Monthly Archives: December 2016

Christmas Depression

As we approached the Christmas season, I’ve asked various groups to pray for the depressed on a number of occasions. I’ve been aware of the general increase in depression around Christmas for some time. But I hadn’t thought seriously recently about my own struggles in feeling left behind in the joy others seem to feel, especially at this time of year. Which is a serious shame for a Christian, as we are guardians of the greatest hope of Joy this life has to offer.

This week I had a short but substantive list of things to get done before being able to take time off for Christmas, and enjoy the holiday with my family. This morning, Christmas eve, only one item on that list is done, and that not entirely. My kids are enjoying playing a game in the other room, and I’m still working on a project that really should have been done yesterday.  And I’ve abandoned another project that should have been done earlier.

So where do we go from here?  I’m told that maintaining routines is good for putting the breaks on the downward spiral of depression. One of my routines is to read through a Bible reading plan which has portions of psalms, proverbs, other old testament, and new testament each day to cover the Bible in a year. Yesterday’s reading (which I was catching up on today; did I say I was behind on things?) has Psalm 142, which seemed apropos for my mood today (the following is ESV):

1 With my voice I cry out to the Lord;
    with my voice I plead for mercy to the Lord.
I pour out my complaint before him;
    I tell my trouble before him.

Another thing I’ve learned about depression, which I believe is absolutely critical for Christians, is that we must express our worst feelings. We often try to bottle them up and deny them, but they only fester and rot inside, until we ultimately burst. At which point things are uglier than if we had just been honest upfront. What’s worse, I think the desire to keep things bottled up comes from a desire to look like we have it all together. Which comes from a mistaken belief that it is even possible to have it together (c.f., Romans 1-3), which amounts to a basic denial of the Gospel. How can we fully rely on the Good News of God’s provision of Jesus for our sin, while at the same time believing (and or pretending) that we have it all together?

When we are tempted to fake holiness until we make it, while feeling like a tomb full of rotting bones, the gospel shows us another way. And this psalm gives us a way that may even work with our cultural sensibilities. If you can’t show up to church without makeup, fine. Don’t tell anyone else your problems, if you can’t bear it, but you must cry out to the Lord. He already knows your troubles anyway, so you’re really just being honest with yourself — which is a good start to emotional health. Ultimately you’ll want to be honest with others, too, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

Once we’re committed to crying out to the Lord, what can we say?

When my spirit faints within me,
    you know my way!
In the path where I walk
    they have hidden a trap for me.

Once we’re committed to seeing and admitting to what’s going on inside of us, and crying it out to God, it’s amazing what comes out. To have a fainting spirit that you can’t acknowledge is a great burden. As is feeling like there are traps everywhere you walk. If you feel on the verge of death (physically, emotionally, spiritually, or in any other way), this is a good thing to bring to the surface. One particular pain many feel is loneliness:

Look to the right and see:
    there is none who takes notice of me;
no refuge remains to me;
    no one cares for my soul.

There is nothing quite like feeling there are two groups of people out there: those that are against you, and those that don’t see you. I mentioned already the downward spiral of depression; I think it is helpful to at least acknowledge at this point that if we are unwilling to share our pain, we should only expect that no one would know it, or us. Beginning to acknowledge and share our pain, loneliness, and depression is the beginning of the path out of loneliness. But in the mean time, even if not one really cares (which rationally thinking, is probably never true of anyone), you can still tell God you feel that way. Even if you can’t communicate your feelings with another human being, you can talk to God. In doing so, we do eventually find that there is Someone who cares for our soul, however much it doesn’t feel like that now. Ultimately we will be able to say with the psalmist:

I cry to you, O Lord;
    I say, “You are my refuge,
    my portion in the land of the living.”

I don’t think the psalmist necessarily believes this as he speaks; I find that I often have to speak truth before I feel it is even possibly true. Sure, He doesn’t feel like a refuge, though we know that He is. I have to decide to proclaim what I know to be true in some part of me, even if that part is so small and feeble at the time. We stand with the father’s prayer: “I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24 ESV) Even if our speech denies that we believe what we’re saying, crying out for help is a necessary part of getting where we want to be. We need a refuge, but feel that there is none. We see the Bible claiming God as our refuge (Psalms 18, 46, 71, 92; Proverbs 14:26, 18:10; Isaiah 25:4; Jeremiah 16:19, inter alia), but we don’t feel it. Cry it out anyway. This is our need, and this is God’s promise. We must cry out and ask for the safety we feel we need.

But sometimes we need more than just a safe place:

Attend to my cry,
    for I am brought very low!
Deliver me from my persecutors,
    for they are too strong for me!

Sometimes we feel like we are being actively persecuted. Like it isn’t enough for people to just ignore us; we feel attacked. There is no safe place, because we are pursued by people who hate us, who are stronger than us. The rational part of me knows this is never true; not only has God provided us refuge, He is also stronger than any adversary (c.f., Rom 8:31-39). But while it doesn’t feel that way, we must cry out and say so, while we wait for the Truth to sink in.

