I recently heard an analogy for Advent which gave me, especially as a language-lover, a fresh perspective on this season.

The analogy was used by Rev. Jon Yeager at Church of the Cross in Boston, where we recently attended while visiting friends. (You can hear his sermon titled “Your Redemption Is Drawing Near” by clicking here.) He compared Advent to immersion language-learning. As he pointed out, when learning a language by immersion, the idea is that you soak in it until you are living, thinking, even dreaming in the new language. This is something I can relate to!

He then explained that Advent is a time for us as the Church to immerse ourselves in the themes of this season – the longing for Jesus’ coming, the promises and prophecies announcing his first and second comings, the call to repent and seek God’s mercy in light of His judgment, the ready expectancy by which we look for His return.

In these weeks, may we soak ourselves in these truths until we are living, thinking, even dreaming in Advent.

Come quickly, Lord Jesus!

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How to summarize 2 years of work and almost 200 pages in 15-20 minutes?

This was the challenge given me in my recent thesis defense at Dallas International University.

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I also had the opportunity to answer questions from fellow students, professors, and SIL staff who attended, on my research methodology, analysis, and findings.

By God’s grace, I managed to succeed in that task and am drawing to the end of this 2-year-long process. Now that the worst of the mountain is behind me and the flurry of editing my draft and preparing my defense is done, I’ve been able to pause and reflect on all that I’ve learned.

Over six years ago, I began coursework at the Graduate Institute of Applied Linguistics (now at DIU). My courses in linguistics, anthropology, literacy, and Scripture Engagement served as my pre-field training to work with SIL International in minority language work. Those courses counted toward a Master’s degree in Language & Culture Studies, if I chose to pursue that.

After my first term in West Africa, I decided I would, though only if doing so would result in something more than just a degree. In order to complete the program, I would need to take more courses, as well as either take comprehensive exams or write a thesis. I considered the thesis option and decided I wanted to do it.

My first term in West Africa had been enough for me to get a glimpse of local language literacy and Scripture engagement work. It had also been enough for me to realize the important place of research in this work, in the work of Bible translation, and in missions work in general. We must always and continually grow in our understanding of the context where we work and in the needs of the people we serve. This requires rigorous question-asking and data-collection.

Choosing to complete my degree program by conducting research and writing a thesis would allow me to gain much more than a degree. Thankfully, SIL as an organization values research and sees it as a vital aspect of the work it does around the world. Research is itself some of the work SIL does and is a way they contribute to the wider missions community.

And so, nearly two years ago, I began the thesis process with a proposal for research. I came up with a plan for studying what motivates adult local language literacy—both for those who want to learn and those who want to start programs for others to learn. I would study it in both the church context and the non-church context. I would interview both Muslims and Christians, men and women. I would choose contexts where portions of translated Scripture exist in the local language in question. I would carry out the research in the country where I’d worked. Thanks to my first term in West Africa, I had the contacts necessary for pulling off this cross-cultural research.

Now, two years later, I have written up what I learned. My thesis committee members worked hard with me to make what I’d written understandable! I owe a great deal to them, and to the many people in West Africa who made the research possible.

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My thesis committee members Ian Cheffy (via Zoom), Pete Unseth, Steve Walter, and I after my defense

The thesis process is nearing its completion. Ironically, now the work begins of sharing what I’ve learned and so contributing to the wider missions community. My committee members are encouraging me to pursue publishing a version of my thesis and sharing my findings in other ways as well.

And so, the work continues, and the learning does, too!

And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.” -Luke 24:27

This is the inspiration behind “Al Massira,” a discussion-based tool for evangelism among Muslims, in which Dean and I had the privilege of being trained last weekend.

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“Al Massira” is Arabic for “the journey,” alluding to the Emmaus road where Jesus met two disciples after his death and resurrection. It also captures the simple truth that we are all on journeys, including our Muslim friends. As our trainer put it, “Jesus met them where they were at. He explained to them the Prophets and how they pointed to him.”

