The Proposal

I wanted to get in one last blog post for this year, so here it is.  This one concerns my studies.

I'm working toward a deadline next May.  At that point I have to submit my doctoral proposal to the University of Wales for approval.  Before that, however, my proposal has to be approved by the Oxford Centre for Mission Studies (OCMS).  Sound confusing?  The UK system is different from the US, and it may be that OCMS is unique in the UK.  Here is how I understand the process.

I am not yet admitted to a doctoral program.  As I understand it, everyone in the UK has to go through probationary stages in order to get into a doctoral program.  My program may be more complicated than most.  First, in the UK, there are educational institutions which are not authorized to grant degrees but which are affiliated and accredited by universities which do grant degrees.  That is the case for OCMS.  While it is a top-notch Christian educational institution, it is not authorized to grant degrees.  It isn't even affiliated with Oxford University, although we are allowed to use the Oxford University library.  Instead, it is accredited with the University of Wales, and it is that university which grants the final degree.

Now, while I am enrolled in the program at OCMS, I am not yet registered at the University of Wales.  To do that I have to submit a 2,500-word research proposal (that's not a lot of words, by the way) accompanied by a 5,000-word essay and an extensive bibliography  (That's not long, either when you consider that the final dissertation will be 80,000-100,000 words long).  The deadline for submission is in May.  Before that, however, OCMS has to also approve the proposal.  The OCMS committee will meet in March to approve dissertation proposals.  So, I have to have all my work done by the end of February.  My OCMS advisor, however, wants to see a workable proposal by the end of January.  Yikes, that's one month away.

I have completed a first draft of both the proposal and the essay and sent them to my adviser.  While the research proposal seems to be mostly okay, I have some extensive revisions to make on the essay.  If you want to know more about the proposal or essay, write me.  I'm not going to reveal the title on the Internet because I want to be careful what I say and where, but if you want to know more, let me know.  

Once OCMS approves the proposal in March it will be sent to the University for approval in May.  From that point I will be registered at the University of Wales, but I will only be at a master's level.  It's kind of probationary period to see if you can cut it at the doctoral level.  After two years of research and writing, I will be reevaluated, and then I will apply for an upgrade to a doctoral level.   Up until then I can make adjustments to my proposal and my research.  After I get upgraded to the doctoral level, the real fun begins as I work on my dissertation in earnest.  I expect it will take about three years to finish my studies after the upgrade to the doctoral level.  Remember I'm only working on it 'half-time'.  That will make it around 2016 before I finish!    'And miles to go before I sleep....' 


Thanksgiving Day Traditions

Thanksgiving has always been the holiday that my family got together, even more so than Christmas.  Ever since I went away to college, my parents have lived in Manchester, CT, and we have gathered there for a family reunion and meal on Thanksgiving Day. This was the first Thanksgiving that my dad was not with us, and it hit me harder than I thought it would.  But, for the first time, we also had two special guests, Kelly Hammond (Daniel's girlfriend) and Theophilus Hines (Suzanne's boyfriend).  It was great to be together as a family and make some memories.  Here are photos of Suzanne and Theophilus:

and Daniel and Kelly:

One of the traditions on Thanksgiving Day in Manchester is the Road Race.  It has been held on Thanksgiving for the past 74 years (the second oldest race in New England next to the Boston Marathon).  It's not a long race (just 4.78 miles), but it's one of the most fun races I've ever run.  I didn't run in it this year (although I have run it in the past), but it's always a great community and social event, bringing people closer together.  Some of the top runners in the world compete, and there are so many who want to run, they have had to  limit the number of runners to 15,000! In past years, my brother twice came in 11th in the race.  Here are some of the leaders near the beginning of the race.

Many people run in costumes, and there is a contest to see who is wearing the best costume.  This year there were some dazzling costumes.  Of course, there were the many who ran in turkey costumes.  One person ran as a Christmas tree.  

Three young men jogged by dressed only in Speedos painted from head to toe in red, white, and blue and carrying an American flag.  

Another family ran by dressed as Thanksgiving dinner with all the trimmings.

What makes the race great, though, is not just the runners, but the spectators.  Rain, sun, or snow, there are at least as many spectators as there are runners, and they line up along the entire route.   This year there were around 20,000 spectators, including us.  They are there cheering on the runners.  I have never been in a race like that where so many people are cheering me on.  The following two pictures give you a small glimpse of the thousands of cheering spectators, some on roofs of buildings:

It makes me think of the cloud of witnesses cheering us on as we run our race.  Dad is now part of that crowd of spectators.  He's run his race and finished the course.  Now he's up there cheering us on, cheering me on, as I struggle up 'Heartbreak Hill' and stumble down the other side.  He will be there as I approach the finish line waiting to greet me as I finish my race.  Most important, Christ will be there to give me my prize.

The Thanksgiving Day Road Race has a special place in my heart.  Some of my extended family members ran the race this year.  A Moroccan man won it.  I can't remember his name.  It doesn't really matter.  It was enough to be there again and take in the spectacle.  Take a look at the runners coming in to the finish down Main Street, though.