Bring me out of prison,
    that I may give thanks to your name!

Sometimes we feel like the work of our adversaries has not only been against us, but has imprisoned us. We are not just attacked, but locked up, and someone else has the key. We need someone to let us out, even if the prison is more a function of our own issues than the actions of others. When Jesus quoted Isaiah 61:1-2a in Luke 4:18-19, he explicitly referenced liberty and the Gospel (ESV):

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives
and recovering of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed,

to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

This was Jesus’ mission, set down long before He was born. But in the mean time, we feel poor, imprisoned, blind, and oppressed. To me, the best news in this situation is that if we begin to acknowledge just how horrible we feel, then we are ripe to hear Jesus’ proclamation of Good News. He came to deal with these things. He came to meet our need. If we cry out to him, and tell him how horribly oppressed we feel, then we join the ranks of those He spent most of His time with during His earthly ministry, and we stand apart from those He criticized, who had religious systems in place to feel like they had it all together.

After all this crying out, the psalmist has a glimmer of hope:

The righteous will surround me,
    for you will deal bountifully with me.

Again I’m not sure how much he believed this, but it is a good thing to say, and to trust that we will ultimately feel. Do we feel lonely? Yes, but the righteous will surround me. Why, because I’m a cool person with lots of money and a winning personality? No. Because the Lord will deal bountifully with me. He is our hope and our shield. He is the liberator of the oppressed. He is the one we need. Crying out to Him, then, is really the only hope any one of us ever had.


Lifecycle of a Democracy

As the democratic process in Congo seems to be winding down, it’s weird to think that we saw its beginnings.

When we first arrived in Africa, we spend three months in the village house-sitting for a colleague, and learning language and culture. It was during those three months that the election enrollment came through that area. This was the process that established the electorate which voted on the constitutional referendum, giving D. R. Congo its first democratic constitution in 2005.

It was interesting to witness this, since like many Americans voting was old news to me. I understood the apathy in America that leads many people to simply not vote. But this was not so in Congo. As various people we knew enrolled, they proudly showed off their iodine-dipped pinkies and their voter ID cards, like this one:

Dilo with his voter ID card

These cards are the first and only ID owned by many of the Congolese we know, so it was a serious moment of pride. And these cards are still used as basic identification.

In December 2006, I made a two week trip into DRC (We were still living in Nairobi at the time, due to general insecurity in the DRC) to collect extensive wordlists in four languages. One of those turned out to be two separate languages, so we had data from five languages in the end. These are the same languages we eventually did alphabet charts with, and whose tone systems I’m now analyzing for my dissertation. On this, my first trip to Nya-nya, I stayed with the pastor of one of our local church partners, who had decorated his house with ballot receipts (from the election voting in Joseph Kabila as president for the first time):

Ballot receipts as decoration

On the way out of the country, I stopped back in Bunia, and got to see the inauguration on this TV, in this living room:

Watching TV at the rector's house

The elections in 2011 seemed to come and go with little fanfare; I recall reports of small protests, and some claims of voter fraud, including a report by the Carter Center, which didn’t (seem to, IMHO) go so far as to say that the election was illegitimate, while identifying a number of issues that caused concern.

Since then, we returned to the US and started a doctoral program. I returned to Nya-nya in 2014, then again this year, to collect data specifically for my dissertation, and to help the people on their path toward literacy. In 2014, we took the data that we collected together in 2006, did basic phonological analyses and created alphabet charts. This year we looked at how verb conjugation affects tone melodies, since tone is important in these languages, so they will likely need some solution for writing it. They seem to be on good footing toward managing their own literacy and Bible translation programs, which we want to continue to support and encourage however we can.

And now, as I’m hoping to make one more trip next year, and wrap up this doctorate in the next couple years, we see news that that process started with a new constitution back in 2005 seems to be failing.  The Elections commission has not updated the electoral rolls, due (at least) to funding and disorganization. They didn’t want to hold elections on time, but with five year old election rolls (in which time lots of people die and/or become 18+). The president and the main opposition have not been talking for some time, and the President seems committed to remain in power until elections are held (end of 2018, two years late). This has been described as a coup d’état, but minimally the constitution is not being followed.

But in the mean time, work on minority Congolese languages continues. Just last week, I made a great advance in my analysis of a rather complex aspect of the Ndaka verb tone system. I hope that this will help understand Ndaka’s neighbors, so that steps toward a Bible that is used will be multiplied in a number of local communities. And our colleagues working locally continue to work with these groups to help them take more ownership of the Bible translation movement for their language.