The goal of Al Massira is two-fold:

  • that Christians’ hearts would be set on fire afresh – as the two disciples put it after realizing that it was Christ who had met them, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?” (Luke 24:32)
  • that participants would discover Christ the Messiah on their journeys

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Al Massira creators describe it as “An open place: to walk with the Prophets and meet the Messiah.” This “open place” is part of the ethos of the tool, which I personally found very compelling. It is not meant to be used without friendship, hospitality, discussion, and prayer. For all of these, trust is essential. Different viewpoints are allowed to be expressed by participants. They may respond with doubts and say that certain teachings are lies, and that is okay. The goal is dialogue, not argument. As our trainer put it, “God does not need lawyers; we are witnesses. We are to present the truth, not give a defense. We are called to respect, listen, and proclaim the truth.”

Over 13 episodes, Al Massira walks participants through a chronological overview of the main Old Testament prophets. In the stories of Adam and Eve, Noah, Abraham and Sarah, Moses, and David, people and events that foreshadow the Messiah are revealed.

As our trainer led us through several of the episodes, I felt my own heart burning in me as we discussed the Old Testament “sign-posts” pointing to the Messiah. I was filled anew with awe and wonder of God’s plan of redemption, revealed piece by piece in the Scriptures, which are our faith heritage if we have been re-born into the people of God.

I also felt my heart burning with the desire that the Muslims I knew and lived with in West Africa would someday know these truths. Because Al Massira is meant to be a series of discussions, the ideal group is with participants who are curious and ask questions. I was reminded of how rare it was for me to meet West African Muslims who were curious about the Christian faith, who asked me questions about my religious practice and beliefs. Indeed, Muslims are often taught that asking questions is a sign of a bad Muslim. I often felt that my host families and friends tiptoed around the topic of faith, religious practice, and beliefs. Except for a few rare moments, they did not ask me questions and did not seem to want to know. After that being my experience for the three years I lived in West Africa, I was reminded during the Al Massira training that even an openness in Muslims to asking questions requires God’s work in their hearts. It also requires a long time to build that kind of trust. And it requires great spiritual discernment on our part to know when someone is open to asking questions. I found myself longing and praying that God would already be at work among the Muslims Dean and I will live among in the future, Lord willing.

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One of the other compelling features of Al Massira was the non-Western presentation of Christianity. The DVD episodes were filmed in the Middle East and in Arabic. Participants see and hear the stories of the Prophets through the experience of modern-day characters, teachers, and testimonies in each episode. Those characters, teachers, and testimonials are all of Middle Eastern or African background. These aspects highlight the non-Western, non-white context of the historic Christian faith and of many modern-day followers. This excited me as I remembered how Christianity was viewed in Muslim West Africa—as a Western (European or American), white, non-African religion.

While Dean and I may be able to use such a tool overseas someday, we also wonder what opportunities God could give us to use it here and now as we seek to journey with others toward the Messiah.

(For more information, visit https://almassira.org.)

I love other languages. I love the enriched meaning we gain when we hear how something is conveyed in another language. I love learning how the Bible’s original languages should inform our understanding of it.

If you also love these things, you may want to click here and listen to a sermon by Pastor Andrew Schep. He suggests that Biblical Greek challenges a common application of Ephesians 4:15, often rendered in English as “speaking the truth in love.”

I was grateful to hear Pastor Schep’s sermon last month at our home church, Oswego Reformed Presbyterian Church. It was a good reminder that Scripture was originally recorded in a completely different language and culture than modern American English. Understanding Scripture should indeed be taken up as a cross-cultural enterprise!

In a West African city that in many ways acts as a bridge between the populations of two countries, there’s a church trying to span the languages and cultures of both. And in that church, there’s a woman whose role it is to help transfer the message so that it is understandable to all.

