Archive for ‘cultural observations’

February 15, 2016

In Sickness and in Health

by mendibpng


Valentine’s Day in the village is a little anti climactic in a way…nowhere to go for a date night, buy chocolate or other gifts. However, when I got up, Ben had already made coffee and since it was Sunday, he and I ate homemade granola together (made by a lovely friend before we left Ukarumpa). On other days, I start the day off rehydrating vegetables, plan out the homeschooling activities, and Ben goes to devotions with the translation team.

But my favorite part of Valentine’s Day came in the evening. One of our translators came asking for prayer for his sick wife. Often when the men come for prayer, they ask for Ben…but he specifically asked for both of us.

We sat across the table as he told us about his wife’s illness, both of us full of emotion and empathy for this man whose wife is a 4 hour walk away, through jungle roads. He told us that he had talked to her and he said many times, “mi laikim em tru!” (I love her very much!) Not being medical professionals, we had no idea what the symptoms meant, but it sounded serious to us.

Ben picked up on a key anxiety our friend had, even though he hadn’t said it explicitly. Did she get sick because of something he or she had done, or because of some problems they had? Or, did someone work magic to cause it? Here in PNG, the cultural perspective is that there is always a reason behind illness or death. People suspect that something or someone has caused this to happen. Ben said, “I know that here, you all have the cultural perspective that sickness happens as a result of problems or someone deliberately caused it. But this isn’t always the case.” He shared story of the blind man….

 The disciples asked, “Rabbi, who sinned: this man or his parents, causing him to be born blind?” Jesus said, “You’re asking the wrong question. You’re looking for someone to blame. There is no such cause-effect here. Look instead for what God can do. We need to be energetically at work for the One who sent me here, working while the sun shines. When night falls, the workday is over. For as long as I am in the world, there is plenty of light. I am the world’s Light.”  He said this and then spit in the dust, made a clay paste with the saliva, rubbed the paste on the blind man’s eyes, and said, “Go, wash at the Pool of Siloam” (Siloam means “Sent”). The man went and washed—and saw.  John 9:2-8 The Message

Ben explained that illness doesn’t necessarily mean that they had done anything wrong, and our friend’s face changed from grief and worry to one of relief and joy. I told him that if he wanted to go and take his wife to the hospital in town, we would support him, because, although the work of translation is important, his wife and family are even more so. Ben confirmed what I said, and added that he would stand up for our friend if anyone said anything about him leaving. Also, he added that we would leave the decision in his hands. We both prayed and I sat there, taking it in, feeling like this was the best way to spend Valentine’s Day with Ben.


February 25, 2014

Lean on me…

by mendibpng


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)

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April 29, 2013

“The work will not fall down without you….”

by mendibpng

Most people in Papua New Guinea know that we live in “The Land of Unexpected.” Sometimes it feels like an adventure. Sometimes it’s tough to swallow.

I’ve learned that although I appreciate knowing what is happening (and I really like my lists), if I lower my expectations and let go of My Plans when necessary, the frustration levels decrease. I still experience distress at times, particularly when a big change happens the night before (like last month when Jacob had a double ear infection and we weren’t able to leave for another planned vacation). All this to say, I’m learning that Good can come out of Hard Things if I allow myself to go through the process of grieving and transitioning.

In January we all had an opportunity to hold onto our plans loosely. We planned for our teammate Beth and I to go on a Walkabout: to do reading fluency workshops in seven villages (at the request of church leaders) and to introduce the idea of listening groups using solar powered audio listening devices, (AudiBibles: pictured below charging in the sun) containing the recorded book of Luke.

It turns out that Beth became severely ill, struggling to breathe and talk. At the same time, Ben and I caught a respiratory virus over Christmas. We had planned as a family to go to Madang for a much needed holiday, but sickness consumed us and we decided to cancel that trip. When it appeared that all three of us still struggled with illness well into January, we decided that a Walkabout would be physically impossible for us. Ben arranged for our intern Luke to go on a SALT (Scripture Application and Leadership Training) course while we all stayed in Ukarumpa to recover.

We called Emil, the Papua New Guinean leader of the project,  telling him that we would have to cancel the Walkabout because we were sick. He quickly reassured Ben, saying, “that’s ok, we’ll hold a translation workshop for 1 and 2 Timothy ourselves. You stay there and get better.” Ben assisted the translators remotely from Ukarumpa with their translation questions and computer problems via Skype while our teammates Luke and Laura were on the ground trouble shooting computer and generator issues.

When I asked the translators how the workshop went, Clement said,

We didn’t worry about you being far from us. We could maintain it and keep going without you there. If you aren’t here, the work won’t fall down. We just thought about the work and kept going. If one of us has a problem in our lives, where someone is sick or dies in our family, we are a team, we can keep working.

