In Praise of Women Missionaries

Because last Sunday was International Women’s Day, my first impulse was to write a long and personally satisfying blog post on the missionary woman who was most important to the Canela Bible translation program: my sweet wife, Josephine. But since I reserve my Valentine’s day blog posts for eulogizing Jo, I’ll just use a picture of her and me, and will publish this one instead:

In Praise of Women Missionaries
“We believe you would be a superb missionary, and we would be happy to send you out to represent our denomination on the mission field in Africa, except for two things: you are a woman, and you are not married.”
Johanna, a godly and capable woman who passionately loved her Lord and wanted to advance His Kingdom in the needy places of the world, was disappointed at her denomination’s mission board’s decision.
Fortunately for her, for the Kingdom of God, and tens of thousands of souls in Sudan and Nigeria, several individuals in her local church sponsored her ministry privately. They prayed, sent funds, and encouraged her during her years of ministry in Africa. The churches she planted continued to grow so much in strength and number that, seven years after her death in Africa, the denomination’s mission board formally adopted Nigeria as one of their mission fields.

The history of worldwide missions is replete with stories of how God used single women in astonishing ways to grow His Kingdom.

Gladys, for instance, evangelized in China and cared for hundreds of orphans before and during the Second World War. Her book, The Little Woman, was also made into a movie, The Inn of the Sixth Happiness.

A generation before, Mary lived and worked in Africa. Her story is the subject of two books, one of which is titled The White Queen of the Cannibals. She astounded Christians back home with matter-of-fact accounts of her death-defying dealings with native peoples.

Single Women Missionaries–Our Heroes
My wife Jo and I hold single women missionaries in high respect. I remember with joy the gifted single women, though relatively anonymous, who helped us succeed in our linguistic and translation work. We absolutely could not have done it without them.

Patricia, a translator in a related language, calmed our fears that we had made a mistake in identifying seventeen phonemic vowels in the Canela language. There seemed to be far too many. She explained that the language she worked in had sixteen. She helped us to choose letters for the Canela alphabet and write up a clear description of each letter’s sound.

Eunice patiently walked me through the process of sorting out and writing down all the knowledge of the Canela grammar system that swirled around in my head to make it understandable to other linguists.

Margery, after completing her own Bible translation project, painstakingly checked all our translation work, and happily reported that, although she tried, she had not been able to find a single nasty “collocational clash” in Acts. That was many decades ago, and although I have now forgotten what a “collocational clash” is, at the time, I was enormously encouraged to hear that we did not have any.

Gloria’s knowledge and experience in developing “self-teaching” learn-to-read booklets were invaluable. With her help, we made up highly effective illustrated reading primers. Students needed teaching only for the first dozen pages. By looking at the illustration, they picked up clues about the meaning of the new word, and the shape of the new letter, to finish the rest of the lessons practically without further help.

Isobel’s enthusiasm and encouragement helped us to produce a series of learn-to-read booklets of ever-increasing complexity that prepared new readers to read the Scriptures.

Ruth’s commitment to the people group with whom she worked, and her willingness to live with them for months out in the bush without even a hut to call home, rebuked my love of comfort and challenged me to greater personal sacrifice.

Jane tripled my effectiveness when I suddenly found myself as the temporary executive director of the linguistic and translation organization in Brazil. She knew where to get the information I needed to make right decisions. She knew everything and everyone and had the experience I lacked.

A single woman’s life in a foreign land and culture is not easy. Indigenous societies often look down on single women. Many young women would prefer to marry and have a family. And yet, although they know that it is highly unlikely that they will find a suitable marriage partner on the mission field, they go, impelled by love for God and His Kingdom.

I praise these women. So does God.

 

The Language of Christmas

So, there I was last Sunday, standing with the rest of the congregation, singing a Christmas carol and entering into the spirit of Christmas, when I got a rude shock.

The Mental Picture
“Angels we have heard on high, sweetly singing o’er the plains . . .” As we sang, I visualized flocks of sheep asleep under the starry night sky; the watching shepherds by their little campfire, the sudden appearance of the angel of God with his announcement of the birth of the long-awaited Messiah; and, of course, the blast of light and music as the heavenly choirs burst onto the scene with their song of praise and promise.

But then my mental picture was shattered as we sang the chorus, echoing what the angels sang, “Gloria in excelsis Deo!”

The Rude Shock
What?! What nonsense is this?! Latin? No way! Why on earth would angels sing in Latin, the language of the hated Roman oppressors? The language of the occupying soldiers!

