Sitting where I am right now, freezing cold in Michigan with snow falling outside, it is very strange to think about where we were less than a month ago. We were in Papua New Guinea sweating our faces off crammed in to a van along with some of our Tigak brothers and sisters on a long ride back from a wonderfully encouraging trip. All of us had just enjoyed the second annual New Ireland Province Believers Conference along with many other Papua New Guinean Believers! Allow me to elaborate.
From the moment the Tigak church received the letter from a southern language group’s church giving an official invite to attend the second annual believers conference and announcing that their church would be hosting it, the excitement was obvious. This rare opportunity for these PNG believers, a minority in their communities, to have fellowship with other PNG believers is such a blessing and such a privilege, and the first time they had the chance to attend this conference last year, everyone was hooked! 🙂 For us as the missionaries, too, it is a time we greatly look forward too as we are able to not only spend time with our PNG family in Christ, but also our fellow white ones! 😀
It took weeks of planning and saving but finally the time came. November 11th arrived and our group of sixteen was ready and gathered in our provincial capitol to cram ourselves into a public transportation vehicle and begin the 6+ hours of travel on bumpy roads to the village where the conference would be held. As we all did our best to be positive about the uncomfortable seats and no leg room it kinda felt exactly like we were all headed to camp. Every one was super happy and in giddy moods! “N” was sitting in the very back squished in between many others and made an easy job of playing the role of both the kid who keeps asking “are we there yet?” and also the comedian as she offered commentary on the pain her body felt as we flew over every bump in the road. There was much laughter in between little power naps and snacking.
The last 45 minutes of our journey was the most uncomfortable as we had to transition into a large flat bed truck along with many passengers not part of our group wanting to get where we were going, too. Even though it was not pleasant and our kids were nearing the end of their proverbial “ropes,” in all the trip was not bad at all- especially compared to last year! Finally we descended the last steep and dusty hill and the missionaries houses appeared. We made it and the reunions were about to begin! It took my hip a while to remember that it was supposed to work in conjunction with my leg after getting off the flat bed but as I hobbled up to many friends to greet them it didn’t even matter! I was too covered in dust and tired to remember to get out my camera to capture the sweet reunions, something I really kicked myself over later!
Seeing the believers find one another and great each other was so special I just LOVED it! Hearing the shouts of joy, the laughter and watching ladies sneak up behind other ones and wrap their arms around them to surprise them was too wonderful! The men grinned from ear to ear and exchanged some of the most energetic hand shakes you have ever seen! Just seeing everyone meet up again was an encouragement but there was so much more to come!
In addition to all the PNG people getting to hang out, we missionaries where super excited to be able to see each other too! Having the chance to catch up, pray for one another, share struggles and gain encouragement from each other was invaluable! For our kids too it was a huge joy for them all to be able to play with each other!
We had only been in the village about an hour and I was doing my best to keep the kids in order and help unpack and arrange supplies with the other missionary wives when I walked by a group of people gathered in the lawn chatting. I could not resist lingering for a few minutes to listen in on what they were saying. 🙂 My heart totally rejoiced as I listened to their passionate voices expressing to each other how they were so excited about what they were currently learning in God’s word. Saying things like, “Yeah! You know, back before I heard God’s word I have no idea about this..” or “I know! When I learned that I was also so amazed! God’s truth is so good..!” I have never been more blessed by eaves dropping! 😀
That evening the Conference began with a large feast after dark hosted by the village church and it was a wonderful kick off to the next few days. People spent time fellowshipping over plates piled with smoked fish, rice, greens, kaukau & taro. Many hours later in the dark of night, all the visiting believers where led away by their host families to huts spread throughout a couple of neighboring villages. Some believers would be staying as far as an hour walk away but the missionary’s truck helped those people get home in the dark, at least for that night. I knew as everyone dispersed that many of them would hardly sleep that night as they would spend hours talking around fires and catching up on all that had happened over the past year! The body of Christ of is truly a blessed thing and all these believers were getting to experience that!
