We have good work
Beth Ann Carlson, her husband Greg, and their children, Ben, Melody, and Claire, have lived among Vanuatu's North Tanna people since 1991, working with them to translate the New Testament into the Nɨn-naka language. The New Testament arrived in July 2008 (click here to see it in pictures), and we sat down with Beth Ann as she looked back on her years in Vanuatu.
Wycliffe International: Beth Ann, the complete New Testament has just arrived, but we understand that people have had access to Scripture portions in their language throughout the project. How have you seen them responding to God's Word during that time?
Beth Ann: I'll share a little bit about my experiences with one translator, Lois Jack. It’s been exciting watching her theological understanding grow, simply through translating the Bible. In translating the book of John she saw the “glory of Jesus.” Then when we started translating Hebrews, we came to chapter two, and she just had to pause to put it all together in a little speech -- really just a spontaneous burst of good theology about the God-Man Jesus Christ and what He has accomplished.
There have been some real “aha” moments for people and even convicting moments for some of them, where real repentance and change of heart had to come as they translated a given passage -- heartrending things.
I think that spiritually, we've seen a lot of change in North Tanna. We're very supportive of any local custom that's not anti-Christian, but of course where there are old gods, they have to give way. A Christian can't have more than one god.
It used to be that even Christians did participate in gifts to the yam god and other garden gods. They have stopped that. It was quite a controversy, I mean really a hard thing for people to make that break, but there were some people that really stood firm.
It was interesting to see the struggles people had. For some people it was true fear of spirits, and for other people it was just “respect for our elders,” and for others it was, “I just don't want to give up my custom. I've always done that. It's the way I do things.” For others it was, “I didn't even know. I'm a Christian, and I didn't even think about it.”
Those are the kinds of things that God's Word speaks to us and shows us what we're meant to be and do in Christ.
And here's a very recent example. After the New Testament dedication, Elder Meta was talking to me about Christian family life and Scripture use. Meta and his wife read Scriptures to their children daily -- or have their kids read to them. He told me that unlike the way his generation was raised, these kids are being raised as “children of the Daylight,” because their children are being grounded in God's Word. And from what I have seen in the lives of his young children, they really are “children of the Daylight.”
Wycliffe International: You mention this idea of “Scripture use,” a concept which is also called “Scripture engagement.” How have you helped people to engage with the Scriptures in their own language?
Beth Ann: Pastor Joshua Ioan has been fantastic about getting things out and helping people learn to read, though we've also been involved especially in materials development. Every other week, he does a Sunday evening service for people from all the different denominations, and the people practice their reading skills, and then he preaches. I think all the denominations have come to appreciate him.
I have done some Bible self-studies, very simple things like fill-in-the-blank where the answer comes straight from the text. The Philippians book has gone out, and it's been very well received.
This year, Greg taught a class for church leaders on Philippians, and I did a ladies' Bible study on Revelation, at their request. There is one lady -- she must be in her sixties -- who doesn't read at all, but when somebody reads it and then we read it several times again, she's got it memorized. She knows all the answers to any question you ask. She's just incredible, and she has a love of the Word. She really knows her Bible, even though she can't read it.
Wycliffe International: What can you tell us about your experiences with the John Frum cargo cult, a religion that teaches that “John Frum” will bring his followers material possessions (“cargo”) if they follow the right rituals?
Beth Ann: God has begun a good work amongst the John Frum people -- the John Frum cargo cult -- here in North Tanna. He's not done yet. In recent years there has been a new openness to hearing the gospel, but there is also a lot of magic, a lot of false prophecy, and evil things that happen as well. I think that wherever we see God at work, Satan is also going to be trying his best and failing because God will win in the end.
I don't know why, but God especially laid one village down by the ocean on my heart. They are now what they call “Unity,” which means they are Presbyterian but don't want to discard everything from John Frum -- rather openly syncretistic.
One of the highlights of my years here was to be able to go down there and stand in their nakamal [traditional meeting place] and do checking on the Book of John. I went with Lois, one of the translators, and Meta, an elder in the Presbyterian church, to do this checking, and it just so happened the whole village was there. They were sitting in the nakamal weaving mats.
In sharing the gospel that day, we had a mixed response. Much of what was said was bizarre and sensational, but some people seemed genuinely hungry to hear the truth. As we walked the trail on the way back, Lois and Meta were so excited. Lois said, “Meta, do you remember when we were like that?”
When we got home, Lois took me to my door and stood there with tears in her eyes and said, “Oh, mama, we have good work.” I had to agree. It was precious to have been able to do that.
Wycliffe International: What do you think will make a difference in the cult members' lives?
Beth Ann: I do believe that God's Word speaks for itself. When we went down to the ocean there, some of the people were trying to say things like, “Well, we're going to get a telephone to heaven. There's something that blocks or prayers, something in the heavens that blocks our prayers so that we can't get through to God.”
Now, they're thinking of cargo, but Lois said, “That barrier has been taken away. Jesus Christ has come, and He has died for your sins.”
What people of course need to know is that it's not about cargo, it's about their lives. But I don't think this is unique to the John Frum people of Tanna. I think it's common to the world. We want God to give us stuff and health. We just want to be prosperous. We don't understand that He leads us through the desert and woos us there to Himself.
Wycliffe International: Were there “desert” times for you, times you wanted to give up and go home?
Beth Ann: We have had times we thought we would lose children. The first time was when we were still in our training in Papua New Guinea. Ben had falciparum malaria and was very sick.
My response was not a good one. I basically said, “God, you'd better heal him.” I remember telling Greg that God didn't love us ... which I'm quite ashamed of.
After he did get better -- and it was miraculous -- I took inventory of my faith and said, “Would it be worth it to abandon your faith if your child died? No, it wouldn't.” And so in the other events that have followed, the times I thought I might lose a child, the Lord has helped me.
One time Claire had dysentery, and I actually thought she died. I had brought her with me to my bed because I thought I might lose her. I reached over and touched her, and feeling that she was cool, I thought she was gone, but the Lord was kind and healed her. Her fever had broken and the Lord gave her back to us.
Earlier that evening, I had sent out a prayer email to people -- probably 50 people -- and it just happened to be a night when there were concerts of prayer going on around the world. I reckon thousands of people prayed for Claire around the world that night, on every continent. It was awesome really.
But my point here is that I think I was better prepared to face whatever “desert” I might have had to pass through at that time. God had showed me that He was dearer to me, even more dear than my family.
Wycliffe International: We were with you and Claire yesterday when you found the grave of Mary Ann Paton -- an early missionary to Tanna -- and her infant son, Peter. What significance did that experience have for you?
Beth Ann: John Paton was a childhood hero of mine. He had stood by that grave and wept as he buried his wife and child. John Paton's absolute trust in God's sovereignty has been an inspiration to me through the times I've struggled.
That's why it was special to me to see that grave after all this time. I know that their sacrifices were a lot more than mine, which really haven't been very much. I've enjoyed my years here a great deal.
Wycliffe International: So, what's next for you?
Beth Ann: We have a daughter that needs to go to college, so we'll be in the States for about a year and then come back. We can assist Pastor Peter Namuli, who will be adapting the North Tanna translation into Whitesands.
And the North Tanna translation committee is very keen to start Old Testament translation in North Tanna. The chief that just passed away -- just weeks before he passed away -- took me aside and said, “You know you're not finished. I don't see how you can be done when you haven't done the Old Testament.”
I would like to hope for it and pray for it.