Today, death stings...and I hate it.

By Jack Crabtree

Our hearts are breaking. Death is an all too real part of life here in Wantakia. It doesn’t sneak around out of sight in a nursing home, or peacefully take you in a sterile hospital bed with a monitor’s monotone knell, nor is it beautified by a mortician’s makeup or ensconced in an urn on the mantle.

No. Death’s ugly reality stares you straight in the face and mocks you. It touches everyone, and above all else it must be explained.

When the elderly pass, most in our village accept that it was simply their time to go. However, when a young man dies, a suitable cause for his death is sought and must be obtained.

Several months ago, Jeremy and I hiked to a neighboring village to check on a man who we were told was gravely ill. After questioning him, we thought he had advanced tuberculosis and called for a medEvac. The chopper came and carried him to the hospital in the nearest city, where doctors began administering the lengthy regimen required for treating tuberculosis. 

A few days ago, the weeklong funeral for this young Wantakian man was concluded. While in town, the doctors' medicine had initially worked to improve his condition, but after a week in town he began taking “alternative medicine” that was sold on the street instead of the medicine from the hospital.

This new medicine (which consisted of special, powerful crushed leaves, berries, and twigs mixed with water) was promised to cure him much more quickly than the six-month timeline the doctors had quoted him. Weeks later, his body succumbed to tuberculosis.

Our western minds immediately process this news in this way, “Since he didn’t take his medicine, he died.” But for our people, this logic does not fit within their worldview. A young man does not simply die from disease alone. Someone most likely poisoned him or performed sorcery against him. Some sort of spiritual cause must be attributed to the death of a young person, if their death is to “make sense”.

His body was flown to a nearby airstrip, where his family and friends met and carried the coffin back to our village and placed it under a large tarp erected as the “house cry”. The village gathered and wailed until night fell. We sat up with the village under the tarp all Friday night until dawn broke the next morning.

At this point, the man’s closest relatives gathered around the coffin and held a ritual seance of sorts asking the dead man’s spirit to show them who had conducted sorcery and poisoned him. If poison was involved, the man’s spirit would lead them directly to the house of the guilty man, who would then be summarily killed or arrested and fined. After this ritual was repeated and failed to produce any clear results, they buried him.

Yesterday, we were told that the people now believe a new type of magic was used to kill this man. They believe that men from a neighboring language group have obtained a special leaf that turns them invisible and gives them the power to enter someone’s body and kill them from the inside. This new, powerful magic, they say, must have been the cause of this man’s death. He was simply too young for sickness alone to be the cause. Now, the people are afraid to walk the trails alone. Fear of the spiritual realm holds them in its grip.

This morning death mocked us again, when we learned that a toddler died yesterday of a most likely treatable illness. Our village aid-worker left for town several months ago, so the mother took her baby to a nearby village, where the aid-worker told her she needed to go to a better aid post in a village father away.

This woman’s husband has been working in town for some time, so this crisis was hers alone to bear. Instead of immediately hiking to the distant aid post, she came back to our village. Her child passed away that afternoon. She never came to tell us her boy was sick. Horrifically, the surrounding family has scolded her for not taking her child to the distant aid post sooner. Someone must always be blamed; they wanted to blame her.

As Lael, Nora, Rynn, and I sat with this grieving mother in her house surrounded by her family members, I struggled to place my anger. Who was I angry at? Who was to blame? This fallen creation we inhabit? Our Enemy?  As Thomas’ poem goes, I wanted to “rage against the dying of the light” of this poor child, but I know that sentiment is precisely backward.

Light has never existed out here. Instead I cry out for the hastening of the coming of the light of life. One day, secure in the truth of their heavenly adoption, Wantakians will cheerfully bask in the dawning of the true light as they behold Him face to face. One day heaven will come to earth; every wrong will be made right; death will have lost its sting.

For now, death on Pinji Mountain stings, and I hate it. Like Jesus outside the tomb of Lazarus, I hate it. “Even so, come, Lord Jesus,” carries more weight than it ever has before. The context speaks of His second coming, but here on this mountain, I pine for His first.



No one ever said...


What Jason said angered—no offended me a little. What he said next broke my heart.

The moon had yet to rise as three Wantakian faces shown in the soft glow of my headlamp. Tonight we were hiking to the other side of the mountains to Wananara, a neighboring dialect of Wantakia. Our village rugby team would be playing the Wananara  guys in the morning, so we needed to get moving if we didn't want to miss it. As is often the case, we had no idea God had much more in store for us in Wananara than a day of rugby.

   Pre-evangelism consists of many things, but the process of “becoming” must be chief among them. Christ became flesh and dwelt among us. A man of sorrows, he experienced the hardships of his time, felt the same emotions, cried against his own pain, was outraged by injustice. He became the human condition, before he cured it.

We slept on the trail around a fire in the rain. As dawn broke upon the day, we came to the end of the ridge. Our breath caught as Wananara spread out below us. Green rolling hills and a lolling river dominated a landscape punctuated by mountain peaks in the distance. My nerdy mind jumped back to the hobbit’s initial reaction to seeing Rivendell for the first time.

