Tuesday, December 28, 2010

God's Megaphone

You've seen those journals...
I once was given a sweet little journal that had verses and quotes and cute sayings easily forgotten sprinkled throughout the pages. You know exactly what I’m talking about. Rows upon rows of pink and leather and curlicues in places like Borders or Northwestern Bookstore, elaborately labeled “for women” or “for graduate” or “for people who like orange”…

The journal is long gone, but I still remember one phrase curling at the bottom of a page: “Coincidences are God’s way of remaining anonymous.”

Slightly odd, don’t you think? My experiences with God-ordained coincidences seem to be more akin to a cheerleader’s megaphone than a back-door sort of anonymity. One such occasion played out in my initial steps to Bible translation.

Missions was a part of my life before I was even born. My parents were planning to serve in missions aviation with Wycliffe, and since my mom was pregnant with me during their orientation, I “sat” through all the lectures and "listened" to all the language tapes (ironically, they were of Tok Pisin, the trade language of Papua New Guinea)! Although God ultimately sent my parents in a different direction, the Bible, missions, and a close relationship with Christ were always critical to my life. Languages and linguistics have also been a deep love since I began to talk, and when I look back, it seems only natural for me to merge these two elements in the ministry of Bible translation.

However, it didn’t reappear until I was a junior in high school when I overheard my sister asking my dad about direction for her life.

“Well,” my dad had answered, “you could always do missions, like Bible translation.”

My heart jumped. Bible translation! I didn’t mention it to anyone, but the thought wouldn’t go away, and I found myself praying daily about it for two years. College arrived, and although I made sure my school had a linguistics major, just in case, I hadn’t said yes.

One month into my freshman year, I somewhat grudgingly went to visit the head of Campus Ministry, spurred on by the fact that his brother had been my youth leader for many years, and I knew I couldn’t return home on break without making the connection. To the relief of a timid freshman girl, the pastor wasn’t in his office, but there was a sign on his door, advertising a Meet Wycliffe event the next morning. I shrugged it off and left; after all, the deadline was long past, I didn’t have a car, and my sister was coming to visit.

Later that day (because I knew the excuse of absentee wouldn’t cut it), when I finally connected with the pastor, he eagerly mentioned linguistics and gave me the contact info for the seminar.  (He certainly wasn’t as scary as I had imagined…) On a whim, I decided to email the director. After all, with all these barriers, I wouldn’t be able to go. I should have known better.

At that time, my college Bible study leader had told me “you will find God’s heart in those passions that make you cry.”

Yes, I had thought, but I never cry. But on that Saturday, I vividly remember walking into the basement of the church where the Wycliffe seminar was held and seeing a banner, stretching across the room, naming every single one of the 2,200 languages without Scripture. I froze at the sight. And to my surprise, tears began running down my face, and wouldn’t stop. And I knew that this was where the Lord had brought and broken my heart.  The next day, I emailed my mom and told her I had changed my major to linguistics.

And I haven’t looked back since.

God-ordained “coincidences:”

Incognito sneaking of a God who doesn’t wish to be a part of our lives? Or the persistent, earth-shattering, life-changing orchestrations of our Lord about whom the “heavens declare the glory” and even the rocks shout out in praise?

Relationships require interaction.

I think I prefer the megaphone.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Excelsior? Excel Center? Excess? Exits? ...Excelsis?

Not quite the sound I heard on the radio...

A few days ago I was driving home from work, and, like most of the US population, I was listening to Christmas music. (To be honest, the radio didn't give me much of a choice.)

As I passed billboards for Duluth filled with smiling snowmobilers, an energetic voice burst through the speakers, rather thrilled to be singing his remix version of Angels We Have Heard on High. All the words were the same, but his drum set glorias were far more punchy than the original carol. These angels were no harp-carrying variety.

My traditional preferences aside, his effort was enthusiastic. He was trying to be relevant. Hip. Modern. And yet, he was still singing the Latin words gloria in excelsis Deo.

If you grew up in church, especially one that uses red-covered hymnbooks with gold lettering, you might know what those words mean. But more often than not, we sing those consonants out of habit, and the words are blared out in Macy’s without a thought.

Gloria in excelsis Deo. Or, in English, Glory to God in the highest.

I don’t deny the beauty of Latin. I was one of those overambitious homeschoolers who studied Latin in grade school. I can still conjugate the verb to love and recite sentences about Caesar.

But, for all my linguistic affinity, I am glad for English. Although I delight in forming the Latin sounds, meaning is lost when I only hear the words that the Romans used. I am more apt to skip over it. More apt to ignore it. More apt to wonder if I’m hitting the right notes on that everlasting descent of gloria than the praise that ought to result.

