Sorry

When I lived in Kenya I once went to a missionary dentist who had a clinic. The dentist I saw was an American who was visiting on a short term missions trip. He had trouble with the glue used by the clinic because he had not used it before. He had to work hard to lean it off and then start over.

He was assisted by a Kenyan dental assistant who saw his struggles and said “Sorry.” The American dentist responded “It’s okay, it’s not your fault”. The Kenyan assistant was taken aback.

It was a classic case of misunderstanding. When Kenyans say sorry they mean it only as an expression of empathy, not as an admission of responsibility or guilt. The American dentist took it as an admission of responsibility. Furthermore, Kenyans say it all the time, even to mean “excuse me” if they have to squeeze by someone in a tight hallway, for instance. So the Kenyan assistant empathize with the dentist’s difficulty and wanted to express sympathy. Unfortunately, the miscommunication meant that the sympathy wasn’t acknowledged.

Dangerous rivers

When I arrived in Burkina Faso in 1978 there was an ongoing effort to eradicate river blindness, a desease that left some villages with 30 percent of the adults blind and which affects the sight of 800,000 people worldwide. It infected the most fertile areas of that arid country which suffers from famines, causing people to move away from desperately needed farmland. It drove people away from rivers and the nessecary water they provide. The decades of effort and tens of millions of dollars spent fighting River Blindness had only modest success. River blindness persisted.

But  William C. Campbell and Satoshi Ōmura discovered a drug for which they were awarded the 2015 Nobel prize in Physiology or Medicine.  This new drug  radically lowered the incidence of River Blindness. Better, it also treated many other debilitating parasitic deseases which cause suffering in some of the world’s poorest communities. For a very small  fraction of the cost of previous eradication efforts and a much higher success rate people could take this drug only once a year with few side effets and they would never go blind. It’s been rightly called a miracle drug. 

People no longer feared living in areas with adequate water and where the ground could produce enough food.  Better yet, people can use this drug to get rid of worms and other parasites in their farm animals, such as the donkeys which pull carts for those farmers too poor to own a truck which is almost all of them.  The Nobel committee said that the drug  “provided humankind with powerful new means to combat these debilitating diseases that affect hundreds of millions of people annually. The consequences in terms of improved human health and reduced suffering are immeasurable.”

It has been called one of the most important drugs ever discovered, along with penicillin and aspirin. It is estimated that humans have taken between 3 and 4 billions doses of it.

The wonder drug Campbell and Omura discovered, in a slightly different form, is Ivermectin – the drug being derogatorily called a “horse dewormer” in the US press because, on top of its many marvelous properties, it deworms horses too.

https://youtu.be/NHmYXk9cU0o

Shopping for a prophet

When we hear the words “prophet” or “prophecy”, we think of religion. But the secular world does the same thing. But they call it prediction or modeling. There are interesting parallels and differences. “The end is near” is a religious statement, but if a doctor says to someone that they will have a stroke if they don’t get their blood pressure under control, that’s not religious even though it sounds a lot like “Repent for the end is near”.

The Bible prescribes the death penalty for false prophets. One prediction that didn’t trun out was enough to prove that a prophet was a false prophet. That’s harsh. Or is it? A false prophecy could lead people, even the whole nation, into ruin. In fact, that happened.

There’s a fascinating story about prophecy, human nature and politics in I King’s 22.  Two kings want to go to war together. So they go shopping for prophets who will agree with them, punishing the one prophet who tells them the truth – that they will lose the war. They go anyway with disastrous and macabre results.

In part, I love this story because I see the same thing playing out in American politics and news and in our personal lives. Reporters seek out the experts who will give them the analysis they want and cite them. So we read in the news that “experts say” without any hint that other experts say something different. Politicians do the same. We all shop for opinions and facts we like. This is so common that the sign of a true prophet in the Bible is very often the one who said things people did not want to hear, landing the prophet in trouble. When we ask the Lord for guidance, are we open to whatever he says, or are we just looking for confirmation of what we have already decided? Are we like the two King’s who weren’t really looking for a true prophet, but rather for one who said what they wanted?

In our modern world, businesses also engage in prophecy, although they don’t call it that.

In 2015, Elon Musk said self-driving cars that could drive “anywhere” would be here within two or three years.  Later he doubled down on that prediction saying that Tesla robotaxis would debut by 2020. Others made similar, but less dramatic, predictions about self-driving cars. But many who study artificial intelligence and autonomous technologies say that creating a fully self-driving automobile will take decades or may never happen at all. My point is not mock Elon Musk who is obviously amazing. Instead I’m interested in us – you and me. Sociologists have noticed that we have confidence in people who display certainty in their predictions, while we are less confident in those who make nuanced predictions. We know that the future is uncertain, yet we follow those who say it is certain, even after they make repeated bad predictions. The least reliable political pundits are the most certain of their analysis and we reward them by listening to them and increasing their ratings. But don’t blame the pundits. It’s those who follow them who create the situation.

Walking by faith often means trusting when we don’t know what is going to happen. My life of faith has been an exercise in constantly making decisions without enough information, without certainty about what will, or even might, happen. That’s uncomfortable. It’s much harder than shopping for the opinion I want. But it’s also less dangerous, which is counterintuitive.

