Lost Years, Locusts and Wind

Waking up morning after morning in Africa, yet still half-asleep, a surge of expectation filled me. Plans began to form for the day. Goals enticed me to work and to attain. Then I opened my eyes and felt the long index finger of reality nailing me to my bed, again. Energy to even stand had left me months before. “Oh yes, Lord, now I remember. My ‘work’ today is to lie in this bed and look up at the ceiling. What can I say? Help me to do it for your glory.”

After fifteen years of feeling successful in Bible translation-related work, one day in February 1985, my strength drained into some mysterious black hole. Four long years later I discovered its name: chronic fatigue syndrome. My identity had been conjugated with African vowels and consonants, grammar discoveries, and speaking a strange tongue. The goals which had seemed so attainable, with God’s enabling, were now moved far to the other side of the horizon. The devastating locusts the prophet Joel described had invaded my life. My mental-land teemed with locusts of every size and shape, slowly eating huge holes in my life.

Lying on my back, I yielded my upright position, and said to God, “OK, Lord. You arranged my education so I could work in a French-speaking country and pursue Bible translation. You sent me to university for a master’s degree in literacy communications. Thousands of Lama people need to learn to read their language. But you’ve forced me to lie low (so depressingly low) in this bedroom. The hope of assisting anyone, even my family, has flown away.” Half-jokingly I continued, “I can’t help you anymore, God, so it’s all up to you! You are going to have to teach the Lama to read.”

I prayed God would provide at least one Lama person who could read his/her language well for every village or town wherever Lama lived. That day I listed the places I knew were already covered. Within a couple months, God let me learn of forty separate places where He had planted a reader-teacher. It was a great start. God took some wind out of his great storehouses, and blew it gently from the hollow of his hand, driving away some of those voracious locusts who were eating away my time.

My illness not only kept me from teaching literacy courses and training teachers, but my brain refused to wrap itself around language. Trying to grasp several concepts at a time and draw conclusions felt like a painful vice around my head. I gave up hopes of writing linguistic papers to describe the language. With a sigh, I thought, “Oh, well, that’s another thing that just won’t get done.”

Once my husband Neal and the team finished the translation of the Lama New Testament in 1993, we moved to North Carolina to work. Not long after that, Charles, a professional linguist, contacted us. During his doctoral studies at a university in the U.S., one of his fellow students was a Lama man from Togo. Charles developed a keen interest in Lama and began to center his research on the language.

Would we agree to share our grammar documents and Lama-French dictionary with him? Would we ever! Over the last eight years Charles has produced numerous linguistic papers, with our happy collaboration. The quality and number of those studies have far exceeded what I ever could have hoped to see in print. Winds driven by the breath of God wiped out more locusts and restored lost opportunities.

We went into the Lama project with to-do lists longer than reality: language learning, culture discovering, linguistic reports, bilingual dictionary-making, translation of the New Testament, friendship evangelism, relationship-building with local churches, and on and on. How to cover all the bases as we had hoped and prayed? God blessed and directed us, but as we planned to leave Togo, I regretted having not invested more time in training our Lama co-workers.

Pastor Adji Arakou, the principal co-translator, rebuked us openly on our departure. “You have not taught me to type or to use the computer.” He was right. Early in the project we had trained two men to type, but then both promptly left with their valuable skill to look for government jobs. That discouragement plus restraints on time and health kept us from this goal. Sadly, I returned to the U.S. ruing the hole we had left in this dear friend’s professional life.

Six years later in May 1999 we received an email from Dave Roberts, a British Wycliffe member who had become involved in the project. He wrote, “Adji’s increasing involvement in training others in S.I.L. Togo-Benin is a credit to the way you trained him.” I was speechless. A month later, another colleague visiting us from Togo praised Adji’s superior administrative skills and sterling character. We were stunned, joyfully.

Now in August 2002, another colleague, Sheila, writes us of Adji’s predicament in theological school in the capital. “Because he knows so much about computers, he is in constant demand! So he’s going to take Dave’s old laptop to Lomé and hide himself away so he can get on with his own work!”

Another puff of heavenly wind chased away the locusts of the past. God, ever faithful, fulfilled his Word to us:

“I will repay you for the years the locusts have eaten — the great locust and the young locust, the other locusts and the locust swarm — my great army that I sent among you.” Joel 2:25

Clearly, God will accomplish his plan with us or without us. Whether we are allowed to be involved in it or watch from the sidelines at times, we are awed at his presence among us. He also knows our hearts and is able to fill those holes of sadness and regret.