All posts by Kent

Missionary Construction

I’m not sure if missionary construction is more or less well known than missionary linguistics, but they are likely both a bit of a mashup for most people. I took this picture on my way home last week (stuck in holiday traffic, plenty of time to get the shot…) as one of a series of vehicular graveyards I’ve seen across the decades almost everywhere I go in Africa. Typically, it makes me think of how things fall apart here, and how little people probably expected this outcome to whatever they started out doing.

But today I’m reading one of my favorite missionary biographies, “To the Golden Shore”, by Courtney Anderson, on Adoniram Judson. I identify with him in a number of ways. The call to pioneer. Depression. Fruit and very painful circumstances almost constantly mixed. Bible translation.

It was this last that struck me today. This was the passage, presumably from one of his letters:

I sometimes feel alarmed [he reported] like a person who sees a mighty engine beginning to move, over which he knows he has no control. Our house is frequently crowded with company; but I am obliged to leave them to Moung En, one of the best of assistants, in order to get time for the translation. Is this right? Happy is the missionary who goes to a country where the Bible is translated to his hand. (pp398-9)

Perhaps the most important sentence in this section is “Is this right?” How can a missionary set aside talking to potential converts, to work on a book maybe no one will ever read? This must strike the conscience, and it must be dealt with.

The correct answer, I think, has to do with the relationships between longer term and shorter term strategic priorities. What can I do today that will make tomorrow better in some way? To just push off people is unconscionable, but so is continuing to labor day to day with no effort to get the scriptures to those who are (or even may be) converted.  So Adoniram made the tough (and I think open to criticism) choice of delegating daily evangelism for the sake of the future growth and health of the church.

For me, there are two problems with this. First of all, I’m working another step removed. I’m not working so that a single people group will have the scriptures some day. I’m working on systems, and training and raising up workers, so that all of central Africa will have scriptures that speak with power. So it’s an even longer term investment than daily translation for a single people group.

But the other problem is the message of the vehicular graveyards. Who ever built (or bought, shipped, maintained, etc) a car so it would decorate some corner of the forest as it decomposed? I even saw a rusting carcass of a printing press once. Certainly that was bought and shipped there with the idea that it would help the missionary enterprise, not that it would just take oxygen out of the air.

So what will become of my work? I know nothing lasts in this world, but as I consider longer term strategic priorities, I must consider the possibility that I shoot so far out, that nothing comes of it before it starts decomposing. My time in DRCongo felt a bit like this; I planned for ten years, and prepared and built tools with that horizon in mind, but they weren’t used very much when we left only four years later.

So I try to constantly mix planning horizons. I feel the pull Adoniram described, to work for future missionaries, so I must set aside time for that. Added to this is the repeated realization that I know no one with the vision or capability to do what I’m doing now (not bragging, just reality; this is a niche work).

But Kim and I also sing in the church choir most weeks, and I lead several of the men of the church in Bible study most Saturdays. These are each a different horizon (making worship happen this week and growing up future leaders), but they both address the question of the people right here in front of me.

Then there’s the team that’s actively translating the scriptures, without understanding the tone writing system developed for them some fifty years ago. Has the language’s tone system changed? Probably. Has tone and writing system theory changed in that time? Definitely. Can I help them get back on track? I hope so.

Then there are A→Z+T users, present and future. I’ve been doing a lot of prep work for a tone workshop in the spring, which involves getting people up to speed with A→Z+T and evaluating their trained for the workshop. During this time, I’ve gotten to interact (face to face, by email, and through zoom) with people at different levels of competence and preparation, so I’ve gotten a broader vision for what A→Z+T’s user base will most likely look like.

Sometimes the user question is addressing specific issues, other times it’s fixing things in a more principled way, to avoid future issues. But I’m also working on a workshop presentation and book chapter to help potential users get a vision for what is now possible.

So it feels like running a sprint, a 5k, and a marathon, all at the same time (not that I’ve ever run a marathon, but I imagine…)

But it gives me courage that I’m not the first one to confront these questions, even if some of the details are new. Adoniram didn’t have Python, Autosegmental theory, or object oriented programming (though he did have snakes, elephants and tigers), but he did know the difficult task of prioritizing the needs in front of him today, and what most be done (today) to prepare for tomorrow.

And when I think of Adoniram’s first ten years of missionary service, including a death prison, the loss of his first wife and several children, along with any hope that his translation work would be preserved through the Anglo-Burman war, I’m encouraged to know that God did preserve that translation work, though a series of improbable coincidences. And he ultimately built his church in Myanmar on it, with generations of Christians using that translation to great effect.