Hurry

Prophesy has as one of its purposes to hasten us and give us focus. God gives prophesy not simply to tell the political future to satisfy our curiosity even if some preachers treat it that way and some Christians are looking for only that.

Instead, prophesy gives us hope and focus.

… the Good News about the Kingdom will be preached throughout the whole world, so that all nations will hear it; and then the end will come. Matthew 24:14

We ought to be encouraged because we are living in a times when this prophesy is being fulfilled. Christianity has become a world religion, not just a Western religion even though many smart people don’t yet realize that.

This prophesy has caused some to propose that we should support missions to hasten Jesus’s return. But we don’t hurry God or give him focus. In fact, the the opposite is actually the case. However, God is responsive to our engagement with him. He changed his mind about Nineveh in response to Jonah’s preaching. We are players. What we pray, and do, and say matters to God. He takes those things into account in what he does and when he does it.

God has set out his grand scheme for our world and universe – to make it all new, whole and righteous. It’s the greatest endeavor in human history. If you join it, you will be part of making it happen. So far, many millions of people have been part of a key component in God’s scheme – seeing that the Good News about the Kingdom is preached throughout the whole world, so that all nations hear it. Those involved have helped set the stage for the great renewal. There’s still room for more. Join the urgent task of making all things new.

Reading is not normal

Speaking is normal. In fact, it is so normal that it is automatic. If you take young children before they speak and separate them from adults they will invent their own language. It is well known that identical twins often invent their own language.

Speaking a language is so typically human that one never finds groups of humans without language. They’ll invent one, if necessary. That’s why we have pidgins and creoles.

Ghanaian woman reading the Bible in her language

But reading is not normal. Put a bunch of children together without a teacher and they won’t learn to read all by themselves. In fact, some human societies existed for thousands of years without inventing reading and writing. They are not less human for that. There is nothing innately human about reading and writing. No matter how long we have schools, children won’t start learning to read on their own. Every child in every generation has to learn the skill. It’s not natural, not spontaneous.

Even though Europe had reading and writing for a very long time, it is only recently that it has been widely practiced. You probably wouldn’t have been able to read this had you been born at another time in history.

But today most of us take reading and writing for granted. It is so much a part of our lives that we think that it is normal. But for many marginalized and bibleless peoples, not reading and writing is normal and reading is the exception.

Forever gone

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And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven like a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.I heard a loud shout from the throne, saying, “Look, God’s home is now among his people! He will live with them, and they will be his people. God himself will be with them.He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain. All these things are gone forever.” – Revelation 21:2-4

The hope of a place without death, sorrow, crying or pain must have sounded so sweet to the persecuted Christians at the time these verses were written. Likewise to my Mennonite ancestors being hounded for their beliefs. Many African American Spirituals express a great longing for the end of suffering and sorrow.

It’s less obvious, and rarely celebrated, that the New Heavens and the New Earth won’t have other things. Without pain or sickness, all medical professions will be unnecessary. Without sin or violence, the police and the whole justice system will be obsolete. Psychiatrists and counselors will find they have no clients. Preachers, missionaries and Bible translators will find their purpose is gone. Many professions are considered nobel because they apply great skill and care to helping people. But what if no one needs help?

It has been my life-long pursuit to help see everyone have the Bible in their language. Heaven will have no need of that. What will happen to my sense of self-worth and identity when that is gone? Forever gone?

In the United States, we are obsessed by identity – ethnic identity, racial identity, sexual identity, political identity, professional identity, and more. Getting one’s identity to be respected drives political discourse. Lack of respect for an identity is roundly condemned. But most of our identities aren’t eternal even if they are useful or even necessary in this life. It’s possible to pour huge amounts of energy into protecting and projecting one’s identity only to lose it in the next life.

On the other hand, everyone who seriously follows Jesus has an unchangeable identity as his brothers and sisters, and children of the King of Kings. Be sure to invest in that identity. Don’t let your temporary identities steal its place.

We always knew

Years ago, a devotional speaker said something that has stuck with me.

When we had enough money, we always knew God’s will.

Prayer meeting in Accra, Ghana

One part of translating the Bible is managing a budget, just like pretty much any endeavor. Of course, there’s rarely enough money. Because there’s not enough money to do everything, we have to make decisions; difficult decisions; decisions not everyone agrees on; decisions that will disappoint some people. Faced with such choices, we turn to God for wisdom. We look to Him to reveal his will. The fact that we don’t know what to choose, is proof that we don’t know God’s will.

But when we have enough money, there are no hard decisions. There’s no need for wisdom, and we easily fall into the trap of thinking that we know God’s will without seeking or asking. God’s will, we pretend, is obviously to do it all.

In context, the speaker was saying:

When we had enough money, we just assumed that knew God’s will.

Scarce resources are tough, but they also hide a blessing – the opportunity to seek God, to renew our contact with Him. Plentiful resources are easy, but they can hide a trap – that doing it all is what God wants.

Are you wonky?

A wonk is a person who is preoccupied with arcane details or procedures in a specialized field. It is often used in politics in the phrase “policy wonk” to refer to a person who knows fine details of government law and policy.

