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

My June 6 Ebenezer

I will always remember where I was that warm Wednesday afternoon, standing in our tiny second-floor apartment in the living room of the married student housing for the University of Oregon. I had just walked in from teaching my sweet Grade 3 & 4 class at Lifegate Christian School. I was rocking the baggy denim teacher dress of the 90’s. Kent told me right away to check the answering machine (remember those?)

Returning from Kenya in 2000. We were babies!

See, we had been applying for membership in Wycliffe Bible Translators. We had met in Wycliffe training school, served overseas together for a year teaching Wycliffe kids/doing linguistics and felt very clearly called to pursue work somewhere in the world getting Bibles in the hands of those without. Kent had applied years before on his own in the middle of a dark season and been rejected. We were told we should finish his MA in Linguistics and reapply. He was entering his final year, so in January we had a friend ask a friend at Wycliffe Headquarters if we should reapply now. The news we received was crushing. They did not want us to reapply at all.

We got that call one dark, cold January night and immediately got on our faces. How had we followed Jesus down this path for so many years and now it was blocked? All doors closed. Not just closed, but bolted shut. Had we heard wrong? Did He really want us to do something different? We surrendered it to his hands, fell asleep and waited. A few days later, a call was scheduled with the Director of Recruitment. He had some questions. Because of my work schedule and the time difference, we were meeting over the phone at 6:00am. I am not sure exactly what happened in that 45-minute phone call, but it began with a list of all the reasons they never wanted to hear from us again, and ended with him begging us to reapply and that he would like to handle our application personally! (He even drove several hours out of his way the next month to meet with us personally on a business trip – and bought us fried chicken! Grad students cannot be picky.)

We were elated to see God miraculously open this door that seemed firmly closed. We began all the paperwork. There were forms to fill out, essays to write, Bible knowledge tests, interviews and finally medical exams. We were working around our full-time student and teacher roles, so it took a few months to get it all done. The Director had told us that they met to review applications once per month and the last meeting before summer holiday would be June 6. All of our papers were in except for my medical form from my doctor, which had been mailed from Oregon to Florida several weeks earlier.

We began to wonder if it were lost in the mail, or lost in their office, or just where it went! This too, felt like another obstacle that we did not understand, and that we were powerless to move. The Director was praying that it would arrive. We were praying that it would arrive. And day after day it was not there. The Director called us the day before the vote to let us know that it had not arrived, so our application was incomplete and we would need to wait another several weeks for the next meeting to vote. It was such a disappointment after we can come so far in so many months. We tried to trust in God’s timing.

As I hit “Play” on the message machine that June afternoon, the Director had called again. He described how he took the elevator down to the mail room on his way to the 9:00am meeting just in case my medical form had arrived extra early – and there it was! Who gets mail before 9:00am on a Wednesday morning? Right on the top of all the mail for the day was the very missing letter we had been praying for for weeks! And it arrived the hour before the meeting to vote. He was able to add it to our application, deemed it complete and present it to the board. They all unanimously voted us in as members of Wycliffe Bible Translators! What a message!

Revelation 3:7-8 say, “What he opens, no one can close; and what he closes, no one can open. I know all the things you do, and I have opened a door for you that no one can close.”

We had seen God open doors that were firmly bolted and locked, and these closed doors had taught us to keep our eyes on Him, not on our circumstances. There would be several times over the next few years that I looked back on this process in 2001, and because of how it all happened, I KNEW without a shadow of a doubt that we were on the path that Jesus chose for us to walk. It was a confirmation that kept us going through 9/11 (and flying to Wycliffe’s Training Camp right afterward), assignment to Eastern Congo when their president had just been assassinated, raising support, and so much more that followed that year.

June 6 is more to me than an ‘Ebenezer’ (rock of remembrance) about membership in Wycliffe Bible Translators – 20 years, it is an Ebenezer to God’s ways being higher than mine.

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)

A New Thing

Something very new and exciting is happening at our house! We have a new arrival.

It’s a bird!

It’s a plane!

No, it’s an app!

While Kent and I were cloistered with our kids during months of lockdown last spring, we saw trips and plans blow away like sand. He typically travels to villages where they want to work on their writing system, but we would never want to be part of bringing a remote group Coronavirus. There was no end in sight to the lockdowns, and no guarantees that the pre-COVID world we freely traveled would ever return. We could see that Kent’s alphabet work needed to shift to a certain extent in order to continue. We urgently want to see languages written/recorded before they die out and disappear. We urgently want to see communities have access to important written materials, Scriptures, health manuals, etc.

One afternoon as we were pondering all this, we dreamed up a new thing. What if there was a cell phone app that would allow the rural, local communities to work on their languages without a lot of help and training, and we could consult at least in part, at a distance? We could get a computer program to do much of the work that we would usually do in a workshop setting in a village. We would need something low-bandwidth for Central Africa (where most of the remaining unwritten languages are in this region). We would need something that was easy to use for folks who don’t have computer experience. It would need to handle databases that can archive online. There were several criteria.

We spent a few weeks corresponding with various IT colleagues in our offices around the world, hoping to find that others had already developed something close. There was one program which did part of what we needed, but we soon learned that it would not be supported in the future. There was another more complex program which required extensive training, but sadly it required constant internet access, which does not work in Central Africa. So finally, Kent decided he would just need to learn programming languages and write the program himself.

We named it A to Z and T, as it helps identify the vowels (like A), the consonants (like Z) and the tone system (T) in languages. AZT is a Dictionary Checker, and Orthography Checker and can record and play back audio of each word in the context of phrases (in various tone frames). It has the potential to be able to build alphabet charts or alphabet books. This all used to be done on paper cards sorted into piles. Now the computer does the sorting, but we kept the cards in the logo.

It was amazing to see Kent’s decades of linguistics, phonology and tone research merge with his love of computers, and to see that God wastes nothing. It is ALL useful! Beginning in July, he began to construct the bare bones of the program. Along the way, I consulted on the interface and making it easy to use and easy on the eyes. We have often wished for a way to work together better, but never imagined it would be like this. We spent September and October adding various functions. It is not yet ready for cell phones, but it is working on computers.

And this week Kent is running it with language data for the first time. It could be the birth of a new era in language development. There is a lot of potential yet to come. We are praying that God would use AZT far and wide to accelerate writing systems for unwritten languages throughout Central Africa.