So apparently (he comes to realize, again) God does know what he’s doing, even if His planning horizons are even longer and more complex than we can imagine. So please join me in prayer, that the One worshipped by the magi would lend me some of His wisdom in these days, as I sort through what to do when, and prioritize appropriately long term strategies that will produce fruit that will last.

Merry Christmas!

Our choir, Sunday morning after Christmas. This group has been a blessing to us in the ups and downs of the last couple years.

Totally coincidence that our robes match the children’s Christmas program poster (which Kim made…😅) Smiles are courtesy of Anna, whose drama made us laugh. 🙃

Merry Christmas everyone!

Work in Progress

I saw this building this evening, and we commented on the logic of putting walls on the top storey of a building before the lower ones were done. Then as I thought about it, that’s a bit like what I’m doing with A→Z+T.

The work on tone on words in isolation is basically done, but I’m still getting started on the work for consonants and vowels, which a linguist would normally do first. One reason I did it this way was because tone is much harder for people to get on their own, as compared to consonants and vowels.

But another reason has been creeping around the back of my mind for some time, and I’ve just come to understand it more fully. That is, one can look at the tone of full word forms and ignore (to an extent) how words are composed of meaningful word parts. This can’t really be done with consonants and vowels, as the place in the root is often much more important than the place in the word.

So now in order to implement consonant and vowel analysis, I need to implement root parsing, and account for multiple forms per word (e.g., singular and plural for nouns, imperative and infinitive for verbs).

I’m order to do this, I’ve been digging into the foundation, to make the ~9k lines of code (in the main file) more manageable, so that the building process will be more manageable. Practically, this means converting ad hoc functions I’ve built over time into sensible classes, so things will be more terse, flexible, and easier to fix each problem in just one place, and to build (just once each) functions and objects that can be reused in multiple contexts. So a deep dive into object oriented programming, of that means anything to you. Things have come a long way since BASIC…

So, having the fourth storey more or less livable (people plan to use it in a workshop next March/April), I’m now shoring up the foundation (OOP) so I can build the first storey (root analysis), so I can then build the second and third storeys (consonants and vowels).

Just so you know what my work is like these days, when I’m not actively addressing user issues (as come to me most days), or consulting in linguistics issues. Not exactly building an airplane while flying it, but definitely trying to manage short, mid, and long terms goals all at once.

Perfectionism and the Strife to Enter Rest

for whoever has entered God’s rest has also rested from his works as God did from his. Let us therefore strive to enter that rest, so that no one may fall by the same sort of disobedience.
Hebrews 4:10‭-‬11 (ESV)

This passage I have long found difficult to understand, and even moreso to apply. But today I heard a sermon addressing rest, and a couple things fell in place.

The preacher said that God didn’t rest because he was tired, but because he was satisfied. I think this is not the only motive here (the example for our good also being there), but I think it is an important point.

For us, then, if we desire to follow His example, then rest should also include satisfaction. But for some of us perfectionists, satisfaction is hard to achieve.

My doctoral coursework beat some of that out of me. I was constantly faced with the choice of trying to work longer on something, in hopes of being satisfied with it later, while acknowledging the cost that work would have, on my family, sleep, and ability to do other things which I also found important. Ultimately I came to say that I simply needed to be satisfied with what I considered B level work. The irony is that I never actually got a B, however much I felt that was the most that my work deserved. So the standards of those judging my work were not the same as the standards I held for myself. In this case, logic dictates that meeting higher standards is in excess, and a bad use of my time and energy.

But I still want things to be without flaw, even on points which are clearly unimportant to everyone around me. So there remains a discipline to be satisfied, to “strive to enter that rest“.

Which brings us to the irony of the passage: “strive to enter that rest” is not something that easily fits into the head. How does one strive to rest? One answer suggests itself by the reason for doing this: “so that no one may fall by the same sort of disobedience”. That is, not striving to enter rest is disobedience? That doesn’t necessarily help things make sense, except to make clear that the striving and resting is a question of obedience, rather than just putting our work towards our pleasure or ease.

The word obedience leads us to another. While verses 6 and 11 use the word disobedience, chapter 3, verses 18-19 equate disobedience with unbelief:

And to whom did he swear that they would not enter his rest, but to those who were disobedient? So we see that they were unable to enter because of unbelief.
Hebrews 3:18‭-‬19 (ESV)

Thus not striving to enter rest is not just disobedience, but unbelief. This reminds one of this principle:

For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin. (Romans 14:23b ESV)

Biblical though it be, it would be nice if the above also made sense. I think the connection is that when I insist on using my perfectionist judgement, I’m actually trying to protect myself from failure, and I’m trusting in my own work to do so. Rather, the satisfaction that comes from faith (and thus a right relationship with God) acknowledges that I have already failed so seriously that my works are (and will always be) far insufficient to make up for my failure.

