Friday, September 18, 2015

The Girl And The Box

After three and a half years in Papua, we were looking forward to heading home for a seven month furlough.  Things were wrapping up nicely.  My next day at work was to be my last day of flying.  A single out-and-back flight with a load of medical supplies for a team of doctors.

Then the phone rang.

Could I add one more flight?  A woman from one of the interior villages had died and her family was asking if we’d fly her body back home.  A chance for our team to show compassion to a grieving family.

The next morning, as the shadows gave way to the gentle light of a new day, our ground operations crew gingerly loaded the casket into the back of the Pilatus Porter.  A man stood in the shadows watching.  In his arms he held a little girl.

Caskets must not come in a standard size in Papua; this one was a bit wider than others I’ve flown.  With the polished wooden box taking up most of the cabin, our guys were having trouble installing seats on the seat tracks.  Leaving the guys to work on the problem, I walked over to the man in the shadows.

“Was she your wife?”


“I’m so sorry.”

“And the little girl?” I nodded at the beautiful child clinging to his neck, still sleepy.

“She’s my daughter.”

We were quiet for a while, then walked over to the aircraft together.  The team had planned for the two of them to sit together in the cabin alongside the casket, but they were only able to fit one seat into the seat tracks, all the way against the back wall of the cabin. I posed the dilemma to the father: would his daughter rather ride up front next to me or in the back with the casket?  He asked her the question in their native tongue.  She shook her head vigorously.  The father gave me a tired smile.  She was more afraid of riding next to the scary foreigner than of sitting alone next to the box that held her mom’s body.

She climbed up into that seat, alone in the back of the airplane.  I fastened her seat belt and showed her how to open it.  I began to pray for her.  A little hand clutched mine and held on tight. When I finished, she smiled.

I’m now a world away from the jungles of Papua. Comfortable, relaxed and secure, I reflect on the ministry ‘back there.’  In the grand scheme of things, it often feels like we don’t really accomplish that much.  And that which we do accomplish?   It takes an awful lot of effort.  It takes an awful lot of money.  It has more risk than I’d like.  It wears people out.

Why go back?

The Lord brings this little girl to mind.  I’ll likely never see her again.  I have no idea what her life will hold.  But as I remember her, sitting next to her mother’s coffin, squeezing my hand as we prayed, I sense the Lord saying that the ministry in Papua is measured by moments like this one. It’s not measured by impressive lines on some graph.  It is measured by unimpressive, unnoticed moments.  Moments where the feeble faithfulness of a flawed team of men and women brings a taste of Jesus’ unflawed love to one of his ‘least of these.’

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Of Wind and Waiting

A thousand feet above the ground the wind skittered across the tops of the hills, giving us a mildly turbulent ride.  The electronics in the instrument panel told me it was blowing at almost 20 knots.  No go.

Our ministry is all about saying yes.  Yes to transporting God’s servants who have followed the call to serve in isolation and obscurity in Papua’s jungles.  Yes to the calls for medevacs.  Yes to flying foul-smelling, ill-tempered pigs for a celebration of a new church.  Yes to taking the time to help a village fix their broken radio.

But I often find that our no’s are easily as significant as our yes’s.  When God’s created order serves up unflyable weather or wind, the response of ‘no, not today’ is simple common sense.  But on another level I think the decision to say ‘no, I can’t’ is quite something else: by it, we acknowledge our finiteness.  Having weather change my plans demonstrates the limits of my vision.  My Plan A for the day, as well-motivated as it may be, can differ radically from God’s Plan A.  I can attempt to force through my Plan A or I can acknowledge my littleness, scrap Plan A and scurry for safe harbor.  Plane and pilot are preserved to serve another day.

During our windy season, there is often a period of calm for an hour or two just after sunrise.  On this particular day, even though we left Sentani as early as possible, the winds still beat us out of bed.  Attempting to land on Tumdungbon’s short, slippery, one-way airstrip with upwards of 15 knots of wind hustling us along from behind would have been beyond foolish.  We made the easy decision and diverted to a nearby airstrip with a runway that allowed us to land into the wind.  A Helivida helicopter was going to be in the area that day, and the night before I had arranged with the pilot to be available to shuttle our passengers and cargo over to Tumdungbon if we were unable to get in ourselves.

