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.


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.






Untranslatable words, not really

From time to time, lists of supposedly untranslatable words appear on the Internet. They consist of a list of words from various languages with their meaning in English. (How did they do that if they are not translatable!?) Here’s an example.

Hawaiian: Pana Poʻo:
You know when you forget where you’ve put the keys, and you scratch your head because it somehow seems to help your remember? This is the word for it. (credit: maptia.com)


In reality, these words are phrases and not untranslatable. They are simply complex and require unpacking. “Tree hugger” is an example of a set of complex ideas rolled up into a small phrase. Merriam-Webster defines it as:

someone who is regarded as foolish or annoying because of being too concerned about protecting trees, animals, and other parts of the natural world from pollution and other threats

A language is a reflection of the thoughts and ideas in a culture. So when a culture has a complicated idea shared by all those in the culture, that complicated idea often gets expressed as one word or a short phrase. German’s like to feel connected to nature. They like walks in the woods. So, it is not surprising that they have a word - Waldeinsamkeit – which means

a feeling of solitude, of being alone in the woods and connected to nature. (credit maptia.com)

The idea is complex, but because it is important to them, they roll it all up into one word. Another culture and its language can understand that complicated idea, even if they do not have one word for it. It might take some hard work on the part of the translator and it might even require a footnote, a glossary entry or even a drawing, but it can be translated.

The authors of the books of the Bible had complex ideas in their heads. Some of those came from their culture and some were God’s revelation to them. Those complex ideas sometimes got put into one word or a short phrase. Jesus’ use of the phrase “kingdom of God” is a great example. Talk about packing a lot of meaning into a little phrase! The thing is, the people listening to Jesus had those complex ideas in their heads already, just Americans have the complex concept of “tree hugger” in their heads, and Hawaiians immediately understand all the complexity of “Pana Po’o” and Germans automatically unpack all the ideas in “Waldeinsamkeit”.

So good translators will put a glossary in their translation where readers get an explanation of the complex ideas behind some words and phrases. In English, we also have Bible dictionaries. Some translations try to deal with the complexity directly. Here is Matthew 6:33 in the ESV and the CEV. You can see how the CEV attempted to unpack the complex meanings of “Kingdom of God”  and “righteousness”.

But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. (ESV)
But more than anything else, put God’s work first and do what he wants. Then the other things will be yours as well. (CEV)

Lendu translatorsSo, use the glossary in your Bible, consult a translation like the CEV, buy a Bible dictionary or consult one online. Also, pray for Bible translators as they grapple with complex meanings, including preparing glossaries. By the way, in working with churches in Ghana we find that they want Study Bibles in some languages. We are excited to see that.

Just for fun, here are links to articles about supposedly untranslatable words.

Untranslatable words from other cultures

12 Untranslatable words – and their translations

An outstanding example for Bible translators

Cornelius Van Dyck_2On this day (August 13) in 1818, Cornelius Van Dyck was born in Kinderhook, NY. As a young man, he dreamt of being a medical missionary; a dream he realized after his studies at Jefferson Medical College. He went to Syria under the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions.

While he was a doctor, what distinguished his service as a missionary was not his excellence as a doctor, but rather his love for the people of Syria. That love lead him to become an expert in their language and culture. He took time to undertake studies of Syrian language and culture from renowned Syrian experts. He put this knowledge to use in many ways, including doing a translation of the Bible in Arabic based on a translation started by Eli Smith. It is still one of the most popular translations in Syria today.

His love for Syria and its people lead him to write medical textbooks in Arabic in internal medicine, physical diagnosis. But his work went well beyond that. He also wrote textbooks in subjects as diverse as geography, navigation, and mathematics. They were used in Syrian schools for many years. All this time, he kept up his medical work and studied theology. From the start, he had started new churches and done mission work. These activities eventually came to take most of his time and efforts. He even founded a school for training ministers of the Gospel.

His accomplishments are such that he appears prominently in a publication about graduates of the Jefferson Medical College who have had an impact around the world.

But Van Dyck was not just an academic. He really loved people. So much so, that 50 years after his arrival in Syria, people threw a big party to commemorate his coming. People from many religious persuasions came from all over Syria to attend the event.

