Missions and the blessing of dependence on God

The children and I have been memorising the Beatitudes, and this morning I was especially touched by Matthew 5:3. One of the most surprising blessings of being involved in missions is the heightened realisation of how dependent we are on God. What a relief it is to discover for ourselves the old truth that He is enough!

“God blesses those who are poor and realize their need for him, for the of Heaven is theirs.” (Matthew 5:3, NLT)

In terms of the spiritual, we are absolutely dependent on Him for our very life, for growing spiritually and for remaining standing on the “battlefield”. We cannot trust a mere formula for spiritual growth; we need to awaken to how much we need Him. It is only when we stretch out our feeble hands to Him, that we find the Holy Spirit there with us, helping us. As we depend on Him, we find that His strength is made perfect in our weakness.

Being confronted with the limitations of our physical body can also bring us to a realisation of how dependent we are on God. Getting tired, falling ill, and having to provide for the basic needs of our families are all things that compel us to call out in earnest dependence to God. What wonder, what joy, what love we feel when we get to know God through these weaknesses as an eager, tender, and loving Father. He always answers when we call, He strengthens our bodies, He heals us, and He provides in even the smallest of our needs.

I cannot find words to express my gratitude for times that I have passed through difficulties. It was through brokenness that I got to see a glimpse of the wonder of God.

Praise be to God for our weaknesses, for they drive us to comprehend how dependent we are on Him!

Lettie van den Heever

 

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Blessing out of adversity: Some thoughts on raising missionary kids

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I have lately been reminded of how God can bring blessing out of adversity. Just this week, a Sunday school teacher approached me after church and told me what a blessing our son Daniël had been to her. She explained how he had told the class about some things the Lord had done in response to prayer while we were living in a Third-World country, serving as missionaries in Bible translation.

This set me thinking about how we mostly try to protect ourselves, and especially our children, from any unpleasant, difficult, or potentially dangerous situations. Now there is certainly nothing wrong with shielding our innocent, vulnerable children from harm, and I am not for a moment suggesting that we should stop doing so. However, as with anything in life, we can go overboard in trying to protect our children.

Marlin-and-Dory-finding-nemo-100306This is beautifully illustrated in the animated film Finding Nemo, when Nemo’s dad, Marlin, says, “I promised I’d never let anything happen to him.” To which the indomitable Dory replies, with her homespun brand of logic, “That’s a funny thing to promise … you can’t never let anything happen to him. Then nothing would ever happen to him.”

Indeed.

Apart from the fact that being overprotective is unbalanced, there is a problem in that we can so easily leave God out of the equation.

The fact is, my children have a heavenly Father who is much more concerned about them than I could ever hope to be. He knows the number of hairs they have on their heads, which I obviously do not, and not a hair falls from their heads but their Maker knows it. When I begin to think that I, with my limited resources and fallen nature, can love and protect my children better than their Father in heaven can, I am heading towards the murky waters of self-deception and faithlessness. That is why I have had to make a conscious effort at acknowledging my limitations to God and recognising that our dear children are, ultimately, in his care.

When we felt called to move to East Africa as a family, I remember wrestling with myself and the Lord about all the bad things that could happen to our children. Our youngest at the time was not even a year old, and I was horrified at the idea of exposing him and his siblings to the numerous health risks and other threats involved in living in a tropical Third-World country. The nearest decent medical care would be in a city more than five hours’ drive away and virtually unaffordable to us.

Well, the Lord kept urging me to surrender my will, my hopes, fears, and dreams, to Him and obey his call. This I did with clenched teeth and pleading for his mercy to help me go through with whatever He wanted me to do, and to face whatever would come our way.

The upshot is that we did move to East Africa, where we stayed for a year. And no, it wasn’t all fun and games.

Our younger children, who did not have much English and no Swahili at the time, could not relate or communicate well with anyone outside of our family.

MosquitoWe all became ill with a variety of nasty diseases. Despite using insect repellent and sleeping under mosquito nets, all but one of our children contracted malaria. My heart still skips a beat when I look at pictures of our eldest daughter, smiling happily at the camera, pale, thin, and with dark circles under her eyes, as her body was recovering from its struggle with malaria.