Esther* is a friendly woman and quickly agreed to let me interview her during my literacy research in her church last year. I had been told that she can read some in Crioulo. At the time of my research, the church was planning to start a Crioulo literacy program. This is what prompted me to include them in my research. I would seek out people to interview who read or wanted to learn to read in Crioulo.

The church’s pastor describes their services as bilingual, French and Crioulo, and the reality is that there are many more languages than just those two spoken by the church’s attendees. French being the official language of the country in which the city is located, and the language of most theological education, it tends to be a default language for official church gatherings, even though a minority of people understand it. Not far from the city is the border with the neighboring country. There, Crioulo is a language that almost everyone speaks and is used for inter-ethnic communication. Many people from that country come to this city and to this church, bringing their cultures and languages with them. So in this multi-cultural and highly multilingual city, this particular church uses primarily French and Crioulo.

Esther serves as translator in this church. In multilingual parts of the world – i.e., places where a person will use multiple languages on a daily basis, depending on the context or the other person with whom he or she is speaking – the role of interpreter is a given. The role is usually not official or accompanied by any special training. It simply arises out of necessity. When many languages are spoken and people speak different, limited combinations of those languages, to varying degrees, people get used to lack of comprehension. People also get used to trying to facilitate better comprehension between people who cannot communicate via a shared language. Often in a multilingual place, no single language is enough to communicate with everyone. Therefore, a message will often need to be interpreted into multiple languages before everyone in a group understands the words.

This of course holds true for the church in multilingual parts of the world. In West Africa, a public worship service invariably features an interpreter—again, often not official or who has training, but a person who simply understands multiple languages and fills a need of others’ comprehension.

Having grown up in this country, all Esther’s schooling was in the French language. She has developed a good mastery of French. I conduct our interview in French, and she seems more fluent than me. However, her mother is from the neighboring country. In Esther’s home growing up, it was Crioulo that was spoken. At church, Esther translates sermons into Crioulo. I asked her which she understood better, Crioulo or French. She said Crioulo. “I speak Crioulo fluently. …French, when I read it, sometimes there are words that are too heavy for me, so I don’t understand. But if it’s with Crioulo, I understand easily.”

As is often the case in this country, Esther’s schooling in French meant that she learned to read in a language she didn’t understand, and that she had trouble when trying to read Crioulo, the language she understood best.

“My problem was that I didn’t know a lot, because… I went to French school. …When we would speak Crioulo at home, I’d always be curious about reading the Bible in Crioulo. But [when I first started] I would sometimes have difficulty. When I would read, I would mix French in with it. So that was my problem. But little by little, now when I read, I don’t have a great deal of trouble. …Also part of the reason I can read in Crioulo… is that we did Crioulo literacy at the church.”

The literacy she mentions at her church was a week of transition literacy. This is done when some people have already learned to read in French. They are taught which letters they already know from French make which sounds in Crioulo, the language they speak fluently but have never written or read. It can be a fairly quick process to make the initial transition from one language to another if there are enough similarities between them. Still, as Esther shared, much practice is needed.

Esther: Yes, sometimes it came easily, but other times it’s difficult. Because, since the alphabet is different, now if I read in Crioulo and I see that this word here, the way I’ve just pronounced it, that’s not right. So I would tend to look in the French Bible, and that way I’d know that this word here is this… that we call it this [in Crioulo].

Kyria: So in the beginning, it was still easier to read in French even if you didn’t always understand?

Esther: Yes, yes. …It’s still easier to read in French, since I studied French. Yes, it’s easy. But all the same, I can read in Crioulo. I get by. Yes, I can get by all right in reading Crioulo.