His obituary in the New York Times reads:

News has been received in this city of the sudden death in Beyrout, Syria, of the Rev. Dr. Cornelius Van Allen Van Dyke, who was known throughout the civilized world as the translator of the Bible into Arabic. His death was due to old age and an organic trouble with which he had suffered for many years

The way Van Dyck combined love for, and desire to understand, those to whom he was ministering is a good reminder, especially in these days when some promote a confrontational approach to mission work and other religions. Just consider the years of hard work he put into medical school and then the in-depth study of Arabic and Syrian culture. His love was played out in a life of putting hard work into understanding them. His academic accomplishments were not done for personal academic reward, but in order to pour himself into peoples’ lives. He is an excellent model for Bible translators and missionaries even today, even for those of us who are far from matching his intellect.

A Tsetse Proverb

Africans tend to see proverbs as part of their cultural heritage. They use them every day, although the use of proverbs is going down among urban young people. Even those who don’t know a lot of proverbs, perhaps because they moved out of their language area when they were young, enjoy learning them. I have a book of the proverbs of the Bafut people of Cameroon. Some are interesting and some are very obscure. Because I don’t know the culture I don’t get them, even with an explanation.

Tsetse fly

Tsetse fly

Proverbs are often based on the characteristics or behavior of common things. The English proverb, “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree”, is an example of a proverb based on a common thing. The tsetse fly is the large, biting fly found in many parts of Africa including Ghana. Because it is common, it is a good candidate for a proverb. The tsetse flyreminds me of the horsefly. But it is dangerous because it carries the parasite that causes sleeping sickness which is fatal if not treated. The Nkonya people of Ghana have a proverb about the tsetse fly.

Obugya tamakpa wʋlʋ nwuntɔ
Translation: Blood does not leave the head of the Tsetse fly (Or there will always be blood in the head of a tsetse fly)

The logic behind this proverb goes like this:

  • The tsetse fly bites and sucks blood from its victim (animal or human)
  • So, it will always have some amount of blood in its head
  • So, an evil person will always have some evil in them, no matter how reformed they look

People use this proverb to buttress their position that a person is still bad even though they appear to be cleaning up their act. The equivalent proverb in English is:

A leopard cannot change its spots

Of course, by God’s power we can change and we see cases where people do indeed change.

I find it interesting that the Apostle Paul knew the proverbs of his day and quoted them. When writing about people who came to the Lord, then turned their backs on him, he quoted a common proverbs of his day:

“Even after they knew what was right, they turned their backs on the holy commandments that they were given.
What happened to them is just like the true saying,
A dog will come back
to lick up its own vomit.
A pig that has been washed
will roll in the mud.”
(II Peter 2:22 CEV)

Translating the Bible into a language for the first time is not just a matter of words. It involves understanding key ideas, including proverbs, so that the translation benefits from insights into all the concepts that the culture and language offer.

Thanks to Wes Peacock for the Nkonya proverb and its interpretation.

Three older two younger

I had just met a Burkinabé man named Samuel who was visiting friends in our home town. As we chatted, I asked him if he had brothers and sisters. His response:

Three older and two younger

Jan Swanson, Dayle and Samuel

Jan Swanson, Dayle and Samuel

Have you ever had anyone answer that question in that manner? When I ask that question of a fellow American, I expect to get a number, and possibly the number of brothers and the number of sisters. I have had people ask where I came in the birth order with my two brothers and two sisters, but that comes after the number of brothers and the number of sisters, not before.

There is a very good reason why Samuel answered the question the way he did. In his culture, the relative age (older or younger) of one’s siblings is very important. In fact, it is more important than whether they are brothers or sisters. There is a very clear pecking order due to the hierarchy that is a strong part of his culture.

We assume that certain realities, such as family, are universal. In the broadest sense, they are. But the differences in specifics can lead to misunderstanding. Ask many adult, married Africans about “their family” and they might tell you about their parents and their siblings, not their spouse and their children. So even the primary content of the word “family” changes from culture to culture.

When I hear American preachers on the radio on Africa expounding what the Bible says about the family, I have to wonder what is being miscommunicated. Jesus crossed a great gap to come and live with us, be one of us, speak the language of the people, live inside the culture of his day. So we need to do the same, including wrapping our heads around the answer:

Three older and two younger