Monthly Archives: February 2019

Why I attend national conferences

One of the purposes of going to Cameroon this march is to attend the second “National Symposium on Cameroonian Languages”, at the University of Dschang, in Dschang, Cameroon. I assume it may not be obvious to you why this is a good thing, so I’ll lay out some of my thoughts on linguistics conferences here.

First of all, recall that I am a missionary linguist. That is, I am a missionary and a linguist, something like a missionary pilot is a missionary and a pilot, or like a missionary doctor is a missionary and a doctor. And I challenge people to see that I am not less of a missionary because I am a linguist, and I am not less a linguist because I am a missionary. One might even argue that these two vocations encourage and better each other —that I am a better linguist because I am a missionary, and that I am a better missionary (at least in some ways) because I am a linguist. I love that I get to analyze languages, serve minority (and therefore disadvantaged) peoples, and glorify God, all in one job. The work I do today helps people to read better, which helps their lives today. But it also gives them more powerful access to the scriptures, which provides “value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come.” (1Tim 4:8b ESV)

So how does my work as a missionary linguist apply at linguistic conferences? I have been tempted in the past to look at conferences as a massive information dump, and I think some people do look at them that way. But one obvious (yet astounding) observation I’ve made about conferences is that they are full of people. And they’re run by people. People presenting, people listening, people asking and answering questions. So whatever else is true of linguistics conferences (local, national, or international), they are an occasion for lots of people with similar interests to get together.

Which doesn’t mean that I man a booth at the side of the food court reading “come to know Jesus through linguistics”. Rather, I get to practice what Jesus teaches me about getting along with people, among perhaps the most secular crowd of people I ever interact with. There are people who are ornry and disagreeable. There are people that don’t know yet how little they know about something. There are people who know more than I ever will about something, and who have no interest in relating to mere mortals as myself —though most people I meet at these conferences could be described as “people”, without stretching the imagination much. :-)

I was at a conference a few years ago, where I had a particular opportunity to show compassion to another person there. It was an international conference, but hosted at a particular university in an African country, so lots of people from that area were able to come. This means that there were people who came from other African countries (like me), people who came from America or Europe, and people who came to the conference without using a passport, all at the same event. At one talk, the speaker used some words in a way that was initially at least confusing, if not just plain wrong (about a fairly basic concept that most people at the conference would be expected to know). I was not alone in this opinion; others asked questions afterward, trying to get the guy to clarify what he meant. They went around a couple times, but eventually they gave up on him, with a response that might be translated “he’s nuts.” Time for questions was up, and we were on to the next speaker, and people cut their losses.

But other missionary linguists and I caught up with him later, and asked him to explain himself more privately. It turned out that he was using a particular theory of a particular linguist that had been published, but that almost no one had heard of. And apparently he was using those words correctly within that theory, but that wasn’t enough to help us understand him without this much longer conversation. In the end, we were able to explain to him that the theory he was using wasn’t known or used many others, so he should either use more standard terminology, or else explain very clearly that he was using these words differently.

But the more important message, to me, was that we cared enough about him as a person (and as a linguist) to follow up with him, and help him get his thinking straight. It cost more time and energy than writing him off when his presentation didn’t make sense (even after questions), but it was worth better understanding him, and helping him be better understood. This idea is part of a core goal of my work: mentorship. That is, I want to have alphabets and writing systems done, so people can read (see above!), but if I can do that, and at the same time train up others to do this work, then I multiply myself, and the work gets on better and faster.

So while an introvert like me is certainly tempted to take every 15 minute brake I get for myself, those breaks are often taken up by processing things with people I know, and getting to know others that I don’t. And often all that rubbing shoulders yields unexpected results.

At the last conference I went to (in the US), there was a team of linguists from Ghana (IIRC), who were trying to analyze a tonal language (what I do), but without any particular training or orientation. I was able to point out Tone Analysis for Field Linguists, by Keith L Snider (full disclosure: he was on my committee),  probably the most helpful and practical approach to doing tone analysis. And I was able to sit and do some actual acoustic analysis with them. That is, they got out their computers, and showed how they were looking at the speech stream in their recordings (as I described for consonants here). Because all those lines and differently shaded areas require interpretation, and because good interpretation requires experience, I was able to give them some pointers to help them see their data in a more helpful way. It took maybe an hour altogether, but it was time well spent to help someone get along better in this work, and to show friendship and solidarity as well, and that in Jesus’ name.

