Much of our lives in Papua New Guinea (PNG) are consumed with fairly mundane activities. The fact that we live and work in the “exotic” tropical rainforests of PNG does not excuse us from tasks like washing dishes, doing laundry, and taking care of our kids just like normal people here in America. Many times our lives appear on the surface to be very similar to our lives in the States.
There are, however, those moments that punctuate the monotony that remind us that we are NOT living a normal lifestyle. Moments that shake us to the core, make us feel like we’re living in a National Geographic film, and leave us asking “What in the world are we doing here?!?!”
Our first three months in PNG were filled with those kinds of moments. In fact, I would say that during the three months of our Pacific Orientation Course (POC) those earth-shattering, exotic moments were more the norm than the exception.
Like the day I got stuck in quicksand, for example.
One Sunday, we had the opportunity to go on an optional swimming trip. Like most activities in PNG, this was a lot more involved than it sounds. A group of about 20-30 of us missionaries loaded up in the back of a large covered flatbed truck and made the hour and a half drive down the rough mountain roads to the village closest to the watering hole. (I could write a whole story on the trip down the mountain as it was an adventure in itself, but we’ll save that for another day…)
Once we got to the village we unloaded from the truck and began the 30 minute hike down into the ravine where our swimming hole was located. This probably ordinarily would have taken an hour, but whoever was leading the charge REALLY wanted to get to the swimming hole quickly. I was grateful at this point that Jennifer and the kids had opted out of this little excursion and stayed back at POC because it would have been a really difficult hike for them. It was pretty steep and I felt like we were basically jogging down the mountain most of the time!
But it was worth it. After a very sweaty hike through the jungle, we stepped out into the clearing where the watering hole was. It was breathtakingly beautiful. A stream came out of the mouth of a cave, cascaded over a short waterfall into a large rock swimming hole which overflowed into a series of smaller, cascading crystal clear rock pools before flowing off into the jungle as a meandering stream. The tall jungle trees surrounding the pools kept it nice and shady and cool. It was paradise.
We swam for a while, enjoying the cool, clear water and taking turns doing high jumps off of the rock formations into the deeper, main pool. Then, a group of us decided to hike around to the entrance of the cave and follow the stream through to the mouth where it emptied into the pools.
Hiking through the jungle in PNG isn’t for the faint of heart, but it’s always rewarding. I enjoyed the beauty of the jungle and the massive trees that form the canopy above.
Finally, we came to the cave entrance. The cave was 10-20 feet tall and wide at most places. There were lots of bats flying around and the cool stream was only a couple feet deep in most places. After 10 minutes or so of walking through the cave, we were at the mouth where it poured over the waterfall into the pools. There was no safe or easy way down the waterfall, so we took a short detour around the waterfall.
Most of this path was under 6-12″ of water from the stream, but it was easily traversable since most of it was peppered with larger rocks we could walk on.
Near the end, however, was a different story. I had lingered back a little from the group, enjoying the scenery around me, so I didn’t get a good look at where everyone else had walked. I hopped off of a rock ledge onto what looked like a short stretch of rock covered by about a foot or so of water.
I immediately realized my error. While the substance under the water had looked like solid limestone, it was in fact quicksand. My right leg immediately sunk up to my knee in the squishy sand and silt mixture which pulled my weight off-balance, forcing me to either fall headfirst into the quicksand or pull my other leg in as well. I pulled my left leg off of the rock ledge and into the quicksand so that I could stay upright and not make a bad situation worse.
As I tried to shift my weight and pull one leg free, the other leg only sank deeper. The suction from the quicksand made it completely impossible for me to free my leg, and any attempt to do so was threatening to pull off my Keens hiking sandals.
A brief moment of panic struck as the realization sank in–I was stuck in quicksand! My wrestling around had only served to make matters worse, and I was now up to my mid-thighs deep in the quicksand, with the water level close to my waist. There wasn’t really anything around for me to grab hold of (I had left my Indiana Jones’ rope back home…😂), and I realized I wasn’t going to be able to pull myself out of this one. Embarrassed at my blunder, I yelled for help–but not too loudly so as not to alert the entire group of my stupidity.
Fortunately, one of our PNGan guides was nearby and turned around to help me. It took him a good bit of effort to pull me out, but I did finally make it out of the bog, shoes and all!
While I wasn’t in any real danger, the shock of the incident taught me a valuable lesson: when hiking through the jungle along a stream, test your footing before leaping in!
Oftentimes we treat our jobs, homes, health, family, and financial status as if they’re trustworthy foundations upon which to build our lives, but they’re not.
On a deeper note, sometimes things in life which appear to be solid and stable are in fact unsuitable foundations. In PNG, between the quicksand, earthquakes, and landslides even that which you most take for granted–the very ground under your feet–can prove to be untrustworthy. But oftentimes we treat our jobs, homes, health, family, and financial status as if they’re trustworthy foundations upon which to build our lives, but they’re not. “At least my job has a guaranteed paycheck,” we say. Does it really? Are you guaranteed your job? Or, “I’m reasonably healthy, so at least I don’t have to worry about getting that illness.” Do you really think that you have control over your health?
It’s true that God expects a certain amount of responsibility and good stewardship from us in these areas of our lives. We cannot live a fiscally irresponsible life and expect all to turn out well. Nor can we treat our bodies with disregard and expect to live a long, healthy life. But we also cannot put our trust in these things. If we do, we will soon discover that they are “broken cisterns that can hold no water” (Jer. 2:13), or shifting sand unfit for a firm foundation (Mt. 7:24-27).
The only sure foundation upon which to build our lives is Christ and his Word. He is the only thing in this life that never changes, never disappoints, and is never affected by the chaos of this world. And because he is trustworthy, his Word is also trustworthy.
For millions of people around the world–including the Mubami people with whom we work in Western Province, PNG–the firm foundation of God’s Word is inaccessible to them because it is not available in a language that speaks to their hearts. Our mission is to bring God’s Word to the Mubami people in their own language so they can have access to God’s Word and know how to build their lives upon Christ. Click the link below to learn how you can partner with us in our Wycliffe ministry to translate God’s Word into the Mubami language.
*This is the fifth of a seven-part series about our pre-allocation trip to the Mubami people of Western Province, Papua New Guinea. The purpose of our trip was to discern God’s will regarding us potentially starting a new Bible translation project in the Mubami language, which currently has no scripture.
Day 5, March 3, 2018
Today was our longest day of travel. I woke up to the sound of hammering. Walking out onto the veranda, I realized that they had been busy nailing down some of the loose boards on the veranda and installing a handrail on the steps leading up to the house. I chuckled to myself. After just one day they had already come to the conclusion that this big white man is going to kill himself if we don’t “whiteskin-proof” our house!
Before breakfast, we took a canoe—a roughly 20’ long hollowed out tree trunk with a small 15hp motor on the back—back down the river to the site of the new airstrip. This was my first time riding in a traditional canoe in PNG. While I’m sure that it was a very large tree it made a very narrow canoe—just wide enough to fit a single file line of seated people, and not quite wide enough to comfortable turn sideways in the canoe. I thought to myself, “I’ve really got to lose some weight!” Any time I tried to shift my weight to get more comfortable, the whole canoe would rock prompting some nervous looks and chuckles from the others in the boat.
