Stuffing or stingy

Much of the Bible was written in an farming society. The parables of Jesus include many word pictures from the farming practices of his day. The parable of the sower is probably the best known, but there are many others. All of those listening to Jesus would have been well aware of the practices he was referring to, because they were all around. But 80% of Americans live in cities. Even in American agricultural belts more than 3/4 live in cities. So Jesus word pictures based on farming are distant. We may understand them or not. Even when we understand them, they don’t grab us. On the other hand, just over half of the people of Ghana live in cities. But even those have close ties to rural communities. They may have moved to a city after spending the childhood in a farming community, or they may visit, or there may be farming communities very close to the city. They may buy most of their food in a market where the produce comes from nearby farms. When we lived in Ouagadougou, a capital city, the woman next door would winnow grain in her yard; people planted millet, sorghum and maize in vacant lots. So people see traditional farming even in the cities.

For them, Jesus’ farming parables are not just understandable, they are vivid.

One part of many African markets is full of grain crops: rice, millet, maize, sorghum, etc. In traditional markets, the grain is in bags, one of which the seller opens so that buyers can see the quality. On top of grain is a tin. It is full to overflowing with whatever grain is in the sack. The grain is priced by the tin. When you buy it, the seller shakes down and heaps on more gain till the tin is overflowing and then pours the heaping tin into whatever container you brought, maybe even adding a handful for good measure. No “level’ measures here!

Jesus said:

If you give to others, you will be given a full amount in return. It will be packed down, shaken together, and spilling over into your lap. The way you treat others is the way you will be treated. (Luke 6:38)

In the US, we buy things like grain or flour in packages by weight. In fact, cereal boxes may have some empty space in them. So we aren’t used to this idea of buying something and having the seller pack as much as possible into the container. But we do get this treatment at fast-food joints when they often pack as many fries as possible into that little paper thing. So if we change the image from farming to fast food we get:

When we give, God will give back even more, like stuffing as many fries as one can into the holder so that they spill out in the bag or onto your lap and get lost in the gaps between your car seats. The way you treat others will be the way God treats you.

Are we stuffing or are we stingy?

If you liked this, you might also like Translating Obsolete Measures

Information neglect

Programs to Translate the Bible generate information about those programs. One of the aha moments in my missionary career came when I thought about where that information goes and where it doesn’t and why.

When a missionary goes to a place to translate the Bible into a language, the missionary produces information about their work and life. This can be in the form of personal letters, prayer letters, and presentations given to churches, church groups, missions conferences, etc. The primary purposes are:

  • To raise funds to support the missionary and his/her work.
  • To generate prayer for the missionary and the people they are serving.
  • To recruit others to serve in Bible translation.

The information is intended for people and churches in the place the missionary came from. Very little, if any, of the communication is distributed in the language community where the missionary works, or to Christians or churches in the country where the missionary is works.

Today, most Bible translation programs are conducted without a missionary. Instead, nationals do the translation but often with funding coming from churches and Christians in another country. These translation programs also produce information. Reports photographs and prayer requests are sent to those providing the funding. Here’s an example. As with missionary translations very little, if any, of the information is distributed to churches or Christians in the area or at the national level, even where discretion is not needed. So people in the country can feel that they don’t know anything about the program being carried out in their midst. This means that churches and Christians are not mobilized to support the translation program through prayer, giving or serving. It might also mean that when the translation is printed fewer people read or use it.

This was the situation when I first came to Ghana in 2011. But the new director had a vision for mobilizing churches and christians in Ghana in support of Bible translation. Dayle and I played a supporting role in that vision. Today, most denominations in Ghana are well aware of translation efforts and many give significant gifts out of their annual budget for translation. Out of the effort to make Ghanaians fully aware of translation came a group of Christian business men who now support translation. Also, now GILLBT (the Ghanaian organisation I work with) has Ghanaian staff who make sure that information about translation is made known in Ghana. So we only get involved in that occasionally.

