*This is the sixth 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 6, March 4, 2018
Today is the big day. We’ve waited years to find out who God wants us to serve and we finally have our answer.
I’m pretty nervous. This is only the third or fourth time I’ve preached in Tok Pisin and nothing brings out the gaps in your foreign language fluency like preaching! But, given that I only had a couple days notice and not much time to prepare, I guess I can’t expect too much of myself!
For breakfast, Rex and his family have prepared a feast! We’ve enjoyed the prawns they’ve been bringing us, but this morning we were in for a treat. They brought us the biggest prawn I’ve ever seen in my life! I had to do a double take when I first saw it because it was the size of some lobsters I’ve seen, but it was a prawn! It was huge! And yes, it was quite tasty, too. Rex also proudly showed us some slabs of pork from a wild pig some of the men had killed during a hunt the night before. Hunting here in the jungles of PNG is a much different affair than hunting back in the US, to say the least! I’m really hoping I get to go on a hunt with these guys someday!
We ate breakfast and then I looked over my sermon a bit. Sometime mid-morning the first church bell rang, signaling the village that it was time to start getting ready. About 30 minutes later, the second bell rang to let everyone know it was time to walk to church.
The worship team—consisting of several men, women, and guitars—had already started when we walked in. I had to suppress my Western instinct to feel guilty about arriving after the music had started. In a culture without clocks or watches, an extended worship service serves a very practical purpose—it gives people plenty of time to get to church. No one worries about what “time” church starts—it starts when you get there. It was kind of nice not to have to worry about running late on Sunday morning.
Rex and his family ushered us up to a table with a nice tablecloth and chairs near the front of the church building—the place of honor. Everyone else, of course, was seated on the wooden floor. Over and again I’m humbled by their generosity and hospitality.
We sang for a good 45-60 minutes in a mixture of Tok Pisin, Mubami, Gogodala, and English. Even though I couldn’t understand any of the words to the Mubami songs, I loved hearing them sing in their mother tongue. They have written these songs themselves as an expression of their desire to worship God from the heart, and it shows. No one was worried about how their singing voice sounded, they all just belted it out from their hearts. I was struck with how loud their singing was—you could hear it from the furthest corner of the village! Their little village church sounded as loud as congregations five or six times their size in the US!
There were some announcements made, some more singing, and then Rex called me up to preach. There was a wooden pulpit box near the front of the church and Rex and I stood inside of that for the duration of the sermon.
I said the handful of Mubami words that I had learned up to that point: “Diata dalomole. Awaila bedele!” (‘Good morning! Thank you!’) Then I switched into Tok Pisin to continue thanking them for their hospitality and generosity towards us while Rex translated for me into Mubami.
Then, I started my sermon the same way that I’ve started every sermon I’ve ever preached since I began preaching over 15 years ago. “Turn in your Bibles to…”
I immediately realized my mistake. I looked up to see the 150 or so Mubami people staring back at me. There was no rustling of pages. No one pulling out their smartphone Bible app. They all just stared back at me.
Tears filled my eyes and it took me a moment to regain my composure. They didn’t have a Bible. That simple act of opening my Bible and following along with the preacher that I had taken for granted all these years—they couldn’t do that. I was embarrassed, but even more heartbroken than embarrassed.
After getting my thoughts back together, I resumed my sermon. In my praying and studying, God had kept drawing me back to Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch from Acts 8, so that’s what I preached on. I explained how God’s command to Philip to go south into the desert must have seemed like an odd request to Philip. Philip must have wondered, “Why do you want me to go to the desert? What good could I possibly do there?” But, God’s plans are not our plans and they don’t always make sense to us at first. But, if we obey God, it will always turn out for the best.
I explained that we had hoped to come visit them almost a year ago, but that we had been unable to do so because of Jennifer’s illness and other delays. It certainly hadn’t been in our timing, but God knew what he was doing and we simply had to trust and follow him. He would reveal the reason in his timing.
Likewise, the Mubami had been waiting for many years for God’s word in their language. Why hadn’t God answered their prayers sooner? I don’t know. But in his wisdom, he has ordained the right timing and we must trust him.
Secondly, much like the Mubami, the Ethiopian couldn’t understand scripture because he didn’t have it available in his language, I explained. The Mubami had repeatedly told me that they wanted scripture in Mubami so that they could understand the Bible and know God better. God knew that the Ethiopian needed help understanding scripture, so he had sent Philip to help explain the gospel. Just as God answered the Ethiopian’s pleas for help to understand scripture, God would answer their prayers, too. I shared that we and our partner churches back in the US had been praying for them ever since we heard about their request in 2014. I shared how God had been guiding us, just as he had been guiding them.
“I know that over the years, several survey teams have come to help you with various things like alphabet development, story writing, and other things,” I said. “Those teams wrote reports for our organization, and our organization has not forgotten about you and your request for help with Bible translation. More importantly, God has not forgotten about you. God loved the Ethiopian man and he knew that he wanted to know more about God. So, God sent him someone to tell him the Good News and explain scripture to him. As you know, we came here praying about whether God wanted us to come help you translate His Word into the Mubami language. You’ve waited for a long time for God’s Word in Mubami. Too long. We’ve prayed about it a lot, and we believe that God is asking us to come help you translate the Bible into Mubami.”