Even though I was only a spectator this year, cheering others on, I'm still in the race of life, and I push on toward the goal for the prize.  Bravo!  Keep up the pace.  Let's keep our eyes on the goal and on Jesus.




As part of my research, I'm getting to know two of the world's most famous libraries, the Bodleian in Oxford, England and the Library of Congress in Washington, DC.  I have consulted resources in both of these libraries and have reader's cards for both of them.  I will continue to get to know both of them better in the weeks and years ahead.

The Bodleian is the main library for the University of Oxford.  It was founded in 1602 and today holds over 9 million items in its collection.  There are three main buildings for the Central Bodleian, but there are lots of smaller libraries associated with the different colleges of the University of Oxford, and they all cooperate with the Bodleian.  Here is a photo of the most interesting architectural building of the Bodleian, the Radcliffe Camera:

The Library of Congress was founded in 1800, nearly 200 years after the Bodleian, but it contains the largest collection of any library in the world: over 144 million items, including 32+ million books and 62+ million manuscripts. There are three massive buildings located right across the street from the Capitol Building in Washington, DC.  Each building is named after one of the three US presidents that followed George Washington: Adams, Jefferson, and Madison.  On display in the Jefferson building is one of only three extent original copies of the Gutenburg Bible, one of the first books ever printed (in the 1400s).  Here is a picture of the Jefferson Building with me in front of it:

Both the Bodleian and the LOC are copyright depository libraries.  That means that they have a copy of every item published in the country in which they were established.  So the Bodleian has a copy of every item published in the UK and the LOC has a copy of everything published in the US.


Mr Jones, Tear Up Your Plans

The planned Qur'an burning on the 9th anniversary of 9/11 by the Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville, Florida is making headlines this morning.  While I don't understand the motives and plans of this church, and I am concerned about the threat of government interference in free speech issues, I want to voice my firm opposition to the plan.  

I am a conservative evangelical Christian who has worked amongst Muslims and has lived in Muslim countries for many years.  I have read a translation of the Qur'an (in English and French) and respect the many people who sincerely and faithfully follow a faith that has many parallels to my own.  I have many Muslim friends, and even though I don't share their faith, I have learned a lot from them.  I disagree with many aspects of Islam, but I see many who live with integrity.

In any case, this is not a way to go about winning an argument with Islam.  It is, instead, pouring fuel on an already hot fire.  It is inflaming passions in a world that is already a tinderbox.  Mr. Jones says he and his church are trying to highlight the evils of Islam and stand up for something.  I do not believe that this will help anyone. I do believe it will cause harm and damage to the cause of Christ.  I believe these kinds of actions are motivated more by fear and ignorance than by love and knowledge.

One unintended byproduct of this book burning will be the blackening of the reputation of Christians all over the world.  Whether you like it or not, many Muslims paint Christians with one brush, and even though many know that you are just one individual, one church, they will inevitably associate all Christians with you and your actions.  This will bring disdain on Christians and on the church around the world.  

The leaders of the US are expressing their concern for US troops if this burning goes ahead.  While it is impossible to say what could happen, and I am concerned for the troops, I am more concerned about Christians around the world living in Muslim-majority areas.  What is going to happen to believers in places like Iran, Nigerian, and Indonesia on Sept 11 and the days following?  Will believers be killed and more churches burned?  Tensions are already high in some of these countries.  If any are martyred for their faith, their blood will be on your head, Mr. Jones. And do you realize that this burning comes on the heels of the great religious festival of Ramadan?  Muslims are often more spiritually aware and sensitive during this time.

No matter how you look at it, burning anything these days, whether flags, books, or buildings, is seen as an act of violence, of hate, of anger, even of racism and prejudice.  Now that this has gone public with all the world watching, that is how it will inevitably be seen.  You say you love Muslims, Mr. Jones.  Prove it.  How do you love them?  How will you show that love?  This act will be interpreted no other way than as hate.  Where is the love your faith requires?

Even worse, I am concerned that the name of our God will be profaned amongst the nations as the result of the actions of the Dove World Outreach.  You do not need to defend God's honor, Mr. Jones.  He is fully capable of doing that Himself.  And if you read your Bible, you will know that He is fully aware of the world situation and is Himself in control of it.  He will have His way in this world.   

While Jesus vigorously challenged the religious authorities of his day and was very angry with them, he was an insider to the culture.  He knew their thinking in and out.  He was one of them.  Mr Jones, you know nothing about Islam.  How can you challenge what you do not know or understand?

For the sake of His name, I plead with you, Mr. Jones, tear up your plans.


The Lake

There was a place in my childhood my family often visited and which sticks in my memory as one of those timeless places, a place where I loved to go and relax in my busy life.  I have been there only four times in my adult life, but the place always communicates to me serenity and peace, one of God's special places where I could lay down my burdens and the cares of the world for a while.  We affectionately referred to that place as 'the Lake' with no qualifier needed to further identify it.

Actually, it is a piece of property on Summit Lake, about eight miles west of Olympia, WA.  My grandparents (on my mom's side) bought the property shortly after I was born.  It was a place where the family (my mom and her four sisters and all their families) often gathered for picnics, a swim, a day of rest, or just to hang out together. Here I am on the dock at the lake when I was two.

