Sitting in the darkness of the smoke filled tribal hut, I shifted positions, trying to get more comfortable on the woven bamboo floor. The only light in the jungle hut was from the smoldering fire in the center of the floor, but even that was suppressed by a thick blanket of smoke trying to work its way up through the thatched roofing. My eyes were stinging because of the smoke and I was finding the heat of the tightly enclosed space oppressive. Though I had recently arrived for a visit, I began thinking of a culturally appropriate way to excuse myself, thinking how great it would be to go outside for a fresh breath of mountain air.
The old man, Alimpu, interrupted my thoughts with a fit of deep chested coughing. Fato, who was sitting beside me on the floor looked over to his father with deep concern on his furrowed brow.
Alimpu had been sick off and on ever since my arrival to “Kul”, and recently was not responding to the antibiotics, but I didn’t know if it was because he had a tendency to quit taking the medicines as soon as he was feeling better or if it was because he was suffering from something more significant than pneumonia. His continual fits of wheezing and coughing had stolen his strength to the point that he seldom left his sleeping spot near the fire pit. He coughed over and over, barely able to catch a breath. Gasping for air he pulled himself to a sitting position, his bony hand holding tightly to the pole frame supporting the fire wood rack.
I moved over to where Alimpu was struggling to catch his breath, helpless to ease his pain. The sight of his frail frame and protruding ribs filled me with a sudden wave of fresh sorrow. From all appearances, my old friend was on his death bed, with only days to live.
After Alimpu’s fit of coughing subsided, he lay down on the bamboo floor next to the fire, and eventually his raspy breathing returned to a more regular pattern. Then, to my surprise he began to speak, slowly at first, and with obvious effort. “I can’t get baptized,” he managed, barely above a whisper.
There was a long pause, but I didn’t interject knowing Alimpu was about to say more.
“I know I am about to die,” the old man continued weakly, “but I’m not afraid anymore. Now that I have heard God’s story, I know I don’t have to fear death because God is going to take me to live with Him at His ground. Before I was terrified that a spirit might eat me at any moment causing my death. But now I realize death comes from Adam’s rebellion, not from evil spirits lurking in the jungle shadows.” The old man cleared his throat, spit into the fire and then continued. “If I had died back then I would have been condemned by God for the people I have murdered and for the other bad things I have done. Now that I believe in Jesus’ payment I know God will not condemn me.
My back and legs were stiff from sitting on the uneven floor but my heart was soaring as I heard my old friend’s words of faith. I had often wondered just how much of the Gospel message Alimpu understood. Now my heart was full as I heard him describe in his own words an unprompted account of his trust in God’s Word.
“I know I am God’s son now,” Alimpu continued, “and I have heard that you are planning a baptism soon, but I can’t get baptized.” The words were barely out of his mouth when a dog fight erupted as two scrawny dogs had pounced on a scrap of sweet potato that had been dropped by a child. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw movement in the darkness and turned just in time to see Alimpu’s old sister smack one of the dogs, sending it scrambling out the door, while the other dog gulped down his prize.
“Why can’t you get baptized?” I asked.
The old man slowly sat up with great effort, and leaned one arm over the vine that had been tied as a guard rail to keep children from falling into the fire, and then started speaking about men who had burned their spiritual objects in a fire. I was having a hard time connecting this odd statement with the question I had asked, so I turned to Fato who often helped me understand the aged man’s dialect.
“You told us about men who burned their sorcery books to show they were turning from their trust in the spirits to put their faith in God’s words.
I leaned forward with eager anticipation, straining to make sure I didn’t miss anything. He was referring to the story we taught from Acts about the Ephesian believers who boldly cut all ties with their history of sorcery.
Alimpu seeing my excitement continued “I can’t get baptized till I burn my spirit bag”.
I quickly looked back to Fato for clarification.
“You know, his bag of bones and dog teeth and magic plants.”
I couldn’t take my eyes off Alimpu.
“I need to burn it before I get baptized so everyone will know I am turning my back on the customs of the ancestors to be fully devoted to Jesus.”
I was amazed and elated, but at the same time wanted to make sure my friend was not confused with the idea that he had to clean up his life in every way in order to be acceptable to God in baptism. “What you are saying is wonderful, but please understand God accepts you not because you are perfect in every way, but rather because Jesus’ payment for your sins has made you acceptable in His sight. Your trust in Jesus is what makes you ready for baptism.”
“I know,” he answered. “When Jesus died, His blood washed away my many sins, so I am clean in God’s eyes. But still, I want to do what the people in the Bible did, and publicly burn my ties with my past beliefs so everyone will know I am not playing games with God and taking the death of Jesus as if it’s insignificant.”
I was blown away by the depth of Alimpu’s testimony. I was proud of my friend and his new found faith.
“I want to burn the stuff but I can’t because I am too weak to walk up the trail to the village center” Alimpu said.
“Maybe we could ask the people of the village to come down here to your house so they will see you burn your spirit bag in your own yard.”
“No, no” Alimpu responded emphatically. “I need to burn my spirit things in the middle of the village, where everyone can watch, but it’s impossible because I’m too weak.”
I sat there not knowing how to respond when Alimpu’s fourth and only living wife interrupted my thoughts by dropping a piece of wood on the fire. Sparks shot upward, bouncing against the underside of the drying rack.
Then I felt the gentle nudging of the Holy Spirit, so I turned to my friend and said, “We know from the stories we have been reading in the Bible that God has the power to heal you. Let’s ask Him to help you recover your strength so that you can go to the village to burn your spirit bag, and then later to the creek to get baptized.”
Alimpu agreed, so there in that dark and smoky house, Alimpu and Fato and I bowed our heads and made the simple request of our father. “God, one of your kids wants to get baptized but he can’t because of his poor health. Will you please honor his wish to publicly burn his spirit things and to get baptized by giving him health and strength to walk the trails?”
We all raised our heads when we were done and I couldn’t help but smile. Somehow I had confidence Alimpu would recover, despite the fact he looked as if he was on his death bed. My heart soared as I knew God was in the process of building faith in the hearts of His jungle kids.
A week and a half later, boys came running up to me with an excited announcement. “Alimpu is walking up the trail to the church!” I ran over to the bank at the edge of the village clearing and looked down. Sure enough, there was my frail friend, leaning heavily on a walking stick, slowly working his way up the hill! It was Saturday, one day before the baptism, and I couldn’t contain my excitement. Lord, one of your kids is making a huge step of faith!
The spirit bag burning ceremony was simple but profound. I got goose bumps as I listened to Alimpu, Fato and Waina declare their decision to permanently abandon the trail of the ancestors in order to walk on the new trail that Jesus had cleared. Three men dropped the bag full of bones and teeth and also a few spirit plants into the flames, demonstrating their faith. My heart was bursting with gratitude. Father, may you build deep trust in the lives of these people, so they will be faithful to honor You, and so they will become bold enough to take your word to the many other people scattered over these mountains.
The next morning, on Sunday November 30, the believers watched as Yanis and I baptized ten new believers. First we invited the patriarch of the village, Alimpu, to come forward. He gave a brief story of his trust in Jesus and then we baptized him in the little pond formed by the dam the boys had built across the creek bed. Waina and Fato were next, followed by the rest. Lord, please light a fire in these mountains that will become an unstoppable flame spreading from village to village.
This chapter from a book soon to be published called Possessed by Darkness, by Jonathan Kopf
If you would like to read our current book called Canopy of Darkness, feel free to purchase it at entrustsourcepublishers.com (remember to enter “hewa” as the coupon code) or the Kindle version on amazon.com.