Occasionally, people ask us whether studying Greek and Hebrew is really necessary in preparation for Bible translation. After all, as believers, we have access to the Holy Spirit whom Jesus promises will “guide [us] into all the truth.” (Jn 16:13, ESV) And, we also have unprecedented access to numerous reliable English translations, study Bibles, and commentaries. So is lengthy and expensive theological and biblical language training really necessary? If we’re depending upon the Spirit’s leading, won’t he just guide us to the proper translation choices?
The question is a valid one. In all honesty, I’ve wrestled with it myself. After all, completing a seminary degree takes a long time and during that time the translation project is on hold while we’re away. My heart longs to return to Papua New Guinea (PNG) to resume our work and see lives transformed by God’s Word.
But, there are other verses in Scripture which point to the necessity of careful study in order to mine the depths of God’s Word accurately. To his protege, Timothy, Paul exhorts:
“Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth.” 2 Timothy 2:15 (ESV)
While Paul recognizes the role of the Holy Spirit in the life of a believer, he also recognizes the importance of the hard work of preparing oneself for the ministry. This is especially important because, as Peter himself admits of Paul’s letters,
“There are some things in [Paul’s letters] that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures. You therefore, beloved, knowing this beforehand, take care that you are not carried away with the error of lawless people and lose your own stability.But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. 2 Peter 3:16–18 (ESV) We must absolutely rely upon the Spirit, but we must also “Do [our] best…”, “take care,” and “grow in grace and knowledge.” Knowing the prevalence of false teachings in our day and the especially high risk of miscommunication in a foreign culture and language, we must be especially careful that our knowledge of God and his Word is as accurate and complete as possible. You cannot become an effective minister of the gospel through merely gaining knowledge of God. But one certainly cannot become an effective minister of the gospel without gaining knowledge of God.
The fact of the matter is that the Spirit usually works through our efforts, not instead of them. This is self-evident in many areas of life. Does God magically bless your family with food, shelter, and your basic necessities? Does he not rather provide those things through your work? Does the Holy Spirit reach into the heart of your friend and reveal himself to them? Does he not rather lead them to himself through your witness? In the same way, the Holy Spirit doesn’t (usually) just magically reveal the deep spiritual truths of his Word to us–he does that through our careful studying, examining, and praying over his Word. And as we study his Word, we lean into the Spirit and depend upon him and he blesses our efforts by opening our eyes to the truths of his Word.
“I AM, do not be afraid.”
The necessity of solid theological and language training for my work was recently pressed home as I was reading my Greek New Testament. I came to the passage where Jesus is speaking with the Samaritan woman at the well. She says to Jesus,“I know that Messiah is coming (he who is called Christ). When he comes, he will tell us all things.” (Jn. 4:25, ESV)
In most English translations, Jesus’ reply is smoothed out to make for a more natural reading in English:
Jesus said to her, “I who speak to you am he.” (ESV)
Then Jesus declared, “I who speak to you am he.” (NIV)
Jesus saith unto her, “I that speak unto thee am he.” (KJV)
But in the original Greek, Jesus’ reply to her is literally,
“I am, the one who speaks to you.” (my translation)
Now, the ways that most English translations render this verse are perfectly valid and much more natural sounding than the clumsy “I AM, the one who speaks to you.” There’s a good reason why almost all English versions do this. A literal, word-by-word translation here sounds weird in English.
On the other hand, if all Jesus intended to communicate was a simple acknowledgement that “I am the Messiah,” then he used a particularly awkward way of phrasing that in the original Greek. In other words, there’s a much simpler and more direct way to say “I am he” in Greek than what Jesus has chosen here in this verse. In fact, the structure of the Greek seems to intentionally draw the reader’s attention to the two words at the beginning: “I AM.”
So, I began to suspect as I read that passage that Jesus may have intended more than a simple acknowledgement that he was the Messiah–it seems like Jesus was also identifying himself not only as the Messiah but also as the “I AM” of Exodus 3:14.
