The other day, my closest Papua New Guinean friend presented me with this bilum: a string bag traditionally used to carry food, babies and other cargo. Bilums are given in bride price exchanges, when new babies come, or to honor a visitor. They are highly valuable, often the most expensive item being sold at our local market. This isn’t just any bag: it represents a depth of friendship between my friend and me. She took pains to find colors I like, which I know is her way of acknowledging/caring about my value for beautifully made things.
When bilums are made, it’s often a group effort. One mama will work on it for a bit, then someone else will take a turn, and so on. It can take weeks, even months to finish one depending on the size of the bag and intricate weave of the design. This bilum is different from ones I have seen before; in this case, my friend learned a new pattern, which makes it even more special to me.
I have been wanting to write about this cultural gift because every time I see my new bilum, I think about the community we have. Each layer of woven thread represents the people in our lives who support us. A team all around the world prays for us and supports us from afar. We have colleagues here on the ground who provide practical services in order for us to do our job (like teachers, pilots, administrators, etc.). There’s also our small group, teammates and close friends who support us emotionally as well. On top of that, godly Papua New Guineans hold us up in prayer and give us valuable cultural advice. If I were going to take this metaphor even further, I would say that Ben’s thread weaves itself in and out of all of these relationships (with me) since every part of our lives is so closely connected on our team, in our family and in our relationships.
I’m not going to lie and say that all the relationships we have are easy. In fact, it’s rarely the case that we would go through a week without some kind of relational/cultural stress. It makes sense that this is the case, as we interact with people for every aspect of our work and life. On top of that, we battle spiritual forces daily since our primary task is to see God’s word translated and used in the Aitape West region of Papua New Guinea…I see often the attacks striking straight at our relationships. However, the act of learning how to love people in community has really caused us to dig deep into God’s unending well of wisdom. I can think of so many instances (even one from yesterday!) where we are desperate to do the right thing but have no idea how it will be perceived culturally….all of our human wisdom and studies are not enough to shed light on the situation. I think I can safely say that Ben and I as a team aren’t the same people we were when we arrived here twelve years ago, bright eyed and full of expectations and hope for our ministry together. We’re definitely more realistic (I hope not too cynical!) but more aware of our need for God’s presence in our lives in every small and big moment. This draws me back to my original thoughts on community: as we walk through the ‘valley of the shadow of death’ (Psalm 23) with our loved ones, they are also doing the same for us, and that is a deep, rich place to be. This journey we are on (I love the ‘journey’ imagery!) is all about what we can accomplish together.
I will end with a quote from my favorite spiritual writer:
Community is like a large mosaic. Each little piece seems so insignificant. One piece is bright red, another cold blue or dull green, another warm purple, another sharp yellow, another shining gold. Some look precious, others ordinary. Some look valuable, others worthless. Some look gaudy, others delicate. As individual stones, we can do little with them except compare them and judge their beauty and value. When, however, all these stones are brought together in one big mosaic portraying the face of Christ, who would ever question the importance of any one of them? If one of them, even the least spectacular one, is missing, the face is incomplete. Together in one mosaic, each little stone is indispensable and makes a unique contribution to the glory of God. That’s community, a fellowship of little people who together make God visible in the world. (“The Only Necessary Thing,” by Henri Nouwen, p. 124)