Over the years the place has changed, and the other properties on the lake have become more built up, but it remains a place of serenity and peace. Here's a photo of my family in 1968 at the back of the cabin.  I'm the oldest boy in the picture. You can see the lake through the window in the background.

Here's another photo from when I visited as an adult, in 1984, just before I went to Niger.  This was a morning shot, and you can see how calm the water is.

When my grandparents died, my aunt and uncle bought the place and built onto the back of the old red cabin, putting a second story on the addition.  They added heat and a few other amenities that we didn't have in the old days, and now live there permanently.  Today the lake looks like this from the renovated cabin.  Note the houses on the other side of the lake.

And here is what the cabin looks like today from the dock.

Just over a week ago, I had another chance to visit 'the Lake.' We went to Washington state to visit family, friends, and supporters, and speak at a church (Lake City Community Church).  Since my mom was born and raised there, we took her along, since she can no longer travel by herself.  We had the chance to spend six days at the lake with my aunt and uncle and enjoy the peace and quiet.  We also attended a family reunion at the Lake on Sat, Aug 7.  It was the annual Keller family picnic at the lake.  About 50 relatives showed up from all different branches of the family, and though it was cloudy, cool, and showery, we all had a great time catching up on each other's lives.  

Sadly, this may be the last time I will see the lake.  My aunt and uncle aren't sure they can live there much longer.  They themselves may not live much longer, and since it could be a while before we get out there, I may not see them again this side of heaven.  That goes for the other aunts and uncles.  And it may be the last time this side of heaven that my mom will get to see the lake and her earthly home.

When I think of my mansion in heaven, I want it to be the lake.  I'm looking forward to seeing all my family there one day.


A Memorial to My Dad

Today I'm posting on my blog twice.  This one is a memorial to my dad.

You are probably aware that my dad was cremated after his death in January of this year.  This is not something most Latinos, Catholics, or Muslims do very much, but it is very common in Europe where land is at a premium and many cemeteries are full.  It is becoming more common in the US although I'm not sure it is the most common form of burial yet.

Anyway, it was dad's wish to be cremated.  He was more concerned about cost and not burdening his family with the excessive funeral expenses that our government requires than anything else.  But he may well have had environmental and space concerns on his mind.  There is no plot in a cemetery and no stone to remember him by.  These aren't important.  His body will one day rise again, anyway, whatever form of decay or deterioration it is in. 

Dad's ashes were buried behind the church in Manchester, CT, where he had long served as pastor of missions and mentoring and as part of the care team.  There is a playground back there and a nice little tree.  The day after the memorial service we put his ashes in a hole next to the tree.  It was a windy, cold, bright day, but it wasn't very pretty in the middle of winter.  

Mom had the bright idea of erecting a memorial to dad over the site of his burial.  But this is no gravestone.  It is a bench.  And it is really comfortable.  Inscribed on the bacak of the bench is Psalm 23.6: 
'Surely goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.'

There is no inscription on the bench marking it as the place of dad's burial.  We want people to move beyond dad and remember the God he served.  We want this to be a place of rest and reflection, a place where people can stop for a minute and think about God's goodness and mercy.  Here are some of the family members around the bench.

We dedicated the bench with a few friends, family, and church staff on Thursday evening, July 8, on a beautiful, sunny day.  The trees spread their branches over the bench and gave it shade.  The scenery is lush and beautiful.  May all who pass this way find God and find rest in Him. 

A Day Off

In our busy lives, it's often hard to squeeze in a vacation or even find a day off.  That's why it's nice when our friend Mark offers to take us sailing on Long Island Sound, off the coast of Connecticut.  We get a real day off.  Last week we managed to squeeze a day in between a dedication of a memorial bench for my dad (July 8) and a family wedding (July 10) to get down to the sound to catch some wind and some waves. 

Mark's boat isn't large like some huge yachts we saw, but it was so nice to get away from the pressure and difficulties of life and simply relax.  The day was warm and sunny, so even though the breeze wasn't strong, we managed to get in some real sailing.  I like to hold the tiller and steer the boat, but I'm not an expert sailor, just a green first mate.


Unfortunately, Daniel and Suzanne couldn't be with us this time as they had work.  We missed them, but we got to see something we had not seen on previous trips: seals basking on Fisher's Island just across the inlet from Mystic.  This may be the best-kept secret on Long Island Sound.  Normally, they swim north by this time of year, but there they were.

Another highlight was rounding the small rocky outcrop with a pretty lighthouse.  The lighthouse used to be inhabited, but now it is automated and emits a rather jarring 'ping'...'ping' every few minutes to warn ships away.


All in all, it was a good day. Thanks, Mark.