So, if reading in French still comes more easily for her, why does she continue making efforts to read Crioulo? It’s the difference in understanding for her. Though she and I were carrying on a full conversation in French, I still would choose English Scripture, just as she prefers Crioulo. In Esther’s words, “My husband also has a Crioulo Bible, so sometimes I take it and read. When I read, afterwards I understand sometimes better than the French. Because in the French, there are words that when I read them, I don’t understand. But if I take the Crioulo, I understand. …For example, when I read and I see that I understand, that gives me the desire to continue reading, to discover also different kinds of words that help me to understand well what I’m reading. …Sometimes the French, when I read it, I have to ask the pastor, ‘But this word here, what does that mean?’ But since learning to read in Crioulo, when I read in French and don’t understand, I open the Crioulo Bible, I see that this [French] word here is that [in Crioulo] and it means this. So it’s easy for me, since I already understand Crioulo.”

In Esther’s experience, then, there have been times when she needs to go to the French Bible when having difficulty decoding a Crioulo word, because French decoding is still easier for her. And there are times when she needs to go to the Crioulo Bible when having difficulty understanding a French word, because Crioulo is still easier for her to understand. It is complex. In her multilingual context and with the dynamics of learning first to read in a foreign language, it is not as simple as the Bible in one language only. Multiple people in her bilingual church reported a similar use of both the French and the Crioulo Bibles in preparing messages. In an environment where one uses multiple languages on a daily basis, it should not be surprising that a Christian would need the Bible also in multiple languages.

Esther prepares messages for the church’s regular women’s Bible study. The women who gather don’t all understand Crioulo, and they don’t all understand French. Sometimes Esther translates for those gatherings too. When it’s her turn to give the message, she says sometimes she uses the Crioulo Bible, and other times she uses both the Crioulo and the French, in order to compare the words. Just as in church services, she knows her interpreting and her reading help others to understand better. Many people at the church cannot read in any language. Esther says that as they hear the message translated into a language they understand or hear a Bible passage being read in it, they are happy and “don’t go away empty.”

I asked Esther what advice she would give the people in her church who can’t read, based on her experience.

“If it were me, I would encourage them to learn to read or to find someone else who knows how to read. Because take, for example us women. When you tell a woman, ‘It’s your turn to give the message.’ She tells you, ‘Oh, me? I never went to school.’ I always say, ‘You must not say that you never went to school. If you know a verse, you ask your children to read for you. You listen well. There you can teach. But you must not say, “Since I didn’t go to school, I’ll just stay like this.”’ I always encourage them to be part of the speaking schedule. …One must always encourage people, even if they don’t know how to read, they can ask their children to read for them. Then they’ll understand. Among the women, that’s how we do it. …Even with my mother, it’s like that. They tell her, ‘On such and such Friday, it’s you that will give the message.’ She tells me, ‘Come. Sit beside me.’ She tells me a Bible story that she wants to share with the women. I look for the verses in the Bible. So when we go to the women’s Bible study, she stays next to me. I read, and afterwards she tells the story. She encourages the women. …That’s how we do it, even up until present-day. That’s how we do it with the women.”

What Esther shared with me was rare in the interviews I conducted with Christians. Most focused on how, in their experience, reading was essential for a Christian to grow in his or her faith. Knowing how many cannot read in West African churches, I had begun wondering if those I interviewed had ideas for discipling Christians who could not read, for using their gifts in the church. Esther was one of the first to focus on the ways Christians who can’t read can still participate in the life of the church in meaningful ways.

Her description reminded me of Paul’s image of different parts of the body working together. Getting beyond the literate/ illiterate dichotomy, can the church in such contexts grow together in God’s Word, as readers, speakers, and hearers each play their part in better understanding?

*Not her real name

…on or off the field (other than giving them money):
A first contribution by Dean

Missionaries are often able to serve because of the generosity of financial partners, but rates of missionary burnout/attrition suggest that missionaries may need more than financial support alone.  I recently returned from seven months of missionary service in the Solomon Islands, which can be an incredibly isolated geographical region.  For more than three months I was isolated culturally and linguistically; I could count on one hand the number of minutes I spoke with a fellow native-English speaker.  Now that my wife Kyria and I are itinerating, we’ve had some opportunities to connect with some of our supporters who have an intuitive understanding of how to provide support to missionaries beyond opening up their wallets.  The following are some ideas for how to support missionaries both on and off the field.

