An Insightful Grandson and an Angry Chief

The First Story
If you have done repairs to a loose kitchen sink you will know what suffering is. As you lie on your back, the edge of the under-sink-cabinet floor causes excruciating pain as it tries to pry apart your vertebrae. You are peering up into semi-darkness, holding a flashlight in one hand, the other feeling for the loose under-the-sink bolt, and needing a third hand to find the tools lying on the floor beside you. In the meantime, bits of grit and dust keep falling into your eyes.

I had been in that position for much longer than I wanted to be, and still, the job was not done. Just then, Ryan, our oldest grandson who had observed my torment for some time, made an insightful comment for a young teenager.
“You are not very good at fixing this kind of thing, are you, Grandpa?”
“No, I’m not, Ryan. My back hurts, and I hate working way up above my head, with dirt falling into my eyes.”

He then made another perceptive comment.
“But later on, Grandpa, you’ll be able to write a great story about this. It’ll be a really funny one.”

Yes! That I could do. Ryan and the other grandkids had heard me tell hundreds of true stories about all kinds of adventures and hard times—many with funny and always encouraging endings.
I remembered that sink fixing episode today as I researched my 1987 diary for stories to include in my memoir of our translation work among the Canela people of Brazil.

The Second Story
Here’s the story that stood out. In 1967, twenty years earlier, Pedro, the Canela village chief, had invited Josephine and me to come to his village to live and work. He wanted us to do medical work and teach his people to read and write. We had done this and much more, including saving the life of his son by driving him four hours to town to a doctor who confirmed my diagnosis of appendicitis and sent him to a hospital where he had surgery just in time.

We had always had a good relationship with Pedro, and when he asked if I could drive him, his wife and two or three men down the jeep trail a few hours to meet some people, I agreed. A continued good relationship with him was worth four hours of driving over rough terrain.

At noon, I drove our little quarter-ton pickup truck to his house. Pedro and his wife

Baskets & 3 daughters Okay, 10 Adult men, No Way.

climbed on, and so did ten other people.
“That’s too heavy, Pedro,” I said. “Look at the springs; they are all bending the wrong way and will break. I can take the five people you asked for but not all twelve of you. I broke all four of these springs this year and replaced them. But now they’ll all break too. I’m sorry, but I can’t take all of you.”

Pedro exploded in anger. He stalked off directly to the local government agency. He complained to the manager, telling him, “Get on your shortwave radio and tell your bosses in the city that we no longer want these teachers in our village.”
He stayed right there until the manager had sent that radiogram. Happily, several other Canela leaders overheard this order. They told others in the village who sent a large delegation to the government manager saying, “Everyone in the village wants the teachers to stay.”

These events were the beginning of an enormous confusion that eventually involved directors of the government indigenous agencies in three cities. These authorities repeatedly ordered us to leave the village, and each time the Canelas made the local manager send radiograms objecting to the order.

Even our own Wycliffe director got involved. He was called to the agency office in Belem, where the agency director told him, “The Canela chief, Pedro, and Blackpalm, a sub-chief, both want your people out of their village.” Just then, Blackpalm, who happened to be in Belem for medical reasons, walked into the office and heard this statement; he objected.

“The only one who wants the teachers out is Pedro. He’s a hothead and gets violently angry when he can’t get his way. I love working with the teachers. I taught them much of our language starting twenty years ago. They have been a huge benefit to health and education in our village.”

The Last Story
What a coincidence! No, it wasn’t. It was a God-incidence. God is in control and kept us productively working for three more years until the Canela Bible was published.

At the public Bible distribution ceremony, I gave Pedro the first Bible I took out of the box since he was the chief who had invited us to come. He made an impassioned speech. “Treat this book respectfully. It is more valuable than a cow or a new shotgun. It is God’s letter to us. Don’t tear pages out of it to make your cigarettes. Don’t leave it out in the rain. Our friends have worked for more than twenty years to make this book. Respect their work.”

What a change in Pedro from just a few years ago! I couldn’t help chuckling, and covered my grin with my hand.

The Best Question I Ever Answered with YES!

The Bedtime Stories
Our twin grandsons were born the year after we returned to Canada from our decades of work in Brazil—the first grandkids. A few years later, since they lived nearby, I was in demand to tell them bedtime stories. At the time, Jo and I were deeply involved in an intensive six years in top-level Wycliffe leadership, serving as CEO (now called President) of Wycliffe Canada. We had literally moved From Mud Hut to Executive Suite. (Hmm, that sounds like a good title for a book of memoirs.)

