The concept of ‘living words’ took on new meaning for me last year when a copy of Wycliffe’s Living Words magazine landed on my desk. “That’s me,” I thought as I read the notice calling for volunteers to help Christian leaders and pastors with English. This assistance would in turn help them with the translation and contextualisation of the Bible in their context.
Proshikkhon is the Bengali word for training. For the Australian team that joined the Proshikkhon project in January 2015 it meant training in working as a team in what could be seen by some as difficult places. One cannot go to Bangladesh and not be overwhelmed by the crowds of people or the noise and volume of traffic. Learning how to survive and get to where you want to go is a major skill especially crossing roads and travelling on buses and trains.
The three week seminar teaching OBS and contextualisation took place in the picturesque Sylhet district. There were more than 50 participants – pastors, leaders and any others interested in learning more about the Bible – who came from five different tribal groups.
Storytelling was fun, even more fun than learning it in New Zealand. You need a sense of humour; it helps to overcome self-consciousness and grow in confidence. The tribal people have a great sense of humour and are oral learners so had no difficulty adapting to telling Bible stories. Each day they practised by going in groups into the villages to tell the stories they had learnt, visiting both Hindu and Muslim local people. Occasionally the Australian team stayed behind to pray, and then later heard the testimonies of healing, hospitality and people’s responses to the Bible stories.
Contextualisation was a different kind of fun. The topic for this year was around death rituals. Communication, translation and concentration were essential as we worked with tribal groups to establish what, as Christians, they do when someone dies? What value is placed on the action and what do they believe by doing it? This meant researching the scriptures together to find out if the Bible affirms, negates, or says anything at all about that belief. Then the tribal groups got together to decide on action plans. Those in leadership planned how to to adapt the new information into church teaching, while other participants planned how to present the new information to their church leaders and prayed for a good reception and positive change where it was appropriate.
Naturally, not all things needed changing. For example, with respect to the custom of decorating a dead body, one group believed it gave honour to the person and made them look beautiful and we could not find anything in the Bible to challenge that. We find that the Bible teaches that passing on tradition can be good; but there are times when it may not be good. The clarifier is Jesus who tells us if we engage in a tradition that causes us to break God’s commands, then we are not to do it (Mk 7:8-9).
This might sound like an easy exercise but working with three languages (English, Bengali and the tribal mother tongue) and varying degrees of knowledge about death rituals and interpretations of what the Bible does say, it can be complex and we were very conscious of the Holy Spirit guiding and teaching at these times.
From a personal perspective, Proshikkhon was a great adventure! Our training was to work in unity as the body of Christ. We joined the community of all tribes and nations in God’s presence and shared a new understanding of meeting Jesus in Bangladesh.