In fact, not long after this instance, Jesus has conflict with the religious leaders for “making himself equal with God.” (Jn 5:18) Then, in John chapter 6, as Jesus is walking on the water towards his frightened disciples in their storm battered boat, Jesus speaks these words of assurance to them:
“I AM, do not be afraid.” John 6:20 (my translation)
Like the first occurrence in John 4:26, this second “I AM” saying of Jesus in 6:20 is a bit obscured in most English versions because it makes for awkward English. But by reading it in the original Greek, I was able to see a profound truth–the basis for Jesus’ encouragement to his disciples to “not fear” is not simply because, “Oh, it’s just Jesus, no need to be afraid.” Rather, the reason they don’t need to fear is because the one walking on the water is none other than the great I AM himself.
The reason they don’t need to fear is because the one walking on the water is none other than the great I AM himself.
So, as you go through life, tossed and battered by its storms, take comfort in the fact that the one who was, is, and always will be–the Great I AM–walks with you through the storm.
Laying a solid foundation
I could list many more “mind-blown” moments that I’ve had as I read God’s Word in the Greek for the first time, but suffice it to say that I’ve been inspired by the depth of the riches of God’s Word and the wisdom of its Author.
“Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!” Romans 11:33 (ESV)
I’ve also come to realize how much I still have to learn about God and his Word! As the saying goes, “You don’t know what you don’t know.” This has instilled in me some much needed humility when it comes to how I approach Scripture because I have had to correct so many of my own misunderstandings about the Bible over the years. Seminary has also opened my eyes to truths in God’s Word that I would not have seen on my own.
Have you ever noticed how it seems that a new subdivision project sits there for months on end with nothing but bulldozers and dirt? Then, the next week you drive by and there’s 20 houses that look almost complete! In our American context, we value efficiency and expediency. We want to get the job done, and do it quickly. But the best homebuilders know the importance of taking time to lay a good foundation first. If the foundation isn’t good, the house won’t stand.
So, as we prepare to help a group of people translate God’s Word into their language and leave a lasting, permanent legacy of faith for years to come, we want to make sure we lay a good foundation first. That takes time, effort, and money, but the results will, Lord willing, be a house that stands the test of time–a translation of God’s Word which will faithfully lead people to Christ for generations to come.
If you would like to help us lay that foundation, why not partner with us in our Wycliffe ministry? We rely upon financial partners and prayer partners to do the work to which God has called us. If you would like to be a part of bringing God’s Word to a bibleless people group, join our team!
*This is the last 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 7, March 5, 2018
This morning, we got a visit from John, an elder in the church at Sipoi. Sipoi is another village that is located very close to Sogae (as is Tiomi, where Rex lives). Sipoi, like Waliho, is not an ECPNG village but belongs to the other denomination in the area. Since this denomination worships on Saturday, they had not been present for our announcement on Sunday, but the word had gotten around to them that we were coming to start a Bible translation project. This man had approached Phil yesterday afternoon stating that he had concerns that he wanted to voice to us, so Phil had warned me ahead of time to expect him.
John cut straight to the point and stated that he and his church wanted us to start translating in the Old Testament and translate it entirely before moving on to the Gospels and the rest of the New Testament. He was concerned that his people would not be able to understand the NT without the context of the OT. His concerns were totally valid—this is a VERY common problem within PNG, and frankly, even in the US. Still, it was a culturally and denominationally challenging conversation. On the one hand, I see tremendous value in the Old Testament. Two-thirds of the Bible is contained in the OT, the OT contains the necessary cultural, spiritual, and redemptive-historical context for understanding the New Testament. “Why did Jesus come to earth?” “Who is Jesus and who is God?” “Where did creation come from?” “What is sin and why is there sin?” “Who are the Jews and why do they feature so prominently in the NT?” “What do I need to be saved from?” These are just a few of the questions that you have to be able to answer if you want to understand the NT, and their answers are primarily contained within the OT. Far too many gospel presentations just skip right over the OT and straight to the NT, leaving the unchurched listener wondering what in the world the evangelist is even talking about!
I also wanted to affirm that the Bible doesn’t belong to any denomination. The Bible is not Baptist, Methodist, ECPNG, SDA, or Lutheran. Because of that, I think there’s value in including any denomination that’s willing to cooperate and work together for the Gospel.
On the other hand, my limited knowledge of these two denominations’ theological distinctives gave me concern as to how harmoniously these two denominations will be able to work together. I also know that, because of the length and complexity of the OT, translating it entirely before translating the NT would delay getting to the Gospels for many years—an unacceptable compromise, in my opinion.
