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.

Ashamed

Apostle Opoku-Oninyah

A couple of years ago, I was in a meeting of the Ghana Evangelism Committee. Most of those present were representing Ghanaian churches. As the name of the committee suggests, it was discussing evangelism. But at the end of the meeting one of those present raised a hot button moral, social and political issue. He wanted to see action taken so he asked that the committee discuss what that might be. The man leading the meeting responded, “Just preach the gospel.”

He had full confidence the gospel was enough to solve the problem. I know the man and I know his church. It is one of the largest churches in Ghana but it was founded by a lone missionary who espoused an unusual mission strategy – that as a missionary would only preach the gospel. That is, he would not undertake any social endeavors such as medical work. He believed that if he founded a solid the church that church would develop social ministries. And that is exactly what happened. Today, the church he founded, The Church of Pentecost, has schools clinics, programs to reduce poverty, and more.

So the man’s confidence that the social and political issue could be solved by just preaching the gospel has deep roots in the history and experience of his church, not to mention in his faith in the power of God.

In Romans 1:16, the Apostle Paul wrote that he was not ashamed of the Gospel because it is the power of God. I have always heard that this means that the Apostle was not embarrassed to speak the Gospel. But there is another way to be ashamed of the Gospel. That is by not having confidence in its power to solve real problems in this world.

Political and social action have their place but they should not displace our trust in the Gospel as the power of God to save eternally and from all kinds of problems here on earth. So, there are two ways to be ashamed of the Gospel:

  • Bring embarrassed to witness
  • Having lost confidence in its real power of the Gospel

I would go so far as to say that if you have a political view on how to solve a problem but not a parallel Gospel view, you might be ashamed of the Gospel. So if you have a political opinion about terrorism, but don’t have equally ardent desire to support Christian ministry to the places from which terrorists come, then maybe you are ashamed of the Gospel.

Last month in Ghana, I heard a leading pastor say that he was asked how the church can contribute to national development. His answer? Through obeying the Great Commission. He went on to talk about how evangelism transforms.

It seems that confidence in the power of the Gospel can be found throughout Ghana.

 

 

It’s news I’m most proud to proclaim, this extraordinary Message of God’s powerful plan to rescue everyone who trusts him, starting with Jews and then right on to everyone else! God’s way of putting people right shows up in the acts of faith, confirming what Scripture has said all along: “The person in right standing before God by trusting him really lives.” – Romans 1:16 http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Romans1:16&version=MSG

Corruption conundrum

Banner for change Attitude Ghana

During the five weeks I’m in Ghana, I’m renting a room from a man who is a leader in a Ghanaian organization called Change Attitude Ghana. It is fighting corruption, which a continuing problem. As its name indicates, Change Attitude Ghana seeks to solve the problem by a personal change of attitude in Ghanaians. I applaud this approach.
Laws have their place, but they can rarely eradicate widespread societal problems, as I noted in my post about FGM. One of the ways corruption is embedded in culture came up in a conversation I had with a Ghanaian passenger on my flight to Accra. He noted that people put pressure on the politicians and civil servants who come from their region, people or clan demanding jobs or other benefits the civil servant controls. If the civil servant does not comply, he or she becomes known as an evil person who does not take care of their own. This is a very potent charge because sharing and generosity is are highly valued and people without those traits can be considered as bad as murderers. The passenger noted that even if the civil servant does not want to be corrupt, the pressure from his friends, family and clan may push him or her into it anyway.
What makes this more insidious, is that those putting on the pressure often consider their actions virtuous. After all, they are looking out for the well-being of their family, clan or region. They might even cite I Timothy 5:8:
But if anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever. – 1 Timothy 5:8
So tackling corruption must include a change of attitude in the people, not just the civil servants and politicians. A narrow approach won’t work.
It is no coincidence that the man who is a leader in Change Attitude Ghana is a solid Christian who is active in his church and various Christian organizations. He is the leader of the Christian Business Men’s association for my part of Accra, for example. He knows the power of God to change people in profound ways. He believes that profound change is key; that Christianity in Ghana must produce people with new attitudes. He does not want Christianity
having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power. – 2 Timothy 3:5
All that is why he is also in favor of translating the Bible into all the languages of Ghana. As the tag line for our website says, translation is “connecting at the deepest level for lasting impact.”

Misalignment in understanding

About a month ago, I wrote about alignment. Some of you understood me to mean that I was leaving Wycliffe. That is not the case. In fact, I am very proud of Wycliffe, it’s mission and its accomplishments. Like all human organizations, it has the problem of being composed of people, including me. I wrote about a lack of alignment I encountered in one particular place in Wycliffe. I ended up moving on to a different place, still in Wycliffe.

Alignment is still something I think about, however. I wonder if I am aligned with God’s action in the world and specifically in Bible translation. Or if I might be more aligned with my own desires and ideas. I am on loan from Wycliffe to a Ghanaian organization (GILLBT). That only works because Wycliffe, GILLBT and I find ourselves in alignment on a set of principles, goals and priorities. Lots of other parts of Wycliffe and GILLBT can be out of alignment with each other but if the central pieces are aligned, it works anyway. In fact, it would be a bad thing if a Christian organization based in the US and one based in Ghana were perfectly aligned on every point. If that were that case, then one of them would be out of alignment with its context.