Eventually, vigorous games, like tag. were added to the bedtime stories. By the time they were ten years old, however, I didn’t play tag with them anymore because, at sixty-plus years old, I could no longer catch them. We also had a six-year-old granddaughter, Savannah, living near us in Canada and four younger granddaughters in California. Oh, and of course Savannah’s baby brother Aidan.

I wondered what life would be like being an active grandpa to eight young grandchildren, who increased in strength and stature every year, whereas I seemed to be going in the other direction. The only thing I could do to entertain them was to tell them stories of my life. I told them tales of growing up in Holland, and I made up bedtime stories on the spot with ideas they gave me. I longed to play more active games with them. Yet, their energy tended to surpass mine, and I ended up dropping out. I wondered how Savannah’s other Grandpa, the one living in Saskatoon, interacted with his grandkids.

A Granddaughter’s Question
Yeah, I was feeling rather gloomy about my Grandpa role. I talked to God, telling him I thought I wasn’t much of a grandpa, but I didn’t get a response. Then, one day, I made a phone call, and everything changed. I called our daughter Cheryl’s home (remember the time when every home still had a landline phone), and little Savannah answered.

“Hi Savannah,” I said, “this is grandpa.”

There was a moment of silence, and then Savannah’s voice came through hesitantly, “Um, are you the grandpa who tells us stories?”

Whoosh! A bright white light of understanding flooded my mind! I saw myself and my future in full clarity.

“Yes, Savannah! I sure am the Grandpa who tells you stories!”

I remember nothing else about that phone conversation. Savannah’s question, however, was God’s answer to my prayer and has guided my actions and ministry goals ever since.

A Wife’s Suggestion
After six years as leader of Wycliffe Canada, Jo and I served as Wycliffe leaders for three years in the Caribbean, living in Trinidad and travelling to Barbados, Jamaica and the Cayman Islands. I told stories of missions and Bible translation in hundreds of churches and other meetings. But often, on Sunday afternoons, we were at home for five hours between church services.  One day Jo said, “Remember how you used to write a Sunday Afternoon Letter from Dad to our three daughters after they left Brazil? Why don’t you write a Sunday Afternoon Letter from Grandpa to the grandkids?”

Good idea! Jo often gives me good ideas, which I accept gladly and have a powerful and positive impact. So, I started writing story-letters to the eight grandkids each Sunday afternoon and emailing the letters to the three sets of parents. On Monday night, the parents read my story-letter to the grandkids as a bedtime story. During those three years, I wrote scores of made-up stories. The total number of words I wrote in short fiction tales for my grandkids was seven thousand words longer than The Hobbit. Hey, it’s just a page number comparison; it has nothing to do with quality!

A Calling Confirmed
After that three-year assignment to the Caribbean, I was invited to tell true stories of Bible translation to audiences to help them decide to support Wycliffe’s Bible translation work financially. Along with my personal speaking engagements, during those ten years, I told stories to about 750 audiences in 400 cities and nearly twenty countries.

Then, at age 76, I stopped travelling and sat down to write more books of stories. I have published five books of collections of story-based articles on Bible translation and three story-packed memoirs.

I thank God for confirming my calling as a storyteller that day twenty years ago when Savannah asked, “Are you the Grandpa who tells us stories?”

 

 

How God Prepared me to Trust Him

The Problem
As a Dutch boy, I was proud of being Dutch and our dike-building engineering abilities. By the time I was in Grade Nine in Canada, the Dutch had turned 6,800 square miles (4.5 million acres) of sea-bottom into farmland. Here’s a comparison with Canada: Each homesteader was granted 160 acres of land. The amount reclaimed from the sea by the Dutch would have been enough for 27,200 pioneer families’ homesteads. I should have had plenty of that high self-esteem for which the Dutch are famous. But I didn’t. My classmates often called me Dummy, and I felt that they were right.

I was always the last to be chosen on a sports team. I sucked at carpentry-shop, and was worse in arithmetic. I especially hated being called to the blackboard to solve an arithmetic problem in front of everyone. I always made mistakes, and everyone laughed at me.