Anyway, because of the prejudice against Christian missionaries common in most linguistic circles I’ve been in, any time I can show people compassion, care, and honest friendship is a win, even if just a PR win (people know who I work for; it’s on my name tag). But it isn’t just people thinking better of Christian missionaries, or of the church generally. I also get to mix friendliness and compassion with excellent academics (well, I try anyway :-)). So every chance I have to help someone think more clearly, or present his ideas more clearly, or understand someone else’s ideas more clearly, is a chance for people at the conference to see that Christians worship the Truth (John 14:6).  Not that everyone receives this, of course: “But let none of you suffer as a murderer or a thief or an evildoer or as a meddler. Yet if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in that name.” (1Peter 4:15-16 ESV)

So regarding this upcoming conference, there are two kids of relationship to build. One is with my expatriate colleagues, other missionary linguists like myself. I know some of them a bit, but most not at all. So it will be good to interact with them through the conference, to enable better collaboration down the road. The other kind of relationship to build is with national linguists, whether they are involved in Bible translation movement or not. I anticipate my work in Cameroon including relationship with government and university entities; this work can only be helped by knowing and being known by Cameroonian linguists. And for those that are still in training, there is a great opportunity to come alongside them, and encourage them in ways that will facilitate more mentorship down the road.

Anyway, I look forward to this opportunity to glorify God by seeking truth and loving people in a way that I am particularly enabled to do, and in a way that will amplify our effectiveness in facilitating local Bible Translation movements throughout the central African basin.

Visas, Episode III

We haven’t really had many visa troubles before about five years ago. Maybe I was asking for trouble when using the need to buy a visa while preaching on Ephesians 2. There are these verses which speak to the importance of citizenship:

12remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world….19So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God,

And the need to buy a visa (official permission to enter or remain in a country) is strictly attached to non-citizens. Which is us, wherever in Africa we go. So while we have the promise of citizenship in the kingdom of God, we remain foreigners in most places we work, and we have to buy permission to do so.

And in the last five years, this process has proved difficult on a number of occasions. In 2014, the Embassy of the DRCongo signed my visa on April 22, but due to a bad return envelope barcode, my passport bounced around between Washington, DC and Texas, until finally arriving at our house almost three weeks later on May 11 (I flew out the afternoon of May 14). I spent most of the week before on the phone with postal service workers trying to figure out what went wrong, then how to fix it. I was so excited when it arrived, I took a picture:

2014 Priority Mail envelope that took almost three weeks
Voided visa dated May 19
Valid visa dated July 18

Then in 2016, for some reason internal to the DRCongo Embassy, they held onto our passports (Joel’s and mine) for two full months. I got my passport back with one voided visa, dated May 19, and the good one dated July 18. This time, since our (nonrefundable) itinerary had us leaving the country on June 27, we had a lot of gymnastics to make the trip work, as described here.



Now this year, for our trip to Cameroon in March, we had another kind of issue. We mailed our passports and completed applications on Saturday, February 9, and tracking tells us they arrived at the Embassy on Tuesday the 12th, after only a brief hiccough. The Embassy says they have a seven day turnaround, but however they normally count days, it wasn’t back in the mail to us until Wednesday the 20th, arriving here two days later (today, Friday Feb 22).

None of which would be a problem, except that when they arrived, our Cameroonian visas had not been granted. Apparently they didn’t like our photos, and sent us a nice cover letter with boxes checked and the exact wording from their website, without any indication of why what we submitted didn’t work for them. So I called and wrote an Email to ask for clarification, and asked our prayer warriors to get on this, asking God for communication, clarity, and a speedy turnaround for our resubmission.