Being overweight in America really doesn’t affect your daily life too much, as long as you’re not morbidly obese. You can drive pretty much anywhere you need to go, you don’t have to wonder whether your house will support your weight, and—aside from commercial airlines which are uncomfortable regardless—there are few seats that are uncomfortable if you’re a little overweight. In the village, however, it can mean falling through the floor of you house, capsizing your canoe, or—worst of all—falling through the floor of the liklik haus (outhouse)! I’ve heard that it’s happened before—fortunately to no one that I know—but I’m pretty sure that’s the kind of traumatic experience you need professional counseling for afterwards.
To get to the proposed airstrip site was about a 15 minute canoe ride then a 1km hike up to the plateau where they’re building the airstrip. To say that it’s not yet finished would be an understatement. The 800m strip had at one point been bulldozed, but it had been several years and the jungle quickly reclaims any ground that you don’t actively maintain. The surface was red clay and a good portion was covered with small trees and shrubs. I was able to use my phone’s GPS (GPS works even when there’s no cell coverage) and a map app I’ve come to rely upon for use out in the bush (TopoMaps+) to plot out the coordinates for the proposed strip and get a rough measurement. I’ll take this information and some pictures back to Ukarumpa to get information from our Aviation department on what all needs to be done to open the strip. I’d say that they’re still a couple years from getting the strip approved for use, but it’s promising. The proximity to Sogae would definitely make it much easier to get in and out of the village.
On our way back to the boat, someone cut us some wild sugarcane to chew on. It’s quite tasty and refreshing after hiking for a while in the sun. When we got back to Sogae we had breakfast before heading out again for Sasereme. From this point on, they gave us differing varieties of sago at every meal, including one that was actually quite tasty. Once, they cooked the sago in bamboo with coconut and banana. It made a sweet, desert like version of sago that I actually would make for myself. “Finally!” I thought, “A version of sago that I actually like!” It was encouraging to find that there are ways of making their staple food that I actually enjoy and our kids will probably like, too.
After lunch we took the dugout canoe with the 15hp motor upriver to Sasereme. On the way there, I got to talk a good bit with Rex. I learned that he had been asked by the church to become a pastor, but since he wasn’t able to afford the school fees for the 3-year Bible school, he had been unable to become a pastor. Each of the pastors in the area go to a 3-year Bible school run by some of the Gogodala ministers in a village near Ugu. It’s a big commitment, both of finances and time. I only met two Mubami pastors in the Mubami churches—the rest were Gogodala men.
So, unable to become a pastor, Rex became a teacher instead. He teaches the primary school (grades K-2) at Sogae. He is paid every fortnight (two weeks) by the government. He earns a decent enough salary by PNG standards—most people are unemployed, at least in the traditional sense—but his salary is a far cry from what Americans teachers would earn. Sometime after becoming a teacher, he was elected chairman of the Mubami District—an area which includes all of the Mubami ECPNG churches except Ugu, which is so far south that it belongs to another district. He said that the chairman position is a paid position, but he had declined the salary. “The church really can’t afford to pay me, anyhow, and if they did pay me and I continued to receive my salary from teaching, I’d be a rich man, and that wouldn’t be good,” he said. I had to consciously remind myself not to let my jaw drop visibly. A rich man? Here’s a man who—even if he did accept both salaries—would still be below the poverty line in the US by a wide margin and he’s concerned about making too much money. I was simultaneously convicted and humbled by the depth of character he displayed in that moment.
The 15hp motor eventually got us to Sasereme, but it didn’t do it quickly! It took us about an hour and a half to travel the 16km from Sogae to Sasereme. We had intended to go all the way to Daiyapi, but the pull cord on the motor broke just as we got to Sasereme, so we pulled into Sasereme and switched boats. A local politician had an aluminum dinghy with a 40hp motor, so we borrowed his boat and made the remaining 5km trip to Daiyapi in about 5-10 minutes. I made a mental note that if/when we get a boat, I’m getting a 40hp motor! The trip down the river is beautiful and peaceful, but if we ever had an emergency, I’d want something with a bit more “get up and go!” Plus, it would make visiting villages farther out a little more feasible.
Just as we were about to pull up to Daiyapi, I had a horrifying realization—I’d left my cell phone in the other canoe that we’d left at Sasereme! I’d had it out taking pictures and must not have seen it when I gathered up my belongings and transferred to the dinghy. Not wanting to worry Rex, I decided to keep it to myself and pray that it would still be there when we got back.
We were greeted in Daiyapi by probably 60-80 villagers. They gathered underneath someone’s house as we explained why we had come. They had much the same reaction that we had seen in Sogae, Palieme, and Kamusi—they were thrilled that someone was finally considering helping them translate the Bible. They, again, explained that they don’t understand the Tok Pisin, English, or Gogodala Bibles and that they want to be able to read God’s Word in Mubami. We didn’t spend a lot of time at Daiyapi because we still wanted to stop by Sasereme and visit with some Dibyaso language speakers as well, and it was already mid-afternoon. The people, I think, wanted us to stay longer so they could prepare us food, but we explained that we still had a lot of ground (and water!) to cover, so we needed to get going. They apologized that they hadn’t been able to host us properly because they didn’t know we were coming and insisted on cutting down some fresh coconuts for us to drink before we left. I’m convinced that fresh coconut water is nature’s Gatorade—it’s incredibly refreshing after a long day in the sun. We thanked them for their hospitality and made our way back to Sasereme.
I let Rex know that I had left my phone in the canoe, so we detoured back to the canoe to see if it was still there. There aren’t any Mubami speakers that live in Sasereme—it’s much like Kamusi, a logging camp that has people from many different language groups that live and work there, but all of the Mubami workers just commute from Sogae or Daiyapi to Sasereme for work. The dominant language group is Dibyaso, but we hadn’t met anyone from Sasereme, so I figured that the chances of recovering my lost phone were slim outside of God’s intervention. When I checked the canoe, I realized that my phone had slid underneath the raised wooden seating platform built into the bottom of the canoe. There it was, unmoved. What an answer to prayer! Finding my phone would turn out to be a bigger answer to prayer than I realized.
After breathing a sigh of relief, we hiked our way up the hill to speak with the Dibyaso pastors. The Dibyaso people have, like the Mubami, been asking for help with Bible translation for many years now. Unfortunately, there simply aren’t enough translation advisors to provide help to each of the remaining 300+ living languages in PNG which need their own translation. So, they wait.
We gathered under the pastor’s home there at Sasereme and explained why we were here. Of course, the fact that we were there considering working with the Mubami in Bible translation was little comfort to the Dibyaso, but I tried to comfort them and encourage them with the fact that there might be the possibility of including them with the Mubami in a multi-language (translation) project (MLP). Such an undertaking is complex and difficult, but it’s being done in multiple different projects. One of the most powerful stories of an MLP is the Aitape West project in the Sepik in PNG. The documentary “Arop” is a powerful testimony to God’s working through such projects. We also encouraged them that oftentimes its easier to get translation advisors in areas where there’s already another established project. Not many people are fond of the idea of starting a new project in an area where there are no other active missionaries. It’s a daunting task, to be sure. “So,” we said, “Perhaps if we come work with the Mubami, someone else will come work with you.”
