Love and Ender’s Game

Ender's game book coverYears ago, I read Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card. I was reading serious science fiction, including that written by C.S. Lewis. So when Ender’s Game came out as a movie, I had to see it. The movie, like the book, poses two moral dilemmas. The one more in tune with our culture is highlighted. The other is only mentioned – understanding one’s enemy. Ender, the protagonist, is trying to understand an alien species that had attacked earth so that he can defeat them. I’m not sure what was said in the movie, but it was something like the book which reads:

“In the moment when I truly understand my enemy, understand him well enough to defeat him, then in that very moment I also love him. I think it’s impossible to really understand somebody, what they want, what they believe, and not love them …”

Orson Scott Card has captured a truth. When we engage our enemy, or opponent, to truly understand them, some empathy and love usually results. We might find out that some of what we believe about our opponent is only partly true. Even if that is not the case, we get inside their head, which causes us to see things from their perspective, even if we disagree with that perspective. At the moment when we see things from their perspective, we care for them.

Understanding, then love and empathy come from hours of dialog

Understanding, then love and empathy come from hours of dialog

If our faith is weak, the empathy might cause us to stray from that faith. But the other way is equally dangerous to faith. That is to make caricatures of our enemies, which allows us to demonize them. We then risk defeating only the demonized caricatures in our own minds. Plus, we fail to follow Christ in loving our enemies. The route to love for someone very different from myself almost inevitably runs through the hard work of understanding them.

Cross-cultural mission involves trying to understand the other culture. We imitate Christ who left heaven to live like us, become like us, empathize with us, experience our reality. One way we can celebrate Christmas is to imitate that same method – reaching out, crossing boundaries and empathizing the way Jesus did.

This principle applies to all kinds of situations, not just ministering in cross-cultural situations. Whether we are dealing with another culture, people of a very different political ideology, opponents of our faith, or radicals from another religion, it behooves us to understand them to the point of love and love them enough to want to understand them.

Love your enemies! Do good to them. Lend to them without expecting to be repaid. Then your reward from heaven will be very great, and you will truly be acting as children of the Most High, for he is kind to those who are unthankful and wicked. (Luke 6:35, NLT)

 

 

 

 

Translation and identity

I am an American. Sometimes people in Ghana asks me where I am from. I tell them the United States. I have not yet had someone ask me where that is. I have a national identity which is recognized worldwide by almost everyone.

The road to Baglo

The road to Baglo

It is not so for many who speak the smaller languages of the world. Some of you reading this might have to ask about Ghana were someone to tell you he is from Ghana. But what if someone told you he was Buem, Nawuri, Nafaanra or Sekpele? Those peoples have an identity, but it is not widely known. Even officials in their own countries may not know who they are. At the presentation of the New Testament in the Nawuri language of Ghana, a prominent chief of the Nawuri said:

“Politicians do not know us.”

What would it be like to have an identity which officials in your own country do not recognize? Many peoples who do not have a Bible in their language are in exactly that situation. They feel it. I have heard some of them wonder if they are cursed by God, or wonder why God would have them born into a minority. Does God have something against them? Some feel divided about their identity. On the one hand they speak their language and identify with others like them, but on the other they want the advantages and recognition that come from being part of a more well-known identity.

The crowd

The crowd

I recently attended the dedication of the Bible into the Buem (also known as Lelemi) language. There, I heard a lot of comments about identity. Some of the quotes can only be understood in the context of the unknown status of their Buem identity, such as:

When God confused the languages at Babel, the Buem were there.

The Buem understand this to mean that their language is not some unfortunate mistake.

God intended the creation of the Buem language. So their identity as Buem is not a curse, a mistake or an oversight. When the Apostle Paul was preaching in Athens, he said:

From one man he created all the nations throughout the whole earth. He decided beforehand when they should rise and fall, and he determined their boundaries.

People with their Buem Bibles

People with their Buem Bibles

If you think about it, that is a very strange thing to say in evangelistic preaching – for an American that is. Yet the Apostle considered it a key thing to preach to Athenians – that God created all peoples, that he decided what their status should be at various points in history. The Buem spoke this message to each other at the dedication. If the Buem language was created at the Tower of Babel, then it is God’s deliberate and good creation; not a curse or an unfortunate oversight. God himself created the Buem language and identity. Another Buem person said:

We are gaining our identify in God’s people.

When I quoted the Nawuri chief above, I left out the end of his statement. Here’s the whole:

“Politicians do not know us, but God know us! We have now been included among the People of God!”