Alignment, it seems, is not an absolute good. The trick is to align only what requires alignment.

Nationalism and Bible Translation

In 2011, I took an assignment in Ghana with a Ghanaian organization – the Ghana Institute of Linguistics, Literacy and Bible Translation (GILLBT).

I started working with Ghanaian Christians committed to seeing that everyone in Ghana has the Bible in their language. They are also very attached to their country. They are nationalists. So are their churches. Church leaders address national issues and say that the church is important to national development.

The mix of Bible translation and nationalism creates some benefits I did not expect. It turns out that the nationalism I found was one that is focused on responsibility. For example, one of the leaders in GILLBT told me:

It was our responsibility to learn from missionaries and take on the work ourselves.

GILLBT’s first translators were missionaries from Europe and North America. My colleague was saying that it was right and good that missionaries came, but that Ghanaians should eventually take responsibility. From other conversations, I have learned that it is a matter of nationalistic pride that Ghanaian churches take financial and other responsibility for Christian witness and ministry in Ghana.

GILLBT board of directors

When Ghanaian Christians learn that most of the money for translation in Ghana comes from elsewhere, their immediate reaction is to want to change that – to have Ghanaians “take on the work” in all its aspects.

Interestingly, the Ghanaian Christian nationalism I have seen is not exclusionary – it does not exclude others. Missionaries and outside money are still welcome, but on the condition that they don’t undermine Ghanaian responsibility. I like this brand of “take responsibility” nationalism. It feels empowered, bold, welcoming and full of faith.

Alignment

I

believe that the vision and values of missionaries need to align with the organization in which they serve. As it was becoming evident that the number of Westerners involved in Bible translation was in decline, and strategies were being put in place for involving more Africans in more roles, we needed missionaries who wanted to be part of that thrust. Specifically, we did not need missionaries who wanted to go it alone.
With the help of others, we developed a profile of the kind of missionary we needed. I even found an expert interviewer who would do telephone interviews with prospective missionaries in their home countries beforehand to see if they fit the profile. In this way we would avoid having missionaries come and be frustrated because their expectations would be mismatched to the situation.
But my fellow missionaries stopped this plan. They felt that:
  1. If a missionary felt a call to work with us, we had no right to say no.
  2. We desperately needed more people, so no one should be turned away.
  3. We should carve out exceptions to our plans for missionaries who want to work in their unique way.
It seems to me that a mission unit which followed my colleagues’ principles:
  • Would not be able to enter into effective partnerships because at any time some of its missionaries could act in ways contradictory to the terms of the partnership, hurting or breaking the partnership.
  • Will develop internal conflicts and problematic interpersonal relationships.
  • Will probably have leadership swings because each leader (a missionary selected from within the unit) would bring to bear their individual vision for the unit. Changes of leader will could easily result in large changes in vision and strategy. When a missionary leaves, the next leader could even tear down his/her work.
I have seen all of these negative effects actually happen.
I’m not writing this because I find that way of working unpleasant or chaotic, although I do. But rather because of its negative effects and the fact that it does not model kingdom values, but rather projects other values into its context.
Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or am absent, I may hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the Gospel,

Pointing

After all these years in Africa, I still struggle to give directions Africans understand, and I don’t understand very well when they give me directions. I am still unsure about the meaning of hand motions, pointing and some body language. When I see police along the road here in Ghana, I get apprehensive that I will misunderstand their hand motions and give them cause to give me a ticket, or worse offend them. In fact, that has already happened to me.

In addition to pointing, there is another behavior of police and parking attendants that I find difficult. They will stand right in front of the car where they want you to drive. They expect you to drive right at them, slowly of course, and then they move out of the way as you approach. It took me a while to figure that out. I would never drive right at a policeman in the US! A policeman standing beside the road motioned me to pull over, but he was standing in the only spot where I could. I stopped for a second, remembered what to do, and drove right at him, slowly. He moved out of the way, but looked puzzled that I had stopped. One parking lot I entered had a barrier across the exit to keep inconsiderate motorists from blocking it. As I was leaving, the helpful parking attendant moved the barrier but then stood right in the middle of the exit. It took me a second, but I realized that I had to just drive straight at him. As I did, he got out of the way.

To help reduce crime, there are sometimes police checkpoints on the city streets at night. The drill is simple: roll down your window, turn off the radio or music, turn on your dome light and greet the policeman who is carrying a flashlight. He will wag the flashlight up and down in minute movements to indicate that you should stop, then wag it left and right, also in minute movements, for you to move along. The movements are to small that the flashlight appears to flicker.

Not long ago I was parking at a very busy place. Helpfully, the business I was patronizing had placed a parking attendant in the street to assist customers with parking and getting back onto the busy street. Nice. Except that when I headed for an empty parking spot, that person pointed at it and wagged his index finger “No” quite vigorously. I stopped. He looked puzzled so I pulled into the parking space and he was happy. In that way, I learned that wagging one’s index finger does not indicate “No”, but rather “Go”. I think it was the equivalent of wagging a flashlight back and forth.