Within our first six weeks of arrival, we had five attempted burglaries. I had to scare off an intruder breaking open a window in the passage next to the girls’ room while making a phone call for help in very broken Swahili, all the time trying not to wake our sleeping children.

On our eldest son’s birthday, there was a riot, with police shooting tear gas and live ammunition at an aggressive crowd of protesters from another religion, right in front of our house. We had to hurriedly send out text messages to call off his birthday party, warning the guests not to come anywhere near our house. Some tear gas got into the house and all of us learnt first-hand what it feels like to get it into your eyes and air passages. We had to try to comfort our little ones who were crying and asking, “Why are the police hurting the good people?”

I could carry on, but you get the idea.

Some people would have felt that staying there simply wasn’t worth it, packed up and returned to their home country. I cannot say that such thoughts never crossed my mind in the wee small hours of the night, but when the sun came out in the morning, the kids were happy and I could go about the Bible translation work for which we had come. Then I just knew that we were exactly where we had to be. God had not forgotten us. We did our best to keep our children safe, but it was, ultimately, a lesson in trusting God.

This description of some of the hardship our children faced because we chose to follow the Lord’s call gives only one side of the picture, though.

It does not tell of the fun our children had, playing good old-fashioned games like jumping rope, French skipping, dodgeball, tag, hide-and-seek, and many more with their local and expat friends.

file000439029567It does not hint at the encouragement to their faith when the riot literally stopped, turning to peaceful discussion, mere minutes after they (the kids) had dropped to their knees and asked Jesus to please make all the violence, tear gas, and shooting stop.

It does not convey the children’s joy at being able to talk about Jesus to a little friend from another religion.

Nor does it give any indication of how hard it was for our children to adapt back to our home country and culture, trying to make friends with kids who like sitting inside with their electronic devices rather than playing outside.

It is easy to look at a situation, such as ours in East Africa, and see the difficulties and dangers our children faced. We may even grieve for a certain loss of innocence. For example, to this day, one of our elder children wakes up scared at the slightest nocturnal sound, assuming that bad people are trying to break into our house again.

But then God surprises us with a completely different perspective. Our children have expressed, in no uncertain terms, that they want to go back to East Africa. They are excited about our ministry in Bible translation, and they also have such fond memories of the life and friends they had over there. Granted, some of the younger ones can hardly remember anything about that time — in fact, our youngest was born only after we returned to our home country — but those who do remember talk about life in East Africa in such glowing terms that everyone is convinced that that is the ultimate dream!

And here is my point: God can and does bring blessing out of adversity, if we are only willing to recognise it. If we take our eyes off the obstacles and hardship we have encountered and start counting the blessings that have grown in and out of that situation, we will truly be amazed. And when we realise that God used the soil of difficulty from which to make these blessings grow, we begin to look at adversity in a different light. Not as something pleasant, but as a field with the potential to grow a harvest of blessing — if we will trust and obey the Lord even when we do not understand.

I can honestly say that, although I do not like the idea of my children being exposed to all the things we have gone through, I would do it all over again if that were what it would take for my children to grow in their faith, worldview, and character the way they did. There is no doubt that they would not be who they are now if they had not gone through the hard times with us. And if you asked them whether they would do it all over again, their reply would be a resounding, “Of course!”

Image credits

Marlin and Dory from www.media.photobucket.com

Those difficult bits in the Bible

On my recent visit to Ethiopia, three Bible translation teams and I worked through Ezekiel Chapters 10 to 48. Now, everyone who has ever read the Bible knows that there are bits that are really hard to understand. It is sometimes difficult to grasp why such passages were even included in the Bible. The book of Ezekiel certainly has its share of those. One of the toughest sections we hit was the description of the new temple and the regulations for worship and sacrifices to be offered there — a passage running for a whole seven chapters (40-46)!

As we were slogging through detailed descriptions of the layout of the temple compound and the structure of its buildings, struggling with unknown architectural concepts and ancient Middle Eastern measurements, an elderly, rather venerable translator said, “I have a question.”

