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.

Elevating the ordinary

In 2017, PBS released a video documentary entitled Martin Luther: The Idea That Changed the World. It notes that not only did Luther start a great religious change, he also started political and societal changes. When his teachings landed him in trouble with the church, we argued his case before the court of public opinion, bypassing the clergy and experts in theology. He circulated his ideas widely using the recently-invented printing press.

He took the same approach to the Bible. He wrote: “I wish that this book could be in every language, and dwell in the hearts and minds of all.”. He was not willing to reserve the Bible for experts, but rather delivered it the common man. He even consulted ordinary people when doing his translation. He wrote: “To translate, we must listen to the mother in the home, the children in the street, the common man in the marketplace. We must be guided by their language – the way they speak, and do our translating accordingly. I sometimes searched and inquired about a single word for three or four weeks.”

I am an heir of Luther’s approach. We translate the Bible into African languages because we trust African Christians to interpret it with the Spirit’s guidance. Our translation process includes a step where we “listen to the mother in the home, the children in the street, the common man in the marketplace” and where we are “guided by their language – the way they speak, and do our translating accordingly.” So we trust Africans with the translation process.

This elevation of the common man and woman, and Luther’s practice of bypassing those in authority, “set in place cultural changes that led to democracy in America and Europe”, according to the documentary. We see similar changes in Africa where ordinary people empowered by the words of Scripture question and change cultural practices they deem backward or harmful. Normally Those changes are more profound and longer lasting than changes ordered by some authority, because they flow from the heart.

My Ezekiel life

Early on in Oregon’s stay home order, I felt an urge to read Ezekiel. I think i was attracted to the outlandish vision of wheels in wheels in the first two chapters. But I found the subsequent chapters fascinating too.

First, there was this verse I didnt remember from chapter 3:

Then the Spirit came into me and set me on my feet. He spoke to me and said, “Go to your house and shut yourself in.

So, I’m not the first healthy person God has shut in.

Then, we sat down to a lunch of sandwiches made from bread made according to a recipe God gave Ezekiel:

“Now go and get some wheat, barley, beans, lentils, millet, and emmer wheat, and mix them together in a storage jar. Use them to make bread. – Ezekiel 4:9

Then I was browsing through southern gospel music and Dry Bones by the Cathedrals began to play.

So I read the vision of the dry bones again (Chapter 37:1-14).

That dramatic vision is about a situation that is without life but which is then infused with life and giving rise to an army. Raising a recently deceased body to life is a miracle. How much more bringing back to life piles of scattered, disconnected, sun-baked bones?! Just getting the skeletons straight would take a forensic anthropologist. Maybe that pretty lady from Bones.

I’m still pondering what the Lord might be telling me through his weird prophet Ezekiel. Could I be in Ezekiel just for the weirdness? Is God saying that sometimes things are weird and he’s in that too? Or maybe even that He’s the author of some of it?

Humans and coronavirus

So God created human beings in his own image. In the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. Then God blessed them and said, “Be fruitful and multiply. Fill the earth and govern it. Reign over the fish in the sea, the birds in the sky, and all the animals that scurry along the ground.” – Genesis 1:27-28

These verses have great relevance to the coronavirus pandemic. God told us “Be fruitful and multiply. Fill the earth and govern it.” Theologians call this the Creation Mandate or the Cultural Mandate. God, of course, has the right to run everything. But he has conferred on us the right and authority to be fruitful and govern the earth.

Some have understood those words as commands. They are more like blessings. The confusion comes because we use the grammatical form of a command, such as “Get the silverware”, in blessings such as “Get well soon”. No mafia type comes to a sick person, points a gun at them, and says “Get well soon or else!”.

In fact, we should think of these words as a mandate, which is a combination of a blessing and a granting of authority. When we elect a public official, we give that person a mandate. By virtue of being chosen by the people they have the authority of the people to carry out the specific responsibilities of the position to which they were elected. That’s their mandate. God has given all of us a mandate regarding creation. It comes with a piece of his authority to enable us to carry it out.

Older translations have “replenish the earth, and subdue it”. We actually have a mandate from God to subdue the coronavirus. This is not a magical mandate, but one that requires hard work, ingenuity and sometimes suffering. The coronavirus is a manifestation of Paul’s observation that:

Against its will, all creation was subjected to God’s curse. But with eager hope,the creation looks forward to the day when it will join God’s children in glorious freedom from death and decay. – Romans 8:20-21

The virus is bad (a curse) but it is also an opportunity for “eager hope”. That hope is most certainly for the new heavens and new earth with no bad viruses. But it is more than that. It is also an eager anticipation of effective treatment and a vaccine on this earth.

The verses also say that we are made in God’s image. God creates. Because we are made in his image, we also create albeit on a lesser scale. We create our children, for example. But the mandate to be fruitful applies to more than children. We are to create good for our families and communities, wealth to share with others and to not be more of a burden to others than is good, and so on. Some of us are scientists who create new knowledge. One piece of new knowledge would be how to make a safe vaccine for the coronavirus.

Because of our creativity and our mandate, the coronavirus doesn’t stand a chance against humanity. God has given us the tools to knock it way down and perhaps even eliminate it. No previous plague has been addressed so quickly or effectively. Many are in some kind of isolation, but because of technology we still talk to each other and even see each other. Furthermore, the technology allows researchers across the world to collaborate better and faster. Our God-given creativity and mandate have shown up big time.

Of course, the virus will cause a lot of pain before that happens so we also need to deploy the compassion God gives us. Instead, some will go around proclaiming loudly that this is God’s judgment. Helping others and praying for medical professionals and researchers would probably be a better use of much of their time. Such people have their secular equivalents who think that humanity is the source of the planet’s problems. They will say that the coronavirus is nature striking back against our evil exploitation of it. They will talk of saving the planet, not humans. I just saw the following in a religious publication.

We have abused Mother Earth. The locust invasion in Kenya was a warning smoke that something was wrong.

There are scientific and historic answers to such claims, but there is also a case to be made against them based on the creative nature and mandate God gave us.

There’s reason to be concerned about our neighbors and ourselves. But let’s not wrap up our minds in a doomsday scenario that will make it even harder for us to help others. Let’s announce good news to those trapped in such scenarios.

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.

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.

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.