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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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.

Just a Little Bit Pregnant?

Currently I’m writing the God-stories of my life to publish in several books. Researching my diaries some time ago, I read how concerned Jo and I were for the Canelas during the first year we were back in Canada. Here is the story from nearly thirty years ago.

The Story
We had planned for a missionary family to live in our village house and continue to teach reading and present Bible studies. But they encountered many delays. Instead of a missionary, a well-funded community developer from Germany arrived with medical personnel, teachers, and other workers. The leader kept ridiculing the Canela believers. “Why are you reading that book?” he would ask whenever he saw a Canela reading his Bible. “That’s not for you people.” The Canelas wrote us these bits of disconcerting news in sporadic notes we received from the village.

A Reassuring Visit
We prayed much for them and God gave us His peace, but we kept longing to see them again. We returned to Brazil eighteen months after we had left to renew our permanent residency visas. During the few days we were in the village many Canelas came to tell us how they loved reading the newly translated Bible—great evidence of God’s work among them.

“I just love reading God’s Word.”
“I read it every day.”
“I read it through once right from the beginning to the end, then I read it through again, and now I am reading it for the third time.”
“People in my house are always asking me to read it to them.”
“When I read, I understand.”
“I pray the songs of King David every morning.”

The Note That Made Us Cry
The day we left, a young woman handed me a note as I pushed through the crowd with a bag to load into the jeep. I glanced at it then gave it to Jo in the back of the house, saying, “This is from Jirot”, and walked out with another bag. When I came back into the house Jo was crying. “Read this” she sobbed, holding out the note. I read it, sat down with Jo and cried too.

Here is the note translated from Canela:
Hello Prejaka and Tehtikwyj, (our Canela names)
Listen to my short thought. You are now going back to your children, Pjekar, Tehtyc and Kwyrxomkwyj. (our daughters) May the Creator of this earth, who also is our Creator, take care of all of us. We Canelas are always together with each other. And we, including you, will surely someday be together with each other again. To that end I surely pray for you like this:
“Good Father, look after all of us here. And my relatives, Prejaka and Tehtikwyj, who are the ones who revealed You to me, look after them, and also look after me.”
Yes, that is the way I pray. Done.
Jirot

We had received many hundreds of notes ever since the Canelas learned to read and write in their own language. But this one was special since it not only contained a prayer, it had the words “who are the ones who revealed You to me” showing deep spiritual understanding. And it was the only note we ever got that didn’t end by asking us for something.

That note was a tiny evidence of a growing Church—almost insignificant. But a woman who is just a tiny bit pregnant will surely give birth to a baby in due time. In the same way the Canela church is alive and growing, nothing tiny or insignificant about it.

Whose Church is it Anyway?

The New Canela Children’s Bible

Jo and I need not have been so concerned during those eighteen months. We should have remembered that Jesus said “I will build my Church.” Not “Jack and Jo,” or “a strong denomination.” He, Himself, will build His own Church, among the Canela, and every other people group that is reading and hearing His Word in their own language. Yes!

Now nearly thirty years later, Jesus’ Church among the Canela is thriving. Instead of an atheist German development team leader, a godly German missionary family has been there for well over a decade, What a contrast! A whole new generation of Canelas has grown up gladly reading God’s Word.

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.

Our Triune God Loves His People to Work in Community Just as He Does.

The Story
On Sunday morning, the tinkling of teaspoons in teacups was the signal for me to slip out of bed and join the fun in my parents’ bedroom. Settled between them with a cup of tea and some Maria biscuits in my saucer, I joined them to sip, dip and nibble. After fifteen minutes of joy, my Mom would leave us to make breakfast, and the story would begin.

The stories usually were about a young man going out into the world to “seek his fortune.” I didn’t know exactly what that meant, but as he walked along the road, he would meet someone who had a special ability. One could swing his sword so fast he could use it as an umbrella during a rainstorm. The two would decide to seek their fortune together. Soon they would meet others with different special talents, and they would join the group.

Eventually, they would meet a problem, a princess held by a giant, for instance, and the young man and his group would devise a plan to defeat the giant and rescue the princess, each member using his unique skill. The result was often measured in bags of gold for each of them.

The Impression
Each story my dad told was different, but each had that same theme, and they made a profound impression on me. I make up similar stories to tell my children and grandchildren. When my wife and I went to Brazil as linguists, teachers, and Bible translators, I saw myself as the young man going out to gather a group of people with compensating talents to work together to “seek our fortune.” Wycliffe was a good fit for us since the agency values people with a wide variety of skills, but all of whom see themselves as a vital part of every translation team.

