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