It felt like empty platitudes, but it was the only comfort I could give them. The fact of the matter is that there are many obstacles to running an MLP and even if an MLP does develop with the Mubami and Dibyaso, it will almost certainly require additional missionaries to keep the project afloat. So, the sad truth is that the Dibyaso are now in the same position that the Mubami were in when Phil and Chris Carr allocated just downriver from them in the Bamu language back in the 90’s. The words of that elderly Mubami man in 1995 echoed in my mind: “We know that you’re working downriver with the Bamu people, and there’s a translator working up north of us, but here we have no one. We want the Bible in Mubami. Can you tell your bosses to send someone to help us?”
My heart breaks for the Dibyaso and the many other language groups like them who are still waiting for someone to come help them receive God’s Word. I want to help them, but I can’t be in two places at once. Maybe God will bless our efforts and an MLP will come to fruition. But, even if it does, we would need help to make it successful. I wonder, will the Dibyaso have to wait twenty more years before someone comes to help them? And by that time, will the door still be open? Surely, the harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few.
We found out while we were there that the airstrip at Sasereme is fully operational. That gives us one more option for travel to and from Sogae, so that was good to know. On our way out, we stopped by the trade store in Sasereme and bought some more fuel for the canoe which had now been repaired. It was now close to sunset and we still had an hour and a half canoe ride back to Sogae!
On the canoe, Jennifer and I finally had some time to talk semi-privately. (Personal, private conversations are hard to come by in the village!) I asked her how she was leaning, trying to get a feel for her thoughts on allocating to the Mubami. I had been praying that if God really wanted us to allocate to the Mubami that he would make it as clear to her as he had to me. She smiled and explained, “I was already pretty sure that God was leading us to work with the Mubami, but I just wanted a little more clarification. So, knowing how unlikely it was that your phone would still be on the canoe two hours later when we got back to Sasereme, I prayed ‘God, if his phone is still there, I’ll take that as confirmation that this is where you want us.’” I smiled and laughed. God had answered three prayers in one—my prayer that my phone would still be there, my prayer that God would make it clear to Jennifer, and Jennifer’s prayer for confirmation. We talked for a while about it to make sure that we were both 100% sure and then decided that we would make our announcement the following day (Sunday). Then we snapped a selfie to commemorate the moment.
As it got darker, we could see the large fruit bats flying overhead, most of them with about a 3’ wingspan! The ride back was peaceful. There’s an indescribable peace that comes from knowing that you’re following God’s will. Even though we were tired, sore, and sunburned, we had peace.
That night, we got back after dark. I told Phil about our decision and he gave me a big hug and whispered praises to God for answered prayer. Rex had invited all of the villages that we had visited to come to church at Sogae the following day to hear me preach, so we decided that during church would be the best time to make the announcement. All of the villages we had been to would be represented (except Waliho), and that seemed to be a fitting conclusion to our time in Sogae. Monday, we planned to catch a ride back to Kamusi and then go by boat to visit Diwami on Tuesday. But, our main purpose for coming had been fulfilled, so it seemed like good timing to go ahead and announce it so that they didn’t have to wonder anymore.
We ate dinner that night and I enjoyed a newfound freedom with the people. Without the question hanging over my head, I was free to relax and just enjoy their company and get to know them better. I slipped away a little early to finalize my sermon for the next day and slipped off to sleep. Tomorrow would be the culmination of several years of waiting for us, but decades of waiting for the Mubami.
*This is the fourth of a seven-part series on our pre-allocation trip to the Mubami people of Western Province, Papua New Guinea. The primary purpose of our trip was to discern God’s will in starting a new Bible translation project with the Mubami people.
Day 4, March 2, 2018
What a day! This morning we packed up our stuff again and ate breakfast. (You’ll never guess what we had for breakfast today…tuna and rice! Surprised?) This time, the truck came as planned and we took off down the logging roads in the back of a small pickup towards Sogae.
Thankfully, the roads were dry and made out of packed red clay, so they were surprisingly smooth! In fact, I think that outside of the roads in Port Moresby, this dirt logging road was the smoothest road I’ve been on in PNG! Granted, if it had just rained these roads would be impassable. But, so long as it’s dry, it’s smooth sailing.
We drove past Newtown and then kept going deeper and deeper into the jungle. We saw parrots and cockatoos flying overhead and someone even caught a glimpse of a red bird of paradise! The scenery around me was like something out of a movie. We were probably driving at 30mph for the majority of the time (a pretty good speed in PNG) and the cool breeze was a welcome relief from the heat. We must have driven for 30 minutes before I saw another human being, and even then, we only saw a couple men on logging company equipment. The thought occurred to me, “I wonder what we do if the truck breaks down or runs out of gas?” I was grateful that we had been able to get a SAT phone before our trip! Fortunately, we made it without incident, except for having to swerve around a large pile of dirt placed inconveniently in the center of the road. Who put that there?
As we were driving along, Rex told me, “Brother, I had a dream last night that you preached on Sunday.” I nervously chuckled. I thought to myself, “How in the world would I find time in this crazy week to prepare and deliver a sermon—a sermon in a foreign language, at that!” I didn’t quite know what to say because I wasn’t sure if it would be a good idea for me to preach to a group of people whose culture I didn’t have a good grasp on yet. I’ve learned the hard way that such a situation is rife with potential cultural pitfalls and potential for misunderstanding. Before I had a chance to reply, though, Rex sealed the deal—“Yes, I think that’s what we will do. You will preach Sunday. The people will hear the gospel from the white man.” “Oh boy,” I thought, “I’m not sure if this is a blessing or a catastrophe waiting to happen!” But Rex had made up his mind, so that was that. I was preaching on Sunday, ready or not!
When we arrived at Sogae my first thought was, “Oh, so this is what Jesus meant when he said ‘…and to the ends of the earth’!” Sogae is literally in the middle of nowhere. Assuming the road is passable, it’s a little over an hour drive from the Kamusi airstrip (which is already pretty much in the middle of nowhere) and an hour and a half canoe ride from the other closest airstrip at Sasereme.
There were a number of homes scattered along a half mile stretch of the Wawoi River. Most of the homes are built right along the banks of the Wawoi. We were greeted by a number of people including the new pastor of the church at Palieme and his family. He and his wife are Gogodala missionaries and they had arrived at Sogae only a week before we did. He will soon take up his post as pastor at Palieme. He and his family were a notable exception to the PNG norm of quiet, reserved women and outgoing men. He was one of the quietest men I have ever met, and she was outgoing even by American standards! Plus, she spoke fluent English—better than any of the Mubami.