Daniel Asiama, MP

Daniel Asiama, MP

A translation of the Bible necessarily represents both the language in question and God. It is, therefore, an identity bridge. Through the translation of the Bible into their languages, smaller language groups around the world are weaving their ethnic and linguistic identities into an identity with the people of God. And this is not new. The Apostle Paul spent a whole chapter on identity in his letter to the Romans, including this quote:

For Abraham is the father of all who believe. That is what the Scriptures mean when God told him, “I have made you the father of many peoples.” (Romans 4:16b-17)

Cheifs

Cheifs

All those who have Abraham as their father have a common identity. The dedication of the Bible into Buem attracted ordinary people, ministers of the Gospel, choirs, politicians, business people, and traditional chiefs. Why, because here is something very important – the most published and translated book in the world and the holy book of the largest religion in the world – in the language of their identity.

“Let’s all be happy, because the Bible we receive today is more than food and drink to us.” -Daniel Asiama, Ghana Member of Parliament from the Buem constituency

Cheering the Bible as it is presented for the first time

Cheering the Bible as it is presented for the first time

As God came down to be born in human form, now the Word has come down into Buem form. That act offers to all Buem the wonderful opportunity to weave the thread of their identity into the rich, colorful and varied cloth that is the people of God – to become one of the peoples who have Abraham as their common faith father. They can connect their small (by the word’s standards) identity to the largest and most permanent of all human identities – that of the faith children of Abraham.

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Too much time and money

Harriet Hill

Harriet Hill

The need for people to have God’s Word in their mother tongue has been recognized throughout the church’s history. Although church growth is influenced by a variety of factors, times of increased emphasis on mother-tongue Scriptures, such as the Reformation, often correlate with times of church growth. Times when mother-tongue Scriptures were neglected in the communication of the Gospel, such as the early Middle Ages in Europe, often correlate with times of spiritual stagnation. Churches that experienced persecution and isolation from the rest of the Christian world, such as those in Madagascar and China, have often endured and even multiplied if they had Scriptures in local languages. In contrast, churches without Scripture in local languages, even those at centers of Christianity like Alexandria, have disappeared from the map.

So writes Dr. Harriet Hill of the American Bible Society in an article entitled “The Vernacular Treasure” which appeared in the International Bulletin of Missionary Research. You can download and read the full article here.

Dr. Sule-Saa

Dr. Sule-Saa

Here in Ghana, the impact of translations in local languages is being confirmed in other ways. Before there was a translation of the Bible in the languages, decades of evangelism in some people groups produced few results. Worse, the few converts there were drifted back to traditional beliefs when the outreach impetus from the missionary or Ghanaian church stopped or paused. Ghanaian researcher Dr. Solomon Sule-Saa has shown that after the translation, churches in those same areas not only maintain, but even grow out of their own initiative even when the rest of the community is resistant to the Gospel.

Fare fare people reading the Bible in their language

Fare fare people reading the Bible in their language

Some may wonder about the value of translating the Bible for smaller languages. At least in northern Ghana, when one compares the number of decades and number of people involved in relatively fruitless evangelism before the translation, and the results afterward, one is tempted to conclude that evangelism without translation is what really costs too much time and money.

Metamessages

All these years I thought it was only the pastor who could understand what God was saying. But now I’m reading it, and I can understand what God is saying to me.”
A woman speaking the Moba language of Togo

Congolese women glued to the Jesus Film

Congolese women glued to the Jesus Film

A Christian leader in a large association of churches here in Ghana once told us a whole series of stories about how people had misunderstood the songs they were singing in church, sometimes even singing nonsense.

When we launched the Jesus film in three languages in the town of Isiro in the Congo, the audience was live with whispered comments in the language in which the film was being shown. They were saying:

“I can understand everything!” and “It is perfectly clear!”

Why? Because it is not an unusual experience for African Christians to not understand what they hear in church. The Bible reading, the sermon and even the songs may be in a language they do not understand, or understand only partially. This circumstance creates strong metamessages.

Definition metamessageA metamessage is an unspoken message that comes alongside the spoken message. It can be true, or it can be false. The person speaking may or may not be aware of the meta-message he or she is creating. They may be intentional or accidental. If I speak in public using fancy vocabulary, I may create the meta-message that I am snob, or my hearers may think that they are unintelligent. I may intend that, or I may not. If I read a older Bible translation, some who hear may think that Jesus himself spoke with archaic language. We create meta-messages almost every time we speak and when we hear; it is a normal part of life.