1. Read, pray through, and respond to your missionary’s prayer requests.We serve only by God’s power working in us. While I was in the Solomon Islands I felt the prayers of God’s people on my behalf.  This was most noticeable in terms of my health and safety.  Apart from a bad case of tonsillitis, I was as healthy or healthier than I often am while at home in the States.  When I was sick, I sent out prayer requests to supporters.  Their words of encouragement were helpful to me emotionally, and I quickly recovered from the sickness.

2. Read and respond to their newsletters. Many of us are inundated with media and our inboxes are filled to the rafters, but for Kyria and me, when supporters read our newsletters and write back to us about them, we feel encouraged and listened to. Sometimes a simple, “I read your newsletter,”  “Good to hear from you,” or “we are praying for [insert something mentioned in the newsletter],” can really help us to feel listened to.  Even a one liner lets us know that someone out there is reading our newsletters—which take a lot of time and effort to put together!

3. Act as a liaison between a missionary and your church. Pastors and priests these days have a lot of work on their plates.  While itinerating, communicating with churches can be a real challenge.  Sometimes a lay leader within a church is better equipped to connect missionaries than their rector.  Having a point of contact with a new (or existing) congregation can really save a missionary a lot of stress (besides a lot of phone calls).  Offer to “put in a good word” to a busy rector on behalf of a missionary or consider organizing a weekend for them to visit your church.  This should all be done, of course, by utilizing the existing channels and structure of the local church.  Often a member of a local congregation has a better feel for the existing system than a missionary on the outside.

4. Host a gathering of your friends who might be interested in supporting a missionary (again, either financially or by other means). Visiting churches is not always the easiest way to connect with people.  Sometimes an informal meal at someone’s house can be a more intimate way of sharing about the work God has called us to.  These kinds of informal gatherings have allowed Kyria and me to share more openly about some of the challenges and privileges of missionary work.  These kinds of meals are often less constrained by time than more formal events at churches, and they tend to feel a lot more personal.

5. Send missionaries handwritten letters and care-packages. It may seem old fashioned, but it was a real encouragement whenever I received STAMPED MAIL in the Solomon Islands.  I received some hand-written cards for Christmas (sent months in advance) as well as some hand-written letters.  Stops at the post-office were frequently routine; I wasn’t expecting to get anything. What a joy to head into town (an all-day, and often STRESSFUL process) and to discover a treasure waiting for me at the local post-office.  Once I even received coffee, candy, and hot sauce!  One caveat to this—it is best to know the situation a missionary is in before sending them a package.  Some countries and contexts make receiving a package more of a hassle than it is worth; sometimes missionaries have to pay import fees, cash-on-delivery, or they may not have vehicles to carry packages home.

6. When they come home, help missionaries to enjoy recreation. This past week Kyria and I spent some time with dear friends (and great supporters) in Colorado.  They forced us (tongue-in-cheek) to visit the local chocolate shop and hot springs.  They were happy to share some of the local attractions, and we were happy to take a break from our usual work, which is not always easy for us.  Many missionaries are driven, sometimes to a fault.  Depending on the field they serve in, missionaries may or may not have much time for recreation, it may be complicated by cross-cultural pressures, or, in some situations, it may be non-existent.  This makes recreation time back in our home culture much more important!

I’ve now spent over a month wading through the adult literacy data I collected last year in West Africa. I’m working on analyzing it to hopefully write an MA thesis with it before the end of the year. As I listen to audio recordings and pour over notes I took during and after interviews, I’m transported back to those months I spent conducting the field research. I feel like I’m right back there, sitting across from an adult who learned to read and write in his or her mother tongue. In that moment, I’m already fatigued from all the ambiguity and need for flexibility involved in scheduling and cross-cultural communication which preceded this interview. Now I’m straining with all my mental capacity to understand what he or she is sharing about the experience of learning to read and which is communicated to me in neither my nor the other’s first language. I’m trying not to focus on the sweltering heat as I attempt to simultaneously cool myself with a hand-fan, wipe the sweat from my eyes, and write down the crucial notes that will become my invaluable data. Whew, what a lot of work it was—logistically, emotionally, and mentally.