Our passengers, two missionaries and a Nagi tribal woman whom they had been helping get medical treatment for TB, settled in for the wait.  My colleague and I would wait until the helicopter was enroute before leaving the missionaries and heading for home.

And now, God’s Plan A for the day began to unfold.

First, a group of unhappy young men came purposefully striding up the airstrip to the airplane.  The grudge they carried up the runway was soon set aside as a simple misunderstanding was rectified.

Baby Job
Next, Jerry emerged from the village, his face split with the ear-to-ear grin that makes him such an engaging person.  Jerry has been suffering with some kind of significant intestinal problem for a number of years and the last time I had seen him I was flying his emaciated self out to town for medical treatment.  He looked much better now, healed, happy and with some much-needed meat on his bones.  His eyes also glittered with the news that he was now married and had a healthy baby boy.  He told me the story of how difficult the labor had been (the baby had been breach) and how God answered his fervent prayers for the safe arrival of his son.  Before the child was born, Jerry had already chosen a name, but soon after the birth he had a dream in which he was reminded of the Lord’s faithfulness during his extended time of suffering.  Jerry scrapped his Plan A and followed the instruction he received in his dream, naming the boy Ayub (Job), as a testament to God’s goodness in our times of suffering.
Jerry went and got his wife and came back to the airplane with their precious, living reminder of God’s faithfulness.  We talked for a while about how amazing Job (the ancient one, not the dangerously diaperless one on my arm) was: neither green-pasture prosperity nor valley-of-death suffering were able to dislodge God from the center of his life.  Encounters like this with genuine followers of Jesus in these remote areas are some of the most precious of God’s gifts in this ministry.

After a while Jerry excused himself to go back to teaching the village children.  As he left, a family crossed the airstrip and headed off through the jungle in the direction of the river.  The father carried his bow and arrows for hunting and his ax for woodcutting.  The mom had her net bag hung over her back with the day’s food, and in her hand was a home-made spear gun that would hopefully result in some fish or freshwater shrimp on the fire that evening.  Their little girl came last carrying a rattan fish trap.  With not much else to do I decided to tag along.

A short walk through the forest brought us to the confluence of a fair sized stream with the main river.  The family got into their canoe and took their leave downriver.  Alone with my feet in the cool, crystal clear water I marveled at how God’s Plan A for the day included the gifts of the conversation with Jerry and these unexpected moments of pure tranquility in a postcard-perfect setting.

Though my experience of the truths of Matthew 6:33 has been severely limited by my own stubborn disobedience, I continue to find Jesus to be good to His word: when we seek Him instead of other good things, the other good things come… and to me they seem to come at a time and in a manner that is much more satisfying than when I seek them directly.

The real problem with the world is not the bad things, 
but the good things that have become the best thing.

--Tim Keller

Friday, August 1, 2014


Looking down the Omban airstrip
on a fair weather day.
photo Tim Harold
The last item on the pre-takeoff checklist was complete.  I peered over the long snout of the Pilatus Porter only to see that the restless clouds had again closed off the narrow exit to the Omban valley.  The trouble with Omban is that the steeply down-sloping airstrip points directly at a mountain wall.  The valley takes a hard right turn at the end of the strip but, from the takeoff position at the top of the airstrip, all you see is the wall.  Shutting down, I decided to walk to the bottom of the airstrip and take a peek around the corner into the exit valley.

Standing at the edge of the cliff at the end of the runway, I could see around the corner—the valley was actually open quite nicely.  I picked out a landmark on a ridge that I knew I’d be able to see from the top of the airstrip, turned around and hiked back up to the airplane.

Arriving back at the top, I turned around, and to my chagrin, my go/no-go landmark was now enveloped in clouds.  Ah well, when these mountains call for patience, patience is what you give them.  My passengers were being extremely patient as well, agreeing to stay belted in their seats in anticipation of a brief window of open skies.

