The PE and TE Puzzle

“It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”

I wish we had taken Mark Twain’s philosophy to heart way back at the beginning of our Bible translation and linguistic research work in Brazil. If we hadn’t been so sure, we would not have made such a big mistake. Here’s the story:

The Discovery
In the first year of studying Canela, back in 1968, we made the interesting discovery that Canela verbs seemed to have two past tenses—one to indicate the recent past, the other the distant, long ago past.

Here is an example showing the differences in CAPS:

  • When a hunter returns from a successful deer hunt, he would say,
    Wa iTE po curaN = I past deer kill = I killed a deer.
  • When he sat by the fire telling stories of previous hunts, he would say,
    PE wa po cura = distant-past I kill deer = Long ago I killed a deer.

The immediate past always seemed to use the longer form of the verb, curaN instead of cura as well as a little word TE preceded by a 1st, 2nd, or 3rd-person prefix.
All the legends and myths of long ago started off with PE and the shorter form of the verb, cura.
It was a very clear, easy-to-see distinction. It had to be easy, of course, since we would never have discovered it so soon in our research if it had been difficult.

During the next few years, we wrote and published some learn-to‑ read booklets and printed well-known legends for the Canelas to practice reading. We even published a beautiful 150-page illustrated Life of Christ book. Naturally, since Jesus lived long ago, we used the distant past time marker, PE and the shorter form of the verbs.

The Problem
There was only one thing that bothered us. Once in awhile the Canelas told us stories about things that happened in the distant past. And there – right in the middle of all the distant past PEs – would be a string of regular past TEs. But, we had other, more confusing aspects of the Canela language to study, so, thinking that maybe the storyteller had slipped and made a mistake, we decided to concentrate on these more complicated aspects and leave the PE-TE problem for some other time. Bad decision!

Several years later we participated in a linguistic workshop taught, as usual, by a Ph.D. linguist. “What aspect of the Canela language are you going to study?” he asked. “Well,” I replied, “We should probably get this little PE-TE problem cleared up before we go on to more important things.”

The Research
He agreed, gave us some instructions, and we equipped ourselves with some highly sophisticated linguistic tools – two highlighter pens, one orange and one blue. We then coloured our way through a huge stack of distant-past stories. All the distant-past PEs and short verbs we circled orange and all the inexplicable TEs and long verbs we circled in blue. By the end of the day, we realized the problem was not rare at all. Every single one of the stories started off in orange, turned blue towards the middle and then went back to The Solutionorange at the very end.

So, we sat down with our linguistic consultant and asked the important linguistic question; “Why do these orange stories turn blue?” After many days of pondering, praying, and testing, we got the beginning of an answer.

The Solution
It turned out that in stories set in the distant past, the orange parts, the ones with PEs and short verbs, tended to be descriptions, settings, bits of explanation, background information, and summary, etc. The blue parts, those with the TEs and long verbs were the important story-lines, the main actions, and the climax.

What an eye-opener! We were very glad for the break-through, but were sad to realize that our beautiful Bible-story book was orange from cover to cover. All background, all settings, all description, all supporting explanation. No main actions, no vitally important things happening. No climax, not even in the story of our Lord’s resurrection!

The Prevention
Linguist-Bible translators don’t need to make these types of mistakes anymore. In the past forty-five years, vast amounts of linguistic research have been gathered and are now taught at places such as the Canada Institute of Linguistics (CanIL). A summer training session will be held in Trinity Western University. Check it out here https://www.canil.ca/summer/

 

The Letter from Ireland

“You guys are so fortunate! You don’t even know how blessed you are!” Hearing our friends, fellow linguists and Bible translators in Brazil telling us this surprised and confused us. What are they talking about? we wondered.

The Report
We had just reported at a regional conference on our first year’s work with the Canela people. “The Canelas gave us Canela names and adopted us into their families,” we said. “They are happy to help us learn their language, and the chief keeps urging us to invent a way of writing Canela, so we can teach people to read their own language. We have more helpers than we know what to do with.”

The Complaints
It turned out that some of our friends struggled to be accepted by the people in their villages. Some complained that they couldn’t find anyone willing to pronounce words repeatedly, so they could learn the language. Others had made learn-to-read booklets but found no one who had any interest in learning to read.

Jo and I had no idea why God was blessing our work among the Canela in such a startlingly obvious way. It certainly wasn’t because we paid the villagers so well. Our income was well below where it should have been, and we simply couldn’t pay any more than the bare minimum.