Rex Amadi, as the denominational leader in the area, was our primary “guide” during out time with the Mubami. He had happened to be at Kamusi for a denominational meeting with the Mubami pastors when we arrived, but his home is at Sogae. He showed us to his home, a simple home with two bedrooms and a larger living area. It was a typical construction for Mubami homes, as far as we could tell. It was built on stilts about 8 feet off the ground along the edge of the river bank. There was a makeshift ladder to climb up to the veranda to enter the home. Fearing that the ladder might not support my weight with my luggage, Rex motioned for me to toss my bag up to him before I climbed up. The roof was old, rusty metal with nail holes from where he had removed it from his previous home to reattach to his new home. The floor was off-cut lumber from the sawmill with nails sparingly and sporadically placed throughout. (Nails are expensive and hard to come by for most PNGans.) I had to watch my step in the home because many boards throughout the veranda and in the home were not nailed down at all and the opposite end would pop up if you stepped in the wrong place. Others were just much thinner and felt like they might break under my much-larger-than-your-average-PNGan-weight, so I just made sure to stick to stepping on the floor joists. The windows were simply framed holes in the wall, though the “master” bedroom had some spare roofing metal propped up in it to provide some privacy. There were, of course, no lights or electricity, no indoor plumbing, no carpet, no decorations, and no furniture or beds. Rex and his family moved their belongings out of the two bedrooms and into the living area to provide a room for Jennifer and I and the other room for Phil and Adau (Domai had stayed at Kamusi with some relatives). He and his family slept in the living area.
After setting up our bedding, we went outside to sit down and visit. There’s not much purpose to being inside in a typical PNG village house. It’s hotter inside and there’s no breeze, plus there’s no lights or electronics to entertain yourself with, anyhow. A house is a place for sleeping, that’s about it. So, most people socialize underneath their house where it’s cool or in their haus kuk (an outdoor kitchen.) I walked along the veranda, carefully hopping from floor joist to floor joist, watching for boards that wouldn’t support my weight. In my careful attention to my footing, I failed to notice that the roof of the haus kuk—which is attached to the opposite end of the house and veranda—was much lower than the roof on the house. That’s no issue for most PNGans, who are usually shorter than the average American, but I banged my head straight into the edge of the low hanging roofing metal. Fortunately, I had my hat on, so it didn’t cut my forehead. It only took me running into it once more for me to figure out that I had to duck to enter the haus kuk.
The haus kuk was of similar construction—up on stilts even with the level of the house and with lots of boards not nailed down. Actually, about half of the covered area of the haus kuk didn’t have any boards at all! So if you didn’t watch your step carefully, you’d end up falling into the cassowary pen underneath the haus kuk! (One benefit of this construction is that it’s super easy to feed the cassowary. Just toss your scraps over the edge of the haus kuk!)
The ladies busied themselves preparing a simple meal over the fire in one corner while we and the men chatted in the other. While in Kamusi, Rex had repeatedly and excitedly promised that once we got to Sogae they would give us “real” village food. Boy, did they deliver! Some of the village boys had been splashing around in the river with nets and had caught some freshwater prawns! So, the ladies roasted them on the fire along with some fresh greens and, of course, sago.
Sago is the staple food in much of PNG and is made from the starchy center of the sago palm tree. The tree is cut down, stripped of the bark, then pounded to get out the starch. That starchy pulp can then be prepared in a number of ways. The most unappetizing method is to simply boil it in water. This results in a very stringy, white, tasteless blob which I affectionately call “snot soup,” for obvious reasons… Needless to say, we’re not big fans of this method of sago preparation.
So, we were very pleasantly relieved to find that the Mubami people roast their sago inside of bamboo. Sometimes they roast it plain, but often they mix it with coconut, bananas, and other foods to give it a flavor. Sometimes they even mix in pork, fish, greens, or other savory foods, too. While the resulting reddish-brown colon-shaped sago still doesn’t look very appealing, it’s much more palatable than any other version of sago I’ve tried…if you can get past the rather unsettling resemblance it has to its digested version, that is…
After we finished lunch, we all made our way down to the dinghy. Getting into the dinghy from the muddy bank without falling into the water took a bit of effort. We took off south down the Wawoi to go visit Palieme. The new pastor and his wife came along, too, so that they could see the village where they would be working and living for the next few years.
We puttered along in the dinghy for about 15 minutes to Palieme, then got out and hiked up the hill to the village. It was a scorcher that day. We walked around the village for a few minutes and then the whole village gathered in the church building.
Walking through the church was an even more risky affair than walking through the village home. About 50% of the floor boards were rotted enough that they would not support pretty much anyone older than a child. The bottom step going up to the veranda of the church broke when Jennifer tried to climb up it.
About 40-50 people gathered in the hot, stuffy church to see why the white visitors had come, and after everyone got settled, Rex invited us to introduce ourselves and explain why we had come. We thought it best to let the pastor and his family introduce themselves first, so his wife introduced their family. Then, we explained why we had come. At this point, Jennifer was fairly confident that God was calling us to the Mubami, but still wanted a little more time to think it over and pray. When God calls a husband or wife into a ministry, he calls the spouse as well. So, even though I was confident of our calling already, I knew that Jennifer needed a little more time to pray and wasn’t quite ready for a commitment. So, I explained that we were here to prayerfully consider whether God would have us to come help them with Bible translation. I spoke in pidgin and Rex translated for me. Very few, if any, understood me when I spoke in pidgin or English. Their reaction was much the same as what we saw at Kamusi and Sogae. They passionately explained why they needed scripture in Mubami and explained that they thought they were the last language in PNG left that needed Bible translation. I explained that there were actually over 300 other languages in PNG alone that were still waiting for scripture, and many, many more throughout the rest of the world. As you might imagine, that was of little comfort to them, but it did help to know that they weren’t the last ones and that our organization hadn’t forgotten about them.
I asked them to pray for us to have clarity and promised to pray for them. It gave me great joy to be able to tell them that people back in America have been praying for the Mubami for three years now, and they were very happy to hear that, too. Phil and Adau explained that a Bible translation project is primarily the job of the people, not the foreign missionaries. Without a lot of commitment and local ownership, Bible translations rarely succeed. Phil and Adau explained that Adau and his wife, Domai—not Phil Carr—are the Bamu Bible translators and that if the Mubami wanted a Bible they would have to be willing to commit to the work.
The people seemed to agree with that and were enthusiastic about the idea of starting translation. We prayed and adjourned and cautiously made our way back out of the church and down the rickety steps and back to the boat.
Rex had told me that they had been working on building an airstrip near Palieme for several years now in preparation for a missionary coming to help them with Bible translation. It wasn’t finished, but they had all the plans made out for it and had started the work. We planned to swing by and take a look at it on the way back, but just as we were getting close to the airstrip we got caught in a torrential downpour. I attempted to shield myself with an umbrella, but eventually just gave up because there was no point. I was getting soaked anyhow, so I figured I might as well enjoy the cool down! I laughed to myself as I remembered an episode of Planet Earth II that we had watched just the week before our trip. In this episode, the film crew were filming freshwater dolphins in the Amazon River and got caught in a torrential downpour. I looked around us at the dense jungle on all sides, looked at Jennifer and said, “Hey, you remember that episode on Planet Earth?” We both laughed as we realized the insanity of where we were and what we were doing.
We got back to Sogae that afternoon, just as the rain was stopping, just in time to see a large tugboat pulling an enormous barge down the river piled high with logs. It was coming from Sasereme, another logging camp north of Sogae along the Wawoi, and was heading downstream to the ocean. It was a bit strange seeing such a large technological contraption so far out in the bush.
