Mapang missionary home, Port Moresby, has something of an old world feel about it. It is ‘homely’ in both the best and worst senses of the word. It is the staging ground for journeys by Christian workers into the rest of PNG, a holding tank for people of a range of nationalities and languages as they await transport or visit government offices. It is comfortable and affordable. It is run by a ‘host couple’ who act a little like camp Mother and Father on form 2 school camp. They provide practical help as well as orientation and support to those who may have arrived from very different environments sometimes jet lagged, culture shocked, or, like us, with young children in tow. Some guests like the ‘mature’ Souther Baptist couple we met, proclaim their status as Missionaries loudly and everything about them accords with all of the assumptions that the word ‘Missionary’ conjures up. Then there was us. newly arrived off the plane, sweltering in the heat and full of nervous anticipation.
I’m a nurse, and proudly one. In nursing I’ve found a ‘ministry’ that seems to fit. It’s more than a job, it’s a calling. In health work, that is in caring work…..people work, I’ve found my passion. It takes all I have to give and makes sense to me given the way the Lord has created me. Standing next to me as we climbed out of the taxi with the cracked windscreen that January day was my darling husband. ‘Deer in the headlights’, ‘fish out of water’, it’s fair to say all of those clichés applied. It’s a bit of a transition engineering supply shop with a small brewery out back, to Mapang Missionary home PNG. I think he said something along the lines of “am I the least likely ‘missionary’ ever?”. I very much doubt that he is, but I sympathised with his sentiment.
At the end of Mark’s gospel the risen Christ commands his disciples:
Go ye therefore into all the world starting in Jerusalem, Judea and to the ends of the earth, preaching the good news and baptising in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and lo, I will be with you even until the end of the age.
It’s definitely one of the better known passage in scripture, and is generally referred to as ‘The Great Commission’. Jesus sent out his disciples, and the imperative to ‘go’ applies to all those who call Him Lord, as it did to those first faithful followers. Most of Jesus’ closest followers paid the ‘ultimate price’ for their obedience to his command, and so have millions more in the 20 centuries since, with the greatest number of martyers of all time dying for their faith in the 20th Century. Jesus command wasn’t conditional. It was spoken to all who followed regardless of the cost. While the command may not sit comfortably with everyone, is difficult to wiggle out of. The disciples were told first to ‘go’ to the place where they already were, Jerusalem, then to places close by, and, after that, to the ‘world’. The place of calling was secondary to the nature of the call. They were told to ‘make disciples and preach the good news’. We’re all called. Even if we never leave the place where we are – the call remains the same. In this sense, we’re all to be ‘missionaries’. Perhaps Matt and I can cope with that a bit better.
Down through the centuries the church has been somewhat obedient to the command and has ‘gone’ not only to its own, but to ‘all nations’ to make disciples. In New Zealand they were well received and Maori accepted the faith in great numbers. The Christian revival was hampered only by the coming of the settlers, their government, and the unjust land purchase and seizure that followed closely behind the missionary endeavour as to be indistinguishable in some places. Many Maori and Pakeha still blame our countries chequered past on the missionaries.
In PNG the missionary story is somewhat different. In many places missionaries were met with significant hostility before ‘cargo cults’ developed in which large numbers of converts were made alongside the coming of unseen consumer goods and a syncretism that in some places is still being unravelled. The ‘civilising’ influence of the white man with his church over the ‘natives’ brought powerful cultural change to a deeply spiritual, animist and polytheistic cultures. Cannibalistic rituals ended, even if sorcery did not. As I read autobiographies of early 20th Century missionaries to Papua New Guinea the benevolence is obvious, but also, in many cases, paternalism and an incredible amount of condescention. With all this history weighing on us it is hardly surprising that we are ill at ease with the word ‘missionary’ despite the command.
We had a church service not long ago. We have them every Sunday of course, but this one was particularly significant for me. After giving an unrelated message the preacher, a Kiwi, unexpectedly asked the congregation to split into two. He separated the local people and the visitors. With our hospital rebuild under way, our small village is full to capacity and most of the extras. Most of the extras are ‘Na’o people’ in the local Baimuru language, that is, Pakeha/foreigners. They call us missionaries. The preacher called us “the white man” He laid a stern challenge on us. “Why are you here?” he asked. “Are you here because you want to make yourself feel important? Are you here to look good? Unless you are here because you love these people, you’re here for the wrong reasons”. He asked us to kneel before our local brothers and sisters in a posture of humility. He asked the local people to pray for us.
As Leah, my PNG sister, and Aunty Ana laid hands on me something stirred from the deepest part of me. I began to sob. I’m not sure how the preacher was hoping we would respond, how he judged the condition of our hearts. But his human judgement was irrelevant; God had lead him and it was God I met me in that moment. Being held in tears by a woman I love dearly and another whom I know less well but have great respect for, I felt overwhelmed by the privilege of my situation. I felt similar as I washed my brother’s and sister’s feet at Easter. God taught me long ago that “no one is a fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot loose”. A life lived in obedience to God and compassion for others is the best of all possible lives, and I knew in that moment I was living my dream and I wanted nothing more. I knew I was with people I loved.