So I take comfort in the fact that despite the political chaos, God is at work. As He said to Daniel:

Many shall purify themselves and make themselves white and be refined, but the wicked shall act wickedly. And none of the wicked shall understand, but those who are wise shall understand. (Daniel 12:10 ESV)

And sometimes he works in, through, and/or despite larger turmoil:

You said, ‘Woe is me! For the LORD has added sorrow to my pain. I am weary with my groaning, and I find no rest.’ Thus shall you say to him, Thus says the LORD: Behold, what I have built I am breaking down, and what I have planted I am plucking up—that is, the whole land. And do you seek great things for yourself? Seek them not, for behold, I am bringing disaster upon all flesh, declares the LORD. But I will give you your life as a prize of war in all places to which you may go. (Jeremiah 45:3-5 ESV)

So I will continue to pray that whatever chaos the Congolese people have to go through in the next months and years, that God would have His way, and that He would be glorified. That Christ’s Church would be built up in numbers and maturity, and that it would stand out as a beacon of hope and sanctuary in Congolese society. Because despite whatever political failures there may be, our ministry vision remains valid:

After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” (Revelation 7:9-10 ESV)

Please join us in prayer, that this vision would be accomplished, even in the DRC.

Sick … Again

What a rush the last several weeks have been! I was sicker than I’ve been in a long time, and it took me another week or so to get back to 100%. I’m not sure everyone in the family was completely well when we had a record drop in temperature this weekend (we had 70+ to freezing in about four hours). I didn’t feel it at the time, but right now most of us are sniffly or congested, as we’re trying to prepare for the celebration of the birth of our Lord and Savior. So sad to not feel like singing!

Anyway, any spare time for prayer would be appreciated for our health, or for the DRC elections, or for those that are depressed, or that people would feel the Joy of the Lord, and be saved.

The Importance of Tone

I presented a poster earlier this term at the Metroplex Linguistics Conference, a conference for linguists throughout the Dallas/Fort Worth area. This year it was sponsored by the Graduate Institute of Applied Linguistics (G.I.A.L.), where a lot of our colleagues either teach or get training before heading to the field. My poster was on the functional load of tone:


While much of that detail may not make much sense to you, the main point is that tone is important for conveying meaning in tonal languages, but not necessarily to the same extent, or in the same ways, from one language to another. So this poster took four of the (tonal) languages that I’m working on, and compared them to each other, alongside Swahili, a non-tonal language used to communicate between people groups where these languages are spoken.

One thing that I found out that was interesting was that the importance of tone in a given language can’t be determined by the number of consonants or vowels in the languages. Each of these languages have about the same consonants (27-33) and vowels (7-9),  but they use tone in very different ways.  This can be seen in the conjugation of verbs, where subjects, for example, are indicated by consonants, vowels, and tone in each of these languages (this is like the ‘s’ in ‘He walks‘, which is not there in ‘I walk’) . But in some of these languages, the consonants and vowels are enough to tell who is doing the action, so at least that part of the writing system could work without writing the tone. In one of those languages (Bɨra), there are letters for each kind of subject. For the other (Bʉdʉ), one of the subjects has no consonant or vowels (like the agreement on ‘I walk_’), but it is still clear who is doing the action, since there is only one such subject. But in the other two languages, there are two subject pronouns that have no consonants or vowels, so you can only tell them apart with tones. And in one of those languages (Ndaka), there is another pair of pronouns, which are both ‘n-‘ , so they are also distinguished only by tone.

So each language puts progressively more importance on tone; it becomes harder and harder to convey all the language’s meaning without indicating tone. In addition to the above, Ndaka also has verb root minimal pairs. For instance, the difference between ‘cook’ and ‘become tired’ is only in the tone; they have the same consonants and vowels. That leads to the following set of eight words, at least six of which are distinguished by tone:

  1. ɔjana. [˨˨˨˨ ˨˧˦ ˧˨˩] You were tired.
  2. ɔjana. [˦˦˦˦ ˦˦˦˦ ˨˨˨˨] He/she/it was tired.
  3. ɔjana. [˨˨˨˨ ˦˦˦˦ ˦˦˦˦] You will be tired.
  4. ɔjana. [˦˦˦˦ ˦˦˦˦ ˦˦˦˦] He/she/it will be tired.
  5. ɔjana. [˨˨˨˨ ˨˧˦ ˧˨˩] You prepared food.
  6. ɔjana. [˦˦˦˦ ˦˦˦˦ ˨˨˨˨] He/she/it prepared food.
  7. ɔjana. [˨˨˨˨ ˨˨˨˨ ˦˦˦˦] You will prepare food.
  8. ɔjana. [˥˥˥˥ ˨˨˨˨ ˦˦˦˦] He/she/it will prepare food.

If you want to pronounce these, in the International Phonetic Alphabet j is pronounced like ‘y’ in ‘you’, so these might be pronounced something like “oh-yawn-ah”, though with different pitches, [˥˥˥˥] being higher and [˨˨˨˨] being lower.

One of the things I’m doing now is developing this material into a presentation for the Annual Conference of African Linguistics (ACAL) next spring. And that will further develop my analysis of the tone in these languages, which will form the majority of my dissertation.