In going back and listening to an interview, I was reminded of a gem of a local proverb that an interviewee shared with me. He said, “We the Manjaks will say that when you want to have a harvest, you must choose a good forested area full of trees and weeds. When you choose this kind of land and work it, you will have a harvest. If you say to yourself, ‘Let me choose an area where there aren’t many weeds, that will be easier to clear,’ you won’t have a harvest. You won’t have a good return. There’s no natural fertilizer there. You need an overgrown area, because there’s much natural fertilizer there.”

The interviewee shared that proverb with me to explain why he had wanted to go to all the trouble and difficulty of learning to read in his mother-tongue as an adult. His culture has taught him that anything good in life only comes after much toil.

Now, almost eight months after I conducted that interview, I’m thinking of the proverb’s application to more than just adult mother tongue literacy.

Dean and I are seeking God’s direction in where to work in the Muslim world. One possibility is to return to the country where I worked as a single. We are also exploring other countries. We have been fairly open to consider any majority Muslim context. A couple months ago, we got to attend a conference for our organization’s workers in such contexts. It was a good chance to start conversations with potential teammates.

What we did not expect was to be told by nearly every colleague with whom we struck up a conversation, “Well, hey you should consider our part of the world; we’d love teammates and there’s lots of work to do.” We began to realize that many of our colleagues are without teammates and are desperate to see more workers join them.

I shouldn’t be surprised. After all, didn’t Jesus tell us to expect that when He said in Matthew 9:37-38, “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field”?

More workers are needed all over the world, including right here in the US. I would venture to guess that there are numerous reasons that workers are especially few in the Muslim world. This is a big reason Dean and I are compelled to pursue work there.

There is much talk in our organization lately about the lack of workers. How do we mobilize more people to go to difficult fields, like those of the Muslim world? What would it take for more of us American Christians to choose to stake our claim in the most challenging-looking plot of land, like the Manjak proverb says, trusting that where it’s most toilsome, the return and reward will be greatest?

Yet I’m sure our colleagues who have spent many long, dry years in majority Muslim contexts need much grace to believe Jesus’ words that “the harvest is plentiful.” It’s easy to believe that the workers are few! We can see that ourselves. But the plentiful harvest? Where is that? I have felt the hopelessness on a small scale in the three short years I spent in West Africa.

In my training in the area of “Scripture Engagement” with SIL International, I learned about eight conditions necessary in order for any people group to desire to engage with Christian Scriptures in local languages. (Dye 2009) Condition #6 is “Spiritual Hunger of the Community Members.” Dye writes, “Any renewed interest in traditional or organized religion is a strong indicator of unmet felt needs and spiritual hunger.” (94) Seen in this light, devotion and fervor for some other religion – like what I observed among West Africa’s Sufi Muslims – which can make a field very challenging, can also indicate deep and unsatisfied spiritual hunger. Yes, there are many weeds and brush and too many trees; but something is making those things grow. Dye goes on to say, though, that such religious interest “is not a strong predictor of Scripture engagement unless Christians are showing them that God can meet those needs.” (94) We need more workers in the parts of the world where, along with presenting many challenges, people are seeking answers to their spiritual questions.

Of course, there are many other factors. Our attitude toward challenging fields is only one part. Ultimately as Christians, we must believe that God’s Spirit moves as He will. We must remember that we are not promised ease nor return, reward, or harvest from our labor in our lifetimes. May we continue to work and to pray for more workers as Jesus commands. And may we have the grace to trust Him with the rest.

 

Dye, T. Wayne. 2009. The eight conditions of Scripture engagement: Social and cultural factors necessary for vernacular Bible translation to achieve maximum effect. International Journal of Frontier Missiology 26 (2). 89-98.