For over 2,000 languages without Scripture, the meaning of Christmas is even more obscured. Many haven’t heard at all, and for those who are fortunate to attend church in a trade language, the readings can be just as rote and impenetrable as our own in excelsis Deo.

It was for Beatrice, an Ugandan woman who faithfully attended church but lacked Scriptures in her mother tongue. Despite Sunday after Sunday of straining to understand and battering her ears to comprehend, Scripture remained confusing and dark; she wondered at its meaning, but kept silent. Who could she ask? There was no Bible to read, no Wikipedia to query strange words, no Christmas cards with calligraphy spilling over in red and green. But, on Christmas Day a few years ago, Beatrice’s ear caught something different, something she knew.  Lubwisi. For the first time in her own language, Beatrice heard about the baby lying in the manger, the Savior who came as a child and desired to enter her life. She finally understood John’s words in Mark 1:1-8 as "people preparing their lives and hearts for the coming of the Lord Jesus who has all the power to save people from their sins, including her.”

She finally understood the meaning of Christmas. Gloria in excelsis Deo. Glory to God in the highest.

And so, this Christmas, as you sing your own glorias and wonder at the spelling of excelsis, remember those nearly 350 million people who are the same place as Beatrice was, waiting in silence. Pray that the understanding of the first Noel (that’s French for Christmas, in case you were curious) will become clear to them too.

Wycliffe would like to thank you for being a part of this work to break the silence: http://www.wycliffe.org/Give/ChristmasGreeting.aspx

Merry Christmas!

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Walkin' in a Winter Wonderland...

Last night, I, braving the crowds of crazed last-minute shoppers and glazed-over drivers, went to a Christmas concert in Hopkins. Celtic Christmas music swelling with dueling improv pianos, an Irish harp, a fiddle that went lickety-split, and an outstanding sax drowned out the typical pop racket that blares from mall speakers warbling about Santa Claus rock. Their Irish flair wholeheartedly dove into first Noels, ringing sleigh bells, little drummer boys, and a whole bunch of snowflakes. And then the lead female singer launched into a rollicking tune that had something to do with waiting for this long winter to go away.

“That’s ironic,” I thought, “seeing as today is only the first day of winter.”

Whoever invented our current calendar did not really have Minnesota in mind when they declared a season to begin on the so-called winter solstice. Multiple blizzards, a collapsed metrodome, temps dropping far below zero, and towering mounds of snow at every intersection so that I feel like I am driving in some sort of rat maze seem to indicate that the season has been around for a while. Yet, despite the fact that no one actually pays attention to it, “the first day of winter” is still faithfully declared in tiny print on December 21 on every calendar you can find in Barnes and Noble.

But not everywhere.

Since Papua New Guinea (PNG) is located in the southern hemisphere, yesterday was not actually the winter solstice. It was the summer solstice.

That means their current scenery looks more like this:
Photographer: June Hathersmith
Rather than this:
the woods near my house
Today, I checked the weather online for PNG’s capital city, Port Moresby; this next week is currently in the 80s to 90s, with a constant chance of rain and high humidity. Rather than having the four seasons of Minnesota (I count our one week of summer), PNG’s weather is divided into the rainy season (roughly Dec.–Mar.) and the not-so-rainy season (sometimes called “dry”). Some places can reach 200” of rain per year, while others defy its tropical reputation and may get as little 45”. Temperatures typically range from the 70s to 90s (and can dip cooler in the highlands), but due to its equatorial position, the humidity is nearly always present.

Sounds like a Minnesota summer to me.

And like my homeland of Minnesota, PNG is a land of extremes. Despite being considered a monsoon climate, the mountainous PNG also happens to be one of the few nations near the equator that gets snow.

Now, perhaps their snowfall is not quite in the proportions of our Minnesota blizzards, such as that one two weekends ago that had me blowing our house out with the infamous Snow Terminator 600.

But, hey, still it's snow!

Even if it is the summer solstice when we're singing about "walkin' in a winter wonderland."

Saturday, December 18, 2010


One very useful perk of being in college is the set of automatic conversation starters that accompany the territory—those questions about where you lived, what your major was, and how classes were going. They were perfect for carrying on intelligent and benign conversation with total strangers.

Except my major. It was more akin to a sniper rifle, taking out innocent conversation starters with a single word: linguistics.

I remember one conversation vividly, which followed the typical pattern: a young man decked in a gray college sweatshirt was sitting across from me on the campus shuttle. He amiably struck forward with what he thought was Safe.

“What’s your major?”

Upon my answer, I watched his face go blank, as if he hadn’t had his morning coffee. But, he was braver than most, and hesitantly asked, “What’s linguistics?”

