Thursday, January 31, 2019

Goodbyes And Gifts

Our last month in Papua before leaving for the U.S. was filled with goodbyes.  We had a number of more formal events with our aviation team at Yajasi, our greater Wycliffe team and with our church that we will treasure.  In the more intimate setting of our living room or at a meal table, we shared warmth and tears with many dear friends we’ve known for two decades.

At the airport.
As though the years of friendship and privilege of serving our Lord together weren’t enough, some brought gifts.  These too we will treasure.  And we’ll treasure none more deeply than a simple stone-aged tool.    

In early May, I was on my second-to-last flight in Papua.  After landing at a mountain airstrip in the Eastern Highlands, one of the village elders told me that he’d heard through the grapevine that we’d be gone for a while.  He and the local pastor came over carrying a stone axe. 

It’s one of the last stone axes we have,
passed down by our ancestors.
We want you to take it with you to America,
to remember us back here in these mountains,
and come back and serve among us again.

Undeserving… and yet so grateful, so appreciative of the enormous kindness of these friends with huge hearts.

Saturday, September 29, 2018

Marbata Mama

After 30 minutes of hiking pretty much non-stop uphill, we came to a bit of a clearing.  I looked back at the airstrip where we had started the hike, now clearly in view.  We had made it to the ridgeline that marks the last section of the final approach to Omban’s short little runway.  My mind did some quick math: the airplane passes over this point 10 seconds before touchdown.  It had taken us 30 minutes to cover the same ground.  Flying from Omban to overhead our destination of Marbata takes 2 minutes.  So, at this rate we should get there in… my head began to hurt.  

Five hours later, when we crested the last of many hills and finally saw the hamlet of Marbata, my head hurt far less than the rest of me.

30 minutes in to the hike, with the Omban airstrip behind us
There are hundreds of isolated communities in Papua’s rugged mountainous interior whose people make hikes far longer than ours to get to the nearest airstrip for access to supplies, medicine, education and a connection to the outside world.

The people of Marbata were willing to literally move part of their mountain to eliminate that isolation.  My colleague, Mark, and I made the hike from the closest existing airstrip to ensure that they had sufficiently rearranged the mountain to make landing an expensive 5000 pound projectile on it a relatively safe proposition. 

The welcoming committee was something that is better experienced than described.  Ecstatic.  Rhythmic.  Deafening.  

Here's fifteen seconds of it:

With the hubbub somewhat subsided, they led us to a roofed platform that they had special-built for the occasion.  The pastor who had made the hike with us from Omban (and didn’t appear to have broken a sweat in the process) pulled out his Bible to share from the Word of God, as the entire community sat on the airstrip.  Before he spoke, a tiny old woman slowly climbed the steps to the platform and came over to Mark and me.  She had an ancient face but her eyes held sparkle.  Someone translated the words she spoke:

I have been praying that before I die, God would allow our airstrip to be opened.  Thank you for coming.  I will die in peace.


Four weeks after walking through the mountains to inspect the runway at Marbata, I had the privilege of returning.  This time I took the easy way, landing an airplane on Marbata’s runway for the first time.  I marveled again at the amount of work these industrious people had accomplished.  They had moved truckload upon truckload of earth by hand.  Crowbars--and sticks sharpened to impersonate crowbars--were their only tools.

After working with the community to install runway markers, we were preparing to leave when I saw a familiar figure shuffling across the top of the runway towards the airplane, steadied on the arm of her adult daughter.  She looked more feeble than when I’d last seen her a month ago, and her eyes seemed to have lost some of their sparkle. 

Reaching the airplane, she clasped my hand.  She came to thank us again, but this was my time to speak.

Mama, you prayed that God would allow your runway to get opened before you go to heaven.  God heard your prayers.  He listens to you just like he listens to me.  

The folks standing around us did a quick translation.  I saw the flash of recognition on her face, and those eyes sparkled once again.  Speaking with passion, she pointed her walking stick at the heavens and said: 

I prayed and God heard.

