Christmas is usually a time for families to be together, however, for 29 years out of 36 I was 10,000 miles away in distance and 10 hours ahead in time from mine, and living in New Guinea was like living on another planet. I was blessed with many adopted families and had wonderful Christmases with them. I spent many of them in remote villages. Christmas 1980 is one that stands out in my memory.
I was going to witness a great event in the history of the Timbe people. It was going to be the extension of the history of the Acts of the Apostles. In the Acts of the Apostles, Chapter 2, the wonderful thing about the Apostles speaking in other tongues, was that they were the languages of the people who had traveled far and wide to attend the Feast of Pentecost at Jerusalem. These people were amazed and said ‘we all hear these people speaking in our languages about the wonderful things God has done’.
I was taken from my modern home at Ukarumpa, the main centre for Bible Translation in Papua New Guinea, where I served in a support role, to the nearby airfield for a very early morning take-off in our helicopter. We were off to Kulung village in the Morobe district of Papua New Guinea. I was accompanying Mick & Margaret Foster, linguists and translators to the Timbe people.
A mixture of awe, fear, and sheet delight were my sensations as we flew over this beautiful, but hostile land for over an hour; crossing the Finisterre range into the Sarawaget range. It is a land of steep mountains and narrow valleys, taking but a few seconds to fly over one mountain ridge to the next. Certainly there was no flat land to build an airstrip. As we neared Kulung village I searched for somewhere flat for a helicopter to land. There was a place and we landed safely, only to have a steep rock to climb around to get to the village.
Kulung sits 2,000ft above the thundering Timbe river, and was a constant sound as it flowed continuously down the mountains and out to sea. As we settled in, we cleared the house of all kinds of wild life including a snake under the house and one in the roof, not to mention the large spiders, two with whom I had a nightmarish encounter a few evenings later. Margaret and Mick got busy in making stencils of the newly translated Christmas texts from Scripture. These were then ‘run off’ on a silk screen ‘printing press’.
Christianity in a foreign language had come to the Timbe people through the Lutheran Mission, who were the major pioneers in this part of the Island of New Guinea, so most of the people kept the Christian Festivals.
Christmas Eve was dry and clear as we stepped out for the evening service; ahead the skyline was lit up by flaming bamboo torches. Everyone in the village from old to young had climbed the hill above the village and then processed down in single file to the church. They were making the statement that ‘Light had come and was piercing the darkness.’ John 1:9 ‘The true light that gives light to every man was coming into the world.’ As they and we reached the church building the torches were quenched and lanterns lit for inside the church. Once inside our nostrils were greeted with the smell of the fragrant grasses and flowers that decorated the building inside. After a short service we left for home and bed.
It was a strange sight that greeted me on Christmas Day morning as I drew back the curtains. Outside was completely white, a bright white but thick fog had risen from the river below and engulfed us. A White Christmas in the tropics!!
The first clang from the large bomb shell alerted the villagers that it was time to get up; the next clang was a message to get washed and dressed in ones best. The third clang a couple of hours later told us the service would begin soon, so we set out with our noses to the ground to make sure we did not wander off the path as the fog was thick and still.
Everyone was neatly and brightly dressed on this special morning. The service began with a liturgy in the trade language of the area, Kate, but in their music style, and its sound reverberated around the mountains. The Scripture reading time came and Mick got up and read for the first time in Timbe history the Christmas story in their language. Yes, the wonderful message of God sending His Son, Jesus Christ to be the Saviour of the World.
The decorated lump of greenery at the front of the church suddenly came to life as a tableau of Mary, Joseph, with a black doll for the Baby Jesus. Men & women dressed as shepherds and kings, bowed down and presented presents of string bags and other objects of importance in their culture to the baby Jesus. As we stood around greeting each other after the service, the white fog began to lift and by the afternoon it had completely cleared and gave us a warm sunny afternoon.
Mick, Margaret, John, Duncan and I went home for a meal of tinned ham, accompanied with roasted sweet potato and pumpkin, and local greens. I had previously made and brought out with me a small Christmas pudding and fruitcake. We exchanged small presents and played board games, read and rested the rest of the day.