Learning from Luther

In the last few days, I have been reading over and over Martin Luther’s pastoral letter Whether One May Flee From A Deadly Plague. He wrote it in the middle of an outbreak of the plague in his town after bring asked whether Christians should flee the plague. It is wonderfully nuanced. On the one hand, Luther saw in the Bible that, all other things being equal, the fear of death is normal. So people who flee danger are acting wisely.

To flee from death and to save one’s life is a natural tendency, implanted by God and not forbidden unless it be against God and neighbor

He answers those who think it is wrong to protect one’s self against an epidemic with this observation.

By such reasoning, when a house is on fire, no one should run outside or rush to help because such a fire is also a punishment from God. Anyone who falls into deep water dare not save himself by swimming but must surrender to the water as to a divine punishment.

So Luther thought it reasonable that people flee the plague in his town. We can’t really flee the corona virus, so the equivalent for us is social distancing, even self-isolation. Luther puts a condition on protecting one’s self, however, and it’s a big one.

unless it be against God and neighbor

In his view, we should not protect ourselves if that involves abandoning our responsibilities toward others.

A man who will not help or support others unless he can do so without affecting his safety or his property will never help his neighbor. He will always reckon with the possibility that doing so will bring some disadvantage and damage, danger and loss.

Luther deals with the biggest reason why people abandon others in the face of danger – fear. He wrote:

When anyone is overcome by horror and repugnance in the presence of a sick person he should take courage and strength in the firm assurance that it is the devil who stirs up such abhorrence, fear, and loathing in his heart. He is such a bitter, knavish devil that he not only unceasingly tries to slay and kill, but also takes delight in making us deathly afraid, worried, and apprehensive so that we should regard dying as horrible and have no rest or peace all through our life. And so the devil would excrete us out of this life as he tries to make us despair of God, become unwilling and unprepared to die, and, under the stormy and dark sky of fear and anxiety, make us forget and lose Christ, our light and life, and desert our neighbor in his troubles. We would sin thereby against God and man; that would be the devil’s glory and delight. Because we know that it is the devil’s game to induce such fear and dread, we should in turn minimize it, take such courage as to spite and annoy him, and send those terrors right back to him.

The writer of the book of Hebrews says of Jesus that

… he set free all who have lived their lives as slaves to the fear of dying. – Hebrews 2:15

Fear enslaves us when it prevents us from fulfilling our obligations toward others in order to protect ourselves.

Here’s a nice summary of Luther’s thought from his letter.

Therefore I shall ask God mercifully to protect us. Then I shall fumigate, help purify the air, administer medicine, and take it. I shall avoid places and persons where my presence is not needed in order not to become contaminated and thus perchance infect and pollute others, and so cause their death as a result of my negligence. If God should wish to take me, he will surely find me and I have done what he has expected of me and so I am not responsible for either my own death or the death of others. If my neighbor needs me, however, I shall not avoid place or person but will go freely, as stated above.

Luther noted that Christians don’t take precautions for selfish motives, but to protect others. A person who gets the desease might infect others, and he or she will require medical care, taking up resources that could have been used on others. So sensible precautions are a way we love our neighbors.

Here’s the advice I think Luther would give about the corona virus.

  • Trust God. Don’t be enslaved by fear.
  • Don’t hoard or profiteer as that hurts others. Being reasonably prepared is not hoarding.
  • Do a sober assessment of your risk given your age and health. Take the commensurate precautions as recommended by experts. Do this even if you feel no strong need to protect yourself, but do it to protect others.
  • If you have family or professional obligations, ask God for the courage to fulfill them. Understand your professional obligations as a vocation from God. Seek to be fulfilling that vocation when you die. If you have high risk and obligations, you might seek a way to hand them off or delay them in a way that does not abandon others.
  • Don’t criticise those who choose to take risks to serve others. Don’t feel condemned by their actions.
  • Don’t engage in self-agrandizing heroism.
  • Don’t engage in reckless behavior because by doing so you are endangering others, not just yourself.
  • If you feel God wants you to take risks to serve, don’t criticise those who take a more cautious approach.

You can read Luther’s letter here.
Here’s a good article on historic Christian responses to pandemics.
And here’s a good article with practical guidance.

The multitudes

A Ghanaian colleague told me of a case where an interpreter translated
“When Jesus saw the multitudes”
From English into his language. But the word-for-word translation meant
“When Jesus saw many animals

The whole church broke out in laughter.

Jesus feeding the multitudes

Words are strange. Some imply something else. Herd implies livestock but crowd implies people, for example. We can figure out what” herd of people” or “crowd of cows” means, but those are strange turns of phrase. In English, we can say multitudes alone, but the interpreter’s language required that “of people” be added. We know that Jesus meant multitudes of people because the English word multitudes strongly implies people. It would be strange to say multitudes for animals, or nails, or cars.