Sunday, February 4, 2018

They Will Inherit The Earth

Getting checked out as a missionary pilot in Papua is a lot more than learning how to land on short, slippery runways or navigate mountain passes.  For many of us, learning to interface well with the many different people groups of Papua is a steep learning curve.  So, having passed along as much knowledge I could dig out of my aging mind to my new colleague, Andy, it was time for me to quit getting in the way and allow him to handle a complete ‘turn-around’—the time we spend on the ground at a remote village.

The people of Maksum come out to meet the airplane.

I turned to my friend Pies and said, “Let’s take a walk through the village.”  Pies led me down the path that led to the picturesque village of Maksum.  Weaving our way through the patchwork of huts, Pies and I caught up on each other’s lives.  Floating through the open doorways came smoke from the morning cooking fires and the warm Ketengban greeting, Telebe.  I felt among family.

As we approached the center of the village, I noticed a large, obviously temporary thatch-roofed structure that had been erected in the center of the village and asked Pies about it.  “That’s where I’m taking you.”

Pies began to explain that one of their elders had just passed away.  The large hut is where folks could gather and pass the hours of mourning together.  Most of the mourners had gone up to meet the arrival of our flight, but a few men were still gathered around a fire chatting quietly.

“He must have been an important person.”  Half statement, half question, I waited for Pies to respond.  

“Yes, he was.” Pies’ eyes lit up.  “Gerson was the first person to receive the Good News in Maksum.  When the missionaries first came, Gerson protected them from hostility and told our people that we needed to listen to the message these strange people were bringing into the valley.”

Pies told me that Gerson was the first person in Maksum transformed by the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  He turned away from the darkness that had gripped his people for millennia and towards the light of a restored relationship with his Creator.  Gerson spent the rest of his life encouraging his people to do the same.  And they had responded.  It was obvious to me how cherished this man was to his people.

Instead of heading to the mourning area, Pies grabbed my arm and led me down a side path to a hut.  Inside, in a handmade coffin of rough wooden planks, lay Gerson’s empty shell.  On a rough shelf in the corner there’s a book--a reminder that Gerson lived to see the day when God’s Word could be read in his Ketengban language.  Some of his family sat on the floor around the coffin.  They would bury him later that day.

I expressed my condolences, asked a few questions, and took a photograph.  As I put my phone back in my pocket, I was reminded of images of the kings of this world lying in state.  Gilded caskets, honor guards, vaulted cathedrals, the world’s leaders lining up to pay their respects… and here?  In a simple hut, in a tiny, isolated village, totally hidden from the view of the powerful of this world, I can’t help but wonder if I’m looking at one who will be a king in the next version of this world.

Blessed are the meek,
for they will inherit the earth.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Any Given Day

I took a day off a few weeks ago.  As is my habit when I’m not in the office, I logged in to our flight tracking site that morning to see what our aircraft were up to… and took the screenshot below.

On any given day, you’ll see our fleet, the yellow dots, streaming into Papua’s interior to touch the least of these… and retrieve bundles off the ground.

On this particular day, the yellow dots were out serving missionaries, picking up two sets of patients, and flying for the local people of the Eastern Highlands.

Would you pray for those yellow dots?  Each one represents a generous gift God’s community has passed along to Yajasi to be used to reach the isolated peoples of this region.  Each yellow dot has a pilot on board needing to make good decisions under pressure all day long.  Each yellow dot has a team standing behind it—a group of dedicated mechanics, finance people, ground operations staff and administrators tirelessly doing their jobs to keep the yellow dots in the air. 

Pray for the dots!

Monday, August 7, 2017

An Unwrinkled Nose

The bundle on the ground
I walked from the airplane to the bundle on the ground.  The first thing I noticed was the flies.  Then the smell.    The smell was the smell of death, and the flies flew vulture circles around the bundle.  The bundle on the ground contained the perfectly still figure of a tiny woman, the image of God clinging tenaciously to her tired features.  All that is evil and broken in this world sought to mercilessly destroy this weak and weary image-bearer.  

