And Ato Lakew on the Four Ships

Circa 1973

Merv Rosell was a noted Bible speaker to youth and college students in the USA.  He spoke to Youth For Christ gatherings and at Schroon Lake, as well as many Bible Conferences.  His reception and the alleged results of his speaking were legend, so it was assumed that if he were to tour the missionfields, He would be a great asset.

Problem:  Merv Rosell knew nothing about cultural adjustment.  Nevertheless; some well meaning missionaries convinced Merv to visit Ethiopia while we were there as missionaries.  Merv came with all his best sermons well memorized, and he gave it his best shot.  He was the very picture of zeal, and he truly loved the college students and youth who gathered to hear him.

As is often the case, the students also absorbed the hubris as it oozed from all sides as missionaries and Merv himself talked of his great exploits in former days.  So there was a mutual air of expectation in the Addis Ababa Church and Youth Center the evening of Merv Rosell's great super-rally.  The house was packed and they were standing all the way out to the street.  Many missionaries were there also.  There had been much planning and prayer that this event would bear fruit in the Lord, and no one anticipated just how their prayers were about to be answered.

Merv was to speak in English, and Ato Lakew, a leader in the Word of Life churches in Ethiopia, and a fluent English speaker, was to interpret.  This was a well used technique, and it had every possibility of working well since Ato Lakew was also a man of real depth in the Word of God.

After some rousing songs, Merv was introduced.  He made very little small talk, but got right to his task of preaching his heart out.  Merv announced, "Tonight, I am going to talk to you about the four ships."  That was straightforward enough to Ato Lakew.  He translated that at once.  Then Merv gave the list of "ships"-- "Fellowship, Discipleship, Stewardship...." and there was one more I cannot remember.

Well, Ato Lakew looked cool on the outside, but inside he was doing a fast and well controlled panic.  This linguistic trick of starting with "ships" and then jumping to alliterations of the state of being "........ships" was 100% impossible in Amheric, the language of Ethiopia.  The language is 99% mechanical, and these tricks are virtually unknown.  The crowd could even have been insulted, thinking Merv was playing a trick on them.

Ato Lakew was a rare man.  He was famous with us missionaries for his mastery of, not only our language English, but he had figured out our humor and idiomatic way of thinking.  He understood exactly where Merv Rosell was headed.  So, Ato Lakew fully realized that it was already too late to rescue the thing.  If he stopped Merv Rosell and explained the thing, Merv would get all flustered and possibly lose his train of thought.  And the crowd would be partially lost due to the confusion.   Furthermore; Merv had preached a number of times in Addis Ababa, and he might not have another sermon he could resort to.

In one of those very special and supreme moments of God's Grace in fast forward mode, the Holy Spirit gave Ato Lakew a sermon.  Lakew had only those periods of time in which Merv was talking, but it came out great.  Lakew did preach on the four ships also-- The ship Jesus was in during the storm, the ship Jesus used to preach from, the ship Jonah took to flee from God's will, and one more I forgot.  What great lessons are in those events, and Lakew was given cross references along the way from his memory and the Holy Spirit's proddings.

The end of the message was a trick, for Ato Lakew had to wind down to the altar call at the same pace as Merv Rosell.  God helped him, and both sermons ended with great conviction in the respective hearers.  At the altar call a good number came forward to either respond to the English sermon or the Amheric sermon.  Some of the missionaries who know both languages were delighted, for they got to hear two great sermons in the same evening.

Merv Rosell never knew what happened.  No doubt, he counted all the responses as notches on his gun.  Ato Lakew was much too humble to let Merv know the truth.  And is there a moral to this story from real life?  Absolutely.  The Lord knew what Merv would do, and He made sure a man of fast wit and deep knowledge of the Word of God was the interpreter.  God got the victory.  Do you ever wonder if you can get anything right and give a testimony or teach a Sunday School class?  Next time you doubt God's power to use you, think of Ato Lakew.