God acts through information. So spreading information about Christian ministry is cooperating with God. Neglecting to spread it where it needs to go would then be…

Doing better

When I was in Ghana in July 2018 I had an interesting conversation with a Ghanaian Christian medical doctor. He is from a part of Ghana where there are very few Christians and where the poverty is not uncommon. He told me that he went out into a rural part of his home area where he met a pastor. The pastor is a man with no formal education, not even primary school. But he had learned to read in a literacy class and avidly reads the Bible In his own language. Like most pastors in Ghana, he is bi-vocational. That is, he receives little or no pay as a pastor and supports himself and his family through other activities. Being uneducated and living in rural Ghana means that he is probably a subsistence farmer, like many of his neighbors.

The doctor said with amazement that the uneducated pastor was clearly doing better than most of those around him who also lack education. He attributed the difference to the Gospel. That’s almost certainly right. There are lots of anecdotes and even at least one formal study linking better life outcomes in rural Ghana to reading the Bible.

Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were uneducated, common men, they were astonished. And they recognized that they had been with Jesus. – Acts 4:13

Same values but different

Talking to my very engaging acquaintance

In northern Ghana in July 2017, I met a man who was missing his right arm. He was very engaging to talk to so I dared ask him how he lost his arm. He told a horrific story of losing it to snakebite when he was a young boy. He began his tale by saying that he doesn’t know exactly how old he was when it happened because he never has known his exact age.

I have met a number of Africans that don’t know their exact age although that is getting rarer and rarer. The issue of age, in fact, shows how very different cultures can be. Although he doesn’t know his birth date he does know whether he is older or younger than everyone in his extended family and in his village. Even though his father doesn’t know his exact age both he and his father know whether his father is older than or younger than each of the father’s brothers, cousins and even neighbors. The same is true for his mother.

Almost every time an African mentions his aunts or uncles their relative age is specified, as in “my mothers older sister” or “my father’s younger brother”.

And even when none of them know what year they were born, they do know on what day of the week they each were born.

My acquaintance did not know his age, but that does not mean that his culture does not value knowing one’s age, quite the contrary. But rather it values knowing one’s age in a very different way than does my culture.

When people say that different cultures have different values, that’s true. But it is also true that many times they share very similar values but express them in wildly different ways.

Pentecost language

Depiction of Pentecost on cathedral ceiling

The Bible continues to surprise me. By that, I mean that I see new things in passages that I know well, especially the narratives. Not long ago, I saw something I had not noticed before in Acts chapter two. Here’s the passage in question:
1 On the day of Pentecost all the believers were meeting together in one place. 2 Suddenly, there was a sound from heaven like the roaring of a mighty windstorm, and it filled the house where they were sitting. 3 Then, what looked like flames or tongues of fire appeared and settled on each of them. 4 And everyone present was filled with the Holy Spirit and began speaking in other languages, as the Holy Spirit gave no them this ability.
5 At that time there were devout Jews from every nation living in Jerusalem. 6 When they heard the loud noise, everyone came running, and they were bewildered to hear their own languages being spoken by the believers. 7 They were completely amazed. “How can this be?” they exclaimed. “These people are all from Galilee, 8 and yet we hear them speaking in our own native languages! 9 Here we are—Parthians, Medes , Elamites, people from Mesopotamia, Judea, Cappadocia, Pontus, the province of Asia 10 Phrygia, Pamphylia, Egypt, and the areas of Libya around Cyrene, visitors from Rome 11 (both Jews and converts to Judaism), Cretans, and Arabs. And we all hear these people speaking in our own languages about the wonderful things God has done!”
(Acts 2:1-11 NLT)
This passage tells us that Jerusalem had a diverse population.
At that time there were devout Jews from every nation living in Jerusalem. (verse 5)
So when the gathered believers began “speaking in other languages“, there were people around who understood the languages they were speaking. They were shocked to hear a bunch of Galaleans speaking everyone’s “native languages.”
The story continues with a list of the places the people all came from, each place with its own language. We don’t recognize many of them because the names of the places have changed or they have become parts of other countries. Some of the languages have even disappeared. But at the time they were important languages from recognized places.
In verse 11, we are told that some of those present were Arabs. They too heard in their own language which means that Arabic was one of the languages the Holy Spirit caused believers to speak.