She’d been carried on a makeshift litter over the steep mountain trail from a nearby village to reach the airstrip where my airplane was now parked.  Her husband stood beside her, holding another bundle in his hands, a noken—one of the net bags woven from tree bark fibers that his people have been making for as long as anyone has memory of this place.   I peered into the noken.  It contained perhaps the most uncorrupted vision of the image of God we’re likely to see on this broken planet: the woman’s perfect newborn child.  While the child’s mother lay on the ground enveloped in a struggle for life, her baby slept serenely in his father’s arms.  The miracle of childbirth, cursed when our race turned away from God, now threatened the life of the baby’s young mother.

Moving her into the aircraft
Stepping out of the airplane in Sentani, I went to help one of our ground staff with the stretcher.  As we gently moved our patient from the airplane to the stretcher, I watched my co-worker’s face as the stench hit him.

Not a flinch.

Not the tiniest wrinkling of the nose.  I knew that the only reason he didn’t react to his senses was out of respect for this little tribal woman, wrapped in filthy, blood-soaked blankets.   You don’t wrinkle your nose at someone you believe carries God’s image. 

Our team has had to navigate some really rough waters this year.  At that moment under the wing of the PC-6, watching my colleague restrain the very natural instinct to gag, my heart leapt and said, 

Yes!  This is it.  This is why we’re here.  This is why we fight on.  This is why we don’t quit when everything in us wants to.  As a flawed and broken team, we’re somehow being used to touch the least of God’s image-bearers.’

Sometimes all that's asked of us is an unwrinkled nose.

The brand new image bearer

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Bacon and Eggs

With a satisfying smack of the hammer, the last runway marker was pounded into place and the job was done.  Well, almost done.  We still had to climb the hill.

For the Ngalum tribesmen helping mark their new airstrip at Diphikin, the walk back up to the top of their new airstrip is one of the easiest in their entire territory.  A different story entirely for me, the middle-aged wimp whose middle-aged eyes are looking at the 14% grade that the middle-aged legs will have to walk up if his middle-aged self wants to get back to the airplane and fly home.  Trudging up the hill, I do my best to mute the awful rasping that my middle-aged lungs are making, hoping to hide the racket from the maddeningly cheerful Ngalum for whom this wouldn’t even qualify as a Sunday stroll. 

14%.  The maximum grade for a road in mountainous areas of the United States is 7%.  In Papua’s Eastern Highlands you’ll be hard pressed to find a straight piece of land longer than 100 meters with only a 7% grade.  For the Ngalum of Diphikin, the only straight piece of land suitable for an airstrip site just happens to have this ridiculous grade.  Don’t mind landing on it, not one bit, but walking up it is for the birds.

To my delighted surprise, I don’t pass out on the way up the hill.  Cresting the top into the flat parking area, we arrive to a hubbub in full kerfuffle.  The folks who stayed at the top of the airstrip are butchering a large pig.  A Ngalum man deftly uses an axe to do the job.  They will send out the prized pork with me as gifts to our team in thanks for opening up their airstrip for service.  A huge hind-quarter has my name on it--they present it to me dripping with blood, ready for the grill.  It’s easily a $150 piece of meat, probably worth much more.  

In the midst of this melee, a tiny little old woman weaves her way through the crowd carrying one of those ubiquitous little black plastic bags that are everywhere in these parts.  She hands me her treasure gingerly.  “For the pilot,” she says, and disappears back into the crowd.

I peek in the bag.  It’s full of tiny eggs from her chickens.  I can buy much larger eggs back in town for 15 cents a piece.  But these are worth much more than money.

The pork is given with equal parts of pure gratitude mixed with hopeful expectation that we’ll return the favor with frequent air service to the village.  The eggs are given…why?  She knows I don’t need them.  She knows that I live like a king compared to her.  I really don’t know why she gave me those eggs.  All I can think of is that she was simply being kind.

I continue to be blessed by these ‘little’ people who belong to the the Lord, scattered throughout the hinterlands of Papua.  May I learn from them.  May I grow to become like the little woman in Diphikin who gives to those who don’t deserve, gives without strings attached, and walks away with nothing but the sweetness of knowing her Master is smiling.  

