Posted on: 26th May 2020
CMS missionary Grace Adams, serving with Chris in Timor-Leste, was hoping for quick results when she embarked on a translation project. But sometimes God seems to work slowly in his gospel mission.
We had been well-trained by CMS to have realistic expectations about what we might achieve, and how soon. When we were missionaries-in-training, experienced missionaries told us that we would do well in our first term of service—normally three years—if we didn’t do any harm, let alone accomplish anything significant.
Nevertheless, our plan had seemed straightforward. Together with our friends in Timor-Leste, we wanted to take the well-known and popular book, David Helm’s The Big Picture Story Bible and translate it into Tetun, the local language.
In reality, it has taken us four years to finally now have reached the point of launching the new translation; a lot longer than we initially hoped. Praise God, the books are now available for Christians in Timor-Leste! But the process has not been quick.
A promising but challenging path
To begin at (nearly) the end. When the books—so we thought—finally arrived, we were literally in tears of joy. They looked beautiful. We couldn’t believe our eyes. We took photos of us holding the book in a celebration mode. We took a sample home. It was then that we looked closely at the words on the pages and realised that they didn’t read correctly. Some letters were missing. ’fiar‘ (which means ‘believe’) was written as ‘far’. What had happened to our text that we checked and checked so many times, to ensure we hadn’t made any basic errors?
To begin at the beginning: even the translation process itself took longer than I’d expected. Not only because I was working around baby Micah’s nap times and feeding times, but because we had to come up with some new Tetun language expressions for Biblical concepts (there is not yet a Tetun Bible). It took a while for us to decide how to translate ‘Messiah’ or ‘Christ’ or as English speakers might say, ‘God’s anointed king’. It was not so straightforward to convey the rich theological concepts accurately but also naturally.
“My mum tells me time and again that her prayer for us is that we may not go ahead of God as we serve him.”
Once we’d translated the text, we got a number of people to check it to ensure quality: a university lecturer in the Tetun language (who happened to be a devout Catholic), children in the targeted age group, uneducated mothers who would be reading the book to the children. We checked the translation by testing it in church Sunday schools and school religion lessons. That was a rewarding but time–consuming process.
We could have taken an easy route to publishing the book, and saved time and effort. We could have employed a graphic designer to do all the work regarding inserting text, creating a cover and so on. Ex-CMS missionary Michael Collie from SparkLit1 visited for a couple of weeks to train us and help us with the graphic design, because we wanted our team to learn the skills to be able to do future book projects themselves.
Working alongside Timorese
We sought ways to print locally to encourage local industry and economy. This meant visiting a number of different local printers before eventually realising that they did not have the capacity to print the book with the quality we were aiming for. The next option was going with a local printing agency that linked us with a printer in Indonesia.
After a long wait for the books to arrive, the printed books came back with errors relating to the text (as noted earlier). We did not want faulty translations in common use so had to dispose of them appropriately, which took much creativity. The books didn’t burn. We didn’t have shredders. Some suggested using the boxes of books for furniture!
We were also grateful for the Scripture Union working committee (made up of local pastors and leaders from six denominations) who advised us right through this long process about price, getting the word out to their churches, and so on. But decisions made through the committee also slowed us down. Did I mention that in order for us to invite the committee members to a meeting, we needed to write up an invitation, print it, and physically go to their house, church or workplace to deliver it? People here don’t normally use email. It took ages just to get the invitations out. I didn’t know or expect this, and many other things, when we first started the project.
Changing our expectations to meet God’s
We learned some important lessons about God’s timing and our patience. We are passionate to see a world that knows Jesus, and we naturally want to see that vision realised fast.
But God is not concerned about speed and efficiency like us. If he was, humans would probably not be his first choice as agents to take the gospel to the world, nor prayer be his chosen way to seek dependence on God (we are often slow and disinclined to pray). The coming of Jesus Christ to earth as the Saviour of the world was not speedy either, humanly speaking. God worked over thousands of years in the Old Testament preparing for the New Testament fulfilment in Christ. The sanctifying work of the Spirit takes literally a lifetime. As a result, growing disciples and seeing churches mature is a long process, and one of the reasons why CMS is committed to long-term ministry over many generations.
My mum tells me time and again that her prayer for us is that we may not go ahead of God as we serve him in Timor–Leste. When I have prayed this prayer as well, it has helped me adjust my expectations of how fast things will happen. Our times are in God’s hands.
Not only CMS missionaries but those who support them can sometimes look for quick results. Consider writing a letter (not an email) to encourage those whose progress seems slow in human terms—especially in times of lockdown.