Language Committees: Part 3

This is the last in a series of posts on language committees. I’m writing posts on this topic because helping language committees be more effective is currently the focus of my ministry.

In my first post, I explained where language committees fit in the five groups that are all needed to make a translation program successful. In my second, I wrote about the problems that happen when the committee doesn’t do its job well. In this post, I propose that there are three underlying causes of weak language committees.

The first underlying cause has to do with who is on the committee. If there are committee members from various parts of the community, the committee will be more effective. For example, are all the major church denominations are represented on the committee? A committee that represents only a very narrow swatch of the community will almost certainly result in a translation effort that is full of problems.

The second underlying cause of committee ineffectiveness is motivation. When the members of the language committee are deeply committed to the translation and therefore care about its success, the committee will be more effective. A colleague of mine is dealing with three ineffective committees where people became members because they thought there would be money in it. Sometimes this is related to the first point – the wrong people are on the committee. Other times, it is related to the next point.

The last underlying cause of committee effectiveness or ineffectiveness is lack of knowledge. Doing a translation for the very first time in a language obviously means that people will be doing something they have never done before. Unless the committee gets orientation, usually from the translation agency, it will have trouble making good decisions. Lack of information can lead community leaders to select the wrong people to serve on the committee.

As you have certainly noticed, having effective committees is no small matter.

I started out my focus on committees by seeing the issue as being mostly knowledge and the solution, therefore, being mostly orientation or training. Now, my focus has shifted to committee composition as the cornerstone issue. After all, what good would it due to train the wrong or unmotivated committee members? To address those issues I am working with two GILLBT leaders. We are dealing with the issues as a team.

Language Committees: Part 2

I’m in the middle of a series on language committees, which are currently the focus of my ministry. In my last post, I explained where language committees fit in the five groups that are all needed to make a translation program successful.

In this post, I will present some things that go wrong when the language committee doesn’t do its job well.

If the committee fails to do a good job of choosing the translators, then problems can occur. I witnessed a case where the committee chose translators because they were related to the committee chair. Their translation was so poor that they had to be replaced with translators chosen for their skill. I have seen several cases where churches and Christians started loosing confidence in the translation because one of the translators was not living according to the Bible’s norms. The language committee had messed up either its selection or supervision of the translators.

I was close to one translation where a key church leader denounced the New Testament as soon as it was published. The committee had failed to mobilize all the churches in favor of the translation. The man who denounced the translation perceived, perhaps rightly, that the translation effort was dominated by a rival denomination.

I have seen some cases where the funding agency limited its funding because the churches in the language area contributed far less than they were capable. The committee simply failed to mobilize the churches to give.

Lastly, I know of several cases where translations sit in storerooms unsold and unread. One of the reasons is that the language committees fails to promote the translation or even, in some cases, to distribute it.

I have a list of even more problems caused by ineffective committees, but I think you get the point.

Next week, I’ll talk about the underlying weaknesses of committees that are the source of these problems and what can be done to strengthen committees. As we will see, sometimes committees are ineffective through no fault of their own.

Language committees: Part 1

For the last few months, I have focused my work in Ghana on the question of making language committees more effective. It’s probably not clear to you what that means, so I’m going to dedicate a few blogs to the topic.

Language committees are a crucial cog in the translation machine serving minority languages in Africa. They play a very different role in translating into major languages like English. So my descriptions do not apply to those languages.

A program to translate the Bible into a language in Ghana involves five groups of people / organizations.

  • Translator’s
  • Reviewers
  • Translation agency
  • Funding agency
  • Language committee

The translators, also called the translation team, are just that – those who do the translation. These days, they are a group of 2-4 speakers of the language screened and chosen for their role and given special training. They are usually employed full time.

The reviewers are a group of unpaid volunteers who meet occasionally to read the draft translation proposed by the translators and comment on it. They mostly consider whether the draft translation communicates clearly.

The translation agency is an organization specializing in translating the Bible. It has experts in biblical languages, translation, and linguistics. It gives training, carries out accuracy checks, identifies which languages need translation, and works with language communities and churches to set up new translation programs, among other tasks.

The funding agency raises funds for translation in smaller languages.

