Tag Archives: Bible Translation

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.

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.

On Message

As I talk with people about our Wycliffe ministry, I feel like I’m repeating myself a lot, which makes me feel something like a politician. So to make my speech more clearly above board (for my conscience, but also for anyone else who might ask), I thought it good to lay out my “message” here. As I consider this, I see that I have three basic things to say these days, to three different audiences:

To the World

Sin, death, and hell are real, as are righteousness, repentance, forgiveness, and heaven. Trust Jesus to get you from the first to the second. I’m astounded how much these things need to be said, but in this age of increasingly divisive politics, I think it helps to remind ourselves of what is truly important for all humanity, and to focus on that.

To the Church

God’s plan for us is that we would work through local churches to build and grow the universal Church, which is composed of everyone united by the blood of Jesus: all ethnic groups, languages, tribes. Spiritual maturity includes (at least) the desire to work together with all types of Christians to accomplish this mission, which is given to us by God. I’m amazed how often I hear a christian disparage either the local or universal church. If we care about the local fellowship of believers, we should be committed to it (tithe and all). And if we care about the fellowship in Christ, then whether someone is in Christ should be more important to us than all the many other things that divide people these days (e.g., socioeconomics, ethnicity, nationality, race), and we should take joy in finding Christian brothers and sisters unlike us in these other ways, and we should mourn with them when they mourn (e.g., watch/read international news, pray for churches in other places).

To our Friends

We believe our part of God’s mission is to help African people groups develop writing systems for their languages, such that they may have powerful Bible translations which will transform their cultures and churches into the likeness of Christ. While this has been our mission for some time, some of our friends are only recently hearing more about it, and it is as true now as ever. But more specifically:

We hope to take the next step in this mission by moving to Cameron in June, after a short reconnaissance trip in March. To do this, we need your help; we need your partnership in our Wycliffe ministry, through prayer, personal assistance and encouragement, and finances.

Maybe you’ve heard this from us already, face to face. If not, or if you’d like more information about this agenda, please just let us know. :-)

Fluent Reading Makes Powerful Bibles

As we have thought through our messaging lately, one thing we saw friends do was develop a personal ministry hashtag. This is not just to try to be trendy (though hashtags are integral to communication these days), but to communicate a particular repetitive theme in a terse manner.

I think this was a good exercise, because it forced us to think about how we would summarize our Wycliffe Ministry in a few words, even if it was in the format #MyHashtagIsLongerThanYourHashtag…

So we came up with #FluentReadingMakesPowerfulBibles, and I’d like to take this post to explain why. First of all, as a full sentence, I hope that it doesn’t require much explanation. 🙂

But to explain our thinking in any case, #FluentReadingMakesPowerfulBibles makes a connection that I often find myself communicating face to face. That is, what do I do as a missionary linguist, and how does that connect to the larger Bible translation movement?

Thinking about #PowerfulBibles, something that has plagued some Bible translation projects is the question of whether the Bible will be used once produced. I think we all agree that a Bible on a shelf is not the point; we want Bibles in use, powerfully sustaining, encouraging and growing the church for the people who speak the language of that translation.

There are certainly many reasons why a Bible translation might get less usage, but the one that impacts my work the most directly deals with the fluency with which people can read the translation (#FluentReading). If people stumble over words they’re not sure how to pronounce (e.g., because a given spelling could be pronounced multiple ways), or if they have to read a sentence to understand it before they can pronounce all the words (therefore reading parts multiple times to pronounce the words correctly), then we should not expect reading or listening to be very enjoyable.

Such a lack of ability to clearly and fluently communicate meaning translates almost directly into a lack of power. If your mom calls you to the table, but stumbles over the words, would that mean the same to you? Or again, if your father corrects you, but stumbles over his words, would that mean the same? When we hear God say

Come, everyone who thirsts,
come to the waters;
and he who has no money,
come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
without money and without price.
(Isaiah 55:1 ESV)

This should sound as a mother calling children to the table, with power to provide, and pleasure on the other side for all who respond. And when we hear God say

let the wicked forsake his way,
and the unrighteous man his thoughts;
let him return to the Lord, that he may have compassion on him,
and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.
(Isaiah 55:7 ESV)

That should sound like a father disciplining a son, with power and fear for the rebellious, and compassion and pardon for the repentant.

We are, of course, not denying the power of the Holy Spirit to communicate in spite of a bad writing system. But He typically chooses to communicate through the written word, that written word is contained in one writing system or another. And that written word is turned into the spoken word by people more or less able to do so well.

The goal of my work developing writing systems is to remove as many barriers as possible to fluent reading, that the path of communication between God’s word and peoples’ hearts would be as clear and direct as possible. And this is why I’m going to keep talking about how #FluentReadingMakesPowerfulBibles.