Darkness and Death
To many in our world, sickness and death are never due to natural causes but always to some evil activity of spirits. People make sacrifices to protect themselves from sickness, to insure the fertility of the land and the women, or to bring the rain. There is usually a shaman or witch doctor who is the expert in communicating with the spirits. The spirits tell him or her what remedy is needed for healing or who is guilty of placing the curse that caused the sickness.
This is the world that a missionary comes to and the culture that he must understand and contend with. The following narrative was written by Mary Beth Snyder, who serves with her husband, Sam, in the remote mountains of Gulf Province, Papua New Guinea (PNG).
We have heard the hopeless sound of wailing off and on this past week, for the family across the road lost a son, a brother. Today, Leland said it reminds him of the man in Pilgrim’s Progress who was in a cage yelling, “No hope!” The young man who died, electrocuted in Lae, had adamantly opposed the mission, and Sam remembers it well. His father is a papa graun (landowner) who has consistently shown interest in gaining material possessions and may be involved in witchcraft. The young man who died has been mostly away from the village for the past several years, and it is sad to know that he was so close to the Gospel in the past but rejected it. We went over to be with family and friends this afternoon and sat on the ground with the grieving. A young child coughing with the ever-prevalent kus (mucus) and the dirtiness of it all is a stark reminder that the ground is cursed, full of disease and death. Tears dripped down my face.
Our Papua New Guinean surroundings boast abundant natural beauty. While hearing tropical birds sing and enjoying occasional butterflies floating by banana trees in the midst of lush mountains surrounded by misty clouds, I can imagine what the paradise of creation may have been like. Reality sets in when I hear the cries of children in the clinic, when I assist mothers in childbirth, when pouring rains drench the clay-like ground making it hard to grow food, and when our feet are habitually coated in mud. Today, the curse was more evident than other days as I sat and watched our friends sobbing, wailing, and falling on the casket. Actually, it is a blessing that there is a casket. This young man died in a coastal town many kilometers from here, and it took over a week to fly his body back to our airstrip. Sam then drove it here in the ATV. Another haus krai (funeral) I attended several years ago involved the typical practice of people wailing over and hugging the dead body.
We have heard reports that Covid is hitting hard in the towns the past two weeks. On top of that, its spread is even more inevitable because of the large town gatherings to honor the recently departed Grand Chief Somare. As I watched people hug and sob face-to-face today, the nurse in me saw how easy it is for sickness to spread. We customarily shake hands with those who offer their hand, make sure we wash our hands well when we get home, use vitamins and oils, and pray for protection from disease. Our good friend and only believer in that family had just returned with his dead brother’s body from a major town, and we shook his hand. Some things are just too culturally important to shun, for after health teaching is done and customs don’t change, it is best to avoid stumbling blocks. One consolation is that the temporary mourning tent, church building, and clinic are all airy.
Reminders of the curse are everywhere the past few weeks. Another elderly man, the papa graun of the mission property took another wife. He has had multiple wives in the past and many children, but he has not taken care of them well. Before our arrival, he made a profession of faith, but he has not attended church for a while now, blaming it on a sore leg. His wife and daughter attend church regularly. It is sickening to find out that he had his eye on a young girl from another village and that he and her family went through with the arranged “marriage.” It is child abuse. He must feel that he is powerful enough to take or buy what he wants, no matter the cost to others. It is sickening and infuriating and has been heavy on my mind this week. While I battle with anger, I really do pity him. How many sermons has he heard? How many verses has he listened to? How many chances has he had to follow the light? Yet, he seems to delight in darkness. He also lives almost across the road from the church buildings. Incredibly sad. Marriage is sacred and the first institution God ordained, and, of course, our enemy attacks it in any way he can.
After the children and I were back home from visiting the haus krai, a man, carrying an old lady who had been brutally bitten by a pig, came to the clinic. The pig unexpectedly bit off many of this poor woman’s fingers. The nurses gave her an injection of pain medicine, and Sarah drove her in the ATV to the small hospital at the airstrip. Tommy quickly mentioned that it could be that an evil spirit had entered the pig. Witchcraft is a reality in some situations.
In PNG, it is a common belief that grief shown at a death can assure that the dead spirit will not be angry, but instead, will bring blessing on the living. The Bible teaches that when we die, our spirit goes to heaven or hell; it does not linger around the village. Do our believers not understand that, or are they wailing to simply show their grief culturally, or do they wail because they realize the man was not a believer?
Sam is getting over a respiratory virus. His nose has been bleeding off and on, which could be from the infection or because he was hit there several months ago by an angry man who came up behind him when he was working on the road. God protected Sam and others and the situation was finally resolved. This morning, a woman came to the clinic with a severe knife wound to the back of her head, inflicted by her husband. She was returning up the mountain from the haus krai and was attacked by her jealous older husband when she did not hand over enough money she was supposed to have made at market. Later in the day, someone came running and said that when they were digging the grave at the village about a mile from here a man fell into the hole and was injured.
Our children are not completely sheltered from violence, anger, greed, decayed wood breaking and causing a bridge to collapse, nor from the sting of death. Though the sadness is a little sobering for our children, it has opened up good discussions on sin, sickness, Satan, and salvation. We can enjoy the beauty of God’s creation, but it is groaning.
While we see some encouraging progress in the lives of several believers, in the Bible Institute, and in the growth in new church music, Satan is not content to lose a foothold here. Spiritual oppression is evident. We are in a war. But we know Who the Victor is, and we are on His side. Greater is He that is in us than he that is in the world. As I recently taught in Sunday School, Jesus is more powerful than Satan and his demons. This is evidenced by Jesus’ sinlessness and victory in trials, by His performance of many miracles and casting out of demons, and by His death and resurrection. He has crushed the head of the serpent and will ultimately cast him into the lake of fire. Jesus is more powerful than witchcraft. That is what we need to be talking about in our houses at night.
Satan is the father of lies and delights in destroying lives. It can seem hopeless at times, but we are not without hope. We rest in the work that only the Spirit of God can do, and we continue to give out His Word. We are here for His glory and because of His grace. He is the Light of the World. He gives eternal life: joy in this life no matter the trial, and everlasting life with Him in heaven. Those who live for the things of this world sadly only have an imperfect ground to enjoy for a short time.