I have just returned from Papua New Guinea, refreshed, tired but refreshed in a way. We hear so much that is negative about Papua New Guinea. Of course, newspapers only publish bad news and hardly ever, it seems to me, good news. Christianity is alive and well in Papua New Guinea, even though what we read is about the “rascals”. I am pleased to tell you that the Dept. of Education — and this surely is a first — has voted to include Christian education in every primary school. It’s hard to top that.
I would like to talk to you this morning about the cost of a New Testament. What do we pay for a New Testament? Five dollars? Ten dollars? A deluxe version for twenty? This one (Usarufa NT) costs one kina. This is the Usarufa New Testament. A kina is the equivalent of about one dollar Australian. Could I just pass this around? Even if you just read the cover. aúgen-anon-anon- aimma means the new agreement (covenant) talk.
Bible translators don’t think in terms of dollars when they count the cost of a New Testament, and I would like to give you the history of just that one New Testament because it’s a kind of personal pilgrimage also. It involves three key people: Darlene Bee, who began the translation 20 years ago; and Imááqo; and myself.
Picture a sixteen- or seventeen-year-old student at Moody Bible Institute in Chicago. This was where Darlene was when she saw a film, and in which a New Guinea tribesman had walked all the way from his village, over countless mountain ranges, to the headquarters of the Summer Institute of Linguistics, the academic name for Wycliffe Bible Translators, to ask for somebody to come and learn his language. Well, of course, he could not speak to the director directly. His request went from language to language to language until the message was understood. The director replied through the same network of languages back to the tribesman saying they would try to send someone. At the time there were only 14 translators in New Guinea, and all of them had an assignment.
The Usarufa language is reputedly — and I can give first hand confirmation — one of the most difficult languages anyone has come across. In fact, when the principal linguists of the National University of Australia [Australian National University — ed.], [Stephen] Wurm and Kappell [Arthur Capell, who was not on the faculty of ANU — ed.], made a linguistics survey in New Guinea, they were able to obtain word lists and some idea of grammar in order to group languages together, with one exception. When they came to Usarufa they were stumped. It was unrelated to any of the languages surrounding them, and when the bright young linguist Darlene Bee arrived in 1957, the director sent her to the Usarufas for 3 months to see if she could make some headway in understanding this language, the only tone language in the region.
While she and her partner were working there in linguistics, she looked up at the headman who was helping her, and realized this was the man in the film who had asked for someone to learn his language. She knew then that she was in the right place. So she and her partner continued on with the linguistic analysis there. This was before I was on the scene. I was a concert artist at that time performing in the capitals of Europe and America and was not yet a committed Christian.
At a slump in my career, and this happens when one becomes a commodity, and not really liking myself very much for having to to learn to be pretty tough in order to survive alone in New York City I became discouraged and was just down in the pits. I remember praying when I was as far down as I could go. I prayed in half- belief asking if there were anyone up there listening, and if God really existed, I needed His help. I was feeling ill at the time and was taken by my manager to some friends’ home in Greenwich Village. They first took me to a doctor, and he could not find anything wrong physically. I went to bed at my friends’ place that night not caring whether I would wake up or not.
But when I did awaken, and I was in a home of unbelievers, I was changed. No human being had anything to do with it, and I think that was the way God had to work with me, so that I could not credit anyone but Him. I woke up a believer. I saw with new eyes, and I never looked back. It was real.
When this happened to me, I knew where the truth lay. I was raised attending Sunday School and church and came from Christian parents, but I had gone ‘way off the track. My first move as a new creature in Christ was to ring home and ask for my Bible to be sent to me. So I knew where the truth lay. We, in our civilization, know where to find the truth but refuse to expose ourselves to it, until a calamity.
I was extremely anxious to learn more and more about the Word of God, what it really meant, and not just what people said it meant. I found out that “cleanliness is next to godliness” isn’t even in the Bible! A lot of things I had heard as quotations were not in the Bible.
While attending a church in New York City, and being very well fed by the teaching of Stephen Olford, of whom you have probably heard, he gave a call one morning in an ordinary worship service — like this morning — in which he asked if anyone were ready to go anywhere for Christ, right now. “If so, stand up.” I could not stand up. I sat there and burned; you see, I had just been handed a recording contract, one I had aimed for for 10 years. It was just in the offing, and I kept saying to myself, “After the recording, then I will stand up.” But I was miserable and felt a fraud.
I talked to the Lord when I got back to my apartment because I was so miserable, and I spoke a very drastic prayer saying that I could not give up my career, I could not give up the marimba, and that if He wanted me to, He would have to take my hands or arms because I was incapable of giving up the one thing I was excellent in, the one thing I truly knew and lived for.