Forgive me…I should have introduced you to my passengers earlier.  Andrew and Anne Sims have been working on translation in Papua’s Star Mountains for more than 25 years.  This particular week we were trying to pull off something that we’d never done before: Scripture Dedications in three separate mountain locations—two different language groups—in a single week.  Having had the first dedication in Omban two days prior, a huge gathering was waiting in nearby Okbap (along with two plane-loads of guests) for Andrew and Anne to arrive so that the celebration could begin.  Only thing was, we were trapped in Omban.

At the side of Omban’s airstrip, a group of Ketengban were sitting, watching and waiting with us.  Softly, one of the men in the group called over to me, “Hey, we’re gonna pray if that’s OK.”

I’m sure they’d been waiting patiently for one of us professional Christians to think of it.  Eventually their patience ran dry.  Somebody’s got to do this.

For several minutes this simple tribal man spoke fervently to the God he believed could understand his Ketengban sentences.  The only words I understood were my name (probably in the context of, “Lord, forgive the idiot pilot who forgets to pray”) and the Indonesian words for airplane and weather.  And of course the word Amen, which, when uttered, was the signal for them all to open their eyes and look down the, mountain slope to the valley’s clogged mouth…only, it wasn't clogged anymore.  There was now a just-wide-enough opening and my all-important landmark was clearly visible.  “See,” he says to me.  Not a lot of emotion—just rock sure faith that the Creator his new Book spoke of listens to His creation.  Pointing, he says, “God opened the weather for you.”

I sputtered a thanks, climbed in, fired up and took off, not sure if this particular answer to prayer came with an expiration time.

The Ketengban pray for the weather to clear.
Recently, a friend asked what the highlight of those three dedications was for me.  To be sure, there are many moments from that week of watching the Ketengban and Lik people celebrate God’s Word in their own language that I will always remember, but the most powerful moment was a quiet one: having men of faith pray for us, and watching God answer that prayer.


A collection of photographs from three days of partying in Papua's Eastern Highlands.

Each village welcomed dedication day with traditional, joyful dancing, everyone in their Sunday best.

Andrew Sims greets an old friend.
The plumes in the headdress seen here and in other photos are the feathers of the reclusive Bird of Paradise.
photo Tim Harold

The Ketengban honor their guests with feathered net bags.
photo Tim Harold

Wall to wall people at the Lik New Testament dedication in Eipomek.

Lik warriors dramatize the warfare that characterized their lives before the Gospel.
This particular war they re-enacted was started over stolen bananas.

One of the immediate impacts of the Gospel among the Lik people was the end of warfare.
Here, the war chief leads his warriors in breaking their arrows.

The Gospel of Jesus Christ in Lik.

Encountering the New Testament in his own
language for the first time.
photo Tim Harold

A Ketengban man opens his long awaited scriptures.  The revised New Testament and the shorter Old Testament.

Sunday, April 27, 2014


Paulus, the first believer among the Ketengban of Pipal, 
receives a box Bibles translated into his language.
April 8, 2014

A few weeks back, I flew in to Pipal with an Indonesian missionary and boxes of the freshly printed Ketengban Scriptures.  The new Scriptures are to be formally dedicated in June and distributed to the Ketengban believers at that time.  In other words, these boxes are a bit like Christmas presents that are supposed to sit under the tree, strictly off limits until Christmas morning.

But, it would seem that Pipal is populated with cheaters.  

I have it on good authority that after the first day of sunup to sundown work constructing a home/ministry building at the top of the airstrip, the people brazenly broke the rules, removed a single Bible from one of the boxes and implored our missionary friend to read from the Psalms and Proverbs.  Exhausted from the hard day's work, he nonetheless complied (making him, at the very least, an accomplice in the cheating).  

The people sat and listened as, for the first time in their valley's history, the ancient Hebrew words of David and Solomon were spoken in Ketengban.  Many times the missionary felt too tired to continue, but the people forced him to keep reading the contraband book late into the night.