I eventually got that the pictures we sent weren’t white enough in their backgrounds. They were taken with clearly white stuff (a fridge and a wall) behind them, but apparently the lighting didn’t leave the photo backgrounds white enough. So I removed the staples attaching those photos to the applications, took new photos, and edited and sent them off to Walgreen’s for printing. I eventually picked them up, cut them into 2″x2″ photos, stapled them into the applications, and got the applications back in the mail. With all other post office locations closed, I used a contract location in the corner of a convenience store (never heard of this before), but it worked, and it got done this evening:

But that mailing was not before doing the math; even with one-day turnaround on our
part, it will still be something of a long shot to get them back before our flight on March 6. This is because our passports and visa applications are set to arrive in Washington, DC Monday Feb 25, two days from now (Not including Sunday). If the Embassy keeps to its seven day timeline, then they might not mail them back until Monday March 4 (but remember, last time they had our applications eight calendar days, which would be Tuesday, March 5). And if the USPS keeps to a second day delivery (like last time), it would arrive March 6 (or March 7, if mailed on March 5). Given that the mail normally arrives after we will need to be at the airport for our flight on that day, even a March 6 delivery will be too late to keep our current itinerary.

So I see two outcomes which are both plausible and positive. If the Embassy keeps a straight 7 day turnaround by the embassy (returning it May 4th), and if the USPS provides a true next day priority mail delivery, then our passports would arrive less than 24 hrs before we fly.

Alternatively, if the Embassy has our applications on some kind of priority (e.g., because they’ve seen them already?), they might return them in less than a full week’s time. I honestly don’t know how likely this is (I was somewhat surprised that it took them a full week to tell us that they didn’t like our photos…), but they know our travel dates (that’s part of the application), so they might be motivated to make this work for us. If they mail it by March 1 (a week from today), then we should have it by Monday even with a full two day USPS shipping, in plenty of time to not cancel our trip.

Anyway, we have our prayer warriors already praying for a speedy and correct return, and I trust that God is not limited by outcomes I consider plausible. So please join us in praying that God would be glorified in this situation, either by the means I’ve described above, or by something else more wonderful. As we look at our plans moving forward, we have become more and more persuaded that this trip would be an essential part of helping us all move in June in a sane manner, so we would really, really not like to have to cancel it (especially not on account of the mail).

If you would like to be praying for specific and timely requests like this, but didn’t get the updates I mentioned above, please click on the “update subscription preferences” link on the bottom of one of your mailchimp Emails from us. That should take to a web form; be sure the box is checked next to “Email prayer and praise (text)”.


Slow to Speak

One of the most useful pair of verses I know, for both parenting and discipleship in general, is James 1:19-20:

19Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; 20for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God. (this and ff: ESV)

One the other hand, the pair of verses I find personally the most terrifying are
Matthew 12:36-37:

36I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, 37for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.

I know that Jesus doesn’t necessarily mean the same thing as Paul does when he says “we have been justified by faith” (Rom 5:1). Still, there is enough in this statement of our Lord’s to terrify someone who has had as many “careless words” as I have.

Then I run across verses like Proverbs 26:4-5, as I’m trying to discuss with my sons how to address fools:

4Answer not a fool according to his folly,
lest you be like him yourself.
5Answer a fool according to his folly,
lest he be wise in his own eyes.

So are we to “Answer a fool according to his folly”, or not? Apparently, the juxtaposition of these two verses next to each other is intended to tell us: “It depends; sometimes yes, sometimes no”.

Then this morning, my daily Bible reading program led me to two different passages which speak about when to speak, and when not to. The first was in Proverbs 10:10-11:

10Whoever winks the eye causes trouble,
and a babbling fool will come to ruin.
11The mouth of the righteous is a fountain of life,
but the mouth of the wicked conceals violence.

Apparently the first verse addresses two ends of the spectrum. There is a note in my study Bible that there does not seem to be a correspondence in v10, either as a parallel or as a contrast, as might otherwise be expected in Hebrew poetry (and sometimes in Paul, e.g., as here). But I’m not sure what the basis for that not was; the burden of proof should lie on the one who says Hebrew poetry is not parallel in any way, as often as it is (in some way). Anyway, as I see it, the first line in v10 talks about hinting with non-verbals, presumably because what needs to be communicated must also be hidden, presumably because it is shameful. That is, there is a kind of not saying much that indicates that you are causing trouble, and you know it, so you hide your communication in non-verbal signals.

On the other hand, the second line of v10 addresses the one who says too much, ultimately causing his ruin. I assume this is because there is little sense or value in what he says, resulting in in more wasted time than productivity from his speech. Taken together, I see these verses saying “don’t hide your speech; be transparent, but don’t babble on and on about it.” Two different kinds of ruin, caused by two different extremes of speech quantity.

