Friday, August 1, 2014

See

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.


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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

Cheaters


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, friend...an 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.   

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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 http://www.ehmicabin.com/

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.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

The Bucket List (Back To Pipal Part III)

Gonna add that to my Bucket List.  

The fact that I think in these terms shows how prone I am to swallow concepts the world feeds me without much of a second thought.  A second thought would, it seems to me, reveal that making a list of self-centered things to do before I kick the bucket is simply the current recycle of the 'you only live once, pack as much in as you can' philosophy that sketches out the road map for the broad path.  The whole idea runs squarely against the flow of Christ's lonely call for us to seek first his not-of-this-world kingdom...and allow the Master to sort out which of life's amazing experiences he'll have us encounter along the narrow way.

And what happens if we ever get the list done?  What then?  Ever met anyone checking off the last box on their bucket list?  I wonder what sentiment you would find there.

A short time ago, I actually had the experience of witnessing a man check off the last box on his life's to-do list...though I am positive he'd never heard of a bucket list.

With the first test landing successfully completed (see previous post), the day came for the official opening of the airstrip at Pipal.  We brought government inspectors in along with Bram and Pak Aby (Bram's mentor).  At some point in the festivities, Paulus says, in earnest,

Now I can die in peace.  
The last thing that I have prayed that God would allow me to accomplish, 
the opening of an airstrip for my people, 
is finished.

Having brought the Gospel over the mountains for the people of this entire area, and having watched it begin to transform an entire culture, Paulus' home village remained one of the few groups in the area without direct access to the outside world through an airstrip.  This mission was the last thing he wanted to see happen before his waning years came to an end.

Now I can die in peace.

To die in peace.  Now there's something worth adding to our lists.

And then I begin to wonder... how much different would our lives be if we made a list of things we wanted to happen after we kicked the bucket?   Call it the post-bucket list.

The days when I'm even partially successful at keeping what happens after my last breath in view are remarkably different than those days when I'm striving towards something that won't outlast my own visit to this planet.

When I step back and set the goal of conducting the next hour of my life in such a way that I might hear 'Well done!' from my Master...well, then life takes on real meaning, is guided with clarity and filled with peace.

Lots of churches have wings, right?  Aby delivers a message.

Rapt attention.

Paulus and Aby... warriors both.

What I would give to be there when the missionary with the net bag
 and stone ax meets Jesus face to face.

Pray for Bram as he continues his outreach to the people of Pipal.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Chickens (Back To Pipal Part II)

Kept bumping into chickens the other day.  

The first one was me.  I've long tried to maintain the right dose of coward in my soul... tends to aid longevity in this line of work.  First landings at new airstrips may seem like the kind of thing missionary pilots live for, and to be sure, they are momentous occasions.  But this particular missionary pilot is getting old enough that adrenaline has lost much of its novelty and elevated risk gives me heartburn.  That said, at some point somebody has to go break these places in, and so, after getting a good look at the airstrip on 6 May via helicopter (see previous post), it was time to go back in to Pipal in something with wings attached to it.

Eight days after the helicopter foray I was once again overhead Pipal.  Mark Hoving was along as an extra set of eyes to help identify those "that looks dumb, let's not do it" scenarios.

We took our time flying test approaches and mapping out what altitudes to use over various landmarks along the approach path.  The airstrip is located in a tight little box of a valley that allows you in, but at about a half a mile from touchdown becomes so tight that you can't turn around and get back out.  We needed to make sure that we were spot on passing that point of no return.  

Below is the runway chart that came out of all of our buzzing around that morning (thanks to Courtney Zehr for his charting wizardry).


After satisfying my inner chicken, we finally jumped in with both feet, flew past the committal point and landed.  Parking on the tiny flat spot carved out at the top of the 15% slope we were soon surrounded by a throng of Ketengban dancing away in their Sunday best. What a party.

Welcome to Pipal!
A bit hard to see, but note the Bird of Paradise plume
placed in Mark's hat to honor him as guest.

Laitus is Pipal's chief.
It took awhile, but once the hubbub died down we proceeded to install the runway markers.

Looking down the newly-marked airstrip at Pipal.
With our work done, we all head off to feast.
One thing you learn quickly about Papuans is that they really know how to party.  I think Jesus feels so at home with them in that regard.  They prepared a feast to mark the important day in their community's history and Mark and I had the privilege of sharing it with them.  Pigs are slow-cooked by super-heated rocks in a manner similar to a Polynesian luau. Tender and delicious.  This is also where I met the second chicken of the day.

Mark and I were given the assignment of finishing off this massive pile of pork.
We did it great harm, but ended up taking probably 40 pounds of meat home with us. 

The chicken was all ours as well... I stayed busy with the pork.
I'm privileged to know many followers of Jesus in the West who keep very loose hands on their possessions, giving generously.  We operate millions of dollars worth of aircraft that remind me of that fact every single day.  

Papuan followers of Christ will not be outdone.  As we were preparing to get back in the airplane to leave, Paulus, the man who has spent his life bringing the Gospel to this remote area, presents me with a gift of a chicken (this one very much alive and feathered).  When I think about the percentage of this man's material wealth that he gave me so freely, I am ashamed at how painfully I part with much, much less.

As a filthy rich missionary, I could do nothing but graciously accept the incredible gift from my even richer Papuan brother... who sleeps under a grass roof deep in the Star Mountains.

The Third Chicken

Has not God chosen those
who are poor in the eyes of the world
to be rich in faith
and to inherit the kingdom
he promised to those who love him?