Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Horsing Around

Before we left Kampala a few weeks back, there was one thing we just HAD to do. My girls have a small book about Black Beauty and they'd been asking me for a while to see a horse. There are no horses in Kaabong district or for several hours away in any direction from Kaabong. Come to think of it, there are few horses in Uganda. Thankfully, a good friend of mine from Entebbe, Grace, just happened to know someone with horses at their private residence. So on a bright Sunday afternoon, we took the girls for an hour of riding. 

I don't think they quite comprehended what was going on until they were actually up close to the horses. But once they realized what a great opportunity they had, they quickly and confidently climbed into the saddle. When at first they were hesitant to pat the horse's coat, by the end, it was difficult to drag them away from the horses. They had a wonderful time and experienced something that few Ugandans get to do. 
Lemu's legs were so short that they didn't fit into the stirrups and one of us had to walk along side of her. The owner was afraid that she'd slide off. But not to worry. Lemu sat bravely and was not about to let her sister outdo her. Growing up with horses myself, this experience brought back a sense of nostalgia for days past, and it made me even more thankful for the experiences and opportunities God gives us in life. Thankfully, these horses were very well-mannered and the girls had a non-traumatic experience.

So much for horsing around...

Saturday, March 22, 2014

The Gospel and its Auxiliaries

Recently I came across this quote (below) by famous British missionary to China J. Hudson Taylor. As Amber continues her healthcare for our neighbors, and as I dig deeper into the Ik language with a group of ten Ik men (in an orthography workshop being held here in Timu), this quote provides a challenging perspective to our endeavors. Please read:

"Let us feel that everything that is human, everything outside the sufficiency of Christ, is only helpful in the measure in which it enables us to bring the soul to Him. If our medical missions draw people to us, and we can present to them the Christ of God, medical missions are a blessing; but to substitute medicine for the preaching of the gospel would be a profound mistake. If we put schools or education in the place of spiritual power to change the heart, it will be a profound mistake. If we get the idea that people are going to be converted by some educational process, instead of by a regenerative recreation, it will be a profound mistake. Let all our auxiliaries be auxiliaries---means of bringing Christ and the soul into contact---then we may truly be thankful for them all...Let us exalt the glorious gospel in our hearts, and believe that it is the power of God unto salvation...Let everything else sit at its feet..."

It's true, so often things like education or health & sanitation or access to clean water or you-name-it are touted as near-means of salvation for the developing world. I remember a couple of years ago being at a 'peace gathering' between the Ik, Karimojong, and Turkana. One of the guest speakers was an official high in the district government. He gave an impassioned plea for education, holding it before the people as the ultimate solution to inter-tribal conflict. At the time I thought, "No, education is not the gospel. Education can also get you more educated criminals and ordinary selfish, greedy, or cruel people." Off to the side I was asked if I wanted to speak. I declined because the anthropologist in me much prefers to be a fly on the wall. By nature I prefer to observe rather than interfere. But any good missionary would've taken the opportunity to present the gospel of Jesus Christ to that crowd as the only true means of peace in this violent land. 

Knowing what good missionaries are supposed to do, Amber and I have tried to use our 'secular' platforms of healthcare and language development as 'auxiliaries' to spreading the gospel. I recall those times when we tried to pray for each patient that Amber saw. I remember having an Ik pastor be in the examination room to pray for and 'share the gospel' with the patients. I also remember the uncomfortable and ambiguous replies when patients were asked if they wanted prayer. I remember the trapped feeling I felt when the pastor 'cornered them' before they could leave and pedantically 'presented the gospel' to uninterested ears. In workshops and translation sessions, I've tried praying as a group, having spiritual meditations, and offering spiritual advice. These too were met with awkwardness and apparent apathy and so quickly became formal and perfunctory. Such things were eventually abandoned.