After I explained that it had to do with languages, his eyes lit up. “Oh! How many languages do you speak?!” It was a common question, but it missed the point, and I tried to explain that I studied the mechanics of all languages. His eyes clouded back over. “What would you ever do with that?”

Ironically, by talking to me, he had answered his own question—each person uses linguistics every day without even knowing it.

But what is linguistics, actually?

According to the handy Dictionary.com, linguistics is “the science of language.” Linguistics is, perhaps, the most mathematical and logical of the humanities. It breaks down language into its parts and examines how we can possibly communicate with each other, much less write novels worthy of the Pulitzer prize.

Different areas of study include:
You never knew... but through linguistics you can find out!

•    Phonetics—the sounds of the world (you know the song by George and Ira Gershwin with the lyrics,  “I say toe-may-toe, you say toe-mah-toe”)

•    Sociology—the social implications of language, such as why people in Wisconsin say “bubbler” while Minnesotans say “drinking fountain.”

•    Morphology—the grammatical formation of the words themselves (ever wonder why we have goose-geese but not moose-meese?)

•    Syntax—how the sentence fits together (that old rule of never ending a sentence in a preposition is explained here)

•    Semantics—the meaning of words (just think of all the meanings of the word like?)

•    Pragmatics—the extra markers of language, such how a child knows that when her mom says “did you take out the garbage?” the mother is not just asking for information…

•    Historical—watching the effects of time and change in language (or why, pray tell, thee doth not spake like Shakespeare did )

Bible translation is one of many applications for this fascinating field. Throughout my own study of it, I have found it to be a beautiful reflection of our God.

After all, in the beginning was the Word. In the beginning, God spoke.

And linguistics was created.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

An Invitation to Imagine

Now to Him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to Him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.                                                                                              
Ephesians 3:20-21

“Tell us a story.”  “Yes please!  A story!”  The demand was insistent, halting our evening walk. The seven of us college students gathered in a circle, skirting rocks and bushes, as the requests came furiously.

Imagine...these colors?
 “It can’t have any love in it.”

“Or death.  There is no death.”

“It should be set in the Old West.”

“And horses, it must have horses.”

“Yes, and there should be a ghost.  The ghost of Dodge City.”

They waited expectantly, looking at me, their assigned narrator. I took a deep breath; without further preparation, a tale began to unfold, weaving itself full of magical maps, caves hidden in the middle of gopher towns, and a well-traveled ghost with a British accent. When others heard of it, they shook their heads in disbelief.  "You have such an imagination."

Imagination: a quality stereotypically confined to wild-haired authors or a precocious child who explains lakes as giant footprints. It is a feral and fearful tool, beyond our neat controls of human-ordered reason, able to prod the consistent, stolid fabric of reality, peaking under its layers and glimpsing something of the other.

And yet we only know God through our imagination. We require metaphors to describe Him as Rock, Shield, Father, Bread of Life, Living Water, Shepherd, King. Jesus Christ, the Word, was metaphor incarnate as He became flesh and dwelt among us. And then He used imagination to tell us of precious pearls found in the mud of a farmer's field or a sheep wandering away from its ninety-nine companions—stories that are rapiers of truth, sliding easily between our limitations to poke us in the sensitive places and spur us on to action and reflection.

But His reality is even greater than all of that. For ours is a God who loves us in a way that surpasses knowledge, takes our sin as far as the east is from the west, knows each star by name, knits us together before we are born.  He is indeed beyond imagination.

This task of Bible translation, too, is beyond our human imagination. Millions of people remain without Scripture—how can it ever be accomplished? On a much smaller scale, how can I even imagine to get on a plane and depart for Papua New Guinea?  And yet, this imagination is but a child’s finger-painting next to Michelangelo’s ceiling. God, through His mouthpiece of Paul, throws down the gauntlet.  Here is who I am; ask, imagine—I am greater!

Greater, for He takes this imagination and makes it an inconceivable reality. A boy’s lunch, packed by his mother's loving hands, would never feed thousands of people anywhere except in someone’s fantasies. But it did. The giraffe’s angular neck stretched to graze the top of trees ought to be relegated to a sketchbook. But it isn’t. And these people I meet, brushing against me in the hallway, have personalities so complex and vivid that they shouldn’t be here.

But they are. And our God knows each of them intimately.

And so, I write this blog and invite you to imagine with me. To meet God and see Him work in ways far greater than you could have ever conceived. Through this blog, I also invite you to go beyond imagination and glimpse for an instant the realities of my life as a linguist with Wycliffe Bible Translators, as well as the reality of this island, that for many exists only on maps or in National Geographic, rather than as people who live and breathe and contemplate supper and have a favorite color.

I assure you, it’s a journey far greater than even you can imagine.