When nightfall came we again took bucket baths. We could have gone down to the river and washed in the river like they do, but it had rained in the afternoon and the path down to the river was a muddy, slippery mess. I imagine that it would have done more harm than good to try to bathe in the river! Plus, Jennifer was a little nervous about bathing in the river at night knowing that there are, at least occasionally, crocodiles in the area. The people had told us not to worry about crocodiles because “when they see black skin, they know not to come close.” Surprisingly, that didn’t give us much comfort. We didn’t vocally oppose bathing in the river, but I think they figured we were too clumsy to make it down and back without wallowing in the mud, so they just filled a five-gallon bucket with river water and brought it up to the veranda for us.
Bathing in a village setting is rarely a private affair—there’s almost always someone around who can see you—so, you have to stay partially clothed. Women usually bathe in shorts and a t-shirt or just a knee-length blouse, while men just bathe with shorts on. Still, for us Westerners, bathing out on the veranda where people can see you is, at best, an awkward affair. Two women took it upon themselves to stand there on the veranda on either side of Jennifer just to be certain that nobody watched her…except them, of course. The awkwardness of public bathing is just the price you pay for cleanliness and a little relief from the heat. Oftentimes, it’s the little nagging things—like lack of privacy—that wear on you in a village setting. Full immersion in another culture takes a toll, so every missionary has to figure out ways of compromising between the target culture and their own culture. For us, that’s probably going to mean me constructing some kind of outdoor shower stall to provide a little more privacy for taking a bath.
That night we had a good, hard rain. The metal roof amplified the sound so that the rain was deafening. Of course, the water found its way through the various nail holes to drip on us, but overall, it wasn’t too bad. Even though we got dripped on a bit, it was a more than fair trade-off for the coolness that made it easier to sleep that night.
Today we were supposed to catch a ride from Kamusi across to Sogae. Pastor Max spent most of the day yesterday trying to arrange a ride and he told us that there would be a truck coming for us today. So, like the Westerners we are, we assumed that a truck would be arriving today. Before breakfast, we packed up our belongings, neatly organized them by the door and waited for the truck to come. We sat around for a while chatting with whoever came by, and Jennifer enjoyed getting to hold a cute little Mubami kid in her lap.
While we were waiting, I had the chance to talk with a few of the Mubami men underneath Pastor Max’s house (homes here are built on posts raised about 8-10 feet off the ground). An elderly man named Gaulei showed me his tattered and torn Gogodala Bible. The Gogodala are a very large language group just south of the Mubami who have had foreign missionary influence since at least the early 1940’s. Their New Testament translation was completed in 1981 and they have been a powerful missionary force in the surrounding region. Four out of the six ECPNG churches in the Mubami area have Gogodala missionaries as their pastors. Gaulei proudly showed me his Bible and I couldn’t help but think that it seemed to have gotten more use than most Bibles I’ve seen in the US. To be fair, though, paper doesn’t fare too well in the tropics so Bibles age quickly.
I asked Gaulei to read me a passage, curious if he knew Gogodala well enough to understand the Bible in Gogodala. Typically, in a village setting like this, elderly men may know some other languages from nearby peoples, while young men with more access to education may know some basic English or Tok Pisin. Women and children typically don’t know any other language aside from their mother tongue with any significant fluency, though there were a couple exceptions to this norm.
Gaulei struggled through a couple verses with what I would probably classify as the equivalent of a third or fourth grader’s reading ability in the US. But, knowing how to sound out the words of another language is very different from understanding their meaning. I can stumble through reading German—not well, mind you—but I understand basically nothing of it.
“Do you understand what you just read?” I asked him. Gaulei stared at his Bible for a moment then looked at me and shook his head “no.”
I felt like Philip with the Ethiopian eunuch. The Ethiopian eunuch couldn’t understand the Isaiah scroll he was reading without help, either, probably because there was no Bible in his mother tongue at the time. He was probably reading in Greek or Hebrew. Without someone skilled in these languages to interpret for him, he would have been hopelessly lost. Even with Philip to translate and explain it for him, eventually he would need the Bible in his language if he ever hoped to reach his fellow Ethiopians with the Gospel.
Rex reiterated what he had told me yesterday. “He can’t understand it because this isn’t his language, it’s the Gogodala language. So, he can read the words but the true meaning—he’s not able to understand that.” Since there’s no secondary school (grades 9-12) in this area, the vast majority of children don’t make it past grade 8 in the Mubami area—most don’t make it that far—leaving them with far too little English to understand the Bible in what has been described as one of the world’s most complicated languages.
Around lunchtime, the people explained that the truck that was supposed to come get us had to first deliver some people to Diwami, but that upon its return it would take us to Sogae. That was fine by us—as long as the truck arrived by 1 or 2pm we should be able to make it to Sogae before dark. By 2:00, we were beginning to have some serious doubts about our travel plans. Someone told us that they had heard that the truck had to take a ferry across the Wawoi River and take someone a little further towards Balimo, but that when it returned we would all go to Sogae. Balimo is a very long way from Diwami, so we quickly got the point. PNGans are typically less direct than Westerners and have a cultural aversion to disappointing someone. They don’t like to deliver bad news. So, if they know what you’re expecting or hoping for, that’s what they will tell you. (One has to be very careful, therefore, not to ask leading questions, because you’ll almost always get the answer you’re looking for whether that’s the “truth” or not! This often-disregarded cultural phenomenon is probably the source of many misleading statistics.) They hadn’t lied to us, they had simply used a culturally appropriate way of telling us “Yeah, that truck ain’t coming today.” We haven’t been here for a long time, but long enough to be able to read between the lines of this gentle PNG let-down. So, we unpacked our stuff again, set up our beds, and resigned ourselves to traveling tomorrow.
Since we had some free time and I was starting to get bored, we walked down the logging road about a kilometer to see another Mubami village called Newtown. While it’s still a part of the Kamusi area, it’s in its own little area off by itself. There were about 10 or 11 homes, most made out of off-cuts of lumber from the logging company with metal roofs, typical construction for the Mubami area. We didn’t really spend much time at Newtown, just walked down there and then back to the church.
That night a group gathered in the church sanctuary around electric lanterns and we talked and ate dinner. I think three different people brought us three complete meals that night. Just as we were finishing the first meal, the second arrived, and then the third. We were stuffed. There’s just only so much rice and tuna I can handle in one sitting, and after having rice and tuna for breakfast, lunch, and dinner for the past two days, I was not terribly thrilled to see a third helping coming our way. So, we politely nibbled at it a little so as not to offend and then shared it out with all of the people sitting around watching us eat. (Which, by the way, is as awkward as it sounds.)
After eating we chatted for a couple more hours. Phil amused everyone with a funny story about an elderly couple vacationing in an Asian country where they didn’t speak the language. The couple had brought their beloved house dog with them on their vacation. One night, they went to a nice restaurant and brought their dog with them. Since they didn’t speak the language, when they ordered their food they just had to use hand gestures. Wanting to order some food for their dog, they pointed at their dog and then made the gesture for eating food. The waiter grinned, nodded to acknowledge his understanding, picked up the dog and walked back to the kitchen. Later, he returned with the couples’ food. They ate their meal and then flagged down their waiter to pay their compliments and retrieve their dog from his meal in the kitchen. They motioned for their dog and the waiter just gave them a puzzled look. Finally, the waiter mustered up what little English he knew to say, “You already ate it!”