Jesus had to deal with wonks among the religious leaders of his day. He said to them:

“You search the Scriptures because you think they give you eternal life. But the Scriptures point to me! Yet you refuse to come to me to receive this life. – John 5:39-40

They were Bible experts who missed the main point. They knew the arcane details in the Bible but missed its heart. They were Bible wonks; fascinated by Bible details and facts, but without affection for the person speaking through the text – God.

Working in another culture can make a person a wonk – someone who finds the other culture fascinating but has no real affection for the people.

Translating the Bible requires mastering the details of the Bible, of the language, and of the culture. It can make you into an wonk – a very competent technician lacking a heart for those who speak the language.

The search for justice also creates wonks – people who expertly manage their public stance by knowing and saying the right words and phrases, and being quick to criticize when others aren’t as fastidious. Their justice consists of wonk-approved incantations.

Whatever you to do, don’t do it like a wonk.

Authentic history

We’re living through a time when it’s in vogue to scrutinize historic people. Those found wanting have their books removed from reading lists, libraries and bookshops; their names removed from buildings; and their statues and monuments defaced, destroyed or removed. Furthermore, it seems that all historic persons are found wanting by some group or other.

Adoph Reed, a professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania, Yale and Northwestern has said,

One of the tendencies we need to get beyond… is the tendency to read history as made up of good people and bad people.

We do indeed have a tendancy to read history as composed of impecabbly virtuous hero saviors on the one hand and villains of unalloyed evil on the other. It’s satisfying and inspiring, if you don’t look too hard.

The Bible looks hard.

In their book about the Bible, Michael and Lauren McAfee write:

The Bible is a unique source of comfort because, compared with all the other books on the market today, the Bible is the most honest about the failures of humankind. . . . You will not find a more authentic ancient religious text than the Bible.

The Bible is uniquely honest about the weaknesses and failures of humankind and of its heroes. King David’s ghastly sins are put out in plain view and occupy a significant percentage of the story of his life. Sampson’s moral failures are made a central element in his story. The Apostle Peter’s lies and cowardice are given prominent place in the story of Jesus trial and death. I could go on. Only Jesus himself comes through without doing evil, but even he showed physical tiredness and reluctance in the face of impending torture.

My heroes include those who volunteer to teach others to read

The Bible is authentic history. Besides, it is very good news that flawed people can and do follow God and love him; that God enables even cowardly, weak and sinful people to do amazing things sometimes, or at least make their ordinary lives a net positive for their family, friends, neighbors and the Kingdom of God. Personally, I prefer my heroes flawed because it means that there is hope for me.

Read the Bible. Its authentic history offers hope precisely because of its authenticity.

Wrong question

I some places I have lived in Africa, a building has collapsed. Of course, people wanted to know why. In fact, immediately after the collapse the radio, newspapers and ordinary people were speculating on the cause. Most everyone thought that the collapse was due to shoddy construction done to save the owner money. Some introduced a bribe to a corrupt building inspector into this thesis. A few speculated about malevolent unseen forces such as witchcraft or sorcery. Almost no one speculated that the collapse might have been due to an engineering error or oversight.

Decades of working in different cultures has convinced me that our cultures guide which questions we ask when bad things happen. Sometimes it guides us to the wrong questions.

If a structure fails in the US, we mostly look for an scientific or engineering answer. But my African friends mostly speculated about witchcraft, unethical building contractors and corruption. But looking for a witch when the cause is an engineering error won’t get you an answer no matter how diligently you look; neither will looking for an engineering problem when corrupt contractors and officials are the problem.

Jesus pointed out that people in his day were following their beliefs to the wrong questions.

“And what about the eighteen people who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them? Were they the worst sinners in Jerusalem? No, and I tell you again that unless you repent, you will perish, too.” (Luke 13:4-5)

The people with Jesus thought that the building collapsed because of the sins of the people in it. They had a cultural belief that bad things happen because people sin. So they didn’t look for an engineering error, or a corrupt building inspector or even a witch. They just blamed the people in the building for their sins. Jesus rejects their explanation.

I’ve read a number of explanations for the coronavirus. Depending on the person, it is the fault of :

  • The President
  • The Chinese
  • Dr. Fauci
  • Mother earth (we polluted and she struck back)
  • Climate change
  • Population growth
  • Sin (It is God’s judgment on sinful people)

You can probably guess what kind of people gave each answer. That’s because people are directed to an explanation by their culture, their ideology, their political preferences, their religious beliefs or even their emotions (Who are they mad at?). Laugh at them if you will, just don’t forget to laugh at yourself too, after all, you are probably letting your culture, or beliefs, or emotions dictate what questions you ask about the coronavirus.

Jesus turns the arrow of blame around.

“No, and I tell you again that unless you repent, you will perish, too.”

Jesus is saying that calamities and disasters reveal something that should have been obvious before – that life is fragile and our encounter with the Just Judge is right around the corner. It’s better to prepare for that than to spend time figuring out what others did wrong.

Your culture, politics, or anger will try to get you to lay blame on their favorite boogie man. Read the Bible. Let God direct your thoughts.