Back Home

I'm back in the US after 11 long weeks in England.  My time there was good, and I got a great head start on my studies.  There are definitely some things I did not like about England (sorry to all my English friends):
1.  It was cold.  Temperatures never got up to 30 C (86 F) and most days it didn't even get to 21 C (70 F).  Temperatures below 70 F are against my body's religion.  I don't know how the Enlgish can live.  It's not just the outside temperature, either. It's the temperature inside.  There isn't much heat in homes!  And people like to have a window open when it's 10 C (50 F outside).  I kept closing windows! Almost never in my time did I wear less than three layers inside or out.  Many times I wore five layers with gloves and a hat--even inside.
2.  Many days were raw and rainy.  I guess that's what you get when you live on an island in the far north.  I'll have to admit that the beautiful days made up for it.  England is a beautiful country (the silver lining from the cloudy days).
3.  While I like bright sunshine while it is day, I'm like it dark at night and don't sleep well if there's too much light.  Of course, with the sun rising at 4 a.m. and setting at 10 p.m., this doesn't leave much room for night.  When it gets light, my body wakes up.  Needless to say, I didn't get enough sleep.  In addition, there was a bright streetlight outside our room, and we didn't have any curtains or shades to block it out.  It really bothered me.  I finally resorted to wearing those masks they give you on the plane to block out light.  
4.  Things seem much smaller and more crowded.  In a store, the shelves don't have enough room between them for two people to pass each other.  Houses are much closer together and rooms smaller.  It's hard to pass people on narrow sidewalks.  So many people and bicycles crowd the paths in the countryside that it's hard to get in a decent run. I know that England is much more densely populated than the US and I did get to see some country.  But I like wide open spaces like we have in many places in the US and in Africa.
5.  I didn't know many people in England, and it was very lonely. 

Lest you think that I really hated England, let me hasten to say that it wasn't all bad.  Here are some things I really like:
1.  I already mentioned that it's a beautiful country.  The green countryside is almost unmatched.
2.  I got to roam in the meadows with cows and horses.  I felt like I was back in Africa.
3.  The history was amazing. I couldn't believe I was walking amongst 500-year-old buildings.
4.  We got to see some old friends, one of whom lives in Oxford.
5.  We found a nice church in which we felt welcome. 
6.  I got to do some new things I had never done before (punting; visiting Oxford University; walking in the footsteps of such great men as William Carey, John Bunyan, William Cowper, and John Newton; reading in the Bodleaian).  I love adventures.

Still, there's no place like home, wherever that is.  

I'll be starting a new adventure in a month. It seems like I'm starting a new adventure every month. 


What About THE Question?

I don't intend to make this a long post.  But I wanted to give an update on my studies and keep something posted on my blog for people to read.  It's been a long, lonely month as I try to put in some solid studying and get a good head start on my research. (I hope it will be over 250 hours of quality work for the last six weeks I've been in Oxford--I'm at 234 hours now.) I'm also anxious to get back to the US (June 8) and get back to a new normal, whatever that is.

So where am I with the question?  After lots of thought and discussion with my mentor and others, I realized that I can't really get into the issue of contextualizing worship music in the Songhai church until I understand much better what is going on in the Songhai culture and church with music.  So, my main question has to deal with the background issue: Why is there so little indigenous worship music in the Songhai church?  There will be two subquestions connected to the main question.  First, what are the social and cultural hindrances to the development of an indigenous Songhai hymnody?  And, second, how have western and other African concepts of music helped to shape the current form and style of worship music in the Songhai church?  Simple questions, but not so easy to answer.

So, where do I go from here?  During the next year, I'll be missionary-in-residence at Washington Bible College in Lanham, MD.  I'll be working part-time, teaching a few courses and encouraging the missions-related groups on campus.  I'll also be studying part-time.  Between now and May 2011, I need to register with the University of Wales.  I am only currently enrolled at the Oxford Centre for Mission Studies, OCMS does not grant degrees.  To enroll at the University of Wales, I have to submit a detailed research proposal of 2500 words with an accompanying essay and bibliography.  So, for the next year I need to do a lot of background reading, especially about the Songhai, ethnomusicology, and a biblical theology of worship.  Then I need to submit several drafts of my proposal in order for it to be finally approved next May.  But that is just the beginning of my research.  The main research with my primary sources, the Songhai people themselves, will not commence until I get back to Niger in the summer of 2011.  That will be stage 4.  The first stage, preparation, is done.  The second stage, induction is also past.  And  the third stage, working on submitting a proposal is now at hand.


Responsible Envirnonmentalism

I'll probably alienate almost everyone with this blog, but I have to say my piece.  Let's start off with one caveat:  I am not an extreme tree-hugging environmentalist who wants to save the whales but cares little for the babies.  At the same time, I believe global warming (or is it more politically correct now to say climate change?) is real and something that needs to be addressed.  I'm skeptical about what is touted as causing climate change (is it mostly caused by people?) and if it's really significant in terms of the history of the world, so I don't advocate huge costly programs to bring the world temperatures down.  I'm skeptical that we by our efforts can really affect a major change in world temperatures.  It seems rather haughty to me and a bit like trying to play God.

Nevertheless, there is one indisputable reality that really bugs me.  Where you stand on the issue of global warming does change fact that the US uses much more of the world's resources than any other country, especially when you measure that usage on a per ca-pita basis.  Is this right?  Is it moral?  Doe we really need to use so much?  Shouldn't Christians be at least as concerned about the stewardship of the earth's resources as anyone else? Why do the liberals get to define this issue? Shouldn't Christians be at the forefront of the environmental movement, promoting responsible environmentalism?  Shouldn't this issue concern us? Why don't we hear more calls for responsible stewardship of the earth's resources amongst Christians?