Another coworker, Jonathan, a man of few words, but wearing a huge smile spoke up,

we’re in the group and we work as a team.

Most Melanesians value teamwork and good relationships, so my heart jumped when this translator said this.

On another note, the fact that we can have Skype communication and cell phone reception all over the Aitape West make working remotely much easier. Onnele translator Dominic explained,

this Skype we have, it makes our work easy. If we didn’t have it, our work would be hard.”

We knew that this technology has made relating to our Papua New Guinean colleagues even better.

It keeps us connected, and available to each other, which is really important for maintaining relationships in the culture we live in.

To Ben and I, it appears that Skype chatting also allows our colleagues to speak freely about difficult and deep issues—we suspect this is because it’s not face to face, but fits in the indirect way of communicating, something we’ve come to recognize as a cultural trait here. Nearly every day, when we are away, we receive some word from the translators asking for help on technical problems or asking us to pray about personal problems they face.

I’m thankful that this work isn’t just dependent on us being around for it to happen. God has placed these gifted men, leaders in their communities, here on the Aitape West Translation Team for the purpose of taking the Scriptures to their people.

They can keep going, even if we aren’t physically present.

In fact, it’s sometimes a good thing when we can’t be here, because they have more opportunities to take initiative on their own, practice leadership and continue working together as a team.

March 4, 2013

Challenges and Advantages of a Geographically Diverse Team

by mendibpng

flying over Arop sm

Challenges and Advantages:
We now have a more diverse team culturally. I see this as a huge advantage because we have opportunity to learn and benefit from the richness of different cultural viewpoints. We’ve already seen this in discussions. On the other hand, having different cultural perspectives is a challenge because we don’t want anyone to feel marginalized or ‘put out’ if someone is unwittingly being culturally insensitive. I have grown from interactions I’ve had with Wycliffe’s cross cultural expert Sheryl Silzer, (whose book is available on Amazon) “Biblical Multicultural Teams.” She teaches that each culture has image of God behaviors but also has tendencies towards sinful ones. I am grossly simplifying here but what I have personally taken away from the two courses I’ve participated in is that I must  make it my first goal to understand where my teammates are coming from as well as process my cultural biases so that we can work together well. What that is going to look like in reality, I don’t know…but I’m excited to learn.

Answered prayer:
When we began crying out to God for much needed help last year, very few new people were coming to Papua New Guinea, much less language workers. We as a team worked hard to draft proposals for 10 new job positions and our leaders approved them. Not only did they approve the new positions, but they began steering people in our direction. We prayed and kept plugging away at our work. And then two by two and one by one, people began approaching us about joining our team.

We’ve talked about how grateful we are to have the help but we are also feeling badly, as other people are short staffed and in the same position as us, desperately needing personnel!  On top of it all, the people who have joined us are well trained and skilled, or as we Americans say, the ‘cream of the crop.’  They have expertise that we don’t have and the ability to do work that we don’t have time to do.

All this to say, we see that there is light at the end of the tunnel for us all: the addition of new team members will relieve the physical work but also provide some margin for us as a family [we hope: no pressure teammates if you are reading this!!]  We’re up to the task of navigating cultural differences and learning about each other’s personalities so that we can all live and work together well…thriving hopefully.

I’ll end with a prayer for my new team that I’ve stolen from the Apostle Paul: [bold and italics mine]

1 Corinthians 1:3-9 (The Message)

May all the gifts and benefits that come from God our Father, and the Master, Jesus Christ, be yours.

Every time I think of you—and I think of you often!—I thank God for your lives of free and open access to God, given by Jesus. There’s no end to what has happened in you—it’s beyond speech, beyond knowledge. The evidence of Christ has been clearly verified in your lives.

Just think—you don’t need a thing, you’ve got it all! All God’s gifts are right in front of you as you wait expectantly for our Master Jesus to arrive on the scene for the Finale. And not only that, but God himself is right alongside to keep you steady and on track until things are all wrapped up by Jesus. God, who got you started in this spiritual adventure, shares with us the life of his Son and our Master Jesus. He will never give up on you. Never forget that.

April 19, 2012

A laborer of God

by mendibpng

Ben and Clement talking after sharing a meal. In Papua New Guinea, relationships are very important. Photo by Dan Bauman.

Clement related this story to Ben, who transcribed it and Jessie Wright translated it.

Clement uses relationships to share about his work in the Bible translation movement…

When I was living in my village and I didn’t know about the work of Bible translation, there were many things in the Bible that I didn’t understand. True, I would regularly go to church, but I didn’t – like the words that the church leaders would read – I would hear them, but as for myself, I didn’t know about some things like Bible backgrounds, or what messages may have missed the point, or what the meaning of the words was like.