This Tembo boy, reading Luke in his language, will avoid wrong metamessages

This Tembo boy, reading Luke in his language, will avoid wrong metamessages

When a Christian sits in church year in and year out understanding only partially what is being preached, that person will create meta-messages which fit that reality. For the Togolese woman mentioned above, it was “only pastors can understand what God is saying”. Others will create the meta-message that preaching is magical, or that the Bible is magical – the words have power whether they are understood or not, like abracadabra. They may come to believe that Pastors are necessary intermediaries between them and God. Interestingly, when the Bible was first being translated into the languages of Europe including English, the translators were trying to dispel lots of wrong metamessages which had been created by the use of Latin in the church.

Translation of the Bible into the heart language, the language people really understand, dispels false meta-messages. It returns faith to a personal level, assuring each person that God speaks to them, cares for them. We hear the testimonies of that all the time.

Why I am still a missionary

I was experiencing God’s Word in a totally new, living, transforming way, when George Cowan came from Wycliffe. He presented a way to give to others for the very first time the Word that was changing me – by translating the Bible into their languages. It was captivating. That is why I became a missionary involved in Bible translation.

Nawuri man with the New Testament in his language, Ghana

Nawuri man with the New Testament in his language, Ghana

What brought me into missions was not the command of the great commission, nor the idea of changing the world, nor even the idea of finishing a great goal such as translating the Bible into all the languages of the world. For me, it was more personal. These other motivations came along as confirmations.

This motivation has proved very durable. No matter how many goals we set, how many we reach, or how many we fail to reach, how much we change the world, or fail to change the world; what never loses its luster is the idea of giving to others the Living Word that changes my life.

Over the years, I have added another motivation to my repertoire; one I did not expect. It is one I share with the preacher who started preaching only in prisons because he found that prisoners could often hear the Living Word in a way that respectable people often could not.

I am not a missionary because I have something extraordinary to bring to people. God has that. So do all Christians. Rather, I am still a missionary partly because where I go, people are open to the Word of God. They receive it and make it their own. They understand it in their context. They understand that it is for them and they act on that. Even before they have it, while the translators are working, they expect that it will be theirs, that it will show God to them.

Ghanaian men consult their Bibles

Ghanaian men consult their Bibles

I am not saying that I am a missionary because I see more results overseas than at home. I’m not even sure there is a reliable way to measure that! No, I am a missionary because when people in Africa accept God’s Word for what it is. They interpret it through the lens of their circumstances. When they explain what they understand in God’s Word, I see things that I had not understood, or that had I understood with my head but not with my soul.

I love the piece in Handel’s Messiah where a soloist sings “Make straight in the desert, a highway for our God. The crooked straight and the rough places plane.” I might even like that part better than the Hallelujah Chorus. But the Bible verse that solo comes from was given a new power when I was in Burkina Faso. A town which was served by a very bad road invited the President. He accepted their invitation, and immediately the roads department set about repairing the road for the president. I understood in a new way that I was to set about eliminating the sins in the desert of my heart if I was to expect the King to show up and be happy.

Congolese discuss what they have read in their Bibles

Congolese discuss what they have read in their Bibles

But it is not really about understanding the Bible better, or differently. No, through the eyes of African brothers and sisters I see and experience God differently. From my privileged position as a middle class, white American male, the biblical God who brings liberation to captives escapes my comprehension. I might even fear that saying “liberation” will slide me into bad theology. But when I see the liberation God brings to my African brothers and sisters, I understand better his character, his passions, his vision for this world. This God experienced by my African brothers and sisters is my God, but not the dimmer version of him I had known before. Sometimes, it’s like I’m hearing the Gospel for the first time.

In short, I am still a missionary because God keeps revealing himself in new ways in what I do. You don’t have to be a missionary to experience that. Rather, God will keep revealing himself in new ways to anyone who injects his grace and truth into this world.

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What makes for great results

Pastors holding NT together, Ghana

Pastors holding NT together, Ghana

For decades, organizations doing Bible translation did little evaluation of the impact of their work. The fact that translating the Bible into a language for the first time has impact, is not in question. The anecdotal stories are too numerous to doubt that. But the lack of evaluation did mean that we did not know what enhanced impact and what hindered it.

Fortunately, more and more evaluation is being done. Some patterns are emerging. One pattern came out clearly in an evaluation carried out by OneBook, a Canadian organization that sponsors translation. It found that when a translation program is controlled by the local church and community, it is more likely to produce great impact. By “controlled”, we mean that local churches appoint their own committees, select the translators, and decide on the how, when and where of each step involved in translation. This is not the first time an evaluation has resulted in similar findings.

Dedication of translation committees for three languages in Ghana

Dedication of translation committees for three languages in Ghana

Let’s be clear. This means that others cannot be making those decisions – not the missionary involved, not the translation agency (Wycliffe or another), and not churches back in the US supporting the project with finances. This may seem easy, but it is actually quite hard. Not that long ago I talked to a missionary who proclaimed his disagreement with a local choice and vowed to overturn it. He did. We all think that we know what is best.