I was keeping a diary in those days, and about two days later, the page is blank. It was blank for a few pages. What happened was: I was lighting a burner on top the stove as I waited for the oven to get hot. Still holding the lighted match, I opened the oven door to check the temperature when … bam! A cube of blue flames the size of the oven leapt out at me and threw me across the room. I was severely burned down the nasal passages just within an inch of my lungs; both hands — especially the one holding the match — were cooked. By the time I got to medical help in a taxi during rush hour, my right hand was pretty much a mess. It became gangrenous, and my shoulder began to pain. I was fortunate to know a Christian nurse at the time — in fact I was going to her Bible study — and she said when I complained about my shoulder, “That doesn’t sound right. I think you had better see a plastic surgeon,” and she made an appointment For me to see Dr James Smith, a prestigious New York surgeon.
During my office visit, he struggled to separate the wrappings from my hand. On seeing the wound, he asked, “How far away do you live from here?”
“About a half-hour by taxi,” I answered.
“Go home and pack a bag, and I will meet you at the hospital.”
So, I was in pretty bad shape. He tried first some acid baths for my hand to see if the nerves could be stimulated. “If this doesn’t work, all I can promise you is surgery which will the save your hand, but it will be permanently stiff, or, the removal of your fingers if the infection is too invasive.”
His words to me meant that my career was over. The strange thing was that I knew it was an answer to my prayer, and it didn’t displease me. It was a relief that the decision was made for me. You can see that I do have both my hands, and that they function well. The Lord gave me back my hand. He also gave me back that recording contract (which had been cancelled). And then came the confusion, and this time the onus was on me. What do I do? Do I go back to my life as a concert artist? Or do I take another road? During the time that I was a patient in New York Hospital I had read about the work of Wycliffe Bible Translators and said to myself at the time, “If my hand doesn’t recover, that is what I want to do.” So, while still undergoing therapy, I took the first course of the Summer Institute of Linguistics (which trains Bible translators) and there became involved with all these people, the likes of whom I had never before met. I had up to then not known a missionary. I was intrigued by their stories, so caught up with them, in fact, that I returned the next summer. I gradually began to see that music was not taken away from me, but I had been led to give up my profession, and this because I was being shown a new profession.
From the time that I heard that pastor in New York invite followers of Christ to stand up I regarded that as a call from God. When I responded, agreeing to that call, even though it was a few weeks later, then I could say that I was called. I came to understand that the “call” is really “the answer”. We are all called; we don’t all answer.
It was hard to leave home, hard to leave everyone I knew and the people who loved me, to finish my training and to head out for New Guinea alone.
“But everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or land for my sake and the gospel’s will receive a hundredfold .AnN (Mk. 10:29,30)
These words of Jesus are true. His word is faithful.
Now Darlene Bee, who was a brilliant linguist, was sent first to the Usarufa language. She had a partner for 2 years who then married and left to work with the Australian Aborigines. In the meantime, Darlene Bee solved all the grammatical complexities which led to the breakthrough in the grammar of all the Eastern Highlands languages. Now that her partner had left the Usarufas, Darlene’s work was threatened. She could not live alone in this region which was not, as they sald then, under control. It was not allowed by the government. So there went everything — her work, her partner, the Usarufas. It left Darlene devastated. Being estranged from her father and stepmother from the time she went to Bible school, her partner’s family had become her surrogate family.
Darlene came from a poverty-stricken area just out of Tacoma, WA. She had no money except what support came from her partner’s church in St. Louis. She felt abandoned now and was in a depressed state serious enough that she was sent home from the field. But where was home? She had no home. Entering a study program at Indiana University and simultaneously getting counseling, she buried herself in her studies. Three years later — to the astonishment of all, including her psychiatrist, who after hearing her background, did not believe anyone could overcome it — she not only recovered, she came back to New Guinea with a degree of Doctor of Philosophy in linguistics. What amazed the academic world was not only the genius of her intellect but the fact that ehe had no previous degree, only a Bible school certificate.
I met her when she returned to resume work with the Usarufas, somehow, with no partner. I had been there nearly 5 months and still had not partnered. I was beginning to feel guilty for not teaming up with one of the 6 single girls. We were all committed Christians, but it is vital to have much else in common if two were to live in isolated villages for long periods of time. After all, who would enter a marriage on the sole basis that her partner was a Christian? Fortunately, our organization did not assign partners or pressure a quick decision. It is better for all concerned to wait for the right person. Well, the right person came along. Darlene Bee and I clicked, as our friends said, like two sides of a snap. When we announced our partnership on Christmas Eve of 1964, no one was surprised. We were so alike and in agreement about all the important things even though our backgrounds were totally different. I came from a privileged and prominent family and had their support always. She had none of that, so now she was to be included in another surrogate family.