Rex translated what I had said into Mubami, at first not fully realizing what I had said. I started to continue but then realized that he had stopped talking and had broken eye contact with the people. He was looking down at the pulpit, tears in his eyes, trying to compose himself enough to continue translating into Mubami. As the chairman of the ECPNG Mubami District, Rex is the “Big Man”—the leader over not just the churches, but over all the Mubami villages as well. The sight of the Big Man over all of the Mubami villages publicly crying at the thought of receiving God’s Word in his language was too much for me—I couldn’t hold back my emotions any longer, either. So, there we stood—at the pulpit in front of over 100 people from every village we had visited thus far—crying. Some of the women in the church began crying loudly, and it seemed that everyone was moved to emotion. It was a moment that I will never forget and one I will look back to when the hard times come.
When we finally managed to compose ourselves, I continued to explain that while Philip’s job was important and he gets a lot of attention, the Ethiopian eunuch had an even bigger job. While the Bible doesn’t tell us the rest of the story, Philip’s explanation of the gospel to the Ethiopian man wasn’t the end of this story. That man had been entrusted with something precious—the Good News—and he had a duty to his fellow Ethiopians. Would he take the gospel back to Ethiopia and keep quiet, or would he share the precious gift that had been entrusted to him?
Yes, God was calling us to help the Mubami. But if the Mubami people wanted to see God work amongst them, that burden would fall on them. We would help them, advise them, and guide them in translating the Bible, but the real work would fall on their shoulders. Yes, God had answered their prayer for someone to help them translate scripture, but they needed to know that we ourselves are not the translators—that job is on their shoulders.
While many years ago it was common for a foreigner to translate scripture into the language(s) of the people they served, decades of experience have taught Bible translators that the most effective translators are mother-tongue speakers of the language—not expatriates. Expatriates like us are necessary and provide helpful advice, exegetical guidance, training, etc., but the work of figuring out which Mubami words best communicate the message of John 3:16—that has to be done by a native speaker of Mubami. No matter how fluent I become in Mubami, I’ll never match the intuition of a native speaker. We are simply there to provide guidance, exegetical help, and experience. We’re the “quality control,” for lack of a better analogy, not the actual “manufacturers.” So just as God was calling us to assist them in translation, he was also calling Mubami men and women to step up to the work of Bible translation, too.
Rex and several other people gave some announcements and closed the service. After the service was concluded, everyone came by to shake our hands and tell us awaila bedele, ‘thank you.’ But, I couldn’t help but think that we were the ones that were being blessed by them. Their hunger for God’s Word was palpable and still moves me to tears each time I think of it. It’s going to be a long journey ahead, but I’m excited to see what God has in store for the Mubami.
We took the opportunity with several villages present to get pictures of the pastors and their families and then headed back to Rex’s house.
The visitors from Daiyapi and Palieme left to return to their villages. We went back to Rex’s house and ate lunch—a delicious assortment of roasted pork, prawns, greens from their gardens, and more. Fortunately, we knew enough to pace ourselves. After all, this was only “brunch”; “lunch” would follow soon after! Still, after we had finished what we thought was brunch, another family came and brought us “second brunch.” We politely nibbled at the massive bowlful of sago, but knew better than to eat our fill!
About 30 minutes or so after we finished eating, we went back over to the church building to give a tok save—an ‘informative talk’—about the logistics of how the actual translation project would proceed. We wanted to set some expectations and make sure we were all on the same page. We explained again that the translation project belonged to them—they would have to select honorable Christians to comprise the translation team. We also explained some of the other logistical details and timeframes, including my upcoming study leave. Because of the unforeseen circumstances of our first term, we’d probably only get to visit them once more before we had to leave for furlough and study leave. I explained that just as their pastors had to go to Bible school, so did I. I had started seminary several years ago but had been unable to finish, so we would go back to America for a couple years to finish school and then come back to PNG. It was hard to have to tell them that we would be gone for so long—we hadn’t planned it all this way. But we’ve sought to follow God’s leading at every step and this is how he has lead us so far. They also send their new pastors off to a 3-year Bible school in another area for training, so they understood the importance of me finishing my education. We explained that there’s a lot of work to do before translation can begin, including our learning a reasonable bit of Mubami so that we will be able to better help them.
After the meeting and some more food, we went back to Rex’s house and talked for a while. It was late afternoon by this point so most people were headed back to their homes. Having officially announced our intentions to work with them, I felt a new freedom with the people. It was nice to no longer have to say, “IF we come work with you…” but be able to say, “When we come back…” We’ve been talking about starting a Bible translation project in the abstract, theoretical, and future for so long that it felt strange to begin making concrete plans! But it was a nice change. It felt good to be able to finally be starting what we’ve dreamed of for so many years now.
I realized that some of these people would probably become some of our best friends in the years to come and it was nice to think of how we might all be reminiscing about this day fifteen years from now. It occurred to me that I may look back on this day someday and think, “Boy, was I naive!” But for the time, I’ll just enjoy the fellowship and the peace and joy of knowing I’m right where God wants me.