The findings of the evaluation carried out by OneBook confirm an ongoing initiative in which we are involved. That initiative aims to strengthen local decision making. We are doing that by:

  • Michael Serchie, who helps organize and train language committees

    Michael Serchie, who helps organize and train language committees

    Bringing onto the local committees people who are more representative of local churches and the local community

  • Making sure that local translation committees are recognized by churches
  • Putting more decisions in the hands of local translation committees
  • Giving translation committees representation at national meetings
  • Helping translation committees develop a clear mandate and responsibilities
A traditional cheif and GILLBT Director

A traditional chief and GILLBT Director

Dr. Michel Kenmogne with the Wycliffe Global Alliance wrote:

“The recommendations arrived at make sense to me. The emphasis on church participation and local ownership, as well as the crucial role of functional literacy, are not negotiable if we want to achieve holistic transformation.”

I agree. We do not carry out translation for the sake of translation. We do it to see lasting impact, and that means putting more decisions in the hands of local churches.

Prayer of dedication for three language committees in Ghana

Prayer of dedication for three language committees in Ghana

Missionaries are special

A while ago, I came across a very provocative article entitled “My Son’s Disability Doesn’t Make Me a ‘Special Kind of Person’“. Here’s an extract

Boys in Chad

Boys in Chad

In 2012, when my son was born with spina bifida — a birth defect of the spine — I joined the ranks of millions of people worldwide who love someone with a disability. I’ve learned a lot in the year since: how to find the best wheelchair-accessible parks, how to schedule multiple therapists, how to be a mom. But more than that, I learned that I am “a special kind of person.” At least, that’s what people told me. Why? Because it takes a special kind of person to raise a child like my son.

Girl carrying her baby sister

Girl carrying her baby sister

I’ll be honest and say that at first, I really liked being a special kind of person. Who wouldn’t? It was nice. It meant I was doing something good, something important and noble. I am, after all, raising a child who has a disability.

But after a few months, it didn’t sit so well anymore. Being called a “special kind of person” began to make me uncomfortable. And then I saw a photo on Facebook that made me realize why. It was a picture of a teenage girl dressed for prom and standing beside her date — a boy with Down syndrome. The picture was charming, but it was the comments that got to me:
“Honorable move, looks like she made his day!”
“Someone at my school did the same this year. It made me proud of her because she’s absolutely beautiful and could’ve had anyone she wanted.”
“That is very sweet of her…”

In prayer meeting with colleagues

In prayer meeting with colleagues

Turns out, she was a special kind of person, just like me. But it felt hurtful somehow. I started wondering, “How would I feel if the boy in this photo was my son?” Sixteen years from now, when my son goes to prom, will people applaud his date? Will they see her as a martyr? As a saint?

Just what are we saying about people with disabilities when we glorify those who love and care for them?

When I speak about Bible translation in churches in the US, it is not unusual to have someone say to Dayle and I something to the effect that we are special people. It might simply be, “I could not do what you do” or “I admire you for doing such difficult work”. I try to give those comments gracious responses, but they have always bothered me.

The forest in northeastern Congo

The forest in northeastern Congo

Seeing Bible translators or missionaries as “special people” because of the place they work, or the people they serve may imply something negative about that place or those people. Believe me, we enjoy the places we have served and the people with whom we have the privilege to work. Yes, there are negatives here, as there are in my wonderful home town in the USA.

But we do not have to work up some special grit or determination which merits special mention or admiration. Quite the contrary.

The author ends her article like this.

So call me hardworking or call me a wonderful mother. But if you call me a special kind of person, I’ll probably nod and smile, because I know a secret: If you knew my son, you’d love him, too. So, I guess you’re a special kind of person — just like me.

Worshiping with Ghanaian believers

Worshiping with Ghanaian believers

It’s true. If you saw the amazing places we have seen, if you knew the people we work with, if you saw their joy at receiving God’s word in their language, if you could join in their enthusiastic worship, if you witnessed their deep character and joy in struggles; if you saw their everyday joys and pains, then you would love them too and want to be with them. That makes you just as special as we are.

Hover over a photo to see the caption, or click on any photo to start a slide show.

Necessary for a chief

The Sisaala paramount chief's representative giving remarks

The Sisaala paramount chief’s representative giving remarks

In Ghana, one necessary accessory of a king or paramount chief is an umbrella. Someone carries it for the king or chief. The Ashanti King, and even his representative, has his umbrella over him at all times, even inside a building (although not at his own palace).