Analysis of the grammar was finished, so she began to busy herself with making literacy materials. Unless the Usarufas were able to read, what would be the point of translating the New Testament into their language? The preparation of all these textbooks in the Usarufa language, trial translation of Old Testament stories, the complete book of Genesis and a rough draft of the book of Mark all cost. It demanded long hours of tedious deliberation besides the physical demands of living on a 7000 ft. ridge with no amenities. This, coupled with the pressure of interruptions to care for the needs of the people cost in terms of health. The trek alone required a full day to cross over two mountain ranges before beginning the climb to our ridge, which was the highest point in Usarufa land. When we arrived there, it was only a cluster of thatch huts. There was no water to quench our thirst, no water for cleaning ourselves and our clothes, no toilet — we possessed only what we could carry. It was not until 1971 that the Summer Institute of Linguistics acquired its first helicopter. For the first time we were able to have contact with the outside world through a battery-operated transmitter-
It is cold on the ridge — clouds from the valley do not rise until 10:00 in the morning and settle down upon us again at 4:00 in the afternoon. We lived in the same style of house as the people, with a firepit in the dirt floor our only means of warmth or cooking. We were not experts in fire-building when we came, but we certainly learned to be in those years.
It was a beautiful panorama to look down over forested ridges, food gardens and willowy clumps of bamboo growing by a stream. We were happy there. We didn’t measure our physical discomfort. I only think of it now in retrospect, comparing that life with the way I live today. I sometimes feel a twinge of guilt at being so comfortable.
In 1967 Darlene Bee was appointed Principal of the Summer Institute of Linguistics here in New Zealand. I was on staff, and that was our introduction to New Zealand. The course was held Dec—Feb of each year and, being a small school, Darlene had enormous responsibility. Besides administration, there were daily chapel talks, lecturing daily in grammar analysis, phonology, cross-cultural training, and she even had charge of the finances. All of these pressures took [their] toll on her health.
At her suggestion I remained in Auckland after the 1972 course to begin doctoral studies in Ethnomusicology in preparation for acting as consultant for my colleagues and other missionaries in Papua New Guinea. After all, singing with understanding is part of corporate worship. We wanted to be sure the people sang with understanding by composing their own songs for worship rather than to have to accommodate to a foreign music.
I was only 2 months into my studies when faced with the greatest cost of the Usarufa New Testament. There came a severe blow, news that Darlene Bee had been killed in a plane crash as she was returning to the highlands. My grief was as deep as when I lost my twin sister after our 22nd birthday. I do not want to burden you with details of the tragedy, nor do I like re-visiting this time alone in a foreign country, surrounded by people who hardly knew me, and then the legal nightmares that followed. It was a Christian solicitor who played the key role in my healing. He had been a missionary himself, in China. His loving prayers, his availability and wisdom will never be forgotten. He died in 1994.
I could not get a flight back to PNG in time for the funeral; perhaps the Lord knew it would have been too crushing for me. The SIL director and University of Auckland supervisors of my thesis all advised I finish my degree before deciding what to do. I made a quick visit back to comfort the Usarufas, though I wasn’t much comfort. We only cried together. But a young man who had helped me with language learning, whose name was Imááqo, said as I was departing for New Zealand again, “Vidao, when you come back. I will help you. We will finish the translation.”
As soon as my doctoral degree was granted, I returned to PNG and began to translate. It was the mighty power of the Holy Spirit that completed that translation. I wasn’t equipped to do it, and I have never felt that I did lt. It is true that I worked relentlessly for 4 years, devoting myself to that alone. And it is true that Imááqo was faithful to his word in helping me. Other bright young Usarufa men helped too. I was able to work always with two co-translators simultaneously. The pressure was on. We were from the start only 3 years away from the country’s independence from Australia. After that, no one knew what was going to happen. Maybe missionaries would not be allowed to stay. No one knew. By Independence Day we had only Revelation and Corinthians to finish. As the only outside speaker of Usarufa, I alone had the responsibility of proofreading, and this was done 7 times. Every tone mark and every letter had to be as exact as could be.
When I finally had the manuscript ready for publication, another translation team had told me about a publisher family in the Chicago suburbs who might take it on as a personal ministry. They did, and I was overjoyed. But where would I get the thousands of dollars needed for binding the books and getting them to the Usarufas? At this time I had accepted a teaching position at Wheaton College to train up Christian ethnomusicologists. As I sat in chapel one morning, news came that the CMA Bible College in Toccoa Falls, GA, had been flooded and buried in mud when a dam had burst. Among the list of the dead was a friend from seminary days and his three little girls. Their mother, a nurse, was not home at that time, and my heart ached for her at having lost her entire family. It was only a few months later that I received a note from her and a large check from her insurance assuring me that she wanted to pay the cost of distributing the Usarufa New Testament. My first thought was, “Oh no, she will need this money for her children’s education.” Then I remembered, her children were already with the Lord, and I wept. Her gift, coupled with that of a Christian author, enabled the Usarufa people to hold the New Testament in their hands and read lt for themselves, in their own language. Thanks be to God.