No, those Christmas angel choirs didn’t sing in Latin. Of course not. They sang in Aramaic, the native language of the shepherds—the language the shepherds’ forefathers had learned to speak centuries before, during several generations of exile in Babylon—what is now Iraq.

Singing about the greatness of God to Judean shepherds in the Romans’ language would make as much sense as singing to North Americans in the Canelas’ language. I can hear it already, “Quê ha côjkwa kam mehcunea jirôpê, Pahpãm pejti ne cati na me harẽ!”
What a thrilling message!. . . .Not!

God Spoke in Hebrew
God, the Great Linguist, always communicates to people in their own language. In the beginning, he spoke directly to Abraham, Moses, and the prophets in Hebrew, the language of the people of Israel. That is why almost the entire Old Testament was written in Hebrew.

God Spoke in Aramaic
Later on, God spoke to the Jewish people in Palestine in Aramaic. Jesus told his parables in Aramaic, taught the disciples to pray in Aramaic, and for many years all Jesus’ teachings and stories about Jesus circulated as oral traditions in Aramaic.

God Spoke in Greek
Several generations before Jesus was born, scholars translated the Old Testament from Hebrew into Greek since it was the most important, most used language in the Mediterranean region. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John eventually translated all Jesus stories and teachings from Aramaic into Greek and wrote them down. The rest of the books of the New Testament were also written in Greek. God, therefore, spoke Greek to millions more people.

God Spoke in Latin
Several centuries later, through the work of Jerome the Bible translator, God communicated in Latin to more millions of people in Europe and the Mediterranean region who spoke Latin as their first language.

By the way, the Bible was translated into ordinary Greek and Latin, the language spoken by people in their homes and on the streets, not into the high classic forms used by scholars and the elite.

All this flashed through my mind as I continued singing that Christmas carol. We sat down and during the announcements I scribbled some notes for this column.

Christianity is Unique Among World Religions

  • Christianity is the only world religion that has no special “Holy Language.” Hebrew is not, nor is Greek. Neither Latin nor King James Version English is a “Holy Language.” To God, there are no unclean cultures or improper languages. In one sense, every language and every culture can, through Bible translation, become a “Holy Language.”
  • Christianity is the only world religion in which almost none of the actual words of the Founder are preserved in the language in which He spoke them. Except for a half a dozen phrases such as Jesus’ words from the cross, every word from His mouth, we know only from the Greek translation.
  • Christianity is the only world religion that spreads through the translation of the Bible into other languages. Right from the beginning, Christianity was a translated religion, the only world religion that is propagated almost totally outside the language of the Founder.
  • Christianity is the only world religion that adopts the indigenous names for the High God, the God of the Bible: El, Yahweh, Theos, Deo, Deus, Gott, God, Pahpam, Tupan, Imana, Yala, Kalunga, and thousands more.
  • Christianity is the only world religion that has no cultural or geographical centre. Christianity is as much at home in a cave in Cambodia as in a cathedral in Canberra.
  • Christianity is the only world religion whose Holy Book is, by far, the most translated book in the world. It has been translated in whole or in part or is being translated right now in over five thousand languages. Bible translation projects are expected to be started in the remaining languages of the world by the year 2025.
  • Christianity is also unique in that it flourishes where the Bible is read in the ordinary, mundane, everyday language of the people. On the other hand, Christianity is weak and anemic where believers are forced to read a Bible that is not in their own heart language. The very reason God revealed Himself in the Bible is so He would be known by people in every language and ethnic group. The Bible, therefore, exists to spread Christianity.
  • By abandoning Jesus’ mother tongue, Christianity has liberated the Good News to every language. No language is incapable of fully holding the truth of God’s Word.

The Language of Christmas
So, is there a language of Christmas? Yes. Any language is the language of Christmas when the full meaning of Christmas is transmitted to the mind and heart of the hearer or reader. Those angels knew and sang in the language of their hearers.

Halloween, the Celebration of Fear

This week, fear-inducing scenes surrounded us. Figures of demons, devils and ghosts startled us as we walked in the mall, ducking to avoid spider filled cobwebs hanging in doorways. Theatres advertise horror films, Halloween costume parties are replete with vampires, witches and warlocks. It’s Halloween, the yearly celebration of things we fear.

We usually think of fear as a negative emotion. Jesus kept telling His followers, “Don’t be afraid.” But there is also a positive side to fear. 