As the second rugby game of the day was about to begin, I laid down in the grass to catch a quick nap. We’d be hiking back another 18 miles that same evening, and I needed to recharge. BJ’s voice cut through my drifting thoughts, “We’ve got visitors.” Annoyed, I groaned as I assumed a seated position. “Who needs to talk to us?” I thought. Shame chased my selfish thoughts away as two faces materialized across my vision. Jos and Jason, elders in the church in the neighboring Aziana language group, had hiked three hours to encourage us.

Nearly 50 years ago, the Aziana people lived on Pinji Mountain—the same mountain we live on now with the Wantakians. The Wantakians had chased them off the mountain—killing many Aziana in the process—and continued to raid the Aziana people until they moved to their present location, about 25 miles away.

A New Tribes church planter finished the Aziana Bible translation more than a decade ago, and now three healthy churches with mature elders remain. They received God’s Talk for free, and now they have a burden to see their former enemies, the Wantakians, reached with that same message of grace.

They’ve been involved with our church planting team from the very beginning. Jos and several others hiked with us on our first survey of Wantakia. Several came to help us during house-building. Now they’ve committed to bring 100 men and women to help our people dig our airstrip for two weeks; wanting nothing in return, which is unheard of in these cultures. Today, the elders started three simultaneous outreaches in Aziana villages where they will teach from Eternity to Eternity (Creation to the end of Revelation). These guys are phenomenal. Please pray for them.

We followed Jos and Jason to a shaded area overlooking the rugby field below. After sitting, Jason pulled out his Bible, donned a pair of reading glasses, and looking a little nervous, said, “I have a few things I’d like to share with you all.” We glanced at each other, wondering what might be coming next.

“We’ve seen a lot of New Tribes missionaries come to Papua New Guinea over the years. You all are very well trained, which is great, but we’ve also seen many of you all leave before the work was finished. Some had a hard time learning the language. Some got sick. If something horrible happens, like if one of your children die, you cannot go back to America and leave this work before it’s finished.”

He paused to give his words a chance to sink in. I felt angry. If one of my children die? I don’t want to even think about that possibility.

Then Jason continued, “When tragedy comes upon us, we have nowhere to go. I can’t buy a plane ticket and leave the Lord’s work unfinished. God has marked me to carry on His work in Aziana, and I cannot walk away from it. If our children die, or another tragedy happens, we must continue on in the Lord’s work.”

Opening his Bible, Jason read from 1 Peter 4:12-13, “Dear friends, do not be astonished that a trial by fire is occurring among you, as though something strange were happening to you. Instead, be very glad—for these trials make you partners with Christ in His suffering, so that when his glory is revealed you may also rejoice and be glad.”

Then he flipped to Philippians 4:6-7 and read, “Don’t worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank him for all he has done. Then you will experience God’s peace, which exceeds anything we can understand. His peace will guard your hearts and minds as you live in Christ Jesus.”

Lastly, Jason read about Paul’s response to the “thorn in his side” from 2 Corinthians 12:9-10, “The Lord said to me, ’My grace is enough for you for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ So then, I will boast most gladly about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may reside in me. Therefore I am content with weaknesses, with insults, with troubles, with persecutions and difficulties for the sake of Christ, for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.”

Again, he paused, closed his Bible, took off his glasses, and looked each of us in the eyes. “These verses have brought me much comfort,” he said, emotion growing in his voice. “Two days ago I buried my youngest daughter. She was only a few years old, and she drowned in the river.” Several children had gone down to the river to wash, but they didn’t watch the youngest well, and she drowned.

“I’ve buried three children, but I cannot leave the Lord’s work unfinished. With His help I will continue, and I’ll see my children again. I walked here today to tell you all these things the Lord has been showing me these past few days. The Lord has brought you all to Wantakia to do His work, and you must finish it. Even if disaster come upon you, you must continue to do the Lord’s work.”

I walked over and hugged Jason. I couldn’t imagine being in his shoes. Would I be thinking of encouraging others, just two days after a horrible tragedy like this? Would I be looking for excuses to quit? Would I be searching for the exits? Would I be questioning God’s wisdom? His plans? His goodness? Or would I rest in His promises like Jason? Would I grieve with hope?

For the next few hours I sat in the grass next to Jason as he showed me pixelated pictures on his cheap camera phone of his family, his daughter, his orange groves, his home. I sat and listened to his stories, his memories, doing my best to be a member the body of Christ. To provide a measure of comfort.

Slogging back to Pinji in a midnight rainstorm, I had plenty to think about. Who am I depending on for the strength to live day in and day out? In the good times, am I walking in dependence on Christ, or does it take a tragedy for me to remember Who is in control? Can I find joy in Christ during the hard times? Has Christ ever failed me? Once? Nope. And he won’t.

I may not know what the future holds, but I know that God will be faithful. I serve a God who has suffered more than I will ever suffer in this life.

I think of Hebrews 2:9-10, “But we see Jesus, who was made lower than the angels for little while, now crowned with glory and honor because he suffered death on behalf of everyone. For it was fitting for him, for whom and through whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, to make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through sufferings.”

Truth that is dependent upon circumstance is not truth. Truth is an immovable thing; a fixed certainty. God is completely faithful. God is enough.

Death & All His Friends


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.