I think this interpretation is confirmed by v11, which addresses the content of speech. It isn’t just about how much you say; what you say either gives life, or hides violence. Again, when we speak violence, we know that it is shameful (or at least some of us do), so we hide it.

The other passage I ran across this morning was Psalms 39:

1I said, “I will guard my ways,
that I may not sin with my tongue;
I will guard my mouth with a muzzle,
so long as the wicked are in my presence.”

This is often where I start, at least more recently (I didn’t do this much in college…). I recognize that my mouth is a source of great folly, and that often the wisest thing to do is to shut it. Perhaps especially in the presence of the wicked (including social media trolls).

2I was mute and silent;
I held my peace to no avail,
and my distress grew worse.

But then sometimes that doesn’t work, or at least. Holding in what I think, especially when that goes along with watching the truth defamed, is hard to bear (for me, anyway :-)).

3My heart became hot within me.
As I mused, the fire burned;
then I spoke with my tongue:

With David, I also get to a boiling point, and eventually speak. But I find David’s words interesting. He cries out to God (I yell at other people), asking Him to remind him how short and ephemeral his life is (I yell how wrong they are):

4“O Lord, make me know my end
and what is the measure of my days;
let me know how fleeting I am!
5Behold, you have made my days a few handbreadths,
and my lifetime is as nothing before you.
Surely all mankind stands as a mere breath! Selah
6Surely a man goes about as a shadow!
Surely for nothing they are in turmoil;
man heaps up wealth and does not know who will gather!

David also well oriented to the source of any goodness in his life. If holding back my tongue is an attempt at patience, what am I waiting for?

7“And now, O Lord, for what do I wait?
My hope is in you.

David recognizes that his sins are an issue in his current dilemma; if they remain, he will get to watch fools laugh at him (among other things):

8Deliver me from all my transgressions.
Do not make me the scorn of the fool!

And he ultimately recognizes that he can’t complain, as his current situation, as bad as it feels, is from God:

9I am mute; I do not open my mouth,
for it is you who have done it.

Eventually, he appeals for Mercy, knowing that he will certainly not stand against God’s wrath:

10Remove your stroke from me;
I am spent by the hostility of your hand.
11When you discipline a man
with rebukes for sin,
you consume like a moth what is dear to him;
surely all mankind is a mere breath! Selah

Eventually, David turns to crying, and asking God to hear him before he dies:

12“Hear my prayer, O Lord,
and give ear to my cry;
hold not your peace at my tears!
For I am a sojourner with you,
a guest, like all my fathers.
13Look away from me, that I may smile again,
before I depart and am no more!”

So even when the taunts and falsehoods of the wicked surround us, we should trust in God, our only true hope, and ask for his mercy. We know that it is from him, that he knows our tears, and that He will not leave us forever in the pit of sin (ours and others’) that currently surrounds us.

Cheese and Chocolate

Kim normally works hard to make Valentine’s Day special around here, but yesterday when she was talking to the kids about what she was planning to make, they insisted on taking over last night’s dessert. They wanted chocolate mousse, but in a (heart shaped) chocolate crust, so they made it themselves. It actually worked out (somewhat to my surprise!), and they called it Murder by Death by Chocolate:

“Murder by Death by Chocolate”, by Joel and Anna

Security Update

The following is a security update on Cameroon, from our colleagues there:

The situation in the Northwest and Southwest regions of Cameroon remains tense and unpredictable. We continue to pray for our staff serving in these areas, those with family members there, and for staff that have had to relocate to other areas of the country.

Please pray for:

  • Those in positions of power in the government and military, especially President Paul Biya. Pray that they would govern with wisdom and righteousness.
  • Those living in the affected areas whose lives continue to be disrupted by the political situation. Pray that they will know the Lord as their “refuge and strength, and an ever-present help in time of trouble.”
  • Those who have had to leave their homes, that they will know the Lord’s concern for them and that he will provide for their physical needs.
  • Those who are grieving the loss of family and friends- that they will not be given over to anger or a desire for vengeance.
  • Christians in the country- pray that they will be a faithful witness, a comforting presence, and a shining light. Pray that the Lord will give them the right words to speak at the right time, and that they will be equipped by the Holy Spirit to minister to others around them.

We continue to pray for peace and justice to reign in Cameroon.

“Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, and faithful in prayer.” (Romans 12:12)