I have visited or lived in several different countries.  From what I've seen learned, we could do a lot better job in the US to use less and save some of the world's resources.  Here are my top ten ways to be responsible stewards .  Call it a be Christian Manifesto for the Environment.  These may hurt.
            1.  Recycle.  Many towns and cities are promoting recycling across the US, but in most places it's still voluntary, and some things that should be able to be recycled aren't.  Everyone who claims to be a Christian should be doing this, even if it takes a little more time and effort.  Europe is doing a whole better than we are on this, in my humble opinion.
           2.  Don't buy water in plastic bottles unless you're traveling or absolutely have no other water available.  Water bottles clog up landfills (if they're not recycled) and oil is used in the process of making the plastic.  Drink tap water instead.  In most cases, it's cheaper and just as healthy as bottled water.
          3.  Reuse sheets of paper that are only printed or written on one side.  There is no need to be obsessive about this.  You don't have to be packrat like my dad who saved every scrap of paper and had so much around the house he could never use it in ten years.  When you have a drawer full of used paper, it's probably time to start thinking about getting rid of some of it.  But it's always nice to have some scrap paper around to scribble on.
          4.  Bag your own groceries at the supermarket (BYOB) using cloth bags or reused paper or plastic bags.  Avoid getting new plastic bags every time you buy groceries.  Plastic bags are another of my pet peeves.  In Africa they are an environmental disaster as they clog up landfills and sewers and foul waterways, fields, and city streets.  Plus they are made using oil.
          5.  Reuse ziploc bags.  Okay, I know this sounds disgusting to some people, but it's no more disgusting than washing and reusing pots or dishes.  If the food is properly washed off it's just as clean as a a bowl or spoon.  Again, you don't have to be obsessive.  Just reuse them once or twice or until they look worn or have a hole in them.  But don't throw away any more plastic than necessary.
          6.  Use energy-saving light bulbs that last longer, and please turn off lights when you're not using them.
          7.  Turn the thermostat down in the winter (especially at night) and up in the summer.  Just one degree Fahrenheit can make a big difference on heating bills, and if everyone did it, think how much less oil and gas we would use in our country.  Here, again, the Europeans do much better than us.  I'm currently in England where they keep the houses pretty chilly in the winter.  While it's a little cold for me here, we could easily find a happy medium between out 'hot' houses and the 'cold' ones in England and save a lot.  Putting on a sweater doesn't hurt us.  Likewise, we would hardly feel it if we raise the temperature of our air conditioning in the summer by one degree.
          8.  Plant a tree, especially in a place where it is needed.
          9. Eat in more often.  This takes a little more time and planning than eating out, but it saves on energy costs (driving to the restaurant, heating the restaurant, etc.), and it's cheaper, more healthy, and promotes more family interaction.
          10. If you live in an area where it's possible, bicycle, walk, or ride public transport to work or church, especially when the weather's nice.  Not only does it help to use less gas and reduce our dependence on foreign oil, it's good for our health.

And now I have two complaints against corporations and restaurants and businesses and retailers.  If these two complaints were rectified, it could seriously reduce our conspicuous consumption.  These are two areas that seem so simple to me, but I don't hear any environmentalists or politicians talking about them.  It seems that simple things like this could go a long way toward reducing our dependence on foreign oil, using fewer trees, and reducing costs.  Here are my proposals:
          1) Turn the thermostats down 2 degrees Fahrenheit in the winter and up 2 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer.  It doesn't need to be so hot in Wal-Mart in the winter nor so cold in McDonald's in the summer.
           2)  Reduce the amount of plastic and cardboard packaging on items sold in stores.  One of my pet peeves is to buy a piece of merchandise in a box or container only to have that item take up a tiny proportion of the box/container.  Why do things have to have so much packaging?  It's insane.
I'm not sure if we can legislate the last two items, but is there some way we could campaign for them?  Couldn't places of business and retailers be encouraged by the public to take such actions?  I'd like to see a movement in that direction.

Those are my thoughts.  I hope I haven't stepped on too many toes.


"To Be or Not to Be, That Is the Question"

No, I'm not contemplating suicide like Hamlet did in Shakespeare's famous play.  I've only been at this doctorate for three weeks, and I have still to get into the real work.  Rather, I'm contemplating the QUESTION. What is my question?  Specifically, what question will my research answer?

We have been warned that we will go through many drafts of our research question before we settle on the final one.  In three weeks I have already gone through 10 drafts.  Another professor warned us that getting the question right is crucial to your success in getting the degree.  He said he believes getting the question right is one-third of your degree.  Wow, that puts it in a very important light.

So, I've been wrestling with the question.  Before I came to Research Induction School at the Oxford Centre for Mission Studies, my question was something like," Why is there such a lack of indigenous worship music in Songhai churches?"  After I arrived, that quickly morphed into, "Is there a culturally-appropriate, Biblically-based form of worship music (for church) that is distinctly Songhai?  If so, what is it?"  After nine revisions, the question now sounds more like this: "How can the discipline of ethnomusicology inform and speak to the issue of a lack of indigenous worship music amongst the Songhai?"  The latter question may include the two previous questions and several of the in-between revisions.  

