The next chapter.

There’s really only one place where I feel completely comfortable sharing my true self with others and that’s in writing.

I’m guessing most people don’t get that. Except other writers, of course.

Nine months ago I embarked on a project that consumed my life, invading every empty nook and vacant cranny of the chaos otherwise known as my life. Throughout the project, if you had asked me what I was working on, I might have told you, “Oh, you know, I’m busy with some stuff and stuff.”

Only in writing might I have told you the truth.

I’ve been writing a book.

Nine months ago a friend invited me to contribute to a project, and while I knew from the beginning that said project was writing a book, what I didn’t know was what writing that book would do to me.

Writing is my love. Words are my deepest lust. The invitation to write alongside a friend was and is a gift to my entire being. Yet it’s also proved to challenge my relationship with my beloved words. It’s one thing to flirt with ideas and vocabulary, dancing shyly around the room through playful laughter.

But when those words infiltrate your everyday rhythms, like any marriage, it gets hard.

Many nights I went to bed giving my once faithful hobby the cold shoulder, how dare it fail me – deadlines and edits forcing the ugly to surface.

There’s no kiss-and-make-up with writer’s block.

But guess what? Like the joy of meeting one’s newborn child overrides the pains of birth, the delight of meeting one’s published book overshadows the difficulties endured in the writing process.

It’s worth it.

It’s a gift.

It’s grace.

It is with absolute gratitude that I announce the completion of my first published work. Only God could weave together this project that has become incredibly dear to my heart.

Not only was it an honor to write alongside a beautiful friend, but I have been overwhelmed by the grace of God that stretched and sustained me throughout the journey.

And now, with the challenges behind me and completion at my door, I am renewed in my commitment to writing. This recent project has left me wanting more.

I don’t know what that means exactly. For now, I suppose my intention is to more consistently engage my blog. I’m turning my wheels and filling my notebooks with a heart more deeply connected with my true self.

Though don’t ask me to expand on that. Until, of course, I’m ready to write it.

Click here to order your copy of SOULHEARTED: Daily Truths for the Longing Soul.

Book Photo

He protects.

Written before I left Papua New Guinea, I chose not to publish this until I left the country. My Mom recently told me that my Dad hasn’t said much since I’ve been gone. I know his silence means he is worried. I didn’t want to fuel his angst. 

It’s not safe here. I’m told I can’t walk alone, it’s best to have a national with me, and never ever set down my purse. “Place it across your body and keep it tucked under your arm.”

Daily we venture across town in Sharon’s 4Runner, and each time I’m told, “If I see anything funny, I’m gunnin’ it. Let’s hope there aren’t any people in the way.” If you live here long enough, you’ll have your own story about the “rascals” who staged a street blockade, placing logs across narrow sections of road with the intent to stop traffic, overtake vehicles and steal from passengers. Machetes are always involved.

I knew this coming here. For months I’ve been on the other side of the middle-of-the-night text messages: “They are throwing rocks at my roof again.” Just a week before my arrival, Sharon text me, “Two men jumped the fence onto our property. Martha heard them and turned on her alarm. They ran but we know they are watching us closely. Pray for our protection.”

The properties on this small missionary compound are all fenced in with double-bolted doors, barred windows, and fierce guard dogs. A crop of banana trees belonging to a neighbor have provided quick access for the “rascals” to climb and jump the fence. By God’s grace, the neighbors agreed to cut back their precious trees. This missionary team is now looking into the installation of a taller fence topped with barbed wire.

I ask Sharon if there’s any chance someone might try and harm the dogs who serve as the greatest protection (Papua New Guineans don’t have pets, and they are especially afraid of dogs.) She tells me, “There have been incidences of poison.” Constant barking makes for sleepless nights, but I’d rather be tired than hear silence.

Sharon tells me that 18 months ago when she arrived in PNG, it wasn’t as bad. But recent rival tribes that behave like gangs, flexing their cultural muscles with machetes and makeshift guns, have increased what danger there already was for a single white woman living here.

Most assure me that the rascals don’t want me, they just want my stuff. I am a white skin, a target always on my back that says, “I’m rich.” But Martha, the missionary who has been here for over 30 years, isn’t as reassuring. She tells of the decline in safety that she has continued to experience. Nightly she and Sharon walk their dogs together. It’s their way of saying to the neighbors – don’t mess with us. The women train their dogs to attack men, praising them for growling and barking at passerbys.

I tell Martha that it feels like imprisonment. This gorgeous South Pacific island town and yet the wisest way to enjoy it is locked inside an SUV with a full tank of gas. Martha affirms what I observe. Martha spends her weekends 20 minutes north of town off the coast of a nearby resort with the best safety reputation. She’s an avid snorkeler, and though she lights up when you ask her about fish, I know snorkeling allows her moments of independence and freedom not afforded to her in the city.

I must say, the people I met during my 10 days in PNG – the nationals – they were all so incredibly kind – every single one of them. From the moment I landed in the country’s capital, wonderful people reached out to help me. The airport security woman who assisted me when I was alone and somewhat lost upon my arrival in PNG, met me at my recent departure and said, “I am going to miss you, Ali. We are best friends now. I am making you a gift. I am sorry it is not done yet. I promise to finish it and get it to you.” SHE IS AN AIRPORT SECURITY GUARD I MET ONE TIME. Yet she embodies the heart of the majority of these precious Papua New Guinea souls.

Like all cultures, there are a few bad apples in PNG. The depravity in this culture, the corrupt justice system, the lack of civilization – it all breeds desperation. Mixed with a few bad seeds, excess alcohol and men who carry machetes as part of their livelihood, and it’s no wonder a dog breeder can get away with selling german shepherds for $1200 (USD) in a country where most people live on less than a dollar a day.

The irony of this place is that the villages pose the greatest health threats with their jungle diseases and parasites and yet they offer the greatest personal safety. Village life breeds a sense of community unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. But densely populate an urban area with those same people, from their diverse villages and rivaling cultures, and that’s when problems occur.

As I reflect on this place and these missionaries, I am reminded of two things: 1) They are here because of the desperation. The people of PNG need Jesus – it is so incredibly obvious. Their ancient belief systems engage witchcraft and sorcery, a ripple of demons throughout this culture that is palpable. 2) But God. These beautiful missionaries have followed God right into the middle of this darkness. They live squarely in the middle of God’s protective angel army. Though the battle is fierce, God remains God. His Presence is woven throughout PNG – its precious people gradually reflecting what is already evident in the majestic splendor of the countryside.

Papua New Guinea is not alone. All around the globe, dark places pose great threats to human life. And all around the globe people are giving up their safety, their comforts and their freedoms of speech and religion to live among the darkness so that one day every precious soul may know the love of Jesus. Pray for them. Pray for the native people in these countries. Pray for the missionaries who have left behind statistics of safety to live in danger. Pray for them. Support them. Visit them (Yes, visit them – I have never felt more protected by God as I did this last week.) Love them – love and pray for them all.

**For those of you worried about our dear sister, Sharon, let me also say this – The longer she is there, the safer she is. The more nationals that she befriends, the greