A game changer…

As things return to some semblance of normality here, thoughts turn to the past seven months of COVID-19-impacted life on the mission field. To be honest, it was some weekend R&R playing a boardgame – Pandemic – which inspired this blog. In the game, four players randomly receive a character with certain capabilities, and work together in order to prevent a pandemic, as events turn on the players and outbreaks of four ‘infectious diseases’ spread around the globe. The four characters were dealt, and each were of a medical nature – the Quarantine Specialist (handy), Medic, Researcher, and the Scientist. Sounds like an ideal team to combat a pandemic. Left out of play were the Operations Expert, Dispatcher, and Contingency Expert. On with the game!

After initial success keeping the diseases at bay, progress stalled. Getting to fresh outbreaks, and pooling our resources proved difficult without the roles which aided movement, got players working together, and maximised the potential of special ‘Event’ cards. If you are not familiar with the game, it is enough to say that the global disaster spiralled out of control quite quickly. What went wrong? All of the participants had specialist skills for disease control, but our game lacked the support and logistics capabilities to get them into positions to be effective. This is not far removed from the reality of Bible translation in PNG. Our mission community is made up of translation, literacy and scripture engagement specialists, and a large number of support personnel in areas of transport, construction, finance, logistical supplies, education and health services –  essential to the effectiveness of the translation task. Remove one aspect of this, and the impact is noticeable.

The threat of COVID-19 in PNG, peaking from March 2020, saw co-workers leave the country as global mission organisations requested at-risk staff to return home to ensure access to medical treatment if needed. The departure of many older staff, and those with pre-existing health issues, impacted a significant proportion of the translation work. Others who could remain were faced with a suspension of all domestic travel within PNG. With our mission aircraft grounded, teams were cut off from remote village work, and many PNG co-translators were unable to attend scheduled training courses in Ukarumpa. Support work was also impacted, with a number of staff either needing to leave or, as the months dragged on, unable to return to PNG from home furlough in our regular June intake.

It seemed that at every turn, there was something missing from our regular pattern of life and ministry. As a community, it was frustrating to have either services available – such as Aviation – with little or no opportunity to serve in their usual way, or a shortage of staff – such as school teachers – to cope during complex times which saw everything from virtual classrooms to carrying the load of multiple subjects. In the Pandemic game, when it all turns sour you simply shuffle the cards and start over. In Ukarumpa, the ‘game’ had turned on us, and some creative play was called for.

There have certainly been positive stories coming out of these COVID impacted times. Translators who have had time to commit to essential tasks such as developing the orthography (systems of writing language), dictionaries, or training resources; support teams who have streamlined processes and found more effective methods of delivering services; discovering ways to work remotely and remain productive in the midst of disruption. In spite of the positives, we are all eagerly awaiting a return to ‘normal’ with long absent co-workers gradually returning,  and perhaps, with a better understanding of the times not being in our hands.

Being a patient, doesn’t necessarily imbue patience….

Keith – I have a renewed respect for those living with chronic illness. Seven weeks of varying degrees of pain, discomfort, and limited mobility had me feeling quite sorry for myself.

After returning from a Lae road trip, a day off with some general home duties on August 31 ended with aching joints in my elbows, to my wrists, and even fingers. I didn’t feel as though I had been overdoing it, and the fact it was both left and right arms had us puzzled. The eventual diagnosis a few days later – apparent rheumatoid arthritis. A flurry of Googling turned up the details, with not much resolving of the mystery. It is just one of those things that befall us fragile humans.

These occasional aches were soon forgotten on the following Saturday evening, with painful stomach cramps that extended throughout the night, feeding a wave of concerns in my mind. In the morning, Elspeth confirmed that my appendix was, in fact, on the right-hand side, with what seemed a complete disregard for the possibility that I am one of the rare people with situs solitus (mirror image of internal organs). With my sudden foray into hypochondria eventually quelled by Elspeth’s assurances, we chose to just hang on for the regular Clinic service on Monday morning.

The diagnosis of diverticulitis brought back some concerns. A colleague here had been rushed to Australia with the same condition late last year, albeit with more dramatic symptoms. A medical evacuation to Cairns under the prevailing COVID restrictions was certainly something to be avoided.

To date, the DV appears to be under control. Elspeth is providing me with an appropriate diet, and I am getting by without any medication. Things are certainly not ‘normal’, but then perhaps this situation will become the new normal for a while yet. When I called my parents after the initial diagnosis, my mum responded with, “Welcome to the club.” At least I can perhaps lay blame on someone else’s genes!

The joint pain endures, with perhaps less peak intensity but greater frequency to the point of almost being constant during the day. I am back at work as close to full-time as possible, and my absence has had a noticable impact. The list of emails requiring some follow up attention blew out to over five hundred, and my coffee cup was obviously in need of some attention as well after all the neglect. As a general overall response to dietary change and the impact of some medication, I am down to two or three coffees a day. Those of you who know me well will understand what a significant change that is!

We greatly appreciate the prayers and messages of encouragement received over recent weeks.

Please keep praying…

  • that the debilitating aspect of the health issues can continue to be kept in check until our intended 12-month furlough leave in March 2021
  • for appropriate medical tests and any treatment to be finalised early during our time in Australia.
  • for our travel plans next year. It would be so much less complicated without quarantine requirements, both entering the country and for our required interstate travels as we visit our supporters across three states.

A dedication with a difference …

Boas opened the box of Ura New Testaments, for a moment falling quiet as the tears welled up. “My people need this.”

Boas had travelled to the SIL Regional Centre in Kokopo to see the recently printed scripture, then he took four copies with him for the village translation team members. The rest of the shipment will be forwarded to the Uramät community in Baining, East New Britain, for a dedication ceremony on September 20. As always, the ceremony is the responsibility of a local Planning Committee, but this will be a scripture dedication with a difference.

Here in PNG, restrictions are still in place in regard to large public gatherings, so the committee have had to creatively resolve this issue. Local leaders, pastors and village councillors have been invited to a down-sized event, with multiple ‘mini-dedications’ to be held in village churches and communities as the scriptures are distributed to the people over ensuing weeks.

In addition to this the SIL translators, Gary and Peggy Rosensteel, will not be at the event as they are currently in the US, having been advised to evacuate under the COVID-19 requirements earlier this year.

The Rosensteels are praising God that the various village leaders and denominational leaders are united and looking forward to the process.

It is a testament to all involved that they are focussed on the answered prayer, and the potential blessing to the community of the dedication and distribution progressing. To be honest, it would be understandable to be disappointed at the lost opportunity of a big shared event, and for the Rosensteels to feel they are missing out on seeing the conclusion to over three decades of ministry. Having experienced a dedication event ourselves, and seeing many videos of others, they are a powerful acknowledgement of God’s Spirit moving amongst His people.

Yet, serving the Lord can be like that sometimes. Peter wrote of the prophets…

 It was revealed to them that they were serving not themselves but you, in the things that have now been announced to you through those who preached the good news to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven, things into which angels long to look.                1 Peter 1:12

However much we invest in kingdom service, it remains the Lord’s work… not ours. If we see a blessing from our efforts…. praise God. If we pass the baton to others to finish the race, then that is the task set for us. We are simply called to be faithful in service – whether that involves carrying the banner high out in front of the team, or applauding from the sidelines – giving glory to God in all that we do.

Please pray …

. that God’s glory and power will be evident in the September 20 event and at each village ceremony

. for the logistical elements of distribution across multiple village communities

. that God’s Word will impact the lives of the Uramät communities, through preaching and personal reading

When God says, “Not yet”…

In case you have not yet read the previous blog ‘But not…’ posted earlier this morning (August 6), we will first provide some context.

Our community here in PNG were eagerly awaiting the arrival of a group from the US comprising of six couples and families – the first en masse post-COVID returnees. Among them are our new Director, an experienced Head of Security, teaching staff, translation staff, medical staff, a pilot, Member Care staff, and – significantly for Keith’s work here – two Finance Office administration staff.

Our scheduled community prayer time Friday afternoon was intended to bring the need for safe travel before the throne of grace, but it may take on more of a form of lament. One leg of their international travels has been cancelled, and the flight has been postponed for another month.

Not only will the roles they were to fill here remain vacant, but the relationships with colleagues and friends which were to be renewed are now on hold. After preparing for departure, they now have to settle back into temporary accommodation, and reenter the cycle of pre-flight quarantine, COVID testing, and obtaining visas to transit through multiple airports. Our thoughts also extend towards their family members in the US who, after emotionally processing their farewells, have to work through that again in the weeks to come.

Please pray for all concerned as we struggle with disappointment and frustration, and for the travellers, sheer exhaustion from the process. Above all, pray that we approach God in a right manner – both individually and collectively – as we lay these feelings and experiences at His feet, and open ourselves to His restorative grace.

But not…

From our perspective, life under the COVID cloud has continued close to “normal”, as much as that is ever the case. With the exception of having to forego a trip to Australia for family reasons – which is a source of sadness – most of this year has played out according to script. There have been, over recent weeks, cases of COVID-19 in the major urban centres of Port Moresby and in Lae, but the appropriate responses are in place, and we are able to isolate ourselves from the primary risk. That in itself is a challenge for us. Back home, people have faced horrendous situations – the loss of family members; unemployment in the midst of a bleak economy; rising social tensions; fear of community breakdown. The impact on us personally – both here and with family back in Australia – has been minimal.

Over recent months though, there are a number of co-workers who are looking to head back to their home countries, in spite of the difficulties, for medical reasons, family crises, or just to have a break now rather than miss the opportunity completely. In the meantime, others are trying to return to PNG after a period of leave in their home countries, but obtaining approval to pass through three or more international airports with various transit and quarantine standards is proving complicated. In the coming days, several colleagues are making a second or third attempt to board flights, all with the complexity of quarantining on arrival in PNG.

The accumulative effect is that our community is quite obviously down on numbers. There are people holding down two roles; caring for the homes and pets of absent colleagues; delaying holiday leave as there is no-one to replace them. We are feeling a sense of loss, there is no way to sugar-coat it.

During this time of limitations and restrictions, two scripture dedications have been impacted, being down-sized or postponed. That is a hardship that is difficult to understand in terms of God’s sovereign purpose.

Yet, in all this…

We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies.      2 Corinthians 4:8-11  

Whatever comes, these moments that Paul later describes as “light momentary affliction” (2 Cor 4:17) are part of the context of our Kingdom service. What else is there for us to do but stand up and keep going?

Please pray …

Our community is coming together Friday, August 7, between 12 and 1pm to collectively and specifically pray for the doors to open between PNG and other countries, to enable desperately needed staff to return, and for those who need to travel home to be with family to have a way to do so. Please pray with us if you can…

  • for six couples / families who are aiming to travel from the US to PNG over August 9-12.
  • for effective processing by various government agencies and airport security staff in the US, in transiting countries, and on arrival in PNG.
  • for patience and contentment for these wearied saints, as they make this journey full of obstacles.
  • praise God that the PNG government has granted dispensation for these travellers to quarantine in their own homes at our Ukarumpa base. Pray that we manage this wisely, and show our commitment to respect the authorities God has placed over us.
  • praise God that our PNG Prime Minister, James Marape, and the State of Energency controller, David Manning, are both committed Christians. It is an encouragement to see press releases which often appeal to people to pray and conclude with “Thank you and God bless”.

Making plans….

We had been somewhat removed from the current global situation, with the limited restrictions and interruptions here not directly impacting our daily lives to any great extent. While keeping track of COVID developments online, a posting from an Aussie returning from Spain provided a different perspective.

www.traveller.com.au/expats-returning-to-australia

The article highlights things that returning expats may take time to get accustomed to, even if they are aspects of our Australian lifestyle which we know and love. This reverse culture-shock is often a reality for returning missionaries. The odd sensation of standing in a supermarket aisle confronted by a seemingly endless variety of goods to choose from; travelling on a smooth freeway surrounded by vehicles moving at 100 kmph, all intent on their destination; being in a crowd and not feeling out of place; simply adjusting to the pace, and volume, and diversity of life in Australia.

The writer also refers briefly to changes in Australia brought about by COVID-19, and that the place people are returning to is not necessarily the home they left. Our generation has not known such a time with closed borders, enforced restrictions of movement, and voluntary isolation for all but essential tasks.

Colleagues who returned to their own home countries this year, in the early stages of the global pandemic, have often been unable to travel, unable to meet with supporting churches, and even restricted from spending time with family members living in other areas.

This uncertainty has us thinking about our intended return to Australia for leave in March 2021. Under normal circumstances we would be scheduling engagements, making travel plans, and ‘locking things in’. While we are still working on some of these, now… it all seems to fall into the realm of ‘hopefully’, and ‘maybe’. Our calendars which so often focus well into the coming year now appear fuzzy, and the uncertainty is discomforting. Part of our 12-month stay will likely (hopefully… maybe…) involve spending time at the Wycliffe centre in Victoria. This point alone takes uncertainty to a whole new level.

Perhaps it isn’t just the surface things which will change in our country. We may end up being a little less sure of our determined futures, and realise that our control systems are not as solid as we perhaps thought.

Many are the plans in a man’s heart, but it is the Lord’s purpose that prevails. Proverbs 19:21

Please pray …

  • for our current staff shortage here, and those trying to return from overseas in the midst of confusion
  • that PNG respond effectively to the recent occurrence of COVID cases in Port Moresby and Lae
  • regarding the ongoing impact of the pandemic on our global consciousness – may we not lose sight of the real need for gospel truth as we all look to a vaccine
  • that we maintain our confidence in God for all that lies ahead

New every morning …

This sunrise, from our front porch, continually reminds me (Elspeth)  each morning that the Lord has everything under control. Why do I worry?

 

Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. I say to myself, “The Lord is my portion; therefore I will wait for him.” Lamentations 3 v 22 – 24

Thankful for being able to see my Creator’s hand every morning

For such a time as this….

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[ Keith ] There was an encouraging moment in my role as Finance manager this past week.

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COVID protocols in place… the 2 metre queue (top), and one-way store aisles

With the current COVID isolation protocol effective on our Ukarumpa base, the PNG national staff families that live on centre were faced with a dilemma. Travel to the nearby township of Kainantu was restricted, but a weekend trip to town to stock up on supplies is a regular habit for most families. Not only is the town market open on a Saturday – the day after fortnight pay day here – the lower prices of goods in the town stores make the two kina (90 cents) per person bus fare worth it.

With pay day approaching, the staff voiced their concerns at possibly not being able to travel to Kainantu and return, without compromising the isolation standards which have been put in place. Purchasing sufficient supplies for a large family at the mission Store would seriously deplete their pay packets. Elspeth was helping out in the Store at the time, compiling orders for distribution, and saw first hand the stress that this issue was generating amongst our staff. One commented to Elspeth, “This rice is six kina here, but I can buy it for four kina in Kainantu.” Confronted with the reality of their wages not stretching as far as usual, the staff were understandably upset.

The first I knew of the situation was an email from the senior supervisor of the Store, looking for options of reducing the price on “providing a temporary discount for our staff friends who live on Centre…”. In a meeting with the Store management team, I suggested that we should look at reducing the pricing on essential items in a sustainable way, not just during COVID restrictions, to provide for all of our Ukarumpa families in a practical way now and into the future. The manager’s initial short list of 22 staple food items soon became 83 items after further consultation, and I had some serious number crunching to do. After some reports generated by our software support staff, a day or two – and a late night – produced a result.

Overall, 52 staple items were able to be reduced in price, and the process now rolls on to working with Store management to overhaul the pricing structure generally to guarantee viability. An exercise in financial management meant so much more than that to the Store staff. Elspeth was shopping on the Friday, and they expressed how pleased they were at the new pricing, and “what Keith had done.”

It wasn’t a solo effort. The caring concern of the senior supervisor, with the support from the programmers, just needed some accounting to ensure a workable result. It’s what I do. Discussing the situation later with other finance colleagues, though, made it clear that it takes some pushing to move ideas onward at times.

For if you keep silent at this time, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another place, but you and your father’s house will perish. And who knows whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this?    Esther 4:14

Mordecai’s challenge to Esther was founded on the certainty that God would see His purposes fulfilled, with or without Esther’s involvement. To her credit, she bravely accepted her duty, even if it cost her life.

I am certainly not risking my life when going to the administration with plans for change, but most days are quite full, and there honestly is so much work still to be done. At times it is exhausting, and the workload can be frustrating, but I have clear ideas on what could be achieved with a little effort. I know that God has prepared me for this moment, in terms of experiences and skills, so I can, and should be, using these for the benefit of this part of His kingdom.

Please pray …
• for wisdom, and a Christlike care, for our managers during what are potentially stressful times
• giving thanks for our Ukarumpa team – expatriates and national staff. Pray that we work together effectively to the glory of God

That is the question…

Ukarumpa roadThere is a new default greeting as you pass someone on the road in Ukarumpa…. are you leaving or staying?

Some of the departures involve people who had already scheduled furlough leave in the coming weeks and months, and bringing the date forward is simply expedient in the light of closing borders and reduced international flight services. Others have been required to leave as they fall into the high-risk category for COVID-19 due to pre-existing health concerns, or from having had too many birthdays during their lives. Many expats have been encouraged by their mission organisations to seriously consider returning home, and it is this third category in which we find ourselves. There are multiple factors, and we hope that this can clarify for our supporters the process we have gone through in coming to the decision to stay on in PNG.

1. There are no confirmed cases of COVID-19 in PNG to date.
The PNG Government is responding as best they can with available resources, but as a late entrant into the process, they also have the benefit of learning from the experiences of other countries. PNG tends to be more of a final destination than a stopover for international travel, with minimal points of entry for international flights. It also appears that testing protocols at these entry points are working well to minimise the threat.

2. In Ukarumpa, we are more removed from the large urban areas where COVID-19 may potentially have the greatest impact.
Our organisation has already taken steps to limit travel which may be inappropriate and are prepared for a future which may involve a quarantine status within our community to some degree.

3. By staying, we may make it easier for someone at risk, or for families with children, to make the difficult decision to leave.
As an older couple (but not too old!) we can choose to be more effective in our work schedules, we can survive on less supplies, and we don’t place many other demands on stretched community services, such as schooling and health care.

4. We honestly believe we can be of Kingdom service by remaining.
This is the big one! If we were not really needed here, of course we would leave. Our work in Finance (Keith) and now administrative support in the Medical Clinic (Elspeth) are critical to the continued operation of the mission base. Without Finance processing, the supply and logistics systems would be compromised, and the Clinic is at the forefront of the response to the current situation. We also want to be here for our PNG staff. They have a hard road ahead if COVID-19 reaches a point where it is directly impacting their communities and families.

On that note, we are being realistic regarding the very real threat that COVID-19 poses for PNG communities, so we ask that you pray with us in regard to these specific issues.

1. That COVID-19 not become a widespread health issue in PNG. The comment has been made that it would be a miracle of grace for PNG to be spared in this way. God is a God of miracles, and a God of grace, and for this reason alone we pray.

2. That the social issue (which is already here) not be something which divides this country in destructive ways. There is a growing social media wave of misinformation, dissatisfaction, and scare-mongering. PNG is no different from the rest of the world in this way. Already, people are blaming foreigners for the situation we are in, and it may not take much for this to represent itself in aggression towards the many people who have made a home in urban PNG centres.
Similarly, if COVID-19 does arise in urban areas, it is unclear how the rest of the population in rural areas may react. They may take action into their own hands to block travel, and repel anyone looking to escape the virus by returning to their home village areas. This could very easily get out of hand.

3. On a more holistic level, the idea of self-quarantine, and social distancing is totally at odds with PNG culture. Here, family is everything, and “family” is a broad term which extends beyond the borders of house and even village. It extends to those of one mind, and one spirit. It especially extends to the family of God. Pray that this situation does not result in PNG people becoming insular, suspicious of outsiders, and less welcoming. That would not be the country we have come to love.

To live in interesting times…

This is a very brief update, with an emphasis on currency.

Our mission community is meeting tonight (Wednesday) at 7:30pm for an open information and discussion on the implications for all of us of the COVID-19 issue.

Many of our friends have already been impacted – holiday leave in Cairns has been cancelled; stopovers in Australia to renew decade old friendships as folk complete their PNG assignments have had to be forsaken; translation staff in remote assignments have been requested to return to the home base in Ukarumpa. These are all regrettable disruptions, but I cannot help but think of the thousands who have lost loved ones already, who may be undergoing quarantine and treatment, or who may be in genuine fear of contracting the virus.

We have been effected in terms of Keith’s father, Ross, and a family friend, John, having to cut their visit short by several days to avoid getting trapped without a flight back to Brisbane. We are thankful that an earlier commercial flight was able to be booked, and that our mission organisation could find seats on a connecting flight to Port Moresby.

Please be praying for wisdom for our mission leaders, here in PNG and in the home countries, as they determine the best course of action for all of us.

It has been suggested that we should consider returning to Australia, but we feel secure and supported here – no COVID-19 cases have been reported in PNG to date – and would hate to see our work grind to a halt as a result. That said, we also need to respect the position that our supervisors are in.