I believed in God in a general way. But I had no close relationship with Him. I always felt guilty, either for things I should have done and didn’t do or for something I had done that I shouldn’t have done. So, even when I occasionally prayed that I would feel better about myself, I didn’t expect Him to do much for me. And then, one day, He did.

What I Didn’t Know
I knew all the things I wasn’t good at. But I didn’t realize that God had been preparing me for years to be good at something. He had helped me to develop a valuable skill with words—and I didn’t know it.

Growing up in Holland, I biked to the library every Wednesday to borrow two or three books to read that week. I was twelve years old when we left Holland, and I had probably read 500 books. In the two years in Canada, I read library books in the way fire reads kindling.

The Story
Then came the day in Grade Nine English class when the teacher taught us how to write a letter. I listened with half an ear because I had written lots of letters to friends in Holland, and besides, I had a book open on my lap and was engrossed in a gripping story. The teacher said, “Alright, everyone, take a sheet of paper and write a one-page letter to a friend. You have forty-five minutes.”

I thought of a funny idea for my letter, then looked up from my book. The whole class was scribbling, erasing, thinking, and scribbling some more. I kept reading my book. Suddenly the teacher warned us, “You have twenty minutes to finish.”

I closed my book and wrote a letter to an imaginary friend telling him about my weekend visit to some make-believe cousins who lived on a farm.  I wrote about climbing up the windmill tower. I wrote about chasing pigs that had escaped and about a bull that chased us.

To make the letter unique and easy to read, I quickly drew a little cartoon picture to replace every noun. I filled my whole letter with tiny sketches of fat pigs, flapping chickens, skinny cousins, an angry bull, a windmill, apples, a glass of milk, etc. Then the teacher said, “Time’s up. Hand in your letter.” I signed my letter and took it to her desk.

The Solution
The next day, the teacher said, “I am happy to say that many of you wrote excellent letters. But one of your letters was outstanding. It was one of the most original and best letters anyone has ever turned in during this class. I am putting it up in the school hallway for everyone to read and enjoy. Jack, congratulations on writing the best letter!”

Wow! I hadn’t expected that! What a surprise! It had been so simple, taking only twenty minutes. Even though I stank at many school activities, it was good to know I rocked at writing.  And best of all, nobody ever called me Dummy again.

The Best Lesson
In the last month of Grade Nine, I attended an evangelistic crusade meeting, where I heard that Jesus would forgive all my sins and be my Friend. I gladly accepted this great gift. No more feeling guilty! Yea!

It was then I realized that it was God’s Spirit who had motivated me to read so many books and to love words and that it was He who had given me the idea of using cartoon pictures to make my letter unique. I knew then I could trust Him forever.

 

God’s Problem and His Solution

The Problem
God had a problem. Having created human beings to multiply throughout the habitable areas of the earth, He now wanted to communicate with them. But, although they were all created on the same basic pattern, every one of them was a unique person. Their bodies, personalities, emotional makeups and cultural environments made them all different from each other.

How could He tell them about Himself, His expectations of them and His love for them? Clear logical statements would speak to some types of people but would turn off other groups. Lists of do’s and don’ts would be understood by some, but would be rejected by others.

God’s Solution
In His divine wisdom He gave mankind the Bible, a Book that is packed with stories of real people. Stories are the universal language: they speak to everyone. Narratives telling the Who, What, When, Where, Why and How of situations are informative. But when they are told in a story form that has a Beginning in which someone has a problem, a Middle describing their struggles, and an End telling of the solution, they will captivate any audience.

Some preachers and teachers try to make the Bible what it is not. It is not a handy-dandy Manual for Life. The books of Proverbs and James come the closest, but even these are mainly a collection of miscellaneous observations and pieces of advice. Although there are many clear commands and explicit instruction for certain situations, the Bible is not the Help tab on Life’s computer. We cannot click it and expect a drop menu of prompts to follow for specific directions in every possible situation. Instead, God gave us a Book of stories about people, their successes, their failures, their loves and their hates. As we see ourselves in these situations, we can learn from them.

The Psychology
The best speakers and writers do not use stories to illustrate a point already made. They use the stories to carry the point. They tell a story and let hearers come to their own conclusion. There are psychologically sound reasons for doing this. People tend to mentally argue against points made by speakers, pastors, or teachers. People tend to reject plainly stated advertisements, advice, and even moral lessons. But people never argue against conclusions they have come to by themselves—conclusions they have come to by listening to a story. Check out Jesus—the master story-teller—and His parables for examples.