Everyone, including myself, was dying with laughter at the mortification of the elderly couple who had just discovered that they had eaten their beloved pet. As I looked around the room at the men and women laughing, I felt for a moment like I was with a group of old friends. After just two days, they already become like family to me. I looked over at Jennifer who was sitting on the floor with a group of women and smiled because she looked perfectly at home, like she belonged there despite her different skin color, language, and culture.
It’s hard to explain why or how, but in that moment I realized that God had given me the answer I’d been praying for. Before we left, I hadn’t made out a list of “qualifications” for what I was looking for in an allocation. I know that lots of people do, and there’s not necessarily anything wrong with that as long as you’re willing to set aside your list if God says so. Some people’s list includes things like “an airstrip within 10 minutes,” or “cell service in the area,” or any other number of qualifications. But for me, such a list couldn’t answer the primary question I had which was simply this: “Are these the people you want me to serve, God?” That question, for me, was the only one that mattered. The rest is simply logistics. So, instead of making a list, Jennifer and I decided to simply pray that God would make his will clear to us. God knows us far better than we know ourselves, so I knew that He would know exactly what would make his will clear to us concerning the Mubami. And in that moment, as we all laughed so hard we cried, it was clear to me. These people were hungry for God’s Word and we had already formed a bond with them that I simply couldn’t explain. Like Jonathan and David, my heart had been inexplicably and inextricably tied to theirs and I simply couldn’t walk away. They were no longer statistics or stories, they were my brothers and sisters, people that Christ died for.
In hindsight, I’m grateful that the truck didn’t come as planned and I’m glad that I didn’t make out a list of qualifications. In all my planning and careful consideration, I’m pretty certain that such a list would not have helped me to discern the difference between God’s will and my own. And most of all, I’m thankful for that elderly couple who sacrificed their dog for a people group in Papua New Guinea that they had never met.
*This is the second of a seven-part series about our pre-allocation trip to the Mubami people of Western Province, Papua New Guinea. The purpose of our trip was to discern God’s will regarding us potentially starting a new Bible translation project in the Mubami language, which currently has no Scripture.
Day 2, February 28, 2018
This morning we sat around on the porch of the church building and chatted with people as they came by. We got to meet various church leaders and church members and Pastor Max busied himself most of the day trying to arrange a ride for us to Sogae via one of the logging trucks going through the area.
After an early lunch (more rice and tuna), we went to visit Waliho, a very hot 1.5km walk from the church we were staying at in Kamusi. While Waliho is just as close to Kamusi as Saloma or any other part of Kamusi it is technically a separate village that relocated to be closer to Kamusi from its original location further down the Guavi River. Waliho relocated closer to Kamusi so that the people could get jobs with the logging company. Since it’s one of the only employers in the area, many of the Mubami people are employed by the logging company in Kamusi.
It seemed to me that we were not as well received in Waliho as we had been at Saloma/Kamusi. There was only one man in the village when we arrived—the rest were in the bush working. There was something in the body language and conversation that left me with the impression that there was some underlying cultural tension that I wasn’t understanding. Then again, it’s equally likely—if not more so!—that I simply misread the situation. Cross-cultural body language is, after all, a tough read! The people told us that the men of the village would be back later that afternoon, so we told them we’d come back then.
We made our walk back towards the church and stopped at a trade store to buy an umbrella. I used to feel silly walking around with an umbrella when it was sunny and not raining, but after walking a while in the hot, tropical sun, you get over such matters of pride quickly! I was surprised by the variety of items available at the trade store. There was a boat motor, a couple bicycles, some cheap plastic toys, a few small solar panels, umbrellas, some clothes, and a variety of basic foodstuffs, among other items. It was a far cry from Wal-Mart and most of the items appeared to be relatively poor quality, but if you were in a pinch, they might suffice for a little while.
When we got back to the church at Saloma, we sat around for a little while chatting with people. There seemed to be a constant stream of visitors, curious to see who the visitors to their area were. There was a heavy rain in the afternoon, so we waited for it to pass and then made our trip back to Waliho to see if we could catch the men who would have returned from the bush by then. Unfortunately, we found that the men had indeed returned from the bush to the village, but then had departed again. We don’t know whether they intended to give us a “cold shoulder” or if perhaps they just had a lot of work to do that day. But, since you never know what people’s intentions are, it’s always best to assume well unless you know otherwise. The women and children were more than happy to see us, though, so we shared with them why we had come and took some pictures.
On our way back, we stopped by another neighborhood in Kamusi which has a second ECPNG church. Several houses surround the church and most of the people living in this area have relocated here to Kamusi from Ugu village, the southernmost Mubami[i] village. The church is called “Kamusi Urban,” somewhat of a misnomer if you ask me because, despite the relative development in Kamusi from the logging camp, it’s still a far cry from “urban.” We were told that Kamusi Local Church (aka, Saloma Rural Church) had been planted as a branch of Kamusi Urban for the express purpose of reaching Mubami speakers. The logging company has brought in a large influx of workers from all over the country, so the church services at Kamusi Urban are led in English or Tok Pisin, the languages of wider communication in PNG, and the pastor is a non-Mubami speaking Gogodala man. But, since most of the Mubami don’t know these languages, they were not being well served in these services. So, a group of the Mubami—with the blessing and help of Kamusi Urban—planted a sister church in Saloma to minister to Mubami speakers.
I found that encouraging for a couple reasons. First, it clearly demonstrates the need for a Mubami translation. If the Mubami people had enough trouble understanding basic announcements and sermons in English and Tok Pisin, how much more difficult would it be for them to read Scripture in these languages? Second, it demonstrated to me clearly that they understood that spiritual matters simply can’t be communicated well in a second language. Anyone who has ever tried to preach or share the gospel in a second language knows this struggle well. Abstract concepts like “grace,” “salvation,” “faith,” and even “love” are difficult to translate on the fly and they are always interpreted through a cultural lens. Language includes much more than simply letters and definitions, there’s a whole host of cultural information that is implied or assumed as well. The Mubami understand that and are willing to do what is necessary to make sure their people understand God’s Word as best they can. Unfortunately, that ability is seriously hampered by their lack of a Mubami Bible.
[i] Actually, the people from Ugu are quite insistent that their name is not “Mubami” but “Dausami.” They argue that “Mubami” was a name given by Australian colonial workers to their people and is derived from the name of the bones they traditionally wore in their noses. Everyone else that we met (not from Ugu village) insisted that “Mubami” was the original name and “Dausami” was the name given by Australian colonials to the people and is derived from their traditional dreadlocks which they called dauso. In either case, the Mubami now have neither nosebones nor dreadlocks and everyone seemed to agree that they speak the same language, with some minor dialectical differences. This will be an interesting sociolinguistic puzzle for us to explore over the years!
*This is the first of a seven-part series about our pre-allocation trip to the Mubami people of Western Province, Papua New Guinea. The purpose of our trip was to discern God’s will regarding us potentially starting a new Bible translation project in the Mubami language, which currently has no Scripture.