And so the question goes on.  This one or that one.  That wording or this one.  To be or not...to be continued.....


The end of the beginning

For almost ten years I have thought, prayed, and sought advice about doing a PhD.  There seemed to be many obstacles in the way: timing, a demanding ministry, family needs, finances, doubts, objections, lack of good Internet access, a topic, etc. One by one God removed each obstacle and showed me that this was His will.

I hope I never become an academic snob.  Ultimately, this PhD has no lasting value in and of itself.  The piece of paper I hope to get (and it's not guaranteed that I will get it: I have to go through several probationary stages first) might as well be burned if I use it to show how intelligent I am or how much better I am than others.  No, it's more about obedience and doing something of lasting value that will further God's kingdom and help his people.

So, here I am off to school on my first day. 

Just kidding.

Oxford Centre for Mission Studies (OCMS) is located on Woodstock Road in north Oxford.  

It's actually less than a mile from the centre of town and the 40 different colleges that make up the University of Oxford.  OCMS is located in an old church on a busy thoroughfare leading out of the city to the north.  

Actually, OCMS is not a part of Oxford University.  It is only loosely affiliated with it.  We have no access to any of the colleges, but we do have one privilege afforded to all Oxford University students:  access to the Bodleian Library, one of only a few copyright deposit libraries (meaning the library has a copy of any book printed in the country and many more besides) in the United Kingdom. In order to gain access to the Bodleian, you have to have a membership card, and in order to get that card you have to go through an orientation and swear an oath that you will not damage or steal any books or smoke and drink in the library.  It's an old ritual, and tradition dies hard here.  I do have my membership card now and have access to over 11 million books and other electronic media available in the "Bod."  Here's a photo of one building in the Bodleian, the Radcliffe Camera building:

There are eleven other men and women beginning their journey toward a PhD with me.  Five of them are Koreans (but only one works in Korea--remember that Korea is sending out more missionaries around the world than any other country but the US).  Four are Americans (one is African-American and one is originally from the Caribbean).  In the last two, one is British and one is Indian.  I'm second to the left in the picture below.

This will be a long journey of at least 5-6 years.  I'll try to post as frequently as possible and give you updates on the road, but since I'm doing "part-time" ministry and "part-time" studies, things will get very busy for me at times.  

For now, I'm here for 11 weeks.  The first four weeks involve orientation and an introduction to research methods and using the Internet and the library.  After that it's mostly research, reading, and writing on my own with help from a mentor and supervisors--full-time for the last 7 weeks I'm here and then part-time when I return to the US.  I'll communicate with my supervisors via skype, the Internet, and the phone, but most of the work will be my own.  UK higher degrees don't involve a lot of courses.  Instead, you do a lot of reading and research on your own under the guidance of supervisors.  It's a lonely road, but OCMS tries to help you through it as much as possible.

Well, this is the end of the beginning.  I've started on a new adventure.  I predict there will be times I will wonder out loud why I ever embarked on this journey.  But there will be times of enlightenment and discovery as well.  I pray that this degree will bring glory to God and produce something lasting, something enduring for His work.  I do not want something fleeting, something that is just a piece of paper that could be burned up in the fire. Until next time.


A New Toy

Anyone who knows me knows I love music.  From the time I sang my first solo in church when I was four until the present, I have been involved in music in some way.  I started taking trumpet lessons when I was ten and played that instrument through high school.  I also played the French horn for a number of years.  I sang in choirs and loved to listen to good music.

However, it was when mom insisted that I take piano lessons that I really fell in love.  It was 1972, and I was 13, trying to find out who I was, like any other teenager.  Mom made me and my three brothers take at least one year of piano lessons.  I was the only one who continued after the first year.  I took eight years of lessons and got most of my musical training on the piano.  I played for musical groups in both high school and college and often in church settings.  I never really wanted to take up the guitar.  All my friends played the guitar, and I was the only one who could really play the piano, so I carved out my identity on that instrument and tried to be different.

When I left home to go to college, I continued my musical training on the piano, but the piano on which I first learned to play remained at my parents' house.  Here it is, the Baldwin spinet I loved so dearly. 

As the time approached for me to leave for Africa in 1984, I realized that I wasn't going to be able to haul a piano all over the world.  Affordable electronic pianos were just beginning to appear on the market at that point, but I still couldn't justify the price nor the astronomical shipping costs.  So, I taught myself to play the guitar, a much more portable instrument.  Over the years, I have enjoyed the guitar, and as my skills on the piano got rusty, my guitar abilities got better.  

But I always considered the piano my first instrument and longed for the day when I could have constant access to one.  I ran across pianos in Africa and in the US and would play whenever the opportunity arose, but in all my adult life (33 years) I have never owned a piano.  Until now.

Before dad died, my parents and I had discussed the possibility of giving me the old piano that had sat in their house all these years.  The problem was we had no place to store it and couldn't haul it to Africa.  Pianos like that don't work well in the tropics.  Then a few months ago I ran into a Christian man who operates a music store and repairs musical instruments.  He suggested we trade mom and dad's old upright for a newer electronic version.  Both are used, but both are still valuable instruments.  And all we would have to do would be to pay for the shipping.  

