January 2008

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Language is one of the most beautiful and powerful things on the planet. Every langauge has its strengths, and its weaknesses. Even the weaknesses of a language can do much to shed light and beauty on tired, overworked notions such as hope. In this letter, we see just how such a thing can happen. 

God has given us new birth into a living hope 
through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. 1 Peter 1:3 (NIV)

Our Kwong rendering of some of the most exalted prose of the New Testament went utterly flat



She was the apple of her father’s eye, daddy’s little girl, the light of his life. It seems all her siblings had died already, and she was all he had left. Now, death stood at her door. Her 12 short years would end before the hour was out, and daddy was undone. The doctors had tried and failed. No-one could do anymore. The end had come. Then, in that dark hour, a stab of light in the darkness – the Teacher, someone whispered, was at that very minute entering the village. Maybe...

We all know – and we all long for in every dark hour – a little of the light which flooded Jairus’ heart when he heard that Jesus was coming to Capernaum. In English, this light is encapsulated in that most exquisite of little words – “hope”.

A wondrous mosaic of present longings and future possibilities, suffused with joy, and tinged with ever the slightest hue of mystery, this little word evokes more in the human spirit than perhaps any other word in the lexicon, other than love itself. Try to speak of the human predicament and the longings of every human heart without speaking of hope, and you are doomed to fail. And yet Kwong has no word for hope.

Mark made this unfortunate observation more than a decade ago. As it turns out, for most abstract notions, a stock Kwong expression will do the job – “carry your head” means patience, and “putting your chest” means faith, for example. But years of research with our Kwong colleagues turned up no such expression for hope. The best we could do was “to put one’s thoughts on such and such”  – a bland expression which is to hope what KoolAid is to a fine French wine. As the years went by, we refined this expression to give us “to put a happy thought on something in the future” – an improvement, but hardly what you would call elegant. Nevertheless, this ponderous, industrial grade phrase did the thankless job of translating “hope” for many years – until we came to 1 Peter 1:3 where our Kwong rendering of some of the most exalted prose of the New Testament went utterly flat. Just why this should be, we would soon find out.

In our common English notion of hope, as in our Kwong expression, the locus of activity is in the mind of the hoper. Hope, in this sense, is active – something a person does, the stepsister really of positive thinking. “Don’t lose hope” we say – as if keeping hope somehow really depends on us, which used in this sense, of course, it does.

But Jairus knew nothing of hope in this sense. He was not hoping – rather, hope came to him. Hope was not his deliberate activity, but rather the spontaneous response awakened in his soul by what someone else did – namely, bring very good news to a desperate man. Such a distinction in shades of meaning may seem like hair-splitting to English ears, but in recognizing just such a distinction we were finally able to translate 1 Peter 1:3 with some of the poignancy it deserves – and quite by accident, to see in a new way yet more of the beauty of this little word “hope”.

            So, what did Jairus feel when a young man came running with news of Jesus’ arrival? As a Kwong person would put it, and as only a people living on the edge of the Sahara can fully appreciate, “his future was restored to his soul like a fresh, cool  breeze on a hot day.” Was ever hope expressed in more evocative terms than that? Certainly not in Kwong. Maybe not in English either. And the expression is elegant – a mere 4 words in length with “like a fresh, cool breeze on a hot day” being a single onomatopoeic, 5 letter word “lowwa”. Surely Peter meant no less than this in describing the living hope which God graciously holds out to desperate people like ourselves in our darkest hour. And like Jairus, all we can do is soak the unbelievably good news in – and then run to Jesus.

The Flip Side

Chageen Evangelical Clinic Project    

We are pleased to announce that the appeal we made this past October for monies for the construction of a new medical clinic in Chageen has been very generously provided for. In fact, we have received gifts amounting to more than double the $13,500 we asked for. There is both good news and bad news in this.

The good news is that having this amount of money at our disposal will enable us to build what we believed we ought to build all along. The appeal we made was for a stripped down, 4 room, bare-minimum structure which we, in our little faith, believed to be the most we could likely find money for. With the funds we now have available, we will be able to build the full 6 room facility including maternity ward which we originally thought necessary, and we will be able to lay termite proof reinforced concrete floors instead of brick floors, as well as make other significant structural improvements to the facility which our stripped-down budget would not have allowed for. We will also be able to replace the derelict beds and furnishings of the old clinic building

The “bad” news (and it is not really bad at all) is that by having the money for a somewhat larger and higher quality facility at his disposal, the construction task before Mark these coming months looms even larger than he originally anticipated. Mark and his Chadian masons have gotten pretty good at building these masonry and reinforced concrete buildings over the years, but Mark has also gotten pretty tired of them, and the minimalist structure we budgeted for was appealing from a get-this-done-and-move-on point of view. Of course, in the long view of things, biting the bullet now will save ourselves maintenance headaches later on, as well as the need for yet another project to build the maternity at a future date.

By the time this letter arrives in your mailboxes, construction will probably have begun. Our intention is to finish the masonry superstructure of the clinic before returning to the USA during April-October for 7 months of home assignment. We hope that in November of 2008, one or more work teams from our churches in the USA will come help us put the roof on, install the windows and doors, and do the other finishing work.


The Christmas story like you’ve never heard it.

For over a year, in what we can only regard as a most amazing, providential collaborative effort with our dear Papa Jonas, we have been teaching between 50 and 80 Kwong children on Sunday mornings. For the past several months we have been telling them about the Exodus of the children of Israel from Egypt. But for Christmas, we took a break to tell the kids the story of the Nativity. As we do for each of these stories, Mark wrote it out in Kwong, and made a recording of it that Jonas listened to repeatedly. The idea was that Mark’s very orthodox telling of the story would straighten out the hodge-podge of fact and fiction which constitute most Chadians’ (including Jonas’) notion of the Nativity. Solomon’s judgment of the babies, for example, would not be part of the story, even though it is consistently the high point of every Christmas pageant in Chad.

Well, it was a valiant effort. Jonas told the story with all the flair and embellishment which is his trademark, and to his credit, he did leave Solomon out of the story. But almost everything else was hopelessly confused. The shepherds never did go see Jesus, but the whole host of angels somehow crammed themselves into the stable to serenade the new-born Christ. And during this whole spectacle, something like a supernova – the star we presume - woke up all of Bethlehem. Yes, it was the Christmas story like you’ve never heard it.

As with all the stories Jonas tells, we recorded it for the radio with the intention of broadcasting it on Christmas Eve. (The radio, by the way, continues to be an incredibly powerful tool of ministry.) In any other age, this would have been very counterproductive – unless of course we wanted to add even more confusion to the already muddled popular understanding of the Christmas story. But in the age of digital sound editing, an afternoon of rearranging Jonas’ story got the shepherds to the stable, kept the angels out in the fields, and downgraded the supernova to something that took a wise man to figure out. Jonas, who kind of knew he had made hash of the story, couldn’t believe his ears when heard it on the radio on Christmas Eve. It was perfect, and will doubtless be a staple of our Christmas broadcasts for years to come.

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Last modified: September 09, 2008