Day 1, February 27, 2018
Yesterday, in the early morning pre-dawn hours, a massive 7.5 earthquake hit the highlands. We felt it at Ukarumpa, but it didn’t affect us. On the way to Kamusi we flew to Walagu and Bosavi airstrips to drop off a couple MTTs (mother tongue translators) and pick up a couple expats (foreigners—fellow missionaries in this case) from their village stays. On our way there, the pilot flew over some of the hardest hit areas and we took some pictures and surveyed the damage. Whole sides of mountains had just crumbled. As people slept, their homes simply collapsed. Many were killed or buried alive and many thousands of people lost their homes, their gardens, and their villages. It was heartbreaking to see the damage that this earthquake inflicted. According to the news, it was the worst earthquake PNG has seen in 100 years. The expat lady we picked up in Walagu said that her water tank had buckled and broke, spilling out all of her drinking water. People are afraid to go back into their homes (and rightly so), and they are afraid to go out into their gardens, many of which are built into the side of the mountains. The aftershocks continue a week after the quake, some greater than a 6.0 magnitude.
After surveying the earthquake damage, we landed at Walagu and then Bosavi. Though most people back in the US would probably consider Ukarumpa a “bush” airstrip (‘bush’ is the Australian term for deep jungle), I would say that landing at Walagu and Bosavi gave a new meaning to “bush” airstrips for me! Walagu was the first time that I ever thought while landing, “Is it possible for a plane to spin out and roll on landing?” Bosavi airstrip was even more fun! But the pilot handled the conditions with skill and the plane held up just fine. These bush airstrips don’t get nearly as much maintenance as they do rain, so it made for a bumpy landing!
After leaving the Bosavi airstrip, we flew up over Mt. Bosavi and then the pilot took us down into the crater! It was breathtaking. I’ve never seen a volcano up close before and I had no idea how big the crater can be! I’d guess that you could easily fit all of my hometown of Cabot comfortably inside the crater. It no longer surprises me that scientists have discovered new species that are only known to exist inside that crater! It’s basically big enough to have its own zip code. After leaving Mt. Bosavi, we continued flying south towards the Mubami. We flew for a good 30 minutes or more over seemingly endless jungle. I thought to myself, “Now this is bush…”. The scenery reminded me of something I’ve seen in National Geographic films or Jurassic Park.
When we landed at Kamusi, I was surprised by how “developed” it seemed, at least compared to Walagu and Bosavi. The logging company has built a couple small stores (similar to convenience stores in the US), put in a long airstrip made of crushed limestone, and carved out logging roads to get their equipment around. There’s a large sawmill, a primary school (grades 3-8), and a good number of people living in and around Kamusi.
When we got off the plane, we were greeted by Adau and Domai—the MTTs for the Bamu language translation project where Phil and Chris Car work. They’re very old now, especially by PNG standards, and their New Testament translation is nearing completion. Back in 1995, Phil had made a trip upriver to Kamusi on a survey with Adau and Adau had been the one to translate an elderly Mubami man’s request for help with Bible translation. Unfortunately, at that time Phil had to tell the man that we simply didn’t have anyone to send to help the Mubami translate Scripture. That unknown elderly Mubami man is most likely dead now, and none of the Mubami seem to know who it was that made the request. So, Adau was very happy that we were there to consider working with the Mubami.
We were also greeted by a number of Mubami men, women, and children. A couple of the men identified themselves as members of the translation committee at Ugu village. We had some difficulty getting word to the folks at Ugu that we were coming, so I was very glad to see that they had received the message and been able to come. I’ve been reading, studying, and asking about the Mubami for three years now, so it was surreal to get to finally meet some of the people I had been hearing about.
Finally, we made our way to Kamusi Rural Church (aka, ‘Saloma Local Church,’ named after the creek that runs through that area), a Mubami speaking ECPNG (Evangelical Church of Papua New Guinea, the dominant denomination in Western Province) congregation in Kamusi. A crowd had gathered around us, curious to know why the waitskins were here (waitskin is not intended as a derogatory term—it just means ‘people with white skin’). The church leaders set a time for later that evening to convene for us to tell everyone why we had come. That night, about 80-100 people came into the church and some of the denominational leaders were present as well. It quickly became clear that, despite our best efforts, no one except a handful of people knew we would be coming, and no one seemed to know why we had come. We told them that a few years ago, our organization had done a survey in the Mubami area to figure out if they still needed their own translation. Some of them nodded, remembering when our colleagues had come back in 2014. “We read their report about your desire for Scripture in Mubami, and we are here to prayerfully consider whether God wants us to come and help you translate the Bible into Mubami,” I said in Tok Pisin. I wasn’t sure how many of the people would understand me, but a handful of the men and a couple women clearly understood and translated my statement into Mubami for the rest of the people. Faces lit up and people chatted excitedly. The elders hushed everyone so we could continue. We explained that there are many languages in PNG that are still waiting for the Bible and that we weren’t sure if God wanted us to go to the Mubami or if he had another place for us to go.
Even as I explained that we had not yet made up our minds, it was hard for me to not just say, “We’re here to help you translate the Bible!” How do you face people who have been begging for God’s Word for decades and tell them, “I’m not sure if God wants me to help you get his Word or not”? Experience has taught me that a need, by itself, does not constitute a calling, but still, I struggled to get those words out and maintain my prior commitment to cautiously pray and carefully consider my decision.
There were some legitimate concerns and questions that I had before I could definitively say “Yes.” Probably the biggest concern was motives—why did they want a translator to come help them? That may seem like a silly question, but there are many examples of people groups in PNG who have had ulterior motives for wanting a missionary, chief among these ulterior motives being cargo cults (PNG’s version of the prosperity gospel). It’s a widespread belief in many areas of PNG that waitskins are deceased ancestors of theirs, come to bring them material goods (a.k.a., “cargo”). Thus, white missionaries are usually well received and welcomed, but oftentimes their reception has ulterior motives underlying their seemingly enthusiastic embrace of the gospel. (This is one reason that Bible translation takes so long—it takes years to learn the language and culture well enough to avoid the numerous potential pitfalls in translation of Scripture!)
So I asked them, “Why do you want the Bible in Mubami?” Max Saiya, the pastor at Saloma Local Church, and Rex Amadi, the chairman of the Mubami District ECPNG, both passionately explained, “Our people are not well educated. We are bush people. I and few of the other men known Tok Pisin and a little English, but our wives and children don’t understand these languages. When we preach, we have to read Scripture in English, Tok Pisin, or Gogodala and our people don’t understand the Bible in these languages. We need the Bible in Mubami so that our people can understand God’s Word.”
“Well,” I thought to myself, “That’s as pure a motive as I’ve ever heard.”
That night, they brought us rice and canned tuna in brine for dinner—a special (and expensive) treat that they themselves don’t often eat. To us, of course, it’s one of the blandest meals imaginable. Hardly what you’d hope for after a long, hot day. But the kind gesture was not lost on us. We stayed up talking with the people until probably 9 or 10 that night. But, it had been a long day and we were ready for sleep. Someone brought us a bucket full of tank water for bathing (a precious commodity—their only source of clean drinking water) and the pastor let us use a corner in one of the two rooms in the back of the church for our bucket baths. So, we took turns taking bucket baths in the pastor’s office. The floors were simple wooden slats, so the water drained right through to the ground. I chuckled to myself as I imagined this scenario playing out with various friends and relatives back home and the looks on their faces as they asked incredulously, “You want me to take a shower where?” It was not my first bucket shower, thanks to POC, but it was the first time I’ve taken a bucket bath in the pastor’s office!