For five years, I have been praying that the Lord would give me my piano back.  He has done that beyond my wildest imaginations.  On March 20, we picked up the new (used) piano from our friend.  It's not fancy and doesn't have a lot of bells and whistles.  But it's what I have needed for a long time.  Now I can rehone my skills and get better.  

Now I'm headed to England to start a doctoral program.  I won't have my piano (nor my guitar) with me, but the subject of my studies will be music, specifically, ethnomusicology (a branch of anthropology), the study of ethnic music played in various cultures. I'll be taking a more intense look at the Songhai people and their music, and I'm really excited.   I leave tomorrow (March 24) for Oxford.


Zollo nda nga korfo (A gourd and its string)

African languages have many proverbs, and the Songhai language is no exception. This is one of my favorites:  "A gourd and its string."  Now you're probably wondering what in the world that means.  Well, first, a little explanation is in order.  

There are many types of gourds in Niger, each with its own word to describe it.  Some are spherical in shape and when cut in half, gutted, and dried, make nice bowls of various sizes.  Others grow in such a way that they make spoons when cut in half.  Sometimes the Nigeriens decorate these different gourds with various beautiful carvings and colors.  But there is one type of gourd that grows roughly in the shape of an hourglass.  It's called a zollo. Here's a picture of one of these gourds growing. 

Ever see anything like that?  Amazing, isn't it?  Now these gourds have a variety of uses.  People may cut off the top of the smaller end and put a stopper in the hole.  Then they carry it around as a water bottle.  Or they may put cream in it, put a stopper in the hole, and give it to a child to carry around all day.  When he or she gets home in the evening, voila,.... butter, a little runny to be sure, but very much like butter.  In both these cases the gourd will normally have a string attached to it so the person can carry it.  The string may be long enough to carry it around your neck.    So this gourd (zollo) is associated with a string attached to it.

So here's the meaning of the proverb.  Actually, it's only half a proverb.  But, like many proverbs in English, if you say half the proverb, most people could complete it. (Try completing, "A stitch in time...").  So the full proverb is, "A gourd and its string are always together."  But the Songhai only have to use the first half of it, and everyone understands what they are saying.

That still leaves us hanging.  What in the world does it mean?  Well, the proverb is used about two people or things that are always together:  A husband and wife, two close friends, two donkeys pulling a cart, etc.  It got to the point where one of my friends in Tera would come to greet and during the long series of greetings that all Africans are really good at, he would ask me, "And how is your string (korfo)?"  He wasn't literally talking about a random piece of string, but rather my wife.  We all use euphemisms when talk, and this was one of them in Songhai.  He didn't refer specifically to my wife.  He used an expression which meant the same thing.  And he didn't mean that my wife has me by the throat with a string.  It is more of a metaphor indicating a close relationship of mutual support.  

I could think of a lot of applications for this proverb in our own culture (our supporters and us, our supervisors and us, pastor and church, teacher and student, etc.).  We are dependent on many others for help, support, and growth.  We need to work together and rely on each other more. Our rugged individualism is not always such a good thing.  This is especially true for Christians.

There is another use for this gourd which really interests me.  As a musician, this one is especially intriguing.  You can let the gourd dry out and leave the seed inside it without cutting it open in any way.  Then you tie a net of beads to it, and it becomes a clacking rhythm instrument like a maracas.  Here I'm holding one in my hands. 

Lots of uses for a zollo, aren't there?



OK, I know. This isn't a subject we westerners like to dwell on.  In fact, we do everything in our power to avoid pain, suffering, and death.  We insure ourselves against all forms of accident, illness, and even life, and then we're surprised when something bad happens to us.   Go figure!  The fact is that pain, suffering, and death are a part of our earthly existence.  If you don't believe it, go to Haiti right now or some places in Africa where war and violence are a daily fact of life.   We have seen so many children die during our years in Niger that you almost become numb to it.  Let's face it.  All of us have to die.  We'd better come to terms with it.

I had thought I would write a blog on death about ten days ago.  The earthquake in Haiti had just taken place, and the devastation and pain there was unimaginable.  I also know about various conflicts and violence in parts of Africa, the Middle East, and Asia, and those places were on my heart as well.  Then something happened to bring the reality of death very close to home.

The past ten days have been tough for me.  My dad, Robert (Bob) H. DeValve, died on 17 January 2010.  He had been diagnosed with a ideopathic pulmonary fibrosis in the fall of 2009.  This lung disease is not very well understood in the medical community and has no cure.  It is also a very serious disease which can cause the stricken to suffer for years.  Though we knew of dad's diagnosis, he seemed in good health aside from shortness of breath and a worrying cough.  We expected him to be around quite a while longer.