So God’s command to me in these moments is to trust Him and His work in the cross, rather than my standards and my work to meet them. It is an act of faith to set aside my vain attempts at perfection, and to trust rather that I am already OK.

But the act of faith is at the same time an act of striving, because of my need to be freed from slavery to my current set of oppressive expectations, a slavery that I work hard to maintain:

Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness?I am speaking in human terms, because of your natural limitations. For just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness leading to more lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness leading to sanctification.
Romans 6:16,19 (ESV)

When we present ourselves to a master other than God, this is sin by definition: idolatry and a lack of faith (however you want to look at it). I think the trick is to understand that we present ourselves to our perfectionist expectations just as much as we present ourselves to drunkenness, adultery, or pornography. We think that adding another law, or higher expectations, must be something else. But when God talks about lawlessness above, he’s not only talking about no law, but about living outside His law.

So, to wrap this all up together, the command is that we say yes to God as an act of faith and no to our inclinations, as an act of striving, without these being two different acts. And this command is sweet, because the act of faith/striving it requires gives me both a right relationship with God and liberation from slavery to my own oppressive expectations.

A→Z+T

I’ve talked through with many of you the project that is framing almost all of my work now, but the other day we realized I hadn’t fully introduced it here. It is a public and openly licensed project, at github.com/kent-rasmussen/azt, where there is a ton of documentation, and all you need to install and run it —in case you’re interested. 😉

In case it isn’t clear, this is a new methodology to accomplish a lot of the same work we’ve been doing for decades, bringing together methods and philosophy that I’ve long been told are incompatible. Anyway, well see about that…

#FluentReadingMakesPowerfulBibles

Out and About in Cameroon

The last post focused on workshop issues; this one will have more other life issues. This was the longest workshop I’ve done in Cameroon, and my first time flying within the country. For instance, we stayed at a Benedictine monastery, so we were able to buy fresh milk, from the above and a small number of other cows on the compound.

Downtown Yaoundé from the air

For those looking for some perspective on the capitol city of Cameroon (where we live), here it is from the air. You can see the taller buildings and larger roads going to a center area in the top third of the above photo.

I also got a photo of our neighborhood, complete with our house, the CABTAL building, the soccer field where we get to exercise (even in isolation), and even on end of the building of our local church!

Our neighborhood

Back to the monastery, apparently this order likes to keep busy, and to make things to sell to the community. This is where they make essential oils (from lots of things, with lots of cryptic names —cinnamon was the only one I recognized):

They also have a place behind the building where we stayed, where they microbrew a beer made from locally available ingredients. But as with many places, innovation, industry, and tradition go hand in hand. They also have a talking drum prominently displayed at the monastery entrance:

Talking drum at the monastery
Hear the two tones of the drum

I didn’t ever hear anyone play it (other than me, in the above video clip), but these drums (found across Africa) are dear to my heart. They probably make no sense to most English speakers, but when you speak a tonal language, these drums are putting out the information that you normally use to make words. So the fact that these drums are used to communicate language, which is then understood at a great distance, is a testimony to the importance of tone in these languages. Imagine you had a drum you could hit that made the ‘p’ sound, and another that could make a ‘b’ or ‘k’ sound, and you could just pound out letters (on a drum carved from a tree, no less!), and so beat out the sounds of a word. Anyway, I think it is cool that something so uniquely African exists, that recognizes the unique value of tone in African languages.

Chufie’ workshop

several of us from the workshop
Hanging out at the end of the workshop

I just got back from a workshop where we tested out AZT in a longer workshop, and things went well. I say “longer”, because it was supposed to be three weeks, but we had to isolate after the first day, because of a COVID-19 exposure (the first in our whole community in months). But we got tested:

Our first (negative) test

And then again:

Our second (negative) test

Anyway, it was good to get back to the workshop:

guys working

When we debriefed the workshop, I had two main questions for the guys. First, was the tool easy enough to use? One guy responded that he didn’t really know how to use computers, but this tool was easy to use. So that was great news. I had suspected this, and worked for it, but it was good to hear we’re hitting that target.

The other question was about engagement and involvement: did the guys feel like they were actively taking a real part in the work? Again, they answered yes. In the picture above, the guys are talking through a decision, before telling the computer “This word is like that other one”, or “this word is different from each word on this list”. Framing this question is important, because this is a question that people can discuss and come up with a real, meaningful answer, without knowing much about linguistics. If we were to ask them to tell us if this phrase had a floating tone in it (yup, those are real), we would be asking them to guess and make up an answer, since they would have no idea what the question meant —probably just like most people reading this post. :-) But floating tones are important, and we need to analyze them correctly; we just want to get at them in a way that enables the fullest participation of the people who speak the language.