There has often been a strict dichotomy drawn between 1) evangelism, discipleship, Bible teaching, preaching, in short: 'gospel ministry', and 2) 'secular' activities done a) as means of expressing the love, life, and grace of God and b) to the glory of God through Jesus Christ. The first is what 'real' missionaries do, and the second is what liberal or unspiritual or backslidden or worldly Christians do instead. But I wonder, how valid is the distinction? Now, I believe that bringing 'the soul in contact with Christ' IS the most important thing we can do and have done to us. Many missionaries are naturally gifted at doing that---that's why they're missionaries in the first place. I happen to be really bad at 'sharing the gospel' in an active evangelistic kind of way. But put me in a conversation with an educated or disillusioned or skeptical kind of 'seeker' (because I have been all those) and I'll feel released to speak of Christ, what he's done for me, and what's he's doing in the world. But I have a strong natural aversion to trying to convince people to want something they don't want (it's why I make a horrible salesman). If an Ik person approached me wanting to know about Jesus, I would gladly speak all I could. But no one has ever done that, not even the Ik Christians. 

In view of my failures and inadequacies as a standard missionary type, I have had to take a different perspective on what we do. Amber and I are foundation-layers and way-openers. We blaze trails, we build buildings, and we forge relationships. Amber's work as a community nurse communicates love, care, and concern to her patients. Though she may not often get to connect it overtly with the love of Jesus, the evidence is still being lain down, the data still being created. Hopefully, when those who receive a critical mass of human kindness, hearing the message of God's kindness will make sense. After all, how many of us believed the gospel in a vacuum of neutral life experiences? Was not our acceptance of the love of God preceded to some degree by human kindness? I know at least in my case it was, to a massive degree. How then can we expect people steeped in a life of hardship and misery to believe in a good, kind God at first hearing? (I know it can and does happen all the time, all over the world, but I haven't seen it happen here, not even once). My work as a linguist and language learner also hopefully communicates love, interest, and dignity to the people whose language I study. I want the linguistic and language development work that I do to erect the cognitive scaffolding, to lay the mental latticework for the social and spiritual growth of the Ik by any language-based means. Might the personal and relational and intellectual and chronological sacrifices I've made demonstrate to the Ik the inherent value of their language, and by extension who they are as people. And might that also point to a God who would be so interested in them, too, that he would lay down his life for them. 

We see ourselves not as part of the main wave of missionaries to the Ik, nor even those on the 'front lines'. We see ourselves as far in front of the front lines, preparing the ground, tilling the soil, clearing trails, pouring foundations. All that, so that when the others arrive, they will find structures and paths in which to operate. I was asked recently in Kampala by a visiting American evangelist if I too 'preached', namely to the Ik, like he ostensibly would if he was here. I said, "No, I'm just trying to lay a foundation for those who come after to preach, teach, disciple, etc." His loss of interest was apparent as he replied, "Well, we need those kinds of people too." Do we? Is it a legitimate form of 'making disciples of all nations'? I certainly hope so; otherwise, we're making a profound mistake.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Out of Ateso, into Ik

After more than six weeks in Kampala, tomorrow morning we plan to head back north to Kaabong and then Timu on Thursday. Miraculously, we adjusted fairly well to life in Kampala; even now, life in Timu seems like a world away (it is, in a couple of ways). But we are more than ready to get home!

The four-week orthography review workshop ended a little more than a week ago. The last week was more intense because the Ateso group had to make some important decisions on how to write their language. Up to that point, we could just discuss things but then push the decisions off. For example, in Ateso, present and past tenses are distinguished only by tone. A phrase like aduki eong can mean either 'I am building' or 'I was building', depending on the tones. For this issue, the group decided to write one tone accent on one syllable in the past tense, as in adukí eong 'I was building'. As another example, like Ik, Ateso has something called 'shadow vowels'. These are vowel sounds that are reduced slightly, sometimes just whispered, at the end of words. Up to now, these shadow vowels had never been written. But in some cases, they add meaning to a word. For example, the word agogong means 'I am strong', but agogongᶸ means 'strength'. And while kodok means 'climb!', kodukᶸ means 'climb this way!'  As you can see, the Ateso chose to write shadow vowels with a small raised vowel. This is a new, unprecedented way to write shadow vowels, and it remains to be seen whether it will be accepted.

