Two Paths: Allowing Suffering To Do Its Work

Jean and I had the privilege of leading the BODRES project for twenty years from 1992 until 2012. It was a project that entailed translating the New Testament and portions of the Old Testament for a people who had little or no Gospel witness. The project had experienced decades of failure and tragedy; we were preceded by four sets of people who had attempted to bring the Scriptures over a forty year span. When we began, we had no assurance that our attempts would succeed and that we too would not end in a failed attempt. Somehow, in God's gracious providence, we were able to bring the New Testament to publication in their language, and that project is now followed by a group of dedicated BODRES men and women who are working on the Old Testament.

We traveled this twenty-year journey with men and women from the BODRES community and it was in large part their dedication and perseverance that the BODRES people now have Scripture in their language. We were fortunate to have been given the unique opportunity of spending hours everyday in Scripture as part of our job. And certainly, we had to delve into its meaning more than most in order to bridge the deep linguistic and cultural chasms between Greek and BODRES. With that much exposure to Scripture and having to work so closely for many years, you would think that we might have become saints in the process. But like so many who have gone before us, we learned that there is no magic formula, like a certain amount of time spent reading and studying the Scripture, that brings transformation. On our human end, it would seem to require little more than a true humility and a softness of heart.

I wish to illustrate what I mean by introducing Paul and Beth, two of the key figures throughout the life of the BODRES project. Paul had been a Buddhist monk with the equivalent of a PhD in meditational practices, and had served the highest member of the clergy in his country. Although Paul had the equivalent of a PhD, he was more a practitioner of the disciplines of his religion than an academic. His final exam was a three year, three month, three week mediation; he spent much of that time in isolation. When we first began translating together, I was struck by how effortlessly he could sit cross-legged for hours on end working on tasks I gave him. Paul was from the very core of his culture and with it came the prestige of much cultural and religious knowledge. If Paul could understand how we were drafting the texts, then surely anybody from his culture could also understand.

Beth was from a small village from an area of the homeland that was looked down on. Her parents had become Christian, even if they had little understanding of this new religion. Beth's brother had joined with previous Scripture translation efforts, but had died of leukemia only a few years into the project. Beth's parents gave her to the project as their contribution to see the Scriptures come in their language. She carried her family legacy with dedication, never chafing against the family choice that had been made about her career. In the early years, Beth was my main language teacher. Although she spoke good English, she never used it with me in an effort to help me speak her language well.

Several years into the translation project, we took on the additional task of developing a set of thirty oral stories that told the major epoch narratives of the Old and New Testament. At the time, there was a burgeoning interest in the value of stories as a natural way of communicating to oral peoples (in contrast to a community like Christ Church that is highly literate). Both Paul and Beth took to oral story-telling like ducks to water. I remember one morning, after one or two discussions of the story of Joseph, Beth effortlessly gave a fifty-three minute rendition of his life, full of interesting and pertinent detail. What I had read about oral learners was very much true -- that they often had a much better memory for detail than did literate learners.

One of the epoch narratives we worked on was Job. In my studies of missiology, it promised to have unique cultural relevance in addressing issues of suffering. The basic doctrines of Buddhism take suffering seriously; here was a potential answer that might provide a relevant alternative. But, it was difficult going. It didn't make sense, especially to Paul. When God gave permission to Satan to "sift" Job, was he not also complicit in the evil committed against Job? Paul was playing the part of one of Job’s friends -- better to curse God and die. Beth had no theological explanation for the story, and remained silent during those discussions. Beth connected with the story at an experiential level. She too had experienced lots of suffering with her home and land being taken from her. She had even lost one of her children in the early days of working with us. One afternoon, with eyes sparkling and voice wavering, she eloquently and naturally declared in her language:

I had only heard about you before, but now I have seen you with my own eyes. Job 42:5

It was sufficient for Beth that her suffering had now evinced a deeper knowledge of God. Never mind a doctrine of theodicy.

Paul and Beth's stories continued to diverge, in spite of the fact that both spent hours with me going through the Scriptures. They both saw the project through to the very end in dedicated fashion, but their lives could not now be more different. Beth leads a translation project in a neighboring language, as both she and her husband carry on in the vision of Scripture in the mother-tongue. Paul's life is punctuated with many disappointments, some brought on by himself, and some because life has been hard to him. I don't know where Paul stands now. At times, he shows a softness of heart, and at times a hardness. I pray for Paul and Beth in very different ways.

My brothers and sisters, you regularly hear the Word at Christ Church, but who are you like? Are you a Paul or a Beth? Perhaps, many of us are more like Paul than we care to admit. We have been associated with the elite institutions of our country along with the prestige of much cultural and religious knowledge. We know much, but Scripture knowledge does little more than moisten the edges of our hard heart. Suffering makes us indignantly ask, "Are you kidding me? Me?" Maybe a few of us are more like Beth, and the seed of the Word of God has taken deep root. When we suffer, we declare, "I get it! I have seen Him with my own eyes!"

As the season of Lent marches on, I urge you to learn alongside Beth in humble submission to His Word - let suffering do its intended work. You might see God with your own eyes.

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