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He had been scratching his head for a while, frowning as he tried to understand the increasingly complicated mental picture of the temple complex in Ezekiel’s vision.

“Yes,” I replied, “what is your question?”

When dealing with an especially difficult passage, the confidence in a translation consultant’s voice can belie his apprehension about what kind of a question might be forthcoming.

“Why did they need all those rooms?” the snowy-headed man asked. “Why do we have to read about all these things?”

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Why, indeed? Clearing my throat, I gave the only reply I could think of at that moment. “Ah … it is sometimes difficult to know why something is in the Bible … but we do know that it should be there. Let’s continue reading; perhaps the answer will become clear further on.”

Sitting across from this seasoned servant of the Lord, who could almost have been my grandfather, I had my doubts as to whether he was satisfied with my answer. I was supposed to be a relatively learned, professional person — a translation consultant, no less — who had traversed our vast continent to help him and the other translators check their text against the original for accuracy and other related aspects. I do believe that the Spirit of God inspired the biblical authors as they committed their messages to writing, but it certainly does not mean that I can claim to understand the significance of every passage in Holy Scripture.

As it turned out, much to my relief and joy, my answer was not far off. When we came to Chapter 43:10-11, the instructions given to Ezekiel provided a good explanation:

“As for you, mortal, describe the temple to the house of Israel, and let them measure the pattern; and let them be ashamed of their iniquities. When they are ashamed of all that they have done, make known to them the plan of the temple, its arrangement, its exits and its entrances, and its whole form — all its ordinances and its entire plan and all its laws; and write it down in their sight, so that they may observe and follow the entire plan and all its ordinances.”

Day of atonement

You see, a central aspect of the temple complex’s layout is the importance of respecting the holiness of the sanctuary dedicated to the worship of God. Throughout the description of the temple and its sacrificial system, there is a strong emphasis on maintaining a careful separation between the sacred areas and objects and those that were for common use. In fact, the failure to respect this distinction was one of the sins of the rulers of Judah, who had built the royal residence right next to the temple. This close proximity, even mingling, between the centres of divine and human authority was not acceptable. God expresses his disapproval of this fact in no uncertain terms (43:8):

“When they placed their threshold by my threshold and their doorposts beside my doorposts, with only a wall between me and them, they were defiling my holy name by their abominations that they committed; therefore I have consumed them in my anger.”

 

So it became clear to us that there was indeed a good reason for the lengthy and detailed description of Ezekiel’s vision of the new temple. This worship complex with all its strict regulations about sacred and profane spaces and objects was intended to make the nation of Israel feel ashamed of themselves for all their wrongdoing and immoral practices and, consequently, mend their ways. It might be hard for us to grasp the impact this vision would have had on Ezekiel’s contemporaries, especially as we are living in the time after the curtain of the temple was torn in two at the death of Jesus, thus exposing the inner sanctuary. In Christ, we enjoy access to God’s throne of grace, where we may approach confidently to present our needs (cf. Hebrews 4:16). We can so easily relegate the concept of holiness, as embodied by sacred spaces and objects over against the profane, to a dusty shelf in the museum of the Old Testament. To Ezekiel’s audience, however, the plan and measurements of the temple in his vision would have been a poignant wake-up call, confronting them with their deplorable moral state and the appropriateness of God’s anger and punishment that had come upon them.

The fact that we may tend to disregard the picture of God’s holiness painted in Ezekiel’s vision does not mean that we should actually do so. Quite the contrary. In 2 Timothy 3:16, we read:

2_timothy_3_16_by_treybacca-d5vmg7vAll scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.

 

Just because, in Christ, we can approach God with confidence does not mean that the Eternal One, the Ancient of Days, has changed in terms of his nature or views. No, He remains the same from everlasting to everlasting. And when we read the Old Testament accounts of God’s dealings with his people, we should remember the Apostle Paul’s forceful exhortation, referring back to the Old Testament (1 Corinthians 10:6-11):

Now these things occurred as examples for us, so that we might not desire evil as they did. Do not become idolaters as some of them did; as it is written, “The people sat down to eat and drink, and they rose up to play.” We must not indulge in sexual immorality as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in a single day. We must not put Christ to the test, as some of them did, and were destroyed by serpents. And do not complain as some of them did, and were destroyed by the destroyer. These things happened to them to serve as an example, and they were written down to instruct us, on whom the ends of the ages have come.

