“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” So begins the oft quoted line from A Tale of Two Cities (one in England, one in France) by Charles Dickens.
My story begins, “It was the best of translation responses, it was the worst of translation responses.” I refer to two translations into disparate dialects of the Kewa language (PNG) which we initiated in 1958 and concluded in 2005.
The two translations are in a sense separate stories but in another sense (like London and Paris during the French Revolution and Dicken’s story) they are intertwined.
In July 1958 another man (Harland Kerr) and I visited remote and restricted areas of the Southern Highlands to engage the people of two languages in Bible translation. Or at least that is what we hoped we were communicating, for none of the people were fluent in Tok Pisin and I, as chief communicator, had no other language to use.
We spent 20 days on the survey and almost 9 of them were involved in waiting long periods for air transportation. During the survey both of us chose places to live and arranged for temporary houses to be built. My wife, Joice, was pregnant when we returned in October so the walk took us longer than the usual 3-5 hours. The Kerrs chose a village that was on the border of another language and some 7 hours walk from us and we seldom saw one another.
I would say that the initial period of language learning and contact was the best of times for us because we were young, inexperienced, enthusiastic, and full of hope and faith. We were where we wanted to be: an isolated language area, in a rural village setting, living among people to learn their language and culture and give them God’s word. That was the paradigm from which we operated in those days.
Five years later we spoke the language well and had analyzed a good share of the grammar, but we had translated only 5 chapters of Mark. In today’s climate we might have been fired or home assigned. Fortunately for us, Dr Pike came to PNG and held a grammar workshop and encouraged me to study at Cornell U. during our furlough. (It didn’t quite happen that way)—Pike had to write a letter to the head of the dept. of linguistics to get me admitted.
Although we visited the dialect area where we had begun in 1958, we never went back there to live. SIL and WBT have ways of keeping one humble—I was elected as the first associate director for language affairs that the Branch ever had. I became, with only EC experience, an administrator. Pike, however, had other plans and asked us to start the first SIL in NZ. A year later I was offered a PhD scholarship at ANU and began studies in another dialect of Kewa.
Studies at ANU were really the best of times: I was paid to study and produced a monograph on the dialects, a grammar, translated all of Mark and some of Acts, we held literacy classes, and all this within a 3 year period. I completed my studies in 1969 and by 1973 the whole NT was dedicated. The Lutheran and Catholic churches, of which there were now many, were using the NTs. It was truly a great time.
Did you ever wonder—why can’t life go on like it is the best of times? Well it doesn’t, and it didn’t. To quote Dicken’s again “It was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness,”. For the next 4 years I was the Director of the PNG Branch. Nevertheless, the churches and people continued to use the NT and we visited the people when we could.
At two periods in our WBT and SIL careers we took home assignments of 3 years each to see our two children through adjustment stages into US culture. We served as teachers, consultants and administrators, in Dallas and in the PNG Branch again, then in Australia for 3 years.
Finally, in 1994 we took “permanent” assignments in Dallas—again teaching, consulting and administrating for by then I had had 8 years in the Directorate of PNG, 6 years on the EC, and Board experience in both our organizations. We corresponded with PNG and the Kewa people but were happily working in the US.
Then a letter and package arrived that changed our lives—again. It was from a lay pastor in the village where we had lived and in the package were notebooks with attempts at revising a couple of the Gospels. The writer explained: “The NT is out of print and we need a new version, so we are starting one.” I could see at once that they could use some help so I asked my wife what she thought of going back to PNG. After her 3 major excuses were no longer valid, we headed back in 2002 and for the next 3 years we regularly went to PNG. The revised NT was dedicated in July of 2004.
But again, we were surprised. As Dicken’s said, “It was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light.” A woman leader of the first dialect where we worked and who was living at Ukarumpa complained that they did not have the NT—not fair, was the general idea. About that time a colleague showed me a computer Adapt It version and suggested that I try it since I knew both dialects of Kewa.
A bit over a year later, in 2005, the East Kewa NT was dedicated. You might think that in 2009, four years later, it would be the best of times (again). But it isn’t because a particular church has not distributed the NT due to major social problems in the area.
Two NTs have been completed—one is well accepted and a team is translating the OT; the other is not yet accepted and there is difficulty in distribution. Of course the story is not over and that is why I am telling it to you. Jesus warned that “the door to heaven is narrow” and many will try to get in but it will be too late. In fact some will try to storm the Kingdom and they will be thrown out. And yet, in the same scene Jesus triumphally adds that “people will come from all over the world to take their places in the Kingdom of God.”
Dickens didn’t know he was describing our situation when he said “it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair….in short, the period was … like the present period….”
I will conclude by mentioning a book that I recently read, because it is relevant to how we view our work and it has also been challenging to me. It is by Brian Gay and is called “Dialogue, Monologue and Catalogue,” representing three different positions of communication. Dialogue, is of course, what we want—an engagement with the people, with colleagues, supporters and friends. Jesus was always in dialogue—with the Father, disciples, people he met, Pharisees, sinners, tax collectors—walking along the road, in fishing boats, on hillsides, synagogues, weddings, feasts—he was always talking to people.
Monologue, on the other hand, is when we want to be heard, when we want to be in control, it is our use of words and speech, often manipulating both so that we can influence people. People who use speech this way are often not trustworthy or sincere.
Finally catalogue. Gay uses the metaphor to cover intellectual analysis, technical information, and lists of things that we know and share but don’t talk about. I suggest that in our organizations there is a temptation to depend on catalogue and not on dialogue.
Jesus did not simply pass on information—no OT Bible trivia questions, but rather he had stories and discussions with the common people and with the religious authorities. He did signs and miracles and still many people did not believe in him. At times he showed a hard side—he cursed the fig tree and cleared the temple, he reprimanded Peter and warned religious leaders. He grieved over Jerusalem. And he told a lot of stories. One we know well is the story of the sower—have you discussed it lately?
We need to because the Word of God is the seed and it falls on different kinds of soil—rocky, hard, with weeds, representing various kinds of reactions to the Word. I wish that all the Kewa soil was fertile and that the result was “even” a partial harvest. But it isn’t as yet—for one dialect of the Kewa it may be the best of times, but for the other, it is the worst of times.
Someday I hope to relate the rest of the story. In the meantime I am talking to you about it in the hope that you will talk to God and ask him for a joyful end to the story (and, I might add, many others like it) that don’t find their way into the publicity for our donors.
[A devotional for The Seed Company, May 15, 2009]