“Weakness is a huge thread in my whole life,” said Mark Penner, a Bible translation consultant currently serving the Japanese Sign Language and Thai Sign Language projects.
“When I was 25 years old, I knew pretty much everything,” said Mark sarcastically. “And I came to Japan with goals, because my dad had started a Deaf church and it was growing 50 percent per year. … I’d been to seminary, and I’d read the books, and so it was like, ‘Shoot, we can reach Japan in ten years! Just find a way to keep this going!’ [But] when I was the leader of that church, it just kind of flat-lined. Fifty percent [growth] per year just flattened out.”
Mark’s initial enthusiasm and confidence were crushed by what he viewed as a gigantic failure on his part. He realized that while he had great passion for church planting among the Deaf, God hadn’t given him the gifts he needed to be a successful pastor or leader in that culture. And so he concluded that maybe the plan was for him to train the Deaf to do these things for themselves.
“I quickly moved to training Deaf leaders to lead Deaf churches, and then realized that without a Bible they could understand, it was very difficult to train people. … You could [only] train people who had reading ability, and readers aren’t necessarily leaders.”*
Mark again headed back to the drawing board. Only this time he was joined by a number of Deaf church leaders. Together they concluded that while it would be a massive undertaking, the only real solution was a Scripture translation in their own language.
“So at that point we moved to translating the Bible. A group of Deaf people got together from various places throughout Japan and formed an organization that began translating the Bible into Japanese Sign Language.”
But once again Mark realized he wasn’t the right person to lead.
Finding a Fit
“There were Deaf people who could do a far better job than me. They knew how to take a project and move it forward. They had that leadership skill. … So it was a huge relief to me to have them just take the project and run with it. And that’s what makes it viable in the Deaf community is that Deaf people are leading. …
“I can cheerlead. …. Basically that was the big thing I did, saying, ‘Yeah, we can do this! How hard can Bible translation be?’ [But] seriously, we didn’t know what we were doing. … This was twenty-some years ago. Nobody was doing it! We just started.”
Although Mark had come to a place of accepting a non-leadership role among the Japanese Deaf community, he still wasn’t sure how he could best serve the team. But as they delved deeper into the translation, it became clear that his skills and personality were a perfect fit as a translation consultant.
“I’m a passionate egghead. In seminary I did pretty well. … I love investigating things. I love checking things out. I love trying to figure out how the sign language works and linguistics. … So I care and I like investigating stuff — those are probably my two biggest strengths.”
Over time, as Mark gained experience as a consultant for the Japanese Sign Language team, God began to expand his impact. When the translators for Thai Sign Language needed help on their project, they invited Mark to be one of the consultants. And that’s where Mark ran into yet another area of weakness.
“I don’t know the sign language. That’s far and away the biggest challenge. I mean, there are things in sign language that everybody can understand because it’s space. … But I can’t freely talk about deep things in Thai Sign or other sign languages in the region.”
Mark isn’t necessarily the best signer, either. He keeps his hands close to his chest, making small gestures, and his expressions tend to be subtle. He says the Deaf often accuse him of “signing small,” which is a bit like telling a hearing person they need to speak up.
A Shared Vision
But despite this criticism, it’s clear the Deaf appreciate working with Mark, not just because of his Bible knowledge, but because they know he’s there to serve, not to promote himself.
It’s also clear that Mark loves working with the Thai Sign Language team.
“These guys are young. … They are a strong team. My dream is they are out in other countries helping other countries get started eventually. … There are so many places in Southeast Asia that need a Bible. …
“Translating the Bible is a lot of work, but at the end of the day, it’s not what we’re really about. It’s not Bible translation — it’s Bible transformation in people’s lives. The Bible is just how the life of Christ gets to people. It’s the life of Christ in the community that turns everything upside down and makes everything new. That’s what we’re looking for.”