People make a big deal of Bible translations being accurate, and rightfully so. By accurate they generally mean that the translation is faithful to the original text. For example, a translation from German to English must be faithful to the German original. But a translation from German to English must also be faithful to English – it should use words the way English uses them, not in some un-English or German way. Sometimes, that means adding a word or two to keep the meaning the same, or perhaps just to keep people from laughing.

Beyond mere understanding

I was intrigued by one story I got recently from Ghana. It was about an older man who followed his traditional religion. He offered sacrifices to his gods on a daily basis and had no interest in Christianity. The churches in his area used trade languages or English, but never his language. He thought that a god that did not speak or understand his language was not worth worshiping. After all, he prayed at his shrines in his own language.

One day, while walking to his fields he heard a gathering of Christians speaking his language. Out of curiosity, he stopped, listened and asked what was happening. They told him that they were reading the Bible in their language – his language. He abandoned his old religion and became a believer on the spot.

This story illustrates one of the reasons why we translate the Bible. It is not just so people will understand. Being easy to understand doesn’t mean much if people don’t listen to or read the Bible. This translation caught this man’s attention first. Understanding came next.

We translate the Bible so that God’s words will carry the intimate authenticity and life they had when God first spoke them in the heart language of the people being addressed.

Process and results

Tunesia (courtesy NASA)

Bible translators are very concerned about method and process, and rightfully so. Long experience tells us that following a rigorous process yields a good translation most of the time. Whereas ignoring process almost always results in a poor translation. One of the quickest ways to improve an under-performing translation effort is to examine the translators’ process and make changes to bring it in line with best practice.

Because a healthy obsession with process works so well, translators can be tempted to try the same process approach in other areas. One of those is the use and impact of the finished translation. This is fueled by research into what causes some translations to be widely used while others to pile up in storerooms. While that research is helpful, it’s easy to turn that research into a process and then believe that rigidly following it will guarantee that the translation will be enthusiastically received by slavish adherence to the right process and then bring spiritual revival.

But the research tells us that what creates impact and transformation varies. It also seems to tell us what is necessary to promote acceptance and use, but not what will guarantee those desired results. If I don’t put gas in my car, it will stop. But if I do put gas in it, it will stop anyway if something breaks. Gas is necessary but not sufficient.

Jesus said:

The wind blows wherever it wants. Just as you can hear the wind but can’t tell where it comes from or where it is going, so you can’t explain how people are born of the Spirit.” – John 3:8

In my understanding, this verse means that there will never be a sure-fire process for results in missions. There are no magic bullets. We shouldn’t say “If we do this, then we will see results” like a some kind of strange combination of social science and Harry Potter incantation.

Chile / South America (courtesy NASA)

There’s a great illustration of this where deserts meet the ocean. One would think that it would be impossible to have a desert next to a large body of water, but it happens with some frequency in places as diverse as Chile, Mauretania, Namibia and the Arabian Peninsula. Likewise, We can bring the water of our well-studied ministry process next to people and still end up with a fruitless desert.

Effective ministry requires listening for the Spirit speaking into, even sometimes breaking into and disrupting, our well-engineered processes. On occasion, I have sometimes seen amazing results when the experts’ processes were intentionally dropped in favor of a process proposed by people who had no experience at all in translation but who knew their context.

Arabian Peninsula (courtesy NASA)

For granted

Title page of first Twi Bible

The Bible was first translated into the most widely spoken language of Ghana, Twi, in 1871. So when I arrived in Ghana in 2011, those people already had the Bible for 140 years. Children growing up in Christian families just found the Bible. Hardly anyone wondered how they came to have the Bible in their language. No one ever preached on the history of the Twi Bible. So it was just an unquestioned feature of their lives.

Not only that, most Twi Christians assumed without evidence that other languages in Ghana had the Bible too. All this makes Ghanaian like many American Christians who read their Bible without wondering where it came from or if it has been translated into other languages.

Meeting with pastor after presenting Bible translation to his church

When we began presenting Bible translation to Ghanaian churches, people were astonished. We frequently heard surprised voices realizing that they had never wondered how they got their Bible. They were even more surprised to learn that a number of languages in their country did not have the Bible. Knowing the role the Bible in their language played in their personal lives and their churches, they were dismayed that some of their compatriots lacked that same blessing.

On hearing the facts, church leaders sometimes committed their churches on the spot. They just needed to hear facts they didn’t know and to be challenged about things they had assumed or taken for granted. Besides, those who value the Bible in their own lives make the most ardent supporters of Bible translation.

