas surrounding us. It was chaotic! How could we ever understand and relate wisely to these people, let alone translate the Bible with them? Fortunately, our training had prepared us to step-by-step, turn Chaos into Facts.

Old men have infinite patience. They were my favorite language teachers

Using special symbols, we wrote down the sounds we heard, the greetings, and people’s names. We pointed at body parts like eye, ear, nose, and objects like grass, stone, stick, as well as actions such as hit, throw, drink, and filled our notebooks with the sounds we heard coming from the Canelas’ mouths. In that way, we turned the Chaos of sounds into Facts.

 

Step Two: Sorted and Organized Facts Become Information
We sorted these Facts: the vowels and consonants into charts, the nouns and verbs into separate lists, eventually developing a full dictionary. We compared, tested, and described how words were used in a meaningful context, thereby turning thousands of Facts into useful Information about the Canela language.

Step Three: Placing Information in Context Becomes Knowledge
“How does this Information fit into the total culture?” we asked ourselves. We found out what Canelas believed about spiritual realities, how they treated disease, what they were afraid of, what their goals and aspirations were, and what they thought about God. As we gained a fuller understanding of the context of Canela thinking and living, we turned Information into Knowledge.

Step Four: Making Decisions and Acting on Knowledge Becomes Wisdom
Before we could translate God’s Word into Canela, we needed to turn Knowledge into Wisdom. That is, we needed to apply our current Knowledge of the Canela culture and language to making wise decisions in translation. We naturally depended on our Information filled dictionary and grammar descriptions, our Knowledge of the culture, and the feel we had for fluency in the language. We depended on the Canela translation helpers we had trained, our Knowledge of the Bible, and the leading of the Holy Spirit, to make final wise decisions.

How This Works in Ordinary Life
I remember meeting a young computer programmer who wanted to help meet the spiritual needs of people in third-world countries. He planned to pray and regularly give from his income but was bewildered by the Chaos of numerous organizations and individuals, all looking for financial and prayer partners.

Step One: He turned this Chaos into Facts by researching the organizations.

Step Two: He processed the Facts into Information by sorting them into categories: type of ministry, location, policies, etc.

Step Three: He then turned this Information into Knowledge by putting it into the context of his personal preferences, the things that appealed to his emotions, that fitted his thinking and theology.

Step Four: Based on this Knowledge, he prayed for God’s Holy Spirit to lead him and then made a Wisdom decided to financially support a missionary family he knew who was involved in developing computer programs to use in Bible translation.

Have a great couple of weeks turning Chaos into Wisdom. Deer do it by instinct; we can do it by design.

 

Comfort in Culture Shock

Comfort in Culture Shock
Most of us experience some form of anxiety when we travel outside the comfort zone of our own country, language and cultural setting. This feeling of unease is called culture shock and although unpleasant, it is not life-threatening. Or is it?

Our first missionary term in Brazil was filled with multiple opportunities to experience culture shock. We adapted to two cultures, learned two languages and invented a writing system for one of them. Living with the Canela people in their jungle villages, we learned to live without clean water, plumbing, electricity, mail, and phone service. That’s fine during a few weeks of vacation camping, but a strain for six months at a stretch with three pre-school children.

The society to which we were adapting found comfort in a woven palm-leaf mat for sleeping, sitting cross legged on the hard clay floor, a pair of shorts for the men and a piece of wrap-around-the-hips cloth for the women. We learned to do without most things we had been used to for the first three decades of our lives. In all this, we experienced the fact of the Holy Spirit as our Comforter. We often needed to feel His comforting peace and Presence to relax the tensions we felt.

Back to Canada
After four years of adjusting to these stresses we returned to Canada for a furlough. I thought I had it all together. My motto was, “Bring it on! The God of all comfort and I can deal with it.” That is why it was such a surprise when one culture shock situation nearly cost me my life. Right in my own country!

My brother Henry had bought a used car for us and now accompanied me to the government registry office to register it and get the license plates.

A Major Culture Shock
I was surprised when, instead of waiting for an hour in a long line, it was our turn and the clerk called us to the counter, “We’d like to register this vehicle,” Henry said, handing the clerk the bill of sale and the certificate of insurance. She glanced over them, mentioned the fee which I handed over in cash. She worked her typewriter for a few minutes, then reached under the counter and clattered the license plates on the counter. She dropped the registration card, bill of sale and insurance certificate on top of them, looked over my shoulder and called, “Next.”

My mind still flooded with memories of enduring endless hours of Brazil’s bureaucracy, I picked up the papers and license plates and in a shocked daze slowly turned away from the counter.

“Let’s go,” Henry said and started walking to the door. I followed him wordlessly as nightmare remembrances of endless red tape whirling through my mind. I walked through the door, reliving the frustrating, sometimes day-long standing in multiple lines in Brazil to accomplish what I had just done in five minutes.

I was in full-blown culture shock as I crossed the sidewalk, stepped off the curb and took the first step to certain death. That’s when Henry grabbed my arm and yanked me out of the way of the oncoming bus.

His brusque life-saving action broke through my home-country, re-entry culture shock. As Henry drove me home, I explained to him what agonies I used to endure when dealing with bureaucracy in Brazil.

The fact that God had prompted Henry to grab and jerk me out of harm’s way so brusquely was a great comfort to me.