BY JACK CRABTREE
I thought he was dead. The form lying in the shade next to the round house brought images of Auschwitz to my mind. Papa Piaghi, emaciated and weak, was dying. Our house stands on his ground. Without his blessing, we couldn’t live here in Pinji. He doesn’t understand much if any of the trade language, and my ability to speak Wantakian is pretty weak.
A month ago we left for town for a few weeks, and his daughter, Sena, tended our small garden and looked after our area. To express our thanks, we invited the entire family, Papa Piaghi included, to have lunch at our house. Yesterday Sena told me her father hadn’t eaten in days; he was only drinking water now. “He remembers when you fed us ‘town food’ and says he wants to see you before he dies. Can you come talk to him? It’s his time,” she said.
Flies buzzed around as I sat next to Papa Piaghi, feeling an odd mixture of anger and helplessness at my inability to articulate anything of eternal significance in the Wantakian language. Nagging questions buzzed in my head. Why is this language so difficult? Could I have worked harder before now? How many more will die before we’re able to share this message clearly?
I squeezed his hand, and his lifeless form stirred. With an effort he propped himself up on an elbow and opened his eyes. I told him I was happy to see him, and that I was very sorry. I thanked him for letting our families live on his ground and told him we were so happy to be able to live with his people.
His daughter, Sena, started to cry.
Piaghi looked at me and with an effort whispered, “My sons have all left for town, and only my daughter lives here still. She has looked after us. I’m dying, but you and your family will still be here with my family for a long time.” He pointed to his elderly wife who stood next to Sena and said, “I’m going first; you’ll follow me soon.”
We’ve heard the “first death” in the village is a hard thing, and processing the accompanying emotions will prove a difficult task. We’ve spent years preparing for ministry in Wantakia. We’ve studied the Bible extensively. We’ve learned how to learn another language and culture. We’ve developed extensive strategies for reaching them and helping them grow in maturity in Christ.
Sometimes we dream about what the future could be like here in Wantakia, and we pray these dreams would become a rich reality. But our balloons always burst as this sobering truth descends upon our minds: those wonderful things happen after we learn their language. Our ministry is predicated on fluency, and in theory we understand that a vernacular translation of the Bible and biblical truth explicated in their mother tongue will yield a depth of understanding that’s impossible with a limited trade language. It’s true. It takes longer, but it’s true. Sometimes the truth is hard to swallow.
We understand why Christ wept outside the tomb of his friend Lazarus. Death isn’t pretty. Christ knew that. Christ knew his own death would not be pretty. In fact, in God’s eyes, Christ’s death would be the ugliest in history. So ugly God would be forced to avert his eyes as the sin of the world lay upon his son’s shoulders. Thankfully, Christ rose from the dead, defeated death, and offers life to all. Many haven’t heard of this news, and some are unable to hear unless someone else is willing to go where they live, learn their language, and tell them. Papa Piaghi is still holding on, but his time is soon. We pray he will be one of the last Wantakians to pass into eternity before having an opportunity to clearly hear why the angels could say, “Peace on earth; goodwill to mankind”—the reason for the season.