After our bucket baths, we settled in to sleep. Phil took the opposite side of the room we had taken our baths in and Jennifer and I took the other room. By the time we set up our mosquito nets and air mattresses, I was drenched in sweat again. I often wonder during village living if there’s even a point to bathing, but at least it provides some relief from the heat, however temporary.
As I lay there drenched in sweat, I was comforted by two thoughts. First, I was very glad I had thought to get these little USB powered fans and battery packs! They’re not much in terms of cooling power, but it’s better than nothing! The second thought was that whatever suffering I was enduring was nothing compared to the spiritual suffering that comes by not having God’s Word in your heart language. For the Mubami “The Greatest Story Ever Told” has not yet been told—not fully. It’s still locked behind a closed door of a foreign language. Hearing statistics and stories about people without Scripture is moving, but to hear the passionate plea for myself was heart breaking. It’s miserably hot here, and it seems like we’ve flown to the edge of the earth and jumped off. But how can I say “no” to such a request? I’ve traded my American Dream for God’s Dream, the dream of “a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” (Rev. 7:9-11) That is a trade I will never regret making. What a privilege it would be to play a part in bringing God’s Word to these people.
MTT–Mother Tongue Translators; our national partners who do the work of Bible translation
Expat–short for “expatriate,” a foreigner (like us)
Bush–an Australian and PNG term for deep jungle and undeveloped areas
Waitskin–literally, “white skin;” a non-derogatory Tok Pisin term for people with white skin, often used to describe foreigners in general.
Tok Pisin–a Pidgin/Creole of English, widely spoken throughout much of PNG. Literally, “Pidgin talk” or, alternatively, “Talk of the Birds.”
Cargo Cult–PNG’s version of the “prosperity gospel;” It takes many shapes and forms, but at its core is an attempt to manipulate Christianity in order to obtain “cargo”–stuff.
Tank water–Rainwater collected from the gutters into large water tanks. For most people, it’s the only source of clean drinking water. Once it runs out, life gets difficult…
“Although he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered. And being made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him…But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil.”
Hebrews 5:8-9, 14 ESV
This is one of those passages in the Bible that is deceptively complex. I’ve read this passage before, but I think I have often missed some of the crucial truths buried within this passage. First of all, let’s take a closer look at some crucial parts of this passage.First of all, notice that the writer of Hebrews is talking about Jesus–the perfect, sinless God-man who always obeyed his Father. Second, allow me to highlight some important words in this passage:
“Although he was a son, he learnedobedience through what he suffered. And being made perfect…”
Some important and puzzling questions arise from these words. Wasn’t Jesus already obedient to the Father? How can someone who is perfect and omniscient learn obedience? Doesn’t that imply that he was not sufficiently obedient at one point in time? How can someone who never sinned be made perfect? How could Jesus be more perfect than he already was? Does this mean that he lacked some aspect of perfection?
I think the key lies in the type of perfection and obedience that is being described here. Of course, Jesus was in one sense already perfect and obedient. He never sinned, even in his youth, and he never disobeyed the Father. But I don’t think the author is primarily talking about sin here–he is talking about the perfection of faith. To be sure, sinlessness and perfect faith are related very closely, but they’re not the same.
Sin is, to put it simply, doing something God forbids. But faith is taking an action or attitude that is rooted in a trust or belief that God will do what he says. We see this in the definition of faith provided by the writer of Hebrews himself:
“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”
Hebrews 11:1 ESV
We see in this definition that belief is a crucial part of faith, but we also know from James that “Faith without works is dead.” Furthermore, when we read on in the examples of faith provided by the author of the letter to the Hebrews we can see that all of his examples are people who demonstrated their belief with an action or attitude:
By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac…
By faith Jacob, when dying, blessed each of the sons of Joseph…
By faith Moses, when he was born, was hidden for three months by his parents…
By faith Moses, when he was grown up, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter, choosing rather to be mistreated with the people of God than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin…
By faith [Moses] left Egypt, not being afraid of the anger of the king, for he endured as seeing him who is invisible.
By faith the people crossed the Red Sea as on dry land…
[These people] through faith conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, were made strong out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. Women received back their dead by resurrection. Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated— of whom the world was not worthy—wandering about in deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth.”
Hebrews 11:1, 17, 21, 23-25, 27-29, 33-38 ESV
Notice that all of these examples of faith use action verbs (I.e., “offered, blessed, crossed, etc.”). Faith is not merely belief, it is belief that results in action. Jesus, while he was sinless, had to learn obedience and be made perfect just as we do because the perfection the author is talking about is perfection of faith. Jesus’ faith was perfected through suffering. He suffered as a homeless man trying to find food and shelter. He suffered the rejection and persecution of the religious and political leaders of his time. He suffered constant temptation by Satan, and no doubt, the temptations that accompany the lifestyle of a single man. He suffered rejection and disbelief by his family and close friends. He suffered the stresses of ministry and constant relocation. He suffered the frustration of having to wait to begin his ministry until he was 3o. He suffered knowing that many of his followers were only there for the miracles and free bread. He suffered the weight of the knowledge of what was to come on the cross. If ever a man on earth knew suffering, it was Jesus. Isaiah describes the Messiah as “despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.” (Isaiah 53:3 ESV)
When Jesus began his ministry, he was perfectly sinless. But he had not yet reached perfection of his faith. That may sound strange, but perfect faith onlycomes through trials (See James 1:2-4 below). Furthermore, Hebrews 5:14 seems to indicate that these trials (or “opportunities to practice discernment”) will be constant. Why? Because faith, unlike belief, requires action to be made complete. For example, you can’t really say that you have faith that God will provide for your finances if you’ve never had to choose between being obedient to God in your finances (I.e., tithing) and paying your bills. If there is no action accompanying the belief, then it’s just a hypothetical belief at best, or dead faith at worst.
“What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him?…So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead…For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead.”
James 2:14, 17, 26 ESV
There is a significant lesson for us to learn in Hebrews 5.
If Jesus, the God-incarnate Messiah, was required to undergo trials of such severity and frequency in order to achieve the perfection of faith necessary to be obedient in the mission that the Father gave him, how much more trials are required for sinners such as you and I!
So many times when we undergo trials, we’re surprised by it. Oftentimes it seems like pointless pain and suffering. But for the believer, there is no such thing as pointless suffering! All suffering, in the life of a believer, is designed by God to bring us in conformity to the image of his Son. So, whatever suffering you may be enduring right now, know that God is with you in the midst of it and there’s a purpose behind it all.
Let these words of scripture sink into your heart as you meditate on what God is doing in your life:
“Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed.”
1 Peter 4:12-13 ESV
“Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.”
James 1:2-4 ESV
“The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.
For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved.
Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience. Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.
What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.” No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Romans 8:16-39 ESV
What verses or passages from scripture give you comfort when you’re suffering? Share them with us in the comments below!
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