When I came and learned how to do the work of Bible translation, I learned many things. Before I didn’t know about them.  For example, the Tok Pisin Bible too, it doesn’t explain it well, or many things remain hidden.  So when I came to do Bible translation, I did much research, so it was like, okay, many things helped me and I understood. Now I understood about God.

When I would go back to my village, I would tell my family,

“God is the source of all things, and when we ourselves see things clearly with the Bible, we need to sit down patiently and read the Bible carefully, and we will understand now how God works in our lives.”

It’s like this: when I went to work with the others in the work of Bible translation, I understood many things. God worked. And I learned many things where the Tok Pisin Bible doesn’t follow the original Greek. The Greek language was the first language – and Hebrew – that they translated into Latin, and later into English, and later they translated it into the Tok Pisin language. And then we come up to the time now where we are translating it into our own specific language so that we can understand the meaning of the words.

So as far as I myself am concerned, I have now come to know many good things that I learned. After I learned these things and then I was back in my village, many men would come up and say to me,

“Come, let’s go do this other work, so forget about it, and leave this work of SIL.”

But I would tell them,

“No, I’m not concerned with whatever other work, I am doing the work of God. I have become” – I would use a certain kind of talk that I like to say – “I have become a laborer of God.”

I don’t want to labor for another man. I want to labor for God, and it’s like this: I live at my village, the work of God is what I do, so he helps me. If I feel there is a thing that I find difficult, then the Word of God helps me, and now I see that I have learned many good things. I am happy about this.

March 6, 2012

Wailing, beards, and lost for words at a funeral

by mendibpng

This post is yet more “confessions of a missionary wife.” It’s going to be difficult to write.

You may have seen the post I wrote about David Emil’s passing here:

When we were in the village we walked to the Emil family’s house to cry and grieve with them. A death in the family means that several cultural things take place: close friends and family come stay to mourn together. It is the responsibility of the grieving family to provide food for anyone who comes to mourn. This can be a financial hardship. The visitors can stay for weeks, even months. The men grow out their beards, a physical example of their grief and pain. When their initial grieving is over, they shave their facial hair.

Ben has the ability to mourn the way a Papua New Guinean does. When we entered the courtyard, he began wailing loudly. I had quietly explained to our children that this was going to happen, so they were not scared. I stayed back and held our two year old twins, and cried softly. As soon as Ben started crying, the mother and grandmother of the boy began wailing as well. The father stood quietly until I gave him a plastic covered picture of his boy. He started crying loudly then too. Ben came over and they held each other for a while.

Even though we’ve been in PNG since 2002, I still feel like a foreigner in situations like these. In my culture grief is a private matter. I am always concerned that I won’t know what to say to someone who has lost a loved one. However, in PNG, crying loudly with the family and being there says that you are walking with them through their pain.

As we walked the 45 minutes home, I felt anguish for Emil’s family and the loss of a beloved son. I told my kids that it was okay to feel sad for our friends because we love them. Ben went later on with the translators for a memorial service where a big feast was held after the grave had been decorated according to their custom.

Today I wrote an e-mail to Emil with these verses:

1Thessalonians 4:13-18

13 And now, dear brothers and sisters, we want you to know what will happen to the believers who have died so you will not grieve like people who have no hope. 14 For since we believe that Jesus died and was raised to life again, we also believe that when Jesus returns, God will bring back with him the believers who have died.

15 We tell you this directly from the Lord: We who are still living when the Lord returns will not meet him ahead of those who have died.16 For the Lord himself will come down from heaven with a commanding shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trumpet call of God. First, the Christians who have died will rise from their graves. 17 Then, together with them, we who are still alive and remain on the earth will be caught up in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. Then we will be with the Lord forever. 18 So encourage each other with these words.

So often I get caught up in the mundane of the here and now and forget that one day the Lord will return! That last verse “encourage each other with these words” made me think how little time I spend encouraging others with the hope of Christ’s return. There will be no more pain, suffering and grief.

October 6, 2011

“Today, Jesus is an Onnele Man!” Part 1

by mendibpng

 If you have been on our e-mail list, you will know that we left for the village at the beginning of September. We were uncertain if the airstrip would be cut and how it would go for Josiah in a children’s home for 1 week without us. In short, the grass was being cut as we were landing and Josiah had a great time in the hostel. I will try to fill in some of the other details later, but I thought I’d start with one of the highlights of this village stay. One of the languages we work with, Wolwale Onnele, didn’t have a Luke dedication yet. Our teammates Jessie and Beth attended six other dedications in June, while Ben was here in Ukarumpa helping teach a translator’s software (Paratext) course. We spent last weekend celebrating this milestone for the Wolwale people. A Ramu translator, Vincent, spoke the words, “Today, Jesus is an Onnele Man!” during his speech–I thought it was very fitting for this post, as the book of Luke is the first large Scripture portion that they have ever had in their language.

