A Stricken Father

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Who Am I? – Part 20

In the last article of this series, “Living a Missionary Life,” I gave a brief summary of what living in Papua New Guinea was like for us as a family. Those were good years, and in many ways our family has looked at those years as the best years for our family. We were a solid family unit the four of us, living in our house in the tropical forest in the remote village ministering to the Papuan people by day and having many wonderful family times together in the evenings.

Just before we returned to PNG in 2000 after a short furlough to visit family and our supporting churches, we built a crate (4′ x 4′ x 8′) to send overseas thinking that we would spend the next 10 to 15 years over there working on the Bible translation project. This is what I had always dreamed about doing, what I have trained for, and what I was prepared to give my life for in service to God. Little did we know what lay around the corner for us.

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Now I do need to admit that living in our remote village was not easy. I think of all of us, Glen was the one who enjoyed village life the most. Partly because of his young age but also because of his personality he fit in well. Our older son Eric on the other hand, has always been more suited to larger cities and more Western-style living. And that’s okay, because God makes all of us uniquely different.

So shortly after our return to the field, Eric began asking us for our permission to let him go up to the highlands of PNG to live on a large mission base where he would live in a dormitory and attend an international junior high/senior high school. It was very difficult for us as parents to consider the idea of him living apart from us, but over time we came to realize this would be a better arrangement for Eric.

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In August of 2001, our family went up to the mission base and begin a new phase for our family. At first, our family all stayed together in one flat (apartment) in the house that PBT owned up there. Then Eric moved over into one of the hostels where other schoolchildren and the dorm parents lived while Jill, Glen, and I remained at the PBT house. The idea was to have us close but to still allow Eric a trial period of separation to see how he would do living at the hostel.

And you know what? Eric really enjoyed living there and going to the mission school for his 7th Grade. Actually, I think it was much harder on us to let him go than for him to leave us. This looked like it would work out well, and so the three of us headed back to our village in the lowlands. Thankfully, we did have a radio connection between our village house and the hostel so that we were able to talk to Eric almost every day.

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The first hint of a problem was when Eric got sick on a school outing and couldn’t shake it off after more than two weeks of feeling poor. At the same time, some troubling cultural issues developed among the villages of our language group and so the Directors of our Branch advised us to go back up to the mission center. So our family was reunited, but Eric continued to have throat and bronchial problems as well as feeling very weak.

We worried for our son, but the clinic doctors kept thinking that it was simply a bacterial problem. We were now getting ready to go back to the village but Jill asked the doctors to run one more test on Eric. Now whether that was Jill being a very concerned mother or was prompted by God I don’t know, but the fact remains that this one more examination proved vital for Eric’s health.

When the two doctors finally got together and reviewed the results, something suspicious in the blood work caused them to call us in so that they could talk to us. Being medically trained, Jill caught on much faster than I did as to the potential seriousness of the situation. The next thing I knew we were calling our health provider back in Canada and were advised to take Eric to Australia for more testing.

That afternoon and that evening is still a blur. Phone calls were made, neighbors watched over the kids, and friends came to help pack up all of our belongings from the house where we were staying. The next day we loaded up on the small mission Cessna airplane and headed towards Port Moresby, the capital of PNG. By the next day, we were in Brisbane and Eric was immediately admitted into the hospital. We got the unofficial word that night, and were officially told the news the next day. Eric had leukemia.

Even as I dictate this story into my computer microphone my voice gets choked up, and my eyes get misty with tears. As much as I love living in Papua New Guinea, putting my hand to the task of translation and being in service for the Lord, my love for my family was greater and my heart and my spirit were broken that day when we received news of his diagnosis.

That day in January of 2002 began a long cancer journey for Eric and our family. The chemotherapy treatments went on for 30 months, and Jill and I lived with the fear of the disease and the worry about the treatment during those months. But we entrusted the life of our son into the hands of our Father above. And in His mercy, God watched over Eric and brought us all through those cancer years.

There is so much more to the story that I cannot tell right now, but I will, Lord willing, in future articles. In all those years, I never remember saying, “Why Lord?” But I do remember often asking God, “Please Lord, spare the life of my child and give us strength to walk this path.” Looking back now, I’m happy to say that God answered both of those prayers.