The language committee is a group of unpaid volunteers which meets from time to time to initiate then guide the translation effort. They have a lot of responsibilities such as:

  • Choosing (with the help of the translation organization) and supervising the translators
  • Mobilizing their community in support of the translation, including giving.
  • Coordinating with the translstion and funding agency.
  • Setting program goals (New Testament, Old Testament, Jesus Film. etc.)
  • Promoting and/or organizing adult literacy
  • Choosing the reviewers and assuring they work well.
  • Stocking and distributing the translation,

As you can see, the language committee is, or at least should be, the glue that holds all the pieces together. In my next post, I’ll give examples of what can go wrong if the committee does not do its job well.

Limits of reason

God gave us reason as one of our faculties.

Come now, let us reason together, says the Lord” – Isaiah 1:18

But reason has its limits. When groups of missionaries work together on Bible translation, they have to make decisions together. So we try to reason through which decision is best. This works pretty well a lot of the time. But when it comes to translation programs the options are so numerous that reasoning through them becomes difficult. Take a literacy program for example:

  • Should it be for adults or children?
  • Should it be for the whole community or only the church?
  • Should teachers be paid or they should should they be volunteers?
  • Should primers be sold or given away? If sold, for how much?
  • How should teachers be recruited? Trained?
  • Should the classes be at night or during the day?
  • Should arithmetic be included?

And on, and on, and on.

If any one of these questions is contentious, discussions can stall. Factions can form. Each side develops more reasons to bolster its position. The situation resembles the following chart.

We have reached the limits of reason and persuasion, but nobody has noticed. All evidence to the contrary, both sides still think they can reason their way through the issue.

The reasonable (pun intended) thing to do is experiment. Try A and B, then evaluate the results. Sometimes we find God’s will by doing, in addition to praying and thinking. After all, it’s called walking with God.

I am tying a remote assignment. I work in Bible translation in Ghana, but live in the USA and make several trips a year to Ghana. I’ve asked around. Sometimes this works and sometimes it doesn’t. Why is a bit of a mystery. So we’re trying it then we’ll evaluate.

On losing authority

Missionaries get respect. We are held in high esteem in many churches in the USA. Plus missionaries are respected in many places in Africa. Officials, local people, even those who follow other religions give us deference. However, our ministry of Bible translation undermines our authority, as Yale historian Lamin Sanneh says:
“Often the outcome of vernacular translation was that the missionary lost the position of being the expert.”

In fact, translating the Bible is the perfect way for a missionary to lose the position of expert, even if he or she is still appreciated.

Otabil’s church starting to fill up on Sunday – 2nd service

Earlier this year, I took American friends to the very large church of well-known Pastor Mensah Otabil in Accra, Ghana. He said that his ministry focuses on raising up leaders. He defined a leader as a self-directed individual. I took that to mean someone who takes responsibility before God for his or her actions. Someone who is not dependent on others in an unhealthy way. Someone who has confidence in God and in the Holy Spirit within. Otabil said that he did not want the members of his church to depend on him for every little thing.

Church of Pentecost Council 1954

Church of Pentecost Council 1954 including McKeown, courtesy Church of Pentecost Canada

A famous missionary to Ghana, James McKeown, often told new Christians who tended to depend on the him as their missionary for everything:

I have not come to create beggars but to make men Sons of God.

The members of the church McKeown founded still quote that today to encourage themselves to take hold of the responsibilities God has given them.

Research into the impact of translating the Bible into African language has found that those who read the Bible in their own language take more initiative. They are more likely to witness to their neighbors and to start small businesses. Women speak up more in their families and churches. They are more likely to resist pressure from the proponents of traditional religious practices. They become self-directed individuals, as Otabil put it, or children of God as McKoewn put it.

When we translate, we joyfully and deliberately undermine our authority by putting people in direct contact with a much better authority.

Then we will no longer be immature like children. We won’t be tossed and blown about by every wind of new teaching. We will not be influenced when people try to trick us with lies so clever they sound like the truth. Instead, we will speak the truth in love, growing in every way more and more like Christ Ephesians 4:14-15 (NLT)