Working Together: It's the Right Thing to Do

Working Together: It’s the Right Thing to Do

The Result
As Jo and I lived with the Canela people, God led us to connect with men and women who had a natural gifting in various areas. We helped them develop these talents. One young man became very skilled at extracting rotten teeth. Others loved teaching people to read. An artist illustrated the translated Scriptures with sketches of Canela life. Several learned to type, and one had the knack of making sentences flow smoothly. At times, a dozen people worked together on various aspects of the translation work.

This way of working together interdependently fitted right in with the Canela culture. Together we accomplished things so massive, difficult and complicated, no single one of us could have achieved them as an individual.

The Contrast
Unfortunately, our North American culture glorifies independence. Our hero is the lone pioneer, conquering the wild west, building a log house for his family with his own hands, and clearing the land with his own axe.

Businesses, and even churches, in North America, spend much time and money teaching people to work together as a team. It doesn’t come naturally to us. We have a cultural bias against the concept. Only in sports like hockey or football do we value the team.

The Trinity
In that respect, Canela culture is far more godly than North American culture. Here’s why. God said, “Let Us make man in Our own likeness.” God is a community of three: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. They made human beings in Their likeness, to be people with the same need to live and work together in community as They had.

This kind of working community is a far cry from the military and industrial model of exploiting the labour of individuals to accomplish objectives set by generals or executives. The strength of the interdependent community lies in its people, not in its bosses. The more people grow in a deep appreciation for the variety of contributions from others in the community, the more productive the community becomes.

The Questions
So, is yours a godly (god-like) family? That is, does your family work together, as the Holy Trinity does?

What about your church? Are all the members engaged in ministry, each contributing to the whole with their own talents and abilities?

Oh, Those Begats!

Some churches hold seventy-hour Bible Reading Marathons during which volunteers read through the entire Bible aloud. All goes well until the reader comes to the “begats”, those long lists of forefathers. Densely packed with hard-to-pronounce names, readers stumble and make mistakes.

GenealogyIn our private reading, when we come upon those genealogies in the historical books of the Old Testament and the Gospels, we tend to just scan over them or even skip them entirely.

We consider genealogies of possible interest to Bible historians, but not for anyone else in today’s society. Bible translators who are working with other cultures, however, take a different attitude. They have to be aware of the potential value of these boring lists of names.

I remember chatting with some Bible translators in Brazil who were working among language groups related to the Canela. One lady told a story that stuck in my memory and made me treat the genealogies with greater respect in our own Canela translation project.

It seems she had translated a number of stories about Jesus, the disciples, and the Jewish people, etc. When she read them, the indigenous people had listened closely and then told some of their own, similar, tribal stories of culture-heroes, and miraculous events. After some years, she translated the “less interesting” parts of the gospel, like the genealogies. When she read those sections to a group of villagers, they were fascinated.

Finally one blurted out, “You mean Jesus and these other people you have been telling us about really lived? They actually had parents and grandparents?”

It seems their own stories taught cultural and moral values, but the characters in them were made up.

From then on, the villagers accepted the Gospel stories about Jesus as completely different from their own stories, and better, since they were about real people.

This story reminded another friend to tell a story about a people group in the PacificIsland region. Ken, one of Wycliffe’s top linguists was about to demonstrate to an audience of Australian university students how a properly trained linguist can quickly learn to communicate in a language when neither the linguist nor the native speaker speak a language common to both.

The stage was set for this monolingual language learning demonstration with plenty of whiteboards, markers, and a table full of props. A linguist/translator walked onto the stage with the native speaker of the language Ken was going to learn. He turned to the audience and said,

“This is Maku, a member of the people group whose language I have been learning. He knows only his own language.” He then spoke briefly to Maku, walked off the stage and sat down in the audience.

Maku picked up a stool, took it over to the far corner of the stage and sat down. Then Ken, the linguist, walked onto the stage, faced the audience and briefly explained that he would be speaking a language spoken by an indigenous group he worked with in South America which he was sure the Pacific Islander would not understand.

He then ambled over to Maku sitting on his stool and greeted him. Maku ignored him. The linguist stuck out his hand for a handshake and repeated the greeting. He was again ignored. Nothing he tried got Maku talking to him.

At that point the translator who had brought Maku got up from the audience, walked onto the stage and spoke with him. He pointed at Ken and talked some more. Suddenly Maku made eye contact with Ken, smiled and started talking. From there on the demonstration went on successfully.

What had happened was that the translator had told Maku who Ken was, where he came from, and who his parents were. Once Maku had this background knowledge, he felt free to speak and interact with Ken.

Apparently the indigenous society he came from was extremely isolated and had good reason to be fearful of strangers. No one would interact with a stranger until they had been properly introduced by a third party.

When translation began in Maku’s language, the translator started with the genealogies, thus introducing Jesus and other characters of the Gospel—real people, real events, true stories.

As Christmas approaches, it’s good to remember we are celebrating a real event, one that really happened to real people.