So when the representative of the Sisaala Paramount Chief spoke at the dedication of the Sisaala Bible, the Master of Ceremonies was shocked to find that they had not provided an umbrella. (Although most chiefs bring their own.) So he immediately asked someone to go get an umbrella. Within a minute one appeared, but it was quite small. A couple minutes after that, a larger umbrella appeared. At first, the MC held it, but he was quickly relieved by a young man who volunteered.

One of the things I like about Ghana is their attachment to the parts of their traditions they find valuable.

Hover over a photo to see a caption, click on any photo to start a sideshow.

Apollo

When we were working on translation into the Cerma language of Burkina Faso, Dayle and I both got pink eye(conjunctivitis). One of our friends saw the condition and told us that we had Apollo. We thought that was a rather strange name for a disease, but what did we know. We asked around and discovered that there had been a widespread outbreak of pink eye in West Africa at the same time that Apollo 11 was landing on the moon. Local urban legend (yes, that happens in Africa too), linked the two events and ever since West Africans have called the disease Apollo.

Blessings come from God's Great Covenant - Hair salon.

Blessings come from God’s Great Covenant – Hair salon.

The association made between the Apollo 11 moon landing and an outbreak of conjunctivitis might seem strange to you, but keep an open mind for a minute. Different cultures have different ideas about the causes of events. We in the West have largely adopted the enlightenment idea that causes are physical, not mystical. We think that science completely explains causes. Many Africans accept mystic causality. If you think that education will change that, you are wrong. Studies have shown a slightly higher percentage of educated Ghanaians accept mystic causality than do uneducated Ghanaians. But don’t roll your eyes. Consider the following illustration of Ghanaian thinking which I have adapted from  well-known Ghanaian churchman Peter K. Sarpong.

A boy always walks to school following a certain path. He always goes with his friend who comes to his house and they walk together. One morning, his friend comes a few minutes later than usual, and so they set off late. As they are walking their usual route, a large tree falls on the boys, killing them.

A westerner will look for a scientifically sound cause for the tragedy.  So we might say that the boys died because recent, heavy rains had loosened the earth around the roots of the tree, so it fell. A Ghanaian might agree, but he would make other observations. He wold note that the boys set off late that morning. If they had been on time, the tree would have fallen after they passed. So what made them set off late? Also, the tree’s roots were loose, but why didn’t it fall an hour before or an hour after? Why didn’t the rain come more slowly in a way that would not loosen the roots? The questions go on and on. It does not take long for such questions to defy answers from a perspective of pure, scientific causality. Many Ghanaians conclude that even though scientific causality explains some things, it cannot bring answers that really satisfy.

This sign asks a question about causality

This sign asks a question about causality

Working effectively across cultures means not dismissing or making fun of what people say and believe about causes, even if at first you just want to roll your eyes. For one thing, people might stop telling you what is really on their minds if you make fun of what they say. And if you think about it, you will find that educated, scientific Westerners are not very different. The not uncommon view that “everything happens for a reason”, for example, cannot be justified by pure science. It is fundamentally a statement of mystic causality. Yet one sees and hears it all the time from educated Americans.

In Jesus’ day, many thought that sin caused all disasters and disabilities. See Luke 13:1-5 to see how Jesus dealt with that.

I find that I have learned from African viewpoints on causality. Besides, I still remember the  shocked look on the African pharmacist’s face when I told him I needed a treatment for Apollo. A white guy is not supposed to know that kind of local legend.

Gaining weight while in debt

Gaining weight blurbNot long ago, a Ghanaian friend posted this on his Facebook.

In Africa, people who gain weight are respected. It is a sign of affluence. Only people with means can eat well enough and relax enough to gain weight. If I come back from the US having gained some pounds, Ghanaians will congratulate my friends and family for treating me well, and they will tell me that I look healthy. So if someone owes another person money, does not pay it back and gains weight, that person is spending on himself the money he should be paying back. He is disrespecting the person to whom he owes the money. So “Gaining weight while you OWE me MONEY is a sign of disrespect…”

Culture is not just the outward stuff – what people eat, the kind of houses they live in, and so on. It is the ideas that shape how they perceive actions, such as gaining weight or losing weight. One can’t interpret correctly what people of another culture say without understanding their underlying perceptions.

A Ghanaian friend of ours makes cartoons with Christian messages. They show how common behaviors in Ghana are in contradiction with what the Bible teaches. Here is one of his cartoons which tackles men who ogle beautiful women. One look a the cartoon will tell you what characteristic is considered beautiful in Ghana. The point is, if you made this cartoon with a woman beautiful by Western standards, it would not be effective. Communication which does not take culture into account will fail.

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