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Living A Missionary Life

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Who Am I?  Part 19

As you can see, this is the 19th article in this series called “Who Am I?” It has been an interesting exercise for me to summarize the most important events or moments in my life, and I hope that you have been enjoying this journey along with me. Many of these articles dealt with single moments or events that shaped or changed my life in a dramatic way.

This article will be quite different in that I want to try to summarize the five years that I spent as a Bible translator living in a remote village in Papua New Guinea. In some ways, this is almost an impossible task. There are so many interesting stories that I could tell you about these years that I will probably need to set up an entirely new series of articles to run throughout 2012.

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What I will try to do then, is to give you a large overview of these years, as well as my general impressions of the time that we spent as a family in our home in the jungle. One of the first things that people would often ask us is “What was the climate like there? Do you have seasons over there like we do back home?”

And my answer would be, “Sure, we had seasons: there was Wet and Wetter!” Actually, it was not too bad in our area. It would receive about an average rainfall of 250 inches per year. There are some areas of PNG that can have 350 to 400 inches per year. The good news, is that we were not living within the “swampy” region. We lived at an elevation of about 200 feet, at around 7° south of the equator, in a low valley surrounded by distant mountain ranges.

The other good news was that there occasionally was a breeze to cool us off of the perpetual, year-round temperature of 90 to 100°F. The bad news was that the breeze was just the rushing front air that signaled the oncoming torrential downpour. If you were outside at the time, you had to decide if it was worth trying to run home to try to beat the rain. And if you were inside the house, your job was to run around to each room and unroll the plastic tarps and secure them tightly in an attempt to keep the torrential rains out of your house.

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Another thing that people often asked us about, was what the food there was like. One of my favorite sayings was, “Kick any tree, and a fruit will fall out.” We were able to enjoy such things as papayas, mangos, bananas of at least seven varieties, pomegranates, coconuts, watermelons, cucumbers, as well as lemons and lemonade from the four lemon trees in front of our house. And of course, all of us had to at least try eating a grub worm once. But most of our food and supplies would be flown into us on the little Cessna plane that would come into our village every 2 to 3 weeks.

The people though, were subsistent farmers who grew gardens and literally lived off the land and ate anything that they could find that was edible. Each year, they would go to a new section of the jungle and they would have to chop down all the trees, burn them, and then clear the land before they could plant their new gardens. Jungle soil is actually not very fertile, so they would have to slash and burn a new garden area every year.

It would take about 4 to 6 months before the gardens would produce their green vegetables and staples such as yams, taro, sweet potatoes, etc. They would be able to eat food from the gardens for about half a year. After that, they would simply forage for anything they could find in the jungle, as well as eat the starchy substance that they could scrape and squeeze out of the center of a sago palm tree.

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The final most obvious question that people would ask us was, “What did you do while you were there?” And the answer was, we did many things. We studied the culture, learned the language, built relationships with people, raised our elementary age children there, worshiped in the local church with the people, held singing and devotional evenings at our house, helped the people with some of their physical needs and medical needs as we were able to, and much, much more.

All of these activities were important, and we enjoyed living our lives with and among the people in our village. But none of these were the primary reason for us leaving the comforts of North America life and coming to live in the tropical jungles of PNG. First and foremost, our desire was to bring God’s Word to the people living there. And the means by which we would do this would be through the process of doing Bible translation.

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And so, while still doing all of these other activities, my primary focus was to translate the Scriptures into the language of the people. Bible translation is a very slow and methodical process, and often takes many years to be able to produce final written copies of some portions of the Bible. It is with great joy then, that I can tell you that by the end of our five-year period, we had completed the translation of the Gospel of Mark and it is now published and available to the people among whom we lived.

So this should give you an overview and a taste of what living a missionary life was like for us. I have many, many more stories about our time in PNG, and these will provide the material for me to be able to write many interesting articles next year. So stay tuned, there are lots of good stories ahead.