[originally written November 2014]

Friday, December 2, 2016

Orchids In The Ditch

In the jungles of Papua the men’s room is always easy to find: it’s located any place not currently being used as a lady’s room.  And so it was at Sekame; no fancy signage, just a couple of bushes next to the ditch at the side of the airstrip and I had found the vital facilities I was looking for. 

I looked down at the floor of the ditch where something caught my eye as being out of place.  Here, standing tall among the dirt and the weeds, were wild orchids in all their delicate, regal beauty. 

This one followed me home for my bride...
it's now a part of our garden 
Orchids in the ditch.  Considered by some the most beautiful flowers in the world…costly, sought after, highly prized.  And here they are, in a ditch. 

The thing is, the orchids didn’t know they were in a ditch.  There they were, doing exactly what they were put on earth to do: bloom. They screamed out God’s creative brilliance, his love of beauty and his desire for us to be enraptured by that beauty.  And they are doing this in a ditch, just like they would if they were the centerpiece attraction at a world class botanic garden being oohed and aahed by professional flower people. 

I pay way too much attention to the context in which I find myself.  Am I willing to fulfill what God has me on earth to do when I find myself in some anonymous ditch in a backwater village deep in the interior of Papua?  Or do I put in the effort to shine only when I have an audience of professional Christian people from whom I might coax an ooh or an aah? 

Am I willing to scream out God’s creative brilliance, the beauty of who he is, by producing my best work and allowing joy to rule in my heart even when all I see around me is dirt, weeds and the steep walls of the ditch I’m in?

Thank you, God, for orchids in the ditches.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

The Tenth Leper

“I have nothing with which to repay you.
God will reward you.”

I heard those words yesterday afternoon from the lips of a grizzled old man as we stood under the wing of the plane at an isolated mountain airstrip. Tearful words of thanks for adding on a flight to fly his grieving family home after burying their son in a distant village.

It had been a long, hard, hot day with multiple stops, long delays, plenty of sweat and not a few frustrations.  At one point, I felt something moving on my stomach and looked down to see a cockroach running uphill on a beeline for getting under my shirt sleeve.  Another one zipped across the instrument panel.  They must have jumped ship from the evil smelling sago I had hoisted aboard at the previous stop.  I smushed the one on my shirt a few millimeters short of his destination.  This didn’t help the appearance of the shirt any… but I felt better.  The day’s difficulties, like the cockroaches, were multiple, ugly and unwanted.  They filled my senses, cried for the attention of my corruptible spirit and clamored for me to conclude that life stinks

Touching lives...
And then the words of an old tribal man challenge me to see the unseen.  To make real the unreal.  To believe the unbelievable.  That there is a God.  That he is watching.  That he delights when his children make feeble attempts at mimicking his love and mercy.

This place is overrun with what I like to call tenth lepers.  Following in the footsteps of the original tenth leper who returned to Jesus to thank him for wiping the scourge from his skin, I find so many folks doubling back to say thanks for the smallest of things.  (The most creative thanks I ever received was written on a roll of toilet paper and left prominently on my desk… appreciation from missionaries whose massive shipment of the vital stuff I’d frantically stashed in a dry water tank by the side of the runway during a tropical downpour.)

What about me?  What about you?  Are we one of the nine?  Or do we, like #10, take the time to look around us and marvel at the healing that God has done on our leprous hearts?  Do we shake our heads in wonder at the goodness God allows into our lives despite the fact that we live in a horribly broken place? a beautiful place.
I’m jarred by a man who, having just buried his son, still doubled back to thank the pilot who has known no such suffering.  I flew home counting the ways that God has already rewarded me.  I was struck by the privilege our team has of being involved in so many different ministries, the privilege of touching so many lives, the privilege of getting a God’s eye view of one of the most beautiful, pristine places left on the planet, the privilege of knowing that as a result of our collective efforts the Word of God will remain in this place long after we are gone.  I found myself doubling back to my Master to ask for forgiveness for thinking that life isn’t fair because a cockroach makes for my armpit.  

Then I thanked him that life is indeed not fair: he showers good things on the undeserving. 

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