The cheaters of Pipal gathered every night after work, hungry to to repeat the wonder of hearing the Word of God in the language that had a clear and unobstructed shot at their hearts.  And every night the cheaters forced our friend the missionary to read deep into the night, far past his endurance.

The aircraft that delivered the Bibles to Pipal just happened to be the plane that we found in Nepal.  From the initial finding of the aircraft to actually having it flying in Papua was long, challenging, expensive process.  Likewise, the process of getting the airstrip at Pipal operational was an enormous undertaking.  The Indonesian missionary of this story has faced immense challenges along the way.  The multiple man-years of blood, sweat and tears poured into the translation project itself represent a stunningly high price to pay to produce a book. As I look at the level of expense in terms of time, energy, and money that it has taken to reach this tiny community in Pipal, I begin to shake my head and smile at the absolutely ridiculous economics of it all.  How much for Psalms and Proverbs in the night?

And then, I am reminded of the immeasurable cost my God expended in searching out and finding me... a dirty rotten cheater like my friends in Pipal.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

So Long, Bob

The mission aviation community in Papua lost one of its best a week ago.  Bob Roberts, a 20 year veteran pilot with Adventist Aviation, was killed in a takeoff accident.

The skies simply won't be the same without Bob's distinctive voice on the radio.  Pilot, mechanic, dentist, extraordinary person who will be greatly missed by all of us.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Finding Onya

I wrote some thoughts about bucket lists a while back.  Andrew, the man who has spent most of his life translating the Bible into the Ketengban language, told me in a recent email, 
Onya is a place I always had on my “bucket list” but could never get there on foot.
Getting the airstrip open at Onya has been on my own list for some time.  Now, with Ketengban Old Testaments piled high in our hangar, a full complement of pilots, and four operational Pilatus Porters, it seemed like the right time to get in there.

So last week, on an early Tuesday morning, my colleague Tim Harold and I flew a full load of Scriptures into Omban, the closest Ketengban airstrip to Onya.  We unloaded the majority of the Bibles in Omban, but left 10 boxes of Old Testaments on the airplane for the people of Onya. 

On the ground in Omban, tying down the Bibles for Onya.
We then took off from Omban and headed northwest, following what the pilots here call The Long Valley.  Looking down at the terrain below I can only imagine how many hours of hiking it would have taken Andrew to check this particular trek off his bucket list.

With the GPS showing us within a half mile of the airstrip, we still couldn't see it.  Having never been there before, I wondered if perhaps we had the wrong coordinates...but I didn't have any reason to believe our data was wrong.  Besides, we'd followed what I remembered of Andrew's instructions to a tee: "From Omban, go out into the Long Valley and hang a left."

Just as my worry motor was firing up, Tim spotted the airstrip through the dissipating morning fog.

When the weather in these mountains calls for patience, patience is what you give it.  With plenty of fuel on board, we circled overhead and got to know this little cul de sac off the Long Valley better.  As we circled, the fog steadily lifted and soon the approach path was clearing nicely.

Perched on a picturesque ridge line, the community at Onya had done an excellent job subduing their mountain into an airstrip.  After a couple of practice approaches, we were soon touching down on the smooth, firm surface.

As soon as the prop stopped moving, the reception committee started a high speed spin-cycle around the aircraft with the now familiar Ketengban whooping overpowering our senses.

Once the mayhem settled down a bit, we had a short time of prayer thanking God that these Scriptures had come to the people of Onya.  After more than fifteen years out here, I'm finally catching on that ceremony is important, so we made one up on the spot.

On a remote ridge line in the Star Mountains of Papua, under the wing of an airplane that God's people gave specifically for this task, pastors and elders from the seven churches in the Onya valley received boxes filled with books that held the very words of their Creator.  

Looking at the crowd pressed in around the airplane, I guessed there were about a hundred Ketengban folk cheering each time a box came out of the airplane.  My spiritual eyes don't work very well yet, otherwise, who knows... I might have been able to count the angels cheering. 

Yusup, a Ketengban Pastor at Onya.

Organizing the impromptu ceremony.

Tim passes a box of Bibles to an elder from one of the churches in the Onya valley.