Systematically putting out the facts to the right churches and church leaders is a key way to include them in the worldwide Bible translation movement. Growing that movement is speeding translation dramatically, outpacing even the speed increase from technology

Black Elijah

harris-book-cover

During the growth of Christianity in Africa in the late 1800s and early 1900s, there was a phase where African “prophets” appeared. One of them was William Wade Harris, a Liberian man who had fallen out of favor with the church and had even spent time in prison where he had a vision from the Angel Gabriel telling him to preach repentance and the destruction of objects used in traditional African religion; then baptize those who received his message. So in July 1913 at the age of 53, he set off on foot with a small entourage for the neighboring French colony. He was not backed by any church or missionary agency.

They ended up walking across the whole coast of what is now the country of Côte d’Ivoire and on into what is now Ghana. They must have been quite a site in their bare feet, white garments with and crosses, especially Harris who always carried a large staff with a cross on top in his right hand and a Bible in his left. They walked all the way to what is now the country of Ghana. It is estimated that 200,000 people heeded Harris’ preaching and abandoned their traditional religious practices. This was a sizable portion of the total population.

His message was often opposed by traditional religious leaders, leading to power encounters reminiscent of stories in the Old Testament such as Elijah on Mount Carmel. Harris would triumph and large scale destruction of the objects of traditional religion would follow. Some of these events were recorded by French colonial administrators.

Prior to Harris, small churches had started in some towns, but they had little impact. Harris spoke in local languages and stripped western trappings from Christianity while targeting his preaching at the heart of traditional beliefs and practices. It got him in trouble with the French colonial administrators. He was arrested several times. He apparently made a miraculous escape from jail in Grand Lahou, the colonial capitol at the time. It is said that he pronounced a curse on the capitol when he left. Today, it is a deserted ghost town.

Harris instructed converts to worship on Sunday, to pray in their own languages, to keep the Sunday for worship, to pray in their own tongues, and to praise God with their own music. He named local elders and he told people that white missionaries would come later can give them the Bible in their languages. When Methodist missionaries arrived, they found churches full of believers waiting for them.

Harrist church hear Abidjan

Harrist church hear Abidjan

Today, the Harrist church is found across the area where Harris ministered. It still uses local languages and still has solid teaching, for the most part. Early Western missionaries falsely considered it a cult, probably because of its different worship practices, which you can see in the photos below. Where the Bible has been translated into the local languages, the Harrist church uses those translations avidly. Unfortunately, more than 100 years after Harris started his trek, a number of those languages still don’t have translations of the Bible. Harris’ promise has not yet been fulfilled, although slow progress is being made.

During the months we spent in Côte d’Ivoire in 2016, we were privileged to be in a position to help the translations in some of those languages on their way.

Village theology

Theologie et vie chretienne en Afrique

I have blogged before about this book written by Africans about theology in their countries and churches. The articles have a common theme – making the teachings of the Bible known and making them clear. One of the authors is a Congolese friend of mine, Dr. Bungushabaku Katho. These are my favorite quotes from his article:

“There are many resources in our villages for the understanding of the Bible and the transformation of our communities.” pg 74

“The illiterate masses can understand the Bible if we know how to reach them. Very often we realized that the experience of villagers became much more enriching for our understanding of the Bible; well above the bookish methods of the seminary hall.” pg 74

Dr. Katho has acted on these observations and that has taken him in a very interesting direction. He and his colleagues go out to discover how ordinary Africans understand the Bible in their languages. He calls this the “Village Academy”.

“But the type of education we [theologians] received keeps us from going out to discover these resources [villagers]. We think that good resources are those are found only in our libraries, in books that come to us from elsewhere. We want to read the Bible for villagers rather than with them. The experiment of the “Village Academy” is teaching us that a theologian must keep his ear tuned to the community in which he lives. In this sense, theology must cease to be a speculative discourse done for the pleasure of a few specialists.

Katho

Why this change? It’s simple. Dr. Katho is interested in real, tangible, transformational change in and for people at the grassroots.

“To have impact on on Christian living, the practice of theology in Africa must place the Bible at the center of its activities and be capable of speaking to Africans in their real situations.”

As you might expect, Dr. Katho is a big supporter of translating the Bible into African languages. After all, without translations into the languages of the people, his approach is impossible. But I like it also for another reason – it rings true to the Gospel. God sent his son to be born in the a food-trough for animals. He announced that birth to pagan stargazers and shepherds, rather than to the proper religious leaders of the day. Then his son worked as a skilled laborer before taking on a grassroots ministry with a group of uneducated men. By this method he changed the world. So standing the traditional, academic approach to theology on its head and starting with the Bible-inspired theological reflection of ordinary people in African villages strikes me as something God himself would do; or rather does, in fact.

Not only that, it works. For example, one issue in Africa is tensions between ethnic groups. But academic theology doesn’t address the issue in spite of the fact that the Bible is full of stories about ethnic conflict. However, African villagers reading the Bible in their languages have spontaneously started preaching and teaching on the issue having discovered what fancy, erudite theological seminaries have long overlooked. And it’s an issue critical to the health of both their churches and their countries.

