Monday, May 23, 2011

THE MANDATE 5, God Goes Before . . . and After

Bible translator’s job: Translate the Bible so God can introduce Himself to people.
God’s job: Prepare the people to accept the introducers.

Forty-three years ago, in the spring of 1968, the Canelas took the second step in accepting us as part of their indigenous society. My wife and I went through the Canela adoption/initiation ceremony that made us members of their families and citizens of Canela society. It involved lots of red ochre paint, plenty of tree-sap glue and white hawk down all over our bodies. Surrounded by crowds of Canelas, we listened to the chief’s long speech; then each of the sub-chiefs and elders made shorter speeches.

We couldn’t understand a word.

I had taken the first step a month earlier when I first met the chief in town. Although he knew only a little Portuguese, he understood that we wanted to live in the village, learn Canela, and help where we could. He pantomimed giving me an injection in my upper arm, and made writing motions. “Yes,” I said, “we will treat sick people and teach you to read and write.”

“You come,” he said.

A few days later, I stood in the centre of the Canela village plaza surrounded by a large group of sombre, silent, serious looking Canela men. I faced a village elder who, leaning on his spear, chanted loudly for long time.

I couldn’t understand a word.

Abruptly he stopped chanting, and shouted loudly, “Prejaka! Prejaka! Prejakaaaa!” at which all those silent men behind me suddenly shouted, “Yuhaaa!”

Major adrenaline rush!

Then they all broke into smiles, grabbed my hands and kept saying “Prejaka, Prejaka, Prejaka.” It finally got it! I had just been given a Canela name—the first step into being accepted into Canela culture.

Jo and I experienced only one naming ceremony, but over the next few decades, we went through the adoption/re-initiation ceremony dozens of times—each time we returned to the village after an extended time away. And eventually we fully understood all those speeches.

“We have adopted you into our village and into our families. You are even more one of us now than when you first came to us. You now speak our language. You invented a way to write our language and taught us to read and write it and count and read numbers. You are training teachers. You make books for us. You help us with medicine. You are family and belong here. Join any festival. Go anywhere in Canela lands. Take pictures of any of us, and of any of our festivals. When outsiders come in just to look at us and our ceremonies and take pictures, we ask them for gifts, but we will never ask you.”

Still true.

A few years ago, after an absence of nineteen years, (forty-one years after the original invitation), we re-visited the village. Yes, once again, glue, feathers, red paint and a wide-open village welcome to our whole family—fifteen of us—including our eight grandchildren.

God arrived in the Canela village before we came to prepare them so they would adopt us and accept us as citizens. He stayed after we left to adopt many Canelas into His Family and accept them as citizens of His Kingdom.

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Wednesday, May 11, 2011

THE MANDATE 4, The Book of Heaven

David Thompson is well-known in western Canada as the mapmaker who explored that part of North America 200 years ago. What is not as well-known is that, as a devout Christian, he carried his Bible and told stories about Jesus and heaven everywhere he went. 

In 1807, while charting the homelands of the Flathead Salish people who lived in southern Alberta and northern Montana, he found that these people couldn’t get enough of his stories. “Someday, someone will come and bring you the Book of Heaven,” he told them.

In 1832, a whole generation later, the tribe could wait no longer and sent four men on a 5,000 kilometre round trip to St. Louis, Missouri to find the Book and bring it back. Two of the men died before they arrived. The remaining two were received at the fort by General William Clark (Lewis and Clark Expedition) who introduced them to the priest. 

The two emissaries, however, were disappointed when no one could give them the Book of Heaven. Just before they started on their return journey, the town put on a farewell feast complete with many speeches. At the end of the feast, one of the Salish envoys gave a speech that had far reaching consequences.

"We came to you over the trail of many moons from the land of the setting sun beyond the great mountains ... we came with an eye partly open for our people who sit in darkness; we go back with our eyes closed.

"We made our way to you with strong arms through many enemies and strange lands, that we might carry back much to them. We go back with our arms empty ... Our people sent us to get the white man's Book of Heaven ... You took us where they worship the Great Spirit with candles, but the Book was not there. You showed us images of the good spirits and pictures of the good land beyond, but the Book was not among them to tell us the way.

"We are going back the long, sad trail to our people of the dark land. You make our feet heavy with gifts, and our moccasins will grow old and our arms tire in carrying them, yet the Book is not among them. When we tell our people in the big council, that we did not bring the Book, no word will be spoken by our elders or our young men. One by one they will go out in silence. Our people will die in darkness ... they will have no white man's Book to make the way plain. I have no more words."

As news of this speech spread among Christians in England and the north-eastern US, missionaries and Bible translators began to penetrate the west. The Bible was translated into Cree 25 year later, but it would be many generations before the Flathead-Salish finally received the Book of Heaven in their own language.

Currently 6,860 languages are spoken by the world’s 6.9 billion people. An estimated 341 million people speak 2,078 languages in which not even one line of the Bible has ever been translated. Like the Flathead-Salish people of 200 years ago, they wait, and wait. 

Translating the Book of Heaven into these 2,078 languages is not a peripheral option—it is the most foundational task left for the Christian Church to accomplish.

©  2011 Jack D Popjes
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