Making a writing system involves three distinct and often conflicting factors: 1) linguistics, 2) acceptability, and 3) pedagogy. A good writing system is based on a scientific study of a language's sound system and basic grammar. But it must also be acceptable to the people speaking the language. For example, we had made a decision with the group to write /i/ as /y/ in certain environments. But the decision was rejected later because they didn't like how many /y/'s were appearing in their texts. That has to do with the visual appearance of the writing. Then the third issue is pedagogy. The writing system, no matter how linguistically sound and socially acceptable, must also be teachable. During the month-long workshop, these three factors often come into conflict. In fact, orthography development involves quite a lot of compromise. The simple truth is that the Roman alphabet was not designed for African languages. It can work, but it also needs 'work arounds'.

After the final, albeit tentative, decisions were made, we had a little farewell party. Amber and the girls came into the office and got to meet the Ateso group. It was great fun, especially since in the group there were women named Immaculate and Mercy (like our girls). They were kind enough to even buy us a couple of gifts. What a wonderful bunch of people they are! Left to right (top, then bottom, not counting our girls): Connie, our workshop leader from the Netherlands, Terrill, Amber, Mercy, Immaculate, Mary, Joseph, Alex, Clement, Scovia, Simon Peter, Kellen, and Martin:

It was such a blessing for me to have them as my group since I was also learning on the job. They were kind and patient with me. They learned some linguistics and gained some explicit knowledge of their language. I learned some of their language and lot about the 'group participatory' method of language research and development.

Looking back over these weeks, what I remember is not so much the difficult stuff (smog, heat, long taxi rides, long hours at the workshop, worrying about Amber with the kids, etc.) but more how God sustained us throughout. I really believe he extended grace to both of us: me having to really step outside my comfort zone work-wise, and Amber having to spend a huge amount of time with Janet and Lemu, often alone. We obviously both had rough days, but the Lord helped us through it all. And it was worth it. The Teso people have a newly revised writing system that hopefully will 'SHARPen' their literacy, authorship, and education for decades to come. I gained valuable experience and made good money (which is channeled back into SIL's work). Amber made quite a few new friends in Kampala, many of which are also adopting Ugandan children. And the girls grew in many ways...

Their English has grown amazingly fast. Just this afternoon I heard them jabbering away to each other in very American English. Janet used the hypothetical mood for the first time, as in "It would be funny if...". We see their little personalities coming out more and more as they learn how to express themselves. They've grown considerably in their swimming abilities. Janet can now swim around the deep end without any flotation devices! Lemu isn't far behind her. And they've also grown spiritually. In addition to asking Jesus into their lives a few weeks ago, they've enjoyed attending Sunday School for about four Sundays in a row. (They've also grown a bit horizontally, thanks to the cheese, yogurt, and other Kampala delicacies).

As we head back to Ikland, we look forward to reconnecting with our Ik neighbors and focusing our energies a little closer to 'home'. I am planning to hold a similar, mini-version of the orthography workshop with an Ik group. We already have a writing system for the Ik, but only I and one other Ik have used it consistently. It's time to bring more people on board, get them trained, and get them writing. Then, in the first week of April, a small team of South Africans are planning to come to hold a three-day training on 'Farming God's Way', which is a farming method that involves not tilling the soil, mulching heavily, and using other less ecologically disruptive agricultural strategies. Then in May, my brother Chad and sister Laura are planning to come for a visit! And so we expect a busy but fulfilling few months to come.

We appreciate your prayers for the following: 1) Safety as we drive the long 400-plus miles, 2) Re-adjustment to life in Timu, 3) the Ik orthography workshop, 4) caring well for Janet and Lemu, 5) renewal of our work permits, 6) a court date for legal guardianship, 7) physical energy, 8) rain, 9) and 10) security (more guns are flowing into the area). As always, we're grateful for your thoughts, prayers, notes, emails, etc.