Unless the Lord builds the house
“Unless the LORD builds the house,Psalm 127:1 (NIV)
its builders labour in vain.
Unless the LORD watches over the city,
the watchmen stand guard in vain”
Here we are over 3 months after the lockdown got fully going in the UK, the 132nd of March (31+30+31+30+10) as some wisecracks have put it. Had it not been for delays finding and buying and moving into a house and then the lockdown we had hoped to get to Nigeria again in March. In many ways Elizabeth and Helen in particular seemed to be ready for that in March (and so was I), but God had other plans, so here we are.
We thank God for looking after us and our families and for providing for our needs through the churches and individuals who support us. While in some ways we are ‘all in this together’ I think we’ve all been realising that actually different people have experienced the lockdown and the anxiety around the coronavirus somewhat differently. While some talk about having more time on their hands (!) in common with most families with working parents, we have felt busier and somewhat dissatisfied in our own abilities to keep up with everything we would like to do — schoolwork, staying in touch with everyone and translation work.
Not quite all in the same boat – how is a Christian to think and act?
The major upheaval has certainly given us much to reflect on and I don’t think we are particularly stressed by Covid-19 and the regular changes to what we are and aren’t allowed to do. We’re familiar with moving from one culture and country to another, handling abrupt changes of language, ways of doing things, regulations etc. What has been odd for us this last few months is that we were able to experience all that disruption without even leaving the UK, and without the benefits we enjoy living in Nigeria!
This strange time has given us much to think about too — about what it means to be a trusting child of God in such times, and the various ways that the rest of the world copes with uncertainty and calamity. While some said early on that this puts us all in the same boat, I guess a lot of people are realising that that was only superficially true. Even if the disease operates as blind biology, the contexts and the people it has been disrupting are often quite different.
Westerners going to Africa and Asia sometimes run up against a culture clash when it comes to handling problems. Westerners tend to be ‘activists’ and problem solvers, so that when some problem comes along we have learned that the honourable thing is to try to fix it (or maybe demand that the government fix it). We expect certainty. We demand control.
Many people in Africa and Asia don’t have the same perspective and to ‘activist’ outsiders can seem to be helpless, passive or fatalistic. They may ‘just’ pray, wait and see whether something turns up to make things better, or hope on for a rich benefactor to appear who might do something for them. Those are very different responses to trouble. It’s tempting to consider the western response of activism to be more reasonable or even more Christian in some way, but if we’re honest we may have realised our politicians, governments, health experts and epidemiologists don’t really have the control of the situation that we demand. This weekend in our home church evening Zoom meeting we had a good reminder from Psalms 117 and 118 not to put ultimate trust in people.
(Sarah’s new house being built.)
Psalm 127 reminds us that our activism is insufficient without the LORD’s work or maybe it’s better to say it only makes sense if God is at work. Whether we are building the house or guarding the city, whether we are keeping the household going or wrestling to translate the Bible, whether we’re trying to keep doing our job while cooped up with the kids or lead a church small group, it’s vital to remember we’re not on our own. It isn’t all down to us. God hasn’t abandoned us to our own devices. And we are not completely helpless; he gives us the energy and opportunities we find.
What’s been going on in Nigeria?
Nigeria fell in line with the rest of the world and ended up locking down (somewhat severely) at about the same time that we did in the UK, and they certainly managed to flatten the curve of detected transmission of Covid-19. The severe curfews made life very difficult for many people and they couldn’t really have been maintained, though it appears many Christian missions have been very anxious and so have been imposing severe restrictions on their missionaries. I think it’s fair to say that many of our colleagues found the isolation quite difficult and foreigners have the added burden of trying to figure out if they should leave Nigeria and if so when and how, so at least we have been spared that extra concern. Nigeria’s health infrastructure is patchy, but at the same time we see that much more sophisticated health systems have struggled to know what to do and how to treat Covid-19 patients.
Given Nigeria has such a modest number of Covid-19 cases, the vast majority of people don’t know anyone who has suffered from it leaving people having to take it on trust from government and media that this is all a real threat. Sadly it seems some militants have taken advantage of the restrictions to launch more attacks on villages.
Our office in Jos closed down at the end of March and inter-state travel was banned and sadly that has made it almost impossible for me to maintain any significant direct work with the Ashɛ translators who struggle to get phone reception or internet access. I did manage to call through once to Moses and several times to Arams, and for a week we led morning devotions for our office in Jos over Facebook Live. That has helped us feel a little closer to our colleagues, though it’s rather strange.
(Watch above for a flavour of church after lockdown is slightly lifted.)
We have appreciated being able to connect a little more with church in Jos as they rushed to figure out ways to put services online at first live and then with some recorded segments. They’ve now had a couple of Sundays meeting in a socially-distanced way over 2 services, without young children wandering around.
Julie’s Jos-based women’s Bible study group has gone online too and so Julie has appreciated connecting with colleagues in Nigeria and scattered elsewhere as they dig into the Psalms.
All over the world Wycliffe people have been working to try to translate reliable information about Coronavirus into local languages. As you might expect a lot of misinformation circulates and conspiracy theories multiply. The most helpful messages seem to be about maintaining good hygiene and keeping distant from people. Stay Safe, we proclaim, and we desperately try to do what we can. But many of us recognise we can’t really stay safe, and actually we’re translating the Bible because we believe it captures a more substantial and sufficient message than hand-washing and coughing into your elbow. The only meaningful way to stay safe is to be known by God and part of his family so that we need not fear sickness, death and (worse) judgment for our culpable failures. It’s important to translate urgent messages into meaningful language because it’s a matter of life and death, not just a matter of putting on a show, and so it’s a reminder of how the world really needs to take on board the good news of Christ, not the just the good advice, ‘superior’ government and scientific advances of the Western World. We work to translate the Bible because it’s not just our idea; it’s not our wisdom; it’s not our superior culture.
That is why we keep working to help translators do as good a job as they can to capture not just a bit of the message but the full clarity and power of the gospel message. And that is why we really appreciate your partnership in helping us do that. We thank God for people praying for us and colleagues in our work, and we thank God for the monthly financial provision that keeps us going.
Family: Odd as usual
For some months Helen had been looking forward to her 5th birthday, which we were sure would be celebrated in Nigeria, but instead was celebrated in Covid-land, with family greetings over video call, as we do in Nigeria. So now for a couple of months the girls line up to be thoroughly odd (ages): 11, 9, 7 and 5. Elizabeth and Abigail have been getting into inline skating and other wheels, and all the big three girls are often buried deep in a book. We hadn’t planned anything for the summer holidays, expecting to be in Nigeria, and we still don’t know what’s going to be possible. At some point we hope to see family in Northern Ireland again, and later in July we hope to hear when international flights might resume into Nigeria which would enable us to plan a return. The girls are all signed up for local schools here should that be necessary, though of course no one knows what school might look like in August. We live with all the uncertainties. Julie has been doing a bit of writing and research too, reactivating the historian and giving her opportunities to discover how the gospel impacted people struggling to get by in Britain in very troubled times, not unlike what we see in Nigeria.
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