 

The glint in the old translator’s eye told me that he was as pleasantly surprised as I was at discovering, once again, how well everything fitted together. It had been a long slog to get to the explanation in Chapter 43, and there was still some pretty rough terrain ahead of us. But he leaned back with a peaceful, satisfied sort of expression on his face and listened as his teammate started reading out the next verse in the Gamo language. And this young whippersnapper of a consultant listened to the old man’s back translation into English with a song in his heart, reminded of the phrase from his alma mater’s anthem:

In your light we see light. (Psalm 36:9)

 

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Image credits:

Translation Prayer

At last week’s Translation Development Group meeting of the Forum of Bible Agencies International, this prayer was shared with us, which we also prayed together. Would you pray this with us?

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God, your Word is more precious than all I possess
(Psalm 19:10)
Your Scripture gives light to my path and directs my steps
(Psalm 119:105)
Through your will alone lives are transformed and minds are made new
(Romans 12:2)
So I now pray for all people that do not yet know You
(1 Timothy 2:1-6)
For You’ve promised that your voice by every tribe and nation will be heard
(Revelation 7:9)
So equip us by your breath to provide every heart language with your Word
(2 Timothy 3:15-17)
Amen.

Trip to the USA

Most of my trips abroad are for field work, i.e. either helping to train Bible translators or helping translation teams to improve their translations and ensure faithfulness to the original Greek or Hebrew text. My next trip, however, will be a bit different, though no less important.

I will be travelling to the USA in October, God willing, to attend the Bible Translation 2015 conference. There, I will have the opportunity to interact with colleagues and scholars in the field of Bible translation, from a wide variety of Bible translation agencies, for a time of presentation and discussion of developing theory and practice in Bible translation. I look forward to learning more from what others are doing across the world to bring the Word of God to the Bible-less in the most efficient way.

After the conference, I will represent our organisation (TWFTW) in a meeting of the Forum of Bible Agencies International’s Translation Development Group. This short meeting is vitally important, since this is where different Bible agencies discuss the big picture of Bible translation in the light of our different perspectives. By sharing and coordinating our work in this forum, we avoid duplicating our efforts and ensure that the existing needs are dealt with as best we can. Some of the topics that will be discussed at the Translation Development Group are how best to maximise worldwide access to translations and translation helps, evaluating new approaches to Bible translation, and new resources for Bible translation.

TWFTW’s leadership and I feel it is vital that I attend these two events. However, a trip like this involves expenses that cannot be covered out of funds earmarked for training or translation work. If you would like to contribute towards the cost of this trip, you can do so directly on TWFTW’s website (with the reference “MVDH BT2015 & FOBAI”), or through the Great Commission Stories website (selecting Manie van den Heever in the “Designation” dropdown menu). Alternatively, you can contact Enslin Lottering at TWFTW’s South African office to arrange a way of making a contribution.

The New Testament for 2,5 million people for the first time ever

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On Sunday 6 September, I was privileged to attend the launch of the New Testament translated into six Tanzanian languages. It is exciting to think that 2,5 million people who did not have access to the Bible in their mother tongue can now read Scripture and hear God speak to them in their language!

There was a lot singing and dancing as people celebrated this great event. Here is a video clip to give you a little peek into what we experienced.

It seems that the whole launch was nearly cancelled when the organisers received a phone call from the government informing them that the stadium which had been rented to host the event was to be used for a political rally. We are so grateful that our TWFTW staff and our partners, Pioneer Bible Translators, were able to arrange for us to use a school sports field across the road from the stadium, at the last minute!

It was such a privilege to see the joy on the people’s faces, and we thank the Lord for the privilege of having been able to contribute to this in a small way by the work we did in Tanzania during the year we lived here.

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