Bob DeValve on his 79th birthday officiating at the wedding of his oldest grandson
June 20, 2009

So it was quite a shock to hear that he was admitted to the hospital on Wednesday, Jan 13 with serious breathing problems.  Even at that point the prognosis for a partial recovery was fairly good, but on Thursday night, dad's health declined markedly, and he needed to be hooked up to a suction oxygen mask to keep him breathing. We were called in on Friday morning, and we spent two wonderful days around his bedside.  Dad was aware and lucid, if hard to hear, but he understood what was going on and could hear us.  We sang to him, read Scripture, and prayed.  Don't get me wrong.  It wasn't a picnic.  It was tough to watch him fight for every breath, and it was hard to refuse when he constantly asked for food or water.  He especially wanted hot chocolate, one of his favorite breakfast beverages.

By Saturday night it was clear that there was little hope, humanly speaking, of his recovery, and that the oxygen mask was the only thing keeping him alive.  We could have had the mask removed that evening, but we decided to wait until my brother arrived from Ohio with his wife and sons.  They arrived on Saturday night.  

Sunday morning, the family gathered and held a little service around his bedside.   Then everyone had a chance to say good-bye.  Afterwards, the nurse removed the mask and tried to make him as comfortable as possible.  Dad stunned us by summoning all his strength, raising his hands, and in a trembling voice, pronounced a blessing (we're now calling this the patriarchal blessing).  Here are dad's last words:

"My prayer to God is that you all remain faithful to Him and serve Him and consult Him in all your decisions.  He has His loving hands ready to forgive you, if you will repent....

No matter what happens, come hell or high water, He will carry you through and He will give you a glorious inheritance far, far better than anything on earth. 

And with all your power, all your strength, all your might, you will rest in Him.  Beyond anything I could describe I will rest at His side both body, soul, mind, and spirit.

If you fall, He will forgive you.  I pray you don't fall hard.  I love each one of you and pray for each one of you every singly day.

When you are driving, playing games, or fooling around, He is always there.  He knows what you are thinking right now.

Let me go.  If you want me, Lord, I'm ready.  Take me, Lord Jesus."

After he finished, there was a pause and sobs, and then we all started singing.  We sang him to heaven.  About an hour and a half later, after struggling for every breath and with his family praying and crying around him, he flew to Jesus.

The memorial service was held at his home church, Trinity Covenant in Manchester, CT on Friday evening, Jan 22.  Dad had been active in the church right up to the time of his death, serving both as retired pastor of missions and mentoring and as a member of the care team, visiting countless sick and shut-ins. He also visited prisoners in jail, discipling and mentoring them.  Over 500 people showed up for the memorial, a testimony to a man who had touched many lives and to the God he served.  The service concluded with the singing by the choir of the "Hallelujah Chorus" from Handel's Messiah.  That was dad's special request.

                                          Dad and Mom with a grandson, Summer, 2009

Now comes the tough part: living in the light of eternity.  Dad's legacy to us is huge.   No one could walk in his shoes.  But we can believe and obey God like he did. And we can fulfill the vocation God has given us to the best of our ability.  My prayer is that there will be many in heaven because of dad and his life.  It was a privilege to have known such a wonderful man and be called his son.  He was not perfect, but now he is.  Bye for now, dad.  I'll look forward to seeing you in heaven.


Christmas Traditions

Every family has its Christmas traditions.  Ours is no different.

On Christmas Eve we often have some ethnic foods (like curry or some kind of world food) and then watch a film.  In the past that film was often the Jesus film in Songhai.  This year we watched "It's a Wonderful Life" on tv.

In Africa we always celebrated Christmas as a family the day after Christmas (Boxing Day).  The reason is that we usually celebrated Christmas Day with Africans by going to church and then sharing a big meal of goat meat in sauce over rice.  Holidays in Africa are community celebrations, not private family affairs.  So, we spent Christmas Day with Africans and then had our private family celebration the next day.

Whatever day we celebrated, we started off with a reading from Scripture by dad (me) and a prayer, then we opened our gifts. 

We started with the stocking gifts.  Over the years, Nancy has made individual cross-stitch stocking(except herself, she uses a nice bought stocking), so we have something unique to each of us.  Then we proceed to the opening of the gifts under the tree.

In Africa, we have a little two-foot artificial tree that we use, and we don't put gifts under it until Christmas Eve.  In the US, we buy a real tree and put the gifts under the tree whenever we finish wrapping them. 

We never played "Santa Claus" in our house.  The myth of Santa makes me sick, but we know that the myth is based on a real person named Saint Nicolas.  The fact that Saint Nick lived and worked in what is today the modern country of Turkey is all the more fascinating for our family since I have intimate connections with the country of Turkey.  I was born there.  So we tell our kids the real story of St Nicholas.  To me it's more inspiring and fun than the fake "Santa in the mall" junk. 

After opening gifts, we have our traditional breakfast of sticky buns, a practice borrowed from the Hall family (Nancy's parents). 

Later in the day we have a feast of turkey (chicken in Africa),

potatoes, vegetables, cranberry sauce, and pie.  This year we celebrated with special coke--in bottles like we get in Africa.  It just tastes better in a glass bottle!  :)


It has been fun over the past three weeks to have our kids home from college.  We've made cookies and memories together and cherished the moments.  Wish I could slow time down.  Now we're in Alabama for a wedding of a friend who spent some time in Africa.