I didn’t come up with this on my own; far from it, I’m standing on the shoulders of giants, who pioneered how to engage people meaningfully in the analysis of their own language. What’s new here is that these methods are modeled within a computer program, so the user is clicking buttons instead of moving pieces of paper around on a table. Buttons are not in themselves better than paper, but when we work on the computer, each decision is recorded immediately, and each change is immediately reflected in the next task —unlike pen and paper methods, where you work with a piece of paper with (often multiple) crossed out notes, which then need to be added to a database later.

The other major advantage of this tool is the facilitation of recordings. Typically, organizing recordings can be even more work than typing data from cards into a database, and it can easily be procrastinated, leaving the researcher with a partially processed body of recordings. But this tool takes each sorted word (e.g., ‘corn’ and ‘mango’), in each frame (e.g., ‘I sell __’ and ‘the __is ripe’) it is sorted, and offers the user a button to record that phrase. Once done, the recording is immediately given a name with the word form and meaning, etc (so we can find it easily in the file system), and a link is added to the database, so the correct dictionary entry can show where to find it. Having the computer do this on the spot is a clear advantage over a researcher spending hours over weeks and months processing this data.

Once the above is done (the same day you sorted, remember? not months later), you can also produce an XML>PDF report (standing again on the giant shoulders of XLingPaper) with organized examples ready to copy and paste into a report or paper, with clickable links pointing to the sound files.

Anyway, I don’t know if the above communicates my excitement, but thinking through all these things and saying “This is the right thing to do” came before “Huh, I think I could actually make some of this happen” and this last week, we actually saw this happen —people who speak their language, but don’t know much about linguistics meaningfully engaged in the analysis of their language, in a process that results in a database of those decisions, including organized recordings for linguists to pick apart later —and cool reports!

Screenshot of PDF (which has clickable links, though not visible in this screenshot)

Rough Air

People not Social Distancing in Paris Airport, after being asked multiple times
to sit down (where there were no available chairs!)

I was intrigued on this trip to see the euphemism “rough air” replace the long used “turbulence.” Probably some focus group somewhere preferred it, but anyway, I thought it was not a bad description of some of the chaos we’re going through these days —whether you see it as turbulent, or merely “rough”. So I promised earlier a description of other bits of chaos, so I’ll try to do that here, but with more pics. :-)

An almost completely empty Red Robin,
normally one of our favorite haunts in the US
Sign outside the address I was given for my COVID-19 test appointment

When I took this pic, I had no idea how iconic it would feel in retrospect. At the time I was just mad, having confirmed the testing center address the day before, to see a slapped up sign telling me to go somewhere else. It wasn’t far, but it just smelled of an “I don’t care to get things right” kind of attitude. But this attitude (even if I smelled that correctly) is, I think, a natural consequence of the chaos we’re in. If testing centers are opening and closing every couple weeks, why change your docs to reflect where you’re actually testing? And why pay for a more professionally printed and durable sign? Investing in things that change this quickly just doesn’t make sense.

I joked to a teacher friend that she should just make plans for the fall on a whiteboard, and wipe off and rewrite as necessary. That is something of a fatalistic attitude, but there is also realism as well. Things are changing, a lot. So we change (via re-thinking, or not) how we invest in our infrastructure and planning, to reflect the fact that it isn’t a particularly long term that we’re investing and planning for.

In my “surgical” mask, which I was required to wear,
despite the fact that it broke as I put it on
No hugging in church

I get why we can’t hug in church, but wow, we must also admit that it definitely changes the interpersonal dynamic. To have our main posture toward one another be a fear of contagion, or fear of offense (for not following rules, or risking someone else’s health) is just not normal in a healthy church. We are there for each other, crying on each other, and yes, hugging each other. Anyway, I’m not arguing against this policy, just acknowledging it as a big change, and hoping we can move back to more inter-personally intimate (and healthy!) church context.

In the midst of all the above, some things remain pleasant:

Hanging out on my couch with a Bible and cup of coffee
siblings fighting over Legos newly handed down from their brother
Beautiful newborn baby neighbor
First day of school pictures

So after all, there is lots of chaos, rough or turbulent, but there are also lots of things to enjoy, as well. A missionary colleague once told us her secret to contentment was finding something she enjoyed in each place she went to —like

yummy fresh avocados

Indeterminate Culture Shock

Back in the land of cheap, yummy avocados.…

I’ve written before about triviality, but I’ve been thinking a lot lately about its application to our current times. That is, for missionaries and others working cross-culturally, there is always an element of adjusting to a new environment and culture. This includes how to find your bedroom light switch in the dark (if you’re moving house), but also how to not insult someone on the road, and how to not be insulted by someone else on the road —i.e., knowing when someones behavior should be offensive, and when it is just normal for your new environment.