Ultimately, however, such decisions aren’t mine to make, anyhow. It was a tough line to walk, but I explained that the choice of which books to translate and in what order to translate them is not ultimately up to me but is the decision of the Mubami translation committee. Of course, we provide guidance on which books are easier to translate and which ones are better left for a time when the translators are more experienced, but ultimately it’s the decision of the committee. I was able to affirm his concern that understanding the New Testament is difficult outside of its Old Testament context, but at the same time, translating the Old Testament is a VERY long process. I also assured him that my aim is ultimately to help them translate the whole Bible, Lord willing, and that my preference would be to see each village and denomination represented on the translation committee.
John seemed satisfied with that answer and especially pleased that he and his church would get some say in these decisions. Still, these types of disagreements derail and delay translations all the time, so I’m concerned for the unity of the translation in the long run when these tough decisions must be made. We can only hope and pray that the same Spirit moving in their hearts and creating a hunger for God’s Word will unify them in their efforts to bring it to pass.
Satisfied that his concerns had been heard, John and his family went back to Sipoi, about a 10-15 minute walk from Tiomi and we ate breakfast.
One of the ladies in Tiomi brought her pet lorikeet by for us to see. It was such a beautiful bird! Once again, I found myself staring at something I’d only ever seen in movies or zoos. They perched it up on Jennifer’s shoulder and we played with it for a bit.
Today we had planned to get a ride back to Kamusi via the logging roads. Adau’s wife, Domai, stayed behind in Kamusi because she’s too old for the kind of travel we’re doing, so we needed to get Adau back to his wife. Tomorrow (Tuesday), our plan was to take Pastor Max’s boat down the Guavi River to Bibisa, then cut across to Diwami. Then, we would go back to Kamusi and catch our plane back to Ukarumpa on Thursday.
Unfortunately, this morning we had to abruptly change our plans. Yesterday we noticed a small infection on Jennifer’s legs, but by this morning the infection has significantly spread. Small infections can become big infections quite quickly in the hot and humid tropics, especially when you’re bathing in river water! We had brought a small first aid kit with us but didn’t have any oral antibiotics or medications for serious illnesses, so we began to be concerned that this infection could become very serious, very quickly.
So, after a few SAT phone calls to our colleagues in Ukarumpa and the input of the medical staff, we made the call to end our trip early and return to Ukarumpa so Jennifer could see a doctor. There was a flight coming back from Port Moresby that would pick us up in about 2.5 hours. Given that it was a 1.5 hour canoe ride to Sasereme, that meant we had to hurry!
We hurriedly packed up our stuff, explained the situation to everyone, and apologized for having to so abruptly change our plans. Having seen how serious a sepsis infection can be during Jennifer’s medevac to Cairns last year, we simply couldn’t take any chances. Fortunately, our purpose for coming had been accomplished, so while we wouldn’t get to visit Diwami or go back to Kamusi we had completed our main objectives and could return home with confidence that our trip had been worthwhile.
We took a few pictures with the folks in Tiomi and hopped back into the canoe to head to Sasereme.
God blessed us with a motor that worked just fine and enough fuel to get back to Sasereme, so we were pulling up to the airstrip just as our plane was coming in for landing. We said goodbye to Rex and the others who had accompanied us to Sasereme and boarded our plane back to Ukarumpa.
We were sad to have to leave early, but relieved that we had been able to get Jennifer the medical attention she needed. And, as an added bonus, we were looking forward to seeing our kids again especially since today was Josiah’s 5th birthday! We had hated that we would be missing his birthday and we seriously contemplated rescheduling the trip for a later date. But, arranging a trip like this takes weeks or even months of planning, and after a year of delays and failed attempts to make this trip, we just didn’t feel like we could delay the trip any longer. The trip was too risky and there were too many unknowns for us to feel comfortable bringing our kids along. So, we had decided to celebrate his birthday before we left and leave our kids with some friends at Ukarumpa. So, even though we were having to cut our trip short, we would get to see our son on his fifth birthday. Even in a less than ideal circumstance, God had provided a blessing.
Jennifer got to see the doctors at Ukarumpa before the office closed and started a course of antibiotics. The doctors told us that with medication, her infections would heal up within a few days, but they were very glad we had brought her back before it had gotten worse. After finishing up at the doctor’s office, we went home to two very happy and energetic little boys and a enjoyed a non-sago dinner with some friends.
*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.
*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 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…