Western Christmas in Africa

One of my Ghana colleagues and friends tells of Christmas in his village when he was a child. It was a big celebration. Most of the year people didn’t eat meat. It was a luxury. But at Christmas, my friend’s family butchered and had lots of meat. It was a real treat. Also, children got new clothes or even a pair of shoes. The adults’ Christmas parties involved unrestrained drunkenness.

Ideas about Christmas had leaked into my friends village from surrounding areas, mostly the western secular idea that it was a time to party. But the Christmas story was unknown.

Decorated palm branches

Nowadays, there is a translation of the New Testament in my friend’s language. That has changed how Christmas is celebrated. Families gather colorful flowers and weave them into palm branches that they attach to their doorframes for everyone to see. Children still get new clothes and everyone eats special meals. But now Christmas Eve is a time to go to church. The party has turned into a focus on Christ. People know who he was and what he did. They have allegiance to him.

Whereas secular western traditions of Christmas borrowed from British colonizers debased Christmas for my friend’s village, the Bible in the people’s language elevated it. In the process, the Bible has replaced secular western cultural influence with the real story of that amazing Middle Easterner named Jesus and the salvation he brings.

Loyalty

For a few years I served on the board of an international non-profit incorporated in North Carolina. The board chair had an attorney come can tell the board members what North Carolina law says about the duty of board members. He said that the primary duty of a board member is loyalty and that all other duties flow from that duty.

By loyalty, the law means that board members have to do what’s best for the organization. They can’t be loyal to themselves and use the organization for personal gain. Nor can they be loyal to anything else to the detriment of the organization on whose board they sit. If they find themselves in such a conflict of interest, they have to declare it and if necessary recuse themselves.

As board members we had to put the interests of the organization first in all our deliberations.

I have been writing in the paragraphs above about the duty of loyalty to the organization, but the attorney said that the board’s loyalty was not to the organization, but rather to the mission of the organization. All non-profits exist for a purpose – they have a mission. If that mission can best be accomplished by dissolving the non-profit organization, for example, then the board members must make that decision. They cannot be loyal to the organization itself above its purpose or mission.

That made sense to me. In fact, it caused me to realize, belatedly, that putting my loyalty to purpose/mission ahead of organization had caused me problems in the past, especially when I assumed that others automatically see the difference. A person loyal to the mission can be perceived as disloyal to the organization.

It’s easy for a missionary to become loyal to certain people, to a place, or to their organization, even when one of those loyalties starts to undermine the mission’s very purpose and spiritual life. Some people even become loyal to a methodology whereas loyalty to the purpose/mission of the organization demands that outdated and less effective methods be replaced. I have seen all of these loyalties and some of them recently again. I have seen them all compromise the purpose, the effectiveness and sometimes even the existence of Christian organizations, and occasionally even a person’s loyalty to our Lord. Missionaries are as susceptible to misplaced loyalty as anyone.

I used to think that loyalty was hard, but it’s easy. In fact, it’s natural. What’s hard is knowing when to put aside lesser loyalties, and most importantly being loyal to the right thing and especially the Right Person.

If you want to be my disciple, you must, by comparison, hate everyone else—your father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even your own life. Otherwise, you cannot be my disciple (Luke 14:26 NLT)

Who wears what?

Overflow seating at Korle Bu

I attended the 50th anniversary of the Korle Bu Community church in Accra. This church that has contributed to many different Christian ministries and churches in Ghana. At one time, all of the key evangelical ministries in Ghana had ties to this church including the organization Dayle and I work for, GILLBT. The church has consistently supported Bible translation through the years. It continues to support all kinds of missions and to run effective outreach into the community.

Man in tunic who prayed. You can see the preacher in his blue and white grand boubou behind on the platform to the left and others on the platform in suits and ties

At the event, which was a Sunday worship service, I saw something I have seen many times in Ghana, everybody was all dressed up, but each in his or her own way. The dress of the men was especially varied. The Master of Ceremonies was in a suit and tie. The Reverend who gave the main sermon was dressed in a grand boubou which is sometimes associated with Ghana’s other main religion. His boubou was made from the church anniversary cloth and decorated with the traditional embroidery. At least one other man in the congregation was also wearing a grand boubou. A prayer was offered by a main in a tunic, a style of dress also frequently worn by people following Ghana’s other main religion.

Other men in the congregation were sporting suits, slacks and dress shirts and a smattering of the traditional Ghanaian smock. So much for certain garments meaning that one belongs to a certain religion.

For the Kingdom of God is not a matter of what we eat or drink (or wear), but of living a life of goodness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. (Romans 14:17 NLT, parenthesis mine)

Ed in his Ghana smock

Mamadou Tanja, then President of Niger, dressed in a grand boubou visiting the White House in June 2005