One last look at beautiful Onya.
Tim Harold took the photos for this post.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Back...I think.

I should probably explain my absence from the blog.

From the beginning I told myself that off the path would be something that I would do in my spare time for as long as it served as an outlet for the things banging around inside my head and heart.  At some point, what little wind I had in those particular sails went away.  At about the same time a stiff breeze picked up for another 'free time' project that would absorb all the spare moments I could give it.  That particular project has slowed some and the wind is filling these sails again...while it lasts, I'll try my hand at scribbling here a little more often.   


Just a quick peek into today's flight:

For the past couple of weeks, our team has had the amazing privilege of flying some 9000 Bibles into the Lik and Ketengban people groups.  I think we're more than half way done.

32,000 pounds of Ketengban Old Testaments
ready to be flown out to the villages.
photo Tim Harold
This morning, Tim and I had over 1200 pounds of the precious cargo in the back when we landed at the Ketengban village of Okbap.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Missed Chance To Wok The Dog

I am not especially fond of our dog.

My days often start before the sun is up and much of my antipathy towards the dog is rooted in the number of times I've been walking to my car in the pre-dawn darkness and planted a half-awake foot in some unpleasantness she insists on depositing in the center of our driveway.  Got a whole yard-full of grass but the only place she'll leave these bundles of joy is smack in the middle of the driveway.

Then there's the fact that she barks at everybody.  Everybody.  From two-year-olds to grandmas and everyone in between.  Friends, enemies, red and yellow, black and white...she's an indiscriminate barker.

Got a new neighbor recently and I asked how he liked the area.  "It's great except for that dog of yours.  She barks at everybody."  Tell me about it.

I should mention that she pees in the driveway too.  Generally not too much drama on this one... unless it's rained.  Then you have no clue which puddle is loaded.

Did I mention she's covered in mange?

The low point of my day (assuming I got lucky and made it through the driveway-minefield with no trauma) is pulling back into that same driveway after work to be jumped on by a frenzied, mange-covered dog.  Why she's happy to see me I have no idea.  Believe me, I give her zero encouragement (I can do the 'mind-over-matter' thing, but I just can't bring myself to pet mange.)  And trying to keep her down is as futile as trying to keep her from barking... which, incidentally, is the only way I get a break from the jumping-on.  Some innocent soul will walk by and she'll tear her mangy self off me and sprint after said innocent soul, barking up a blue streak. Based on their use of language, she apparently scares the innocence out of a lot of souls.

Not fond of the dog.

So yesterday, one of our neighbors asked if they could cook the dog for a birthday party they were planning.  Not kidding.

My dear wife told them no.

She told them no.

I'll let you know when I recover from the depression.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

An Outhouse With a View

In 1989 my uncle, Greg Gordon, built a cabin on the top of East Haven mountain in Vermont. Check out

The Cabin.  East Haven Vermont.
On the opposite side of the summit from 'The Cabin' is the only outhouse I've ever seen with a picture window, offering glorious views of Vermont's mountains during what is otherwise a rather inglorious undertaking.

A couple of weeks ago, after landing at a mountain runway here in Papua, I clambered over the edge of the airstrip to rid myself of a cup of coffee that had made its way from my thermos to my bladder.
At 6000 feet above sea level,
Okpahik clings to the side of one of the Star Mountains.
Lo and behold I was greeted by the incongruous sight of an outhouse precariously clinging to the cliff.  Someone, quite some time ago by the looks of things, had anticipated my need.  I must say that this outhouse, due to its sad state of repair, gave even better views than the one on East Haven Mountain.  With no front, the whole thing was a picture window and the view of the Kiwirok valley was unparalleled.  With the roof long gone, one even has a view of the heavens whilst performing the most earthy of tasks.

While the business end of the outhouse (i.e. the hole in the ground) still seemed quite functional, the wooden boards around it didn't appear to be very trustworthy.  Since I could think of several hundred other holes I'd rather fall in, I chose to take my business elsewhere.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Another Stowaway

I am, of course, kidding.  Not a stowaway.
Two pups were legit passengers on a recent flight
and I couldn't resist the photo op.