Who can understand?

I spent my life in Bible translation into smaller languages because I believe in the power of God’s Word. I also believe that ordinary people can understand the Bible. This is not just a theoretical belief. I’ve actually seen uneducated, rural Africans read the Bible and understand it well. I’ve even seen cases where highly-qualified theologians have discovered that rural, uneducated Africans have developed very helpful understandings of topics like chronic ethnic conflicts from reading the Bible. Professional theologians missed those points but uneducated Africans found them.

God gave us his Spirit to guide us into truth. He helps us understand as we read. But to hear some talk, you’d think that the Spirit is no help at all, and that only experts using historical-critical approaches can really understand the Bible. One of the first people to translate the Bible into English was William Tyndale. Even though he was a highly trained scholar, he had complete confidence that ordinary people could understand even saying that ordinary “plowboys” would understand.

In our day, professor N T Wright has written that the Bible was not written under God’s inspiration so that it can only be properly understood by savvy, late twentieth century scholars. I agree. I’m against approaches to understanding the Bible that concentrate interpretive power in the hands of a few. Rather, I’m for putting that power in everyone’s hands.

Call to missions

I grew up in a church where the idea of a call to missions was promoted. The idea was that certain people heard from God a call to be a missionary. My own experience was a bit different. Knowing how important the Bible was iny own life, I was easily convinced that it would be a very good thing to spend my life giving the Bible to others by translating it into their languages.

Later, after a few years on the missions field, I encountered another understanding of a call to missions. Some missionaries would resist getting involved in some programs or activities, saying “I’m not called to that.” For example, the church in a place where we were translating would say that they wanted more literacy but the missionary would say that they weren’t called to Literacy.

It appears to me that some missionaries understand their call to missions in a very specific way. They often developed their understanding long before leaving their own country. When the realities of the place they were translating didn’t fit with their understanding of their call, they denied those realities or said that they were someone else’s responsibility by saying they weren’t called to deal with those realities.

It looked to me like they were constantly trying to shoehorn ministry according to their call into a place where it didn’t fit. They couldn’t consider that they had perhaps not fully understood their call. I remember a leading Christian in one of the countries where we worked explaining this phenomenon very well, saying that new missionaries often come with a fully developed idea of their ministry before they knew anything about the place they were going, and then they resist any changes to their conception based on the realities on the ground.

Some people go overboard trying to conform to their context, and others do the opposite trying to rigidly maintain their call. The former effectively abandon their call while the latter effectively allow no space for the voice of the Spirit.

Obvious first

If your car keys are missing, it’s more likely that they’re on your dresser than in another state. We look in the obvious places first. It makes sense. We solve problems the same way – by looking for the obvious solutions first. When the translation of the Bible into a language fails to progress well, we looked for the most obvious problems first. Were the translators well-trained? Did they have adequate resources? How’s their morale?

But things change when dealing with a perennial problem – one that’s been around for a while. In such cases, all the obvious solutions have already been tried. That doesn’t keep us from trying them again, however. I remember the moment that it dawned on me that we were trying the usual solutions on a translation program that had been under-performing for two decades. Church leaders were saying that something had to change but we were just trying again what had been tried several times before. The obvious was obviously not a solution.

The solution had to be in something untried, something different, something not obvious at all. The problem was that anything untried is also untested. We don’t know if it will work. But is that really a problem when all the tried and tested solutions have failed? Isn’t what might not work better than what has already failed?

I got some inspiration idfor this blog from Seth Godin Obvious. Places First

Why do we act?

Most of what we do is motivated by urgency, fear or fun. If there’s a fire or an accident we act out of urgency. If it makes us happy or gives us satisfaction, we act because it’s fun. If we’re worried someone will disapprove or check up on us so we avoid doing something, we are acting out of fear. All these reasons to act are often legitimate.

But there’s another reason to act – because it’s important. What’s important might not be urgent. It might not be fun, or it might have negative consequences of which we might legitimately be afraid.

Our circumstances dictate what is urgent, or fun, or to be feared. But where do we get our sense of what’s important? Where did I get my idea that it is important to translate the Bible into the languages of the world? Why did I pursue that whether is a fun or not? Or whether it was safe or not? Or whether it seemed like the most urgent thing or not? Where do we get an anchor for our lives that’s not moved around by what’s urgent, or fun or scarey?

Jesus said to first seek the kingdom of God. That allows us to make something important the center where it can moderate the urgent, pleasurable and scarey.

PS: This blog was partially inspired by Seth Godin

Fun, urgent and fear-based

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.