When our car pulled up, people were waiting for us to join the celebration.

The first item on the agenda was to decorate all the visitors. Ben is pictured here with Jacob on his back.

The dancers led us to a grandstand, where the digitaries would give speeches. My feet didn't work as well as these ladies but they didn't mind me trying to learn the steps!

Special people were chosen to perform a traditional sing sing.

It was emotionally moving when the dancers came in carrying the book of Luke and my literacy materials.

The local level government leader gave one of the first speeches.Two of my literacy teachers, Gibson and Linda, led a time of worship.

Our five kids were good sports during the four hour ceremony. Eventually we took the twins away from the grandstand because they were too distracting.

January 17, 2011


by mendibpng

One of the things I love about the Arop people is that they treasure young children. Babies are often carried in slings and looked after tenderly…it is not uncommon to see a daddy holding his little baby while her mother is off fishing (during the day) or preparing their meal (in the evening).  Often other children, barely three or four years old will help care for a younger sibling.  Community living means that a baby belongs to everyone, and everyone steps in to help look after her.

As a family, we’ve enjoyed watching the Arop people welcome our children into their lives.  If one of my kids is out of line (ie Noah playing too close to the fire or harassing chickens, for instance—real examples!) someone will let him know. Our babies know they are adored and often call out to passers-by (from the porch) to take them for a walk. It is not unusual to see someone stopping by to talk to them, too, as if there is all the time in the world to make my children happy.

January 3, 2011

confessions of a culturally stressed missionary….

by mendibpng

Some days come and go without any cultural stress at all. Other days, there is a choice to be made and an opportunity to show grace with boundaries…

We employ people from the valley close to our training center for two reasons: we need the help because it takes so much time and effort to live here, and we are able to give an income to people who might not otherwise have a way to buy food or pay their children’s school fees.  Along with employing someone comes a relationship, where we are obligated to them for more than just a paycheck.  So, we employ a man who works in our garden.  He is really soft spoken and does an amazing job with the flowers (I will post some pictures of our garden soon!)  His wife comes and helps me in the house one afternoon a week–hanging up clothes outside, washing dishes and mopping my floor.  She is polite but a little more direct than he is.  We often have coffee together and discuss our families. She brings her baby and a babysitter because her baby is still nursing, so I happily provide tea and bisquits and lunch  for both of them.

So where is my stress coming from? I give the maximum wage to the lady who works for me, plus I also give her something every time she works: a bag of rice, salt or several packets of noodles.  However, she often asks for dinaus (a loan).  I feel conflicted sometimes when she asks me for an amount that will take her weeks and weeks to pay off, and sometimes I give the money outright.  I usually always give her the full pay she earns because she needs to feed her family somehow (an afternoon of work is the equivalent of $3, which could buy at least some rice and some canned meat).

This week she nearly had paid off the last dinau because I had given her extra work and a Christmas bonus (which she had taken to buy linens for her grandma’s funeral) and then she asked for more today because her baby was sick.  In a split second, I decided to go ahead and give the money again, without question (as I have done every time she has asked) because….look at me….if my child was sick, I wouldn’t hesitate to go to the doctor. I wouldn’t hesitate to buy medicine that he or she needed!  The $3 she would have earned today would not have even paid for the clinic visit, much less medicine if she needed it.

On the other hand, because this happens so often, it feels like I’m being taken advantage of.  I wonder if I am helping her by giving her handouts, and is she is going to keep asking me until I get really stressed? I have decided that for today, I made the right decision by giving her the money she needed (actually I gave her more than double what she asked for because I had no change!)  However, for future references…I may tell her “let me ask my husband” and Ben and I can decide together what is the best course of action, because anyone who knows Ben knows that he has a lot better boundaries than I do!  And if truth be told, I cannot help every person in the valley. But at least I can help the people I am friends with, especially those who work for me.

This brings me to a question. How important is my stuff and my money? What IS generosity really? And when is it a good time to start having good boundaries? I think I know the answers to these questions…but this topic is one that I often hear talked about by other missionaries because living in this culture and  being so Western in our thinking can be hard to reconcile. In some cases it has caused so much stress that the relationship cannot continue. I am choosing to live with the tension because I care about my friend AND it is a good opportunity to practice being loving and having boundaries in my own home.

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