The Letter
Then, one day, we received a letter from an Irishman named Joe that explained it all:

“Dear Brother Jack and Sister Jo,
I just heard that you were assigned to translate the Word of God for the Canela people of Brazil and I am delighted. In the 1920s I was a young missionary traveling from one village to another evangelizing the Portuguese speaking Brazilians. One day my companions and I stumbled on a village we had not known was there. The people couldn’t understand Portuguese, and we couldn’t understand anything they said. Moreover, they were a fierce looking group, carrying clubs, spears and large bush knives. We did not want to stay the night there. So we traveled on and slept in the jungle.”

The Answer
He went on to tell us that he later discovered this people group was called the Canela. Then he told us a little more about himself, and we were astonished to read that he started to pray for the Canela people ten years before my wife and I were even born!

He continued to pray, without ever receiving any further information about the Canela, for forty years until Jo and I arrived as thirty-year-old missionaries. That’s when he wrote his letter to us.

He then prayed faithfully for another twenty-two years until we published a partial Bible translated into Canela and Jesus built His Church among the Canela people. Then, after Joe the Irishman had prayed for sixty-two years, the Lord took him Home, no doubt, to his exceeding great reward.

The Prayer Project
After Jo and I left Brazil, we were involved in an intensive public speaking ministry throughout Canada and the United States. After two years, we spoke at a conference in Surinam, so we took the opportunity to cross the border into Brazil to visit the Canela. It was planting season, and about two-thirds of the people were away in their fields.

We walked from house to house greeting our Canela friends and renewing acquaintance with them. We also took pictures of individuals, groups, couples, and families. We kept a careful record of the names of each person on the picture and how they were related to the others.

When we returned home, we printed out the four-hundred pictures and the names. Then during the next speaking tour, I told the story of Joe the Irishman and his sixty-two years of praying. I then said, “If any of you here would like to pray every day for a Canela man, woman or child by name and picture, come and see us after the meeting.”

When volunteers came to ask for a picture and a name, I warned them that they would be praying “in the dark” with no updated information, just as the Irishman had prayed. Even so, after a few months, four-hundred individual prayer warriors across North America volunteered to pray for the Canelas on the pictures.

The Rest of the Story
I still receive notes from people telling me they continue to pray. One lady wrote, “I signed up to pray for a little three-year-old girl over twenty years ago. I have been praying for her every day and updating her age. I am now praying for her as a twenty-five-year-old wife and mother of children.”

God continues to bless the work of the missionaries currently in the village who promote the reading and studying of His Word. As a result, the Church among the Canela continues to grow.

This is God’s work, but He invites His people to be involved. The Irishman was involved in prayer for most of his life. God invited Jo and me to spend thirty years of our lives in training, linguistics, teaching, and translation. Others are involved in giving and prayer.

Some of us, like Jo and I, have seen the results of our work. Others, like those praying “in the dark” will only see the results, and receive God’s reward, in eternity.

Didn’t See That Coming!

The Crash
I was peacefully driving along a major city street in Edmonton a few years ago when a large Mercedes SUV suddenly accelerated from a cross street and smashed into the passenger side of my car.

Whoa! I didn’t see that coming! I thought as I got out of my wrecked car. “Good thing your wife wasn’t sitting there,” the police inspector said later. “She would have been seriously injured.”

It was a classic case of getting T-boned. It was also completely unexpected. Not my fault, and yet destroying my car and throwing me headlong into the onerous, time-consuming task of dealing with police, insurance, and multiple used car salesmen.

We all can tell similar stories—sick babies, broken washer, power outage, losing a job—totally unexpected, not our fault, yet deeply affecting us and throwing our lives into turmoil.

God’s Purposes
I can think of only one Person who has never said, “Whoa! I didn’t see that coming.” Nor will He ever say it, because He is in complete control. He has the whole, wide world in His hands. He knows “The end from the beginning, from ancient times, what is still to come.” He says, “My purpose will stand, and I will do all that I please.” Isaiah 46:10 (NIV).

We, who love and follow Him, know Who holds tomorrow and we know Who holds our hand. The One who loves us enough to die for us, is still in control. We can trust Him. He orchestrates events and permits problems in our lives for purposes that go beyond this earthly life.

God, our Father, wants us all to become more like His Son. (Rom 8:29) As cross-cultural missionaries my wife and I were taught that as Jesus suffered to bring God’s Kingdom to earth, so must we be prepared to suffer to extend His Kingdom throughout the whole earth. (Col. 1:24). Christians of many nationalities and races have suffered through discrimination and persecution for centuries. Christians continue to be the most persecuted group on earth, even today.