Fear Is Not Always Negative

Our bodies are important to us therefore we dread suffering a crippling accident or debilitating disease. That’s why we fear, or at least profoundly respect, loaded firearms and powerful machinery, why we look both ways before crossing busy streets, and why we submit to the doctor’s probing during our annual medical check-up. These fears motivate us to actions that keep us alive and well.

What we Fear Shows What We Value

One of the most positive aspects of fear is that it helps us to understand ourselves better. What we dread shows us what we value. To determine what things I value the most, I recently listed some of the things that frighten me the most.

  • I fear committing “moral lapse” sins. I hear of fellow Christians speakers and writers who, through pride, abuse their power as communicators. Others, through greed and envy, embezzle ministry funds. Others, through lust and gluttony, sin by inappropriate sexual conduct, overeating or drunkenness. I value my fellowship with God and my reputation with those who know me. I value being respected by my wife, my family, and my colleagues. I value my public ministry as a speaker, writer and former Bible translator.
  • I fear suffering a crippling physical or mental injury or disease. I value being able to exercise choices and options. I hate being boxed in. I value serving God with my mind and body. I also value physical comfort and freedom from pain.
  • I dread messed up relationships with my family, friends, and colleagues. I value our interdependence, helping each other to succeed. I value mutual respect and appreciation.
  • I fear poverty. I value having the financial resources to live where I need to live, to travel to places of ministry, and to meet my needs and those of my family and of my ministry.
  • I cringe at the thought of losing all my computer data, my creative writing, personal history, my fifty-plus years of daily diaries, a lifetime collection of photos, etc. I value the written record of what I have done and experienced in the past because I constantly tap into it for my writings.
  • I fear that our children and grand-children and their spouses may lose their close relationship to God, drifting into low moral and ethical behaviour, or suffering major losses of health or relationships. My prayers for my wife and our extended family touch on these fears. I agree with the old apostle John who wrote, “I have no greater joy than to hear that my children are walking in the truth.” (3 JN 4)

So What?

During this Halloween week, let’s remember that no matter what happens to our bodies, our finances, or our goods, our soul is infinitely more important. As children of God we can sing, “Though trials should come . . . It is well with my soul.”

Unfortunately, hundreds of millions of people continue to live in fear, beset by Satanic forces. They don’t know that Jesus, the Son of God, has overcome Satan. They have never heard Jesus say, “Don’t be afraid.” They never will hear, unless we, His children, translate His Word into the language each group understands best.

The Canela Creation Story.

Long ago, life on earth was wonderful. Food was plentiful and easy to gather. Palms were not tall like they are now, but short, and their fruits and nuts could be plucked easily. Field-making and gardening tools like axes, machetes, and hoes didn’t need anyone to handle them; they worked by themselves.

One day Sun and Moon came to earth, to populate the earth with strong, beautiful people, and to set precedents that would benefit these descendants. Sun’s super-power was knowledge. He knew the purpose for their coming to earth and knew what Moon needed to do.

Moon’s super-power was to set patterns. Whatever Moon did would last forever.  Moon, however, depended on Sun to tell him what to do and what not to do. Unfortunately, Moon liked to do things his own way, even if it meant disobeying Sun.

Sun wanted to keep Moon from destroying the good life. “Don’t ever abuse any palm,” Sun said. “And don’t ever stare at the field tools working by themselves.” One afternoon, while Sun was napping, Moon picked some fruit from a palm, ate it and found it delicious.  The next fruit he picked, however, was hard and dry, so he threw it angrily against the trunk of the palm.  Immediately all the palms grew to enormous heights. Moon knew he had done wrong.

Moon then followed the sound of axes chopping. Instead of glancing at the tools and then walking away, Moon walked right up to where the tools were working by themselves. As soon as he stepped out into the open and looked at the tools, all the tools fell lifeless to the ground. Moon knew he had done wrong.

When Sun woke up, he soon saw the tall palms and the tools lying on the ground. He confronted Moon about his bad behavior. Moon kept lying, “I didn’t do anything.”

But Sun insisted, “Why do you go about setting bad precedents? Now our future descendants will suffer and have to work hard to make tools work.”

Sun showed Moon how to make children. Sun walked into a deep pool of water and carefully clapped his cupped hands on the water. Immediately a strong, handsome Canela son rose up. He did it again, and up came a beautiful Canela daughter. Moon jumped into the pool too but just splashed about in the water any old way. Up came an ugly, black-skinned, kinky-haired sons, and ugly pale-skinned children with blonde hair, and weird-looking daughters with slanted eyes.