For the next three days we gathered together for singing and to hear teaching from the book of Ephesians. The truth shared from God’s word was well communicated and challenging to all in attendance. The host church used several “skits” to portray truths depicting our condition spiritually before we were made right with God and contrasted that with God’s desire to give us an abundant life in Him once we are His children. Each skit was well done and spoke powerfully to each believer. It was really fun to see the word of God expressed using the effective tool of drama!
I never get sick of experiencing the Holy Spirit challenging people through His word. It’s simply incredible. Tom and I both really enjoyed spending time with the believers, both from our village and other villages as well. Each conversation was an incredible privilege to hear what people were thinking and feeling in response to the teaching. We were able to take advantage of opportunities for discipleship as people had questions and wrestled with the new content from God’s word. These are the moments, the moments when my heart feels so much joy I can hardly stand it and ministry is simply addicting! Every conversation I walked away from left me in total awe (yet again..) over the amazing fact that God has chosen to use US to do His work! Incredible! To Him be all praise.
Interestingly, during the three days of conference two pretty major things happened. One was the death of a believer from the host church. He was an old man who right up to His death was able to speak of His peace in facing death because of his hope for eternity. The man who passed away was actually the village “father” of the missionary-who had been adopted into his clan when they first moved into that village years ago. The death was a painful loss to everyone in the church but also specifically difficult for the missionaries as well. In spite of the painful loss, it was incredible to see the body of Christ coming together to support one another in their grief, remind each other of truth and meet the practical needs of the family of the man who died. On the day the man was buried our conference meeting time was cut short and many believers who did not belong to this village chose to travel along with their brothers and sisters in Christ to the funeral. Several of those individuals were our Tigak believers.
When the group who attended the funeral returned late that afternoon, we were so encouraged to hear of the things that had happened there and how our Tigak family had supported the grieving and been a shining testimony before the lost there. We were told that one person in particular recognized one of our Tigak Bible teachers as a friend of a friend and remarked, “Hey! I think that is P—-, he is a follower of God’s word.” Who could have known God would choose to work in the way He did through this time! It was a great thing to witness!
The other significant thing that happened was that two believing ladies from another village endured persecution from a man who did not want them there. In spite of the initial shock we all felt from the difficult incident, the resolution to it was a perfect example of how the body of Christ is designed to work! The ladies were quickly moved to another hut to stay and comforted and built up by others. The ladies who were persecuted were calm and gracious about what had happened and continued participating in the conference as before, ironically encouraged. 🙂
Even though some things that no one would have ever chosen happened during the conference it was so obvious how God used those things for good in the life of the church and spurred His children’s growth on through them. Man, the Lord is our helper! He just is! In all situations, no matter what, as we exist in this world that was broken by sin He offers Himself. He alone can bring us into a relationship with Himself through the death of Jesus on our behalf. Once we believe in Him and become His children He is forever ours, forever the One who will help us get through this difficult thing called life and give us the strength we need to make sense of it all and have joy. It was awesome to watch Him be the helper of each of our family in Christ during the conference time!
Just like last year, the conference time went way too quickly and before we new it we were saying heartfelt “goodbye’s” and “see you next year’s” and climbing back into the large flat bed truck to begin the long bumpy journey back to our island home. The ride back went fine but I was miserable in my heart as I felt the weight of the goodbye we had to say at the end of our drive. Because of our travel arrangements to return to the states for Iris’ surgery, we would not be returning to our island along with the believers that day. We would be staying in town for one more day to wait for our flight leaving the country. The closer we came to our drop off the more I felt my throat tighten up and I had to start fighting hard not to burst into tears.
I really did try SO hard not to break down when we said good bye to all of them but it was hopeless. We shook hands, said short parting words (mostly because I could hardly speak) and gave hugs. Seeing the tears stream down all their faces made it even harder but thankfully we just did it quickly and then I just rushed into the mission guest house so I could cry freely. Though I knew we would/will see them again it was a really hard day! We just love them so much ya know?
The Conference was a sweet “last big thing” to be around for before returning to the U.S. There is no doubt that God used that time, and will continue to use it in the lives of each believer who attended. Thank you to every one of you who prayed for this time and also to those who gave special gifts to meet the needs of the church for it! We were all incredibly blessed! God delights in building up His church!