Hurry

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

Instead, prophesy gives us hope and focus.

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

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

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

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

Reading is not normal

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

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

Ghanaian woman reading the Bible in her language

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

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

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

Forever gone

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

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

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

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

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

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

We always knew

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

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

Prayer meeting in Accra, Ghana

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

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

In context, the speaker was saying:

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

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

Are you wonky?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Authentic history

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

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

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

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

The Bible looks hard.

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

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

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

My heroes include those who volunteer to teach others to read

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

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

Wrong question

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jesus turns the arrow of blame around.

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

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

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

Change the world

I am tired of the admonition to “change the world”. Everyone, or so it seems, is inviting me or telling me that I should get involved in changing the world. That the world needs change is not in question. Something is seriously wrong. I look at this world and I identify with the cry found in Isaiah:

“Open up, heavens, and rain. Clouds, pour out buckets of my goodness! Loosen up, earth, and bloom salvation; sprout right living.” – Isaiah 45:8

Perhaps you have noticed a contradiction. How can I be tired of the admonition to “change the world ” and yet see the world’s problems and want them replaced with “buckets of goodness”? I’ll try to answer that.

I’m tired of the admonition to change the world because of its implied subject – I am to change the world, or we are supposed to change the world. After calling on the clouds to pour out buckets of goodness and the earth to bloom salvation, Isaiah notes:
I, God, generate all this.
God can and does change the world. I am not tired of God changing the world, nor am I tired of trying to be some small part of that. Not at all. But the thought that I am to change the world makes me tired.

Here’s the problem. I don’t know the answers to the world’s problems, or Africa’s or even those of my home town. In fact, I’m not so sure that I could correctly identify all the problems let alone the answers to them. How could I change the world on so flimsy a basis? Or if I thought I understood the problems and knew the answers, why would I listen to others? Wouldn’t I consider their ideas or objections mere obstacles I needed to overcome? Wouldn’t I become a tyrant, albeit a very petty tyrant?

Well-known American journalist H. L. Mencken wrote:

The urge to save humanity is almost always only a false-face for the urge to rule it. Power is what all messiahs really seek: not the chance to serve.
Others have pointed out the dangers of the “change the world” mindset in less dramatic terms. The former President of Malawi, Joyce Banda, wrote:
If [help] can’t be free and silent, it is not kindness; it is something else. Blackmail is the closest it becomes.
She had experienced having Western benefactors tie lots of strings to international aid for her country because they thought that they alone knew the answers. Christian mission efforts are not immune to trying to change the world in ways that dominate others, often unintentionally.

When I first moved to Ghana, I was impressed by Ghanaian Christian leaders who welcomed Westerners like me, but who made it politely clear that they set the agenda. That did not mean that I had no voice, but it did mean that I should listen and seek to understand first. I was invited to speak, but my voice was not the most influential. I found that liberating.

Let me be clear, I don’t mean that I withdraw. In fact, I’m quite allergic to the idea that difficult tasks ought to be left to heroes or experts, even if we consult the latter. But mostly I have confidence in God. So, I try to connect people to God through his Word, together we seek God: then God changes us and our world.

Want to change the world? Join yourself to God.

I’m the only God there is— The only God who does things right and knows how to help. So turn to me… ‘Yes! Salvation and strength are in God !’” – Isaiah 45:18

Discrete combinatorial system

Language is the quintessentially human activity. It is quite amazing yet so natural that we don’t notice how fantastic it is. It is built on two simple yet profound facts.

The first is that we randomly assign meaning to sequences of sounds. The word duck does not look like a duck, walk like a duck, or quack like a duck, but it means “duck” all the same. It means duck because we all think that it does. Other people think that canard (French) means duck; or idada (Zulu), or oli (Korean), or thousands of other words, but English speakers know that duck means duck. Anything could mean duck, but only one word actually does.

The second profound fact is that we combine words together in an almost infinite number of ways. Language is a kind of “discrete combinatorial system.” It is discrete because it is made of a limited number of discrete pieces. English has only 26 letters in its alphabet and only a few thousand words. (The Oxford dictionary lists about 200,000 words, but the average person knows between 20,000 and 40,000.)

Language is combinatorial because we combine the letters and words together and different combinations give different results. The meaning of “man bites dog” is different from the meaning of “dog bites man” in spite of the fact that the two sentences contain exactly the same words and letters. Our limited set of letters and words can be combined into so many sentences that you regularly say sentences you have never said before. With some regularity, you even say things that have never been said before by anyone.

In his book The Language Instinct, Steven Pinker wrote:

Go into the Library of Congress and pick a sentence at random from any volume, and chances are you would fail to find an exact repetition no matter how long you continued to search.

The number of potential 20-word sentences is so great that if you said a different 20-word sentence every five seconds it would take you 100 trillion years to say them all. When you finished you could start on 19-word sentences, or 21, or…

God gave us complexe language so that we could communicate with each other and with Him. It would be a shame to neglect cand tell God about something that bothers you, or that you are thankful for. You never know, maybe you’ll say something to God no one has said to him before.

Revitalized

I have written several times that translation committees are key to the success of translation in Africa. Have good translators is also important, of course. A translation committee is a group of carefully selected volunteers from the language community who oversee the work of the translators including setting goals, raising funds, creating awareness and organizing the sale and distribution of the translation. How well the committee does its job can affect how well the translation is accepted and how widely it is distributed and read. If it does not work well, some churches might just refuse to use translation, sticking with English or a regional language.

Siwu committee with regional translation coordinator

The translation into the Siwu language in Ghana’s Volta Region had a very dynamic and well-known translator who raised a lot of awareness for the translation and promoted it. When he fell ill and passed away, the translation committee knew that it would have to pick up the slack. Michael Serchie, the regional translation coordinator (center front) helped the community update the committee and revitalize it.

Michael is serving translation programs in more than a dozen languages. But even his wise and dynamic leadership is not enough if the language communities themselves are not interested enough to get involved. Sometimes, it takes a dramatic turn of events to get things moving. Michael saw that was happening and jumped in.

Pray for the translation in Siwu, and for the committee that they would work hard to see it widely used and distributed.