But the kicker in all the above (and many other things to adjust to) is that knowing the new reality is only the first layer of adjustment. Being able to point to your light switch after thinking for ten seconds is not the same as being able to reach it intuitively —in the dark, and while still mostly asleep, when your brain is not really working yet. This is where the concept of triviality is helpful (to me, anyway!). Normal life has lots of trivial items in it: how to shop, how to make food, how to greet, how to get around town. There is some adjustment when these things change, but the goal is normally to move these things to a place were we just do them, without having to think through them each time/day.

So the twist that hit me this morning, is that whether we’re talking about culture shock, or reverse culture shock (or reverse reverse culture shock…), the transition is normally from one more or less stable environment to another more or less stable environment. The problem is that one house isn’t laid out the same as another house —but they’re both houses, and neither changes much over time. Similarly, moving from one culture/city to another requires adjusting from one status quo to another, but there is a status quo in each place, which doesn’t change much over time. But this is not what we find in 2020.

Rather, this year we have political and medical facts which seem to change on a regular basis. Then the recommendations, orders/laws, and rulings, which change in response to those facts (or not), then the implementation of those recommendations, orders/laws, and rulings on various levels, which must respond to all of the above. So the question “should I wear a mask right now?”, for instance, has been a non-trivial question for months, for many people. Are the CDC and WHO recommending masks right now, or not? What kind of masks, in what situations? What are the relevant recommendations, orders/laws, and rulings of our federal/national government? And of our state? Of our County? Of our City? And perhaps most frustrating of all, how do we respond when the neighboring nation/state/county/city says something different than ours? Or when the state says something that contradicts what the county says? Most of us are simply not accustomed to thinking through all these issues on any kind of regular basis, much less each time it might be appropriate to put on or take off a mask. And masks or not is not the only question (e.g., distancing, quarantine/isolation, and contact reporting), nor are on and off the only answers to that one question (e.g., public/online shaming, rebellion, political advocacy, and non-/violent public protests)

Now, if there were one set of rules imposed (for better or worse), this might just be a matter of adjusting to them, however much time, energy, and libery that takes. But when the info we’re basing a decision on changes every couple days (on some level), we have to re-evaluate, and the decision never has a chance to become trivial –so we continue to spend energy we shouldn’t on menial, daily tasks.

There is, of course one condition where this problem doesn’t apply. Namely, if your allegiance to a particular body medical/political/whatever is significantly strong to trump all others, then you make your decision once, and only change it when that one body changes advice —and hopefully that’s not often. But I have a hard time distinguishing that from bigotry, especially in the current political climate in the US. That is, if your response to the mask question is really just a badge of political affiliation (as I’ve heard from MANY people), then can you still say you’re wearing a mask (or not) because it is the right response to the pandemic?

I read twitter enough to know that for many people, there is only one correct answer to the mask question. But there seems to be a strong correlation between those people and the many who feel there is only one correct answer to the “which party should be in power” question, on both sides. And I, for one, have never felt fully comfortable voting for either party, as neither seems to represent me particularly well. So for me, my conscience dictates that I continue to reevaluate both questions, as new data comes in.

And I know there are many people out there that feel (at least a bit) the same. I’ve heard from many the difficulty of adjusting to constantly changing goal posts. And I think that this idea of having a culture shock (or lack of triviality) that has no real end in sight, is a large part of it. Even in this context, I feel obliged to continue to insist on my right and responsibility, as a human and as a Christian, to think, to use and develop my conscience, and to pray for the Holy Spirit to give guidance, and to follow that guidance even in the face of direction to do otherwise from lesser authorities:

But Peter and John answered [their rulers and elders and scribes, in council], “Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge, for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard.”

Acts 4:19-20 (ESV)

So where do we go from there? I think the bigotry answer, as flawed as it is, has something to it. That is, in the midst of a storm, hold one to one thing that doesn’t move. But I think we want to be careful to not make our one thing a human or human institution, which will all fail us, sooner or later. Rather, Jesus tells us

Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock.

Matthew 7:24-25 (ESV)

So let us continue to read what Jesus had to say, and try to put it into practice, and let the storm flow around us as it will. Not that I think this will be easy, but I think it’s the only answer that doesn’t result in our eventual destruction.