Going Downhill
The way Christianity and biblical principles are being attacked even in places with a solid Christian history and tradition like North America, I wonder how long it will be before God permits full-blown persecution right here where we live?

It is already starting with the attacks against private schools, most of which are faith based. Here are some things we can expect the current trend of anti-Christian legislation to achieve:

  • Private schools shut down.
  • Children who did not graduate from the public-school system forbidden to enter universities.
  • Graduates from Christian universities not allowed to practice their professions.
  • Churches pay property taxes.
  • No more “tax deductible receipts” for donors to churches, missions or other Christian organizations.
  • Income tax levied on funds received in the Sunday offering.
  • What is now merely “not politically correct”, eventually will be against the law.
  • Government monitors in church services to check that the preachers do not break the law.
  • Churches going bankrupt, their buildings sold or confiscated.
  • Church leaders that refuse to have their sermon content controlled by government inspectors jailed.
  • Businesses owned by Christians forced to close, and Christian medical personnel, police, lawyers, teachers, etc., lose their jobs because they cannot in good conscience do what the anti-Christian laws require them to do.

HandcuffsThis is not fantasy horror. It happened to thousands of churches and millions of believers in China, Russia, Cuba and in other countries. Some of these things are happening elsewhere; they can happen here.

Our Attitude
What can also happen is that God will again give “beauty for ashes” (Isa 61:3) by refining His Church as He did in these countries. As true believers come together in homes, to biblically encourage and edify each other, God’s Kingdom will grow stronger here and will increase, not despite persecution, but because of it. It’s happened before. That’s not a bad outcome. But that’s not saying we should welcome injustice, lies and anti-Christian legislation with open arms!

It may be that God will allow massive persecution to come on His people in North America. But, right now, He still holds us accountable to pray for all those in authority and for justice and truth to prevail.

“I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people—for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.  This is good, and pleases God our Savior.” 1 Tim. 2:1-3 (NIV).

In these threatening days, God has given us, His people, power, influence, voice, and a vote, and He expects us to use them. Some Christians are like Esther who hesitated to use her position of influence to avert a threat to God’s people, but God’s message to her was, “Who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?” Esther 4:14 (NIV). This is not a time to passively wait to see what will happen but to actively stand for truth and justice.

Fear Not
We don’t need to be afraid of the future. Whatever happens in the end, God will never have to say, “Whoa! I didn’t see that coming!” God is still in control. Jesus’ promise is still in effect, “In me you will have peace. In this world, you will have trouble, but cheer up, I have overcome the world.” John 16:33 (NIV).

Can You Explain These Coincidences Without Getting Theological?

imagesIn 1983, thirty-three years ago, a group of 40,000 Sudanese people called the Tira did not have a single word of the Bible translated into their language. Today, and for the past fifteen years, thousands of Tira people are reading the Bible in their own language and have turned to follow God.

How did that happen?

  • In November of 1983, David and Ray, two American students signed up to pray for the Tira with Wycliffe’s Bibleless Peoples Prayer Project.
  • In May of 1986, Jerry and Jan promised to pray for this group.
  • In March 1990, Jane and Margeanne committed themselves to pray.

In August 1990, a report came to the Prayer Project organizers that Avajani—a young Christian Tira man—was studying linguistics and Bible translation techniques. The organizers wrote to encourage him with the news that three teams were praying for his Tira people. They gave the names and the dates when they began to pray. Avajani’s response was astonishing! Here’s what he wrote:

  • I became a Christian in November 1983, the same month that David and Ray began to pray.
  • I was accepted for theological studies in May 1986, the same month that Jerry and Jan started to pray.
  • I heard about courses in Bible translation and was accepted as a student in March 1990, the same month that Jane and Margeanne started to pray.

After his training, he began translating and a number of portions of the Bible were published during 1999-2001.

An atheist reading this sort of astounding coincidence might well mutter to himself, “Hmm, if I didn’t know any better, I’d think that God was involved.”

God is definitely at work on planet Earth, and He invites us to join Him by praying. God has limited Himself to work on earth only in response to the prayers of His people. That is why every work of God is preceded by prayer. He moves some to pray, and some to work with their hands and minds. At rock bottom, He wants every person on earth to hear about Him in the language they know best.

Here are some links to help us join God in His work:
www.wycliffe.org/prayer
www.ethnologue.com/world

Note: I published this story five years ago as part of The Mandate blog series.