Maybe I’ll finally understand it all if I stay another 40 years. Or maybe not. The Mossi people of Burkina Faso have a proverb:

The foreigner has big eyes, but he doesn’t see anything.

From job to something bigger

“I came looking for a job but I found a career.”

An employee of the Ghana Institute of Linguistics, Literacy and Bible Translation (GILLBT), the organization we are on loan to, said this at an office staff meeting in August 2017. He said it full of joy. Judging from my other conversations with him, I know that he is not looking to spend his life working for GILLBT. So by “career” he did not mean lifetime employment. He meant “vocation” or even “call”. He has talked to me more than once about how missions is evolving so that he can plan a career in missions after his employment at GILLBT ends.

He was hired when he answered an announcement at his church about a job opening in GILLBT. At the time, he was just looking for a job; money to live on. But as he learned about translation he began to feel a call.

Ed and other staff member in Abidjan preparing information for the recruitment of a new director

I have heard similar stories from other Africans involved in Bible translation. One told me how he met missionaries translating into his language and started working with them. He showed a flair for translation, so the missionaries asked his church to release him from his position as a pastor to work with on the translation full time. They agreed. Eventually he went on to do advanced studies in translation and become the leader of a program training African translators. He said he knew that it was all part of God’s call in his life.

One of the best roles of a missionary is to be some part of God calling others to being a doctor, a human-right lawyer, a teacher, a Bible translator, or whatever, That is how ministry will continue through the next generation.

Praying for the Cedi

Poster for a recent Duncan-Williams event

Recently, a storm of criticism erupted on social media when a week of prayer and fasting was declared in Zambia to fight a cholera outbreak. The idea was mocked and ridiculed, even by some Christians, because they would prefer to see efforts directed toward better public sanitation. A similar thing happened a few years ago when the Ghana currency, the Cedi (pronounced see-dee), was losing value against the dollar. A falling Cedi causes inflation in Ghana. Everyone was talking about it and it was constantly in the news.

One day, I saw in the news that a well-known charismatic preacher had prayed for the Cedi, commanding it to stop falling in value. Most newspapers and radio stations carried the story. I heard conversations between Ghana Christians on the topic.

The critics said the government should exercise more fiscal responsibility; that praying for a miracle was not the right way forward. Others expressed their support. Being a fiscal conservative, I thought the criticism raised some valid points. But I also thought that criticizing prayer was unnecessary. That’s because I don’t have any confidence in the understanding or desires of those who pray, including leading pastors or even myself. But I do have confidence in God. He will hear the prayer and respond based on his infinite wisdom and from his heart of righteousness and love.

It strikes me as both unnecessary and prideful to try to get our prayers exactly right. But insisting that others get their prayers right strikes me as dangerous – something likely to reduce faith and discourage prayer. God is all-wise. So why do we think people have to pray exactly the right thing? The critics expected the people praying to understand the factors that influence exchange rates and pray for the right factor(s) to change. Of course, even economists disagree on what should be done, so good luck getting that one right. I prefer to count on God.

And the Holy Spirit helps us in our weakness. For example, we don’t know what God wants us to pray for. But the Holy Spirit prays for us with groanings that cannot be expressed in words, (Romans 8:26)

Maybe my old age is making me lazy, but I now like to pray for things that bother me even when I don’t understand the issues at all.

PS: I accidentally sent out this post by email some months ago. My apologies to those who are getting it for the second time.

Side effects

The Annual General Meeting last year

The Ghanaian organization I work for (GILLBT) has a general meeting every year where key decisions are made. Other organizations with similar interests send delegations to bring fraternal greetings. At the last general meeting, the Assemblies of God church sent a high-level delegation. When they took the floor they said how much they appreciate the translations of the Bible done by my organization because they allow their churches to succeed. Then the said something amazing:

“Some communities turn to Jesus Christ just because they were taught how to read and write in their mother tongue through GILLBT.”

This was the third time I have heard a very reliable source close to the situation claim that GILLBT’s literacy efforts are effective evangelism. The thing is, the literacy classes were not designed to evangelize. They contain no religious or Bible content. But learning to read in the heart language and having the Bible also in the heart language have an unintended side effect. Unintended but not undesired!

These Christians were reached through literacy classes in their languages. Here they are reading Bible in their languages at a church meeting.

This side effect is common enough that some churches in Ghana have created very effective evangelism programs whose core component is literacy classes in people’s heart language. In fact, the next man to speak at the general meeting represented the Presbyterian Church of Ghana. He said that his church holds literacy programs for the purpose of evangelism. Those literacy classes are like GILLBT’s with primers made by GILLBT and staff trained by GILLBT. In fact, I helped them expand that program. Even though the literacy classes are just literacy classes, the result is churches full of newly literate new believers avidly devouring the Bibles in their heart languages.

I love side effects! Well, at least this one.