Training To Be A Bible Translator

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Who Am I?  Part 18

At last! After many years of thinking, dreaming, and praying about the idea of me becoming a Bible translator, the time was now at hand. At least, it was the beginning of the beginning. We had just finished living in Lincoln, Illinois for a year, and then we made the move down to Dallas, Texas. This was where I was going to do the linguistic studies that I would need to be able to become an effective Bible translator.

It was in 1976, that I saw firsthand what Bible translation was all about, when I visited the missionary couple who were living in the mountains of Peru. I was fascinated with the idea that you could learn the local language used by the people and then translate the Bible into that language. Now, 17 years later, I was finally going to start to pursue this dream of becoming a translator myself.

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My life became very busy that fall of ’94 and winter of ’95 as I dug into courses like Phonetics, Phonology, Grammar, Language Acquisition, Culture and Society, Field Works ( where we learn to use computer programs to help us analyze language data), and many others. And life was certainly hectic for Jill too as she also took some of the foundational linguistic courses, helped to take care of the boys, and also worked at a nearby hospital.

While we were there, our family lived in a dormitory building where many other linguistics students were staying as well as a few families. In many ways we shared our lives together as we studied together, lived in the dorm together, and also ate meals together in the cafeteria up the hill. It was an exciting time as most of us were here training to become missionaries and be involved in some capacity in actual translation projects, or in support roles to help those who are doing translation.

Besides concentrating on the studies, one of the most important questions that we needed to answer for ourselves was where we wanted to go in the world. At that time, Pioneer Bible Translators was working primarily in three countries or regions of the world. They had a Branch in West Africa, East Africa and Papua New Guinea. They also had a small project starting in the Ukraine.

In a funny kind of way, the choice was very simple for me. In the ’80s, there was a popular Christian song sung by Scott Wesley Brown called, “Please Don’t Send Me To Africa”. It’s a song that pokes fun at Christians who are afraid that God will call them to be a missionary and the idea is that people will say, “Please Lord, I will do anything, but please, please do not send me to Africa.”

You will find out later that our family actually did go to Africa, but in the ’80s and ’90s, I had a strong pull of wanting to go to the Pacific Islands region of the world. I also felt old, considering that most of the students were in their 20s and I was now in my mid 30s, so I wanted to go to a well established Branch, and it also appealed to me to consider working in a project that had already been started.

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I believe that it was God’s providential guidance that Jill and I were able to become acquainted with a couple from PBT that had worked in a translation project in PNG, but for health reasons were back in America. We visited and e-mailed each other many times over the two-year period before we actually got to PNG. Even more amazing, was that this man had produced a grammar of the people group that he had worked with and I was able to use that as part of a research project in one of my graduate study courses.

After taking the fall and winter courses of linguistics in Dallas, our family traveled to North Dakota where some summer linguistic courses were offered. That was very intense since these advanced courses, which were usually taught over 14 weeks in Dallas, were taught in only eight weeks. We spent the Fall in Calgary before returning to Dallas, to finish my last semester of my linguistic training.

So finally, after a year and a half of studies, our family was prepared to leave North America and travel to PNG to live among the people of a remote area and learn their language and translate the Bible into that language. There was just one little detail that needed to be taken care of though. We would need to raise missionary support for us to be able to live and work over there in PNG.

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In some ways, this was much more challenging to us emotionally and spiritually as we realized that we would need to depend on God and God’s people to raise up the monies that we would need. As much as we were able to, during ’94 and ’95, we visited or wrote to many Canadian churches and we were excited every time one of these churches responded back positively to say they would support us as best they were able to at that time.

Then, God opened the door for us to return to Illinois. Jill was able to work at the hospital, and through prayer and the leading of God’s Spirit, we were able to visit about 28 churches throughout Illinois to tell them of our plans to be missionaries in PNG. How God led us to be able to speak in all these churches is another story in and of itself, but we were truly humbled and amazed to see so many places open their doors to receive us and to listen to our plans to serve God.

By the end of 1996, everything was pretty much in place. The training was done, partnerships with churches and individuals had been established, and we were ready to go. All we had to do now, was get the entry visas stamped in our passports and we would be on our way to PNG. But that little story, will be the beginning of the next article.