Grandpa's Stories

Grandpa’s Stories

A Story
A dozen years ago, when our eight grandchildren were still in grade school, I published two 50,000-word story books and gave them each a set. They were filled with stories that I had written for them during several years of Sunday afternoon story-letters to the grandkids. By the way, the heroes and heroines of these stories bear an uncanny resemblance to my grandchildren. As they read the stories, our grandchildren soaked up solid biblical concepts such as the value of relationships, initiative, work, honesty, teamwork, having fun, and eating ice cream.

We not only learn from other people’s stories; we can tell our own. Everyone has a story. All of us, especially if we are followers of Jesus, can think back to things He did for us, problems He helped us solve, prayers He answered, and troubles He guided us through. I call these experiences God-stories, since we start with a problem and God provides the solution in the end.

I continue to teach and lead workshops for people who want to learn how to write their own God-stories to leave as a legacy for the children and grandchildren—a solidly biblical thing to do.

Another Story
I phoned our daughter one day, many years ago, and our four-year-old granddaughter answered.
“Hi Savannah,” I said, “this is grandpa.”
There was a period of silence as she wondered which of her two grandpas she was talking to, then she asked,
“Are you the Grandpa who tells us stories?”

Yes! Oh yes!
“The Grandpa who tells us stories” has been my sub-title ever since.

Here’s hoping that you too will be remembered for the God-stories you tell.

Great Stories, Jack, But Are They True?

Recently I was the keynote speaker at a church mission conference where, during my three speeches I brought out my points by telling 25 personal stories. All of these stories were true, having happened in my life. All, except one.

The last meeting was an international dinner featuring a buffet with foods from every continent. Many of the guests were dressed in costumes native to countries where they had been born or had worked. The person introducing me jokingly asked why Jo and I had not dressed in the native costume of the Canela people of Brazil among whom we had worked for decades.

Jack Being Dressed in Canela Native Costume

“When we returned to Canada from Brazil,” I told the audience, “we were invited to dress in native Canela costume to attend an international dinner much like this one. Using plenty of body paint we got ourselves ready, and drove to the banquet. Fortunately it was a nice warm day. We had to park some distance from the church and were walking along the sidewalk when a passing RCMP patrol car suddenly pulled up alongside of us, two policemen jumped out, covered us with blankets, and arrested us for indecent exposure.”

This story was a lie from beginning to end and, after my audience had stopped laughing, I confessed. But what about the other 24 stories I told during that conference? Were they lies too? Or did I tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth?

No, they weren’t lies. But they weren’t the whole truth either. To tell the whole truth is nearly impossible and would totally spoil the story.

Just think about it. What if a dozen microphones and cameras were to record every sound and angle of a two-minute memorable event in my life from start to finish? When you viewed all that footage, surely you would know the 100% truth about that event. No, you would not!

Cameras and microphones might show the date and the time, but they don’t record what I smelled, or tasted, or how warm I was, or how I was feeling physically. Nor would there be any record of what I was thinking, how I was feeling emotionally, what I remembered of similar incidents in the past, or what I resolved to do from now on. Yet aren’t these mental and emotional aspects often the most important part of a story? What was the final impact of the event on my life? No video can show that.

Yet, I can tell you the story of that same two-minute event in such a way that you will end up feeling the same emotions I was feeling, come to the same conclusion as I came to, and may even allow the lesson to impact you in the same way it impacted me.

I would not have described every possible second of the two-minute event, nor quoted every single word accurately. I would have left out many, many facts. Had I left them in they would have diluted the story and left you bored with all the true, but irrelevant detail.

Jesus did the same thing when He told His stories. Mark 4:3-8 records a 35-second story of the farmer who scattered seed on four different types of soil. Jesus did not tell the whole truth. He left out scores of facts: The farmer’s name, his age, his experience, what he was wearing, his marital and family status, the size of the field, the time of day, the amount of seed, the exact kind of seed, the species of birds that ate the seed, where the path led to, etc. All facts, all true, but He left them all out because they were irrelevant to the point of His story.

I want to be a good storyteller. That’s why, like Jesus, I never let the facts stand in the way of a good story.