Sun was very displeased with the patterns that Moon was establishing. One day Moon asked Sun, “What will happen to our children when they die?”

“They will be like this,” Sun explained, picking up a long, thin plant stalk, very light like balsa wood. He speared it down into the deep water. It went completely under the water, but being light, it popped back out of the water and floated. “They will die, but very soon they will come alive again,” Sun said.

“Okay,” Moon said, “So that is what will happen. And before Sun could stop him, Moon picked up a large stone and threw it into the deep pool. It sank to the bottom and stayed there.

“Oh, why did you do that?” Sun scolded him. “Why are you always doing exactly the opposite of what I do? Now you have set a precedent for our children. When they die, they will stay dead!”

“It’s because I am all wrong and twisted in my thinking,” Moon lamented. “My way of thinking and living is all wrong. But now it is too late to change anything.”

“Let’s go back to our houses,” Sun said to Moon. “We’ve been down here long enough.” They ascended to the sky and stayed there forever, never thinking about their children or returning to earth again.

When Jo and I accepted the Canelas’ invitation to come and live with them fifty years ago, we never heard a Canela pray. Why should they? Their Creator had abandoned them.

When we translated the first few chapters of Genesis, the Canelas immediately identified the actions of Adam with those of Moon. “Adam disobeyed the Creator, and that is why things are in such a mess on earth.”

When they read the translation of 1 Corinthians 15:22, “Because of what Adam did we all die, but because of what Jesus did, all will be made alive,” they immediately equated Adam with Moon. And what’s more, they exclaimed, “So our Creator did not abandon us. He sent His Son Jesus to set new patterns and make things right!” That’s when they started to pray to their Creator. They now call Him Pahpam, Our Father.

This story is a Redemptive Analogy. God has embedded analogies to illustrate some aspect of redemption in every culture’s myths, legends, customs or language.

“Only One Thing is Necessary”

It happened in our sixth year of Bible translation service in Brazil and led to clarifying a powerful life habit.

Some very dear friends came from Canada to help do some much-needed construction on the Bible translation centre near the city of Belem. For several months, Jo and I worked well together with them and deeply appreciated their fellowship and work. But one evening, they criticized us quite strongly.

The Criticism.
“Why are you always visiting with other missionaries in your spare time and spending hours at the swimming pool with your kids on Saturday afternoons? Why aren’t you evangelizing the poor people in the slums down the road?” Jo and I could understand why our friends would ask that. They loved meeting the needs of the poor back in Canada. The question led to a long discussion that evening.

Jesus’ Example.
I mentioned the well-known story in Luke 10:38-42 when Jesus answered a criticism of a similar nature. Jesus was visiting his friends Martha, Mary and Lazarus, and teaching others who came to visit. Mary was sitting nearby listening intently, when Martha came to Jesus and said, “Doesn’t it bother you that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her to come and help me!”

Jesus gave his famous answer, “Martha, Martha! You are worried and upset about so many things, but only one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen what is best, and it will not be taken away from her.”

Ministry: One Necessary Thing.
For Jo and me, the Canela Bible translation program was the “one necessary thing.” We still had at least fifteen years of work ahead of us before we could present the Canelas with the Word of God in their own language.

Jo and I were the only people in the world assigned to build a literate society and translate the Bible for the Canelas. For us, everything else, even evangelizing desperately needy slum dwellers was secondary. There were other Christians, thousands of them in Belem churches, who could, and did, evangelize the slums.

Jo & Jack, Cheryl, Valorie, Leanne

Family: One Necessary Thing.
But what about Saturday afternoons at the swimming pool with the kids? What is so necessary about that? Well, our daughters routinely lived in a boarding school for two or three months at a time. When we finally returned to the centre, we wanted to spend as much time together as a family as possible. When it came to responsibilities as parents, quality family time was the “one necessary thing” for all of us.

Fellowship: One Necessary Thing.
And visiting with other missionaries? Well, after three months of praying and sharing on a deep level only with your spouse, the need, and joy, of spending time with other believers is impossible to understand unless you have experienced it.

The Question We All Need to Ask.
In Mary and Martha’s situation, Jesus was sitting in their home and teaching those around him. Mary dropped her To Do list and grabbed the unique opportunity to learn personally from Jesus. Our natural tendency may be to act like Martha and live up to cultural expectations by preparing plentiful food for guests. But that may not be the “one necessary thing.”

Each day, in every situation we need to ask ourselves, “At this moment, what is the “one necessary thing” that only I can do?”
Then do it . . . even if it provokes criticism from people you love.

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/