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God’s Assignment For Me

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Part One – Translation Advisor

It was just over one year ago, on March 17th, 2010, that I returned to Canada after working with a team of national men in Papua New Guinea on their translation of Matthew.  These men are part of what we call “Group Directed Projects”.  From one perspective, you could say that their project is currently functioning without having an expatriate (“foreign”) missionary directly assigned to work with them.

A more positive way to look at it is to say that with some limited guidance and support, national Papuans are working at getting Bible translation and literacy efforts going for the people of their own language.  By this I mean that our staff in our Madang office will help train them to learn the principles of Bible translation and literacy.  We will also help provide outside Advisors and Translation Consultants to come and look over the text and point out places where corrections or some revisions might be needed to be done.

My task last year was to come and work with one team to help them with their translation of the Gospel of Matthew.  The man who had been assigned as their translation Advisor was not available, and so I was asked to step in.  There are quite a few steps involved in the translation process, going from a rough draft of the text all the way to publishing the book of Scripture that you are working on.  It would take me a few articles to outline clearly all of these steps, but in time I should be able to write enough stories to help people understand what is involved.


Now before I tell you more about the checking sessions that I did last year with the AK language, I must share with you what  makes this project very interesting and unique.  Most language projects, and especially the ones in Papua New Guinea, can take years if not decades to get the translation of the New Testament entirely rough drafted.  But incredibly, the AK language project had a complete New Testament drafted in just over a half of a year.

How was this possible, and what does this mean?  Well, this project was not begun by a missionary going to live among them like PBT’s other projects, but rather it was started at the initiative of the people themselves.  And the key to its quick beginning was the fact that is was closely related to another language which lived nearby, the AR language.  And since the AR language group had recently printed New Testament, it was decided to use a computer program called ‘Adapt It’ to try to speed up the translation for the AK group.

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Basically what happens is that first a dictionary is created for both languages while using a third language to be the bridge between the other two.  When the bridge language definition of the AR and the AK language is the same, then we know that we can substitute the AK term at the place where the AR term was used in the verse.  So after building dictionaries for all the languages, then we can figuratively say, “We pour the AR language into the computer and it spits out a rough translation of the text in the AK language.”

That is so cool, isn’t it?  But before we get too excited, there in no possible way in the world that we can have a complete one-to-one word correlation between two languages.  Sometimes we must try to put a tightly bound word phrase, or a figure of speech through this dictionary filter and the result at the end is anything but comprehensible.  So although Adapt-It can produce a rough draft text very quickly, some parts will sound very strange, and other parts will just simply not be understood at all.

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And that is where I came into the project last year.  The AK text of Matthew had been put through the AR filter already, and they saw that there were so many awkward and incomprehensible portions of the text that a second filter pass through was necessary to get a workable text.  Then a couple of the men went through the newly drafted text carefully and cleaned it up as much as they could.  This made the text ready for me to be able to do some basic comprehensive and exegetical checking on it.

To help you distinguish between these two kinds of checks, think of comprehensive checking as asking simple straightforward questions such as “where did Jesus tell Peter to go to find money to pay the temple tax?  What did Peter do?  Where did he find the temple tax?”  These are straight forward questions to help establish the facts of a story.

But what about the more complicated questions like “What is the Temple?  How much is the Temple tax that every one needs to pay?  How did Jesus know where the tax could be found?  What was the value of the coin and its denomination?  How was this a dire threat to the Roman law and  to the Jewish ways and the religious institutions of his day?”  These are the kind of questions that need to be asked by either a Language Advisor or a Translation Consultant to see if the translation is accurate, natural and clear.

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And so for five weeks I worked with the AK people going slowly verse-by-verse in order to identify where there might be some language problems which would then need to be revised.  It was tedious work going as slow as we did.   In this instance, I was playing the role of being a Language Advisor.  There were enough grammar and key term differences between the two languages that we needed to go slowly to  ensure we had a good translation.

I hope from this short article that you can see some of the challenges I face in being a Language Advisor to a foreign language project.  Five weeks to work through Matthew may seem a long time.  And in fact, we only got to finish 20 out of the 28 chapters of the book.  And so the team’s usual Advisor set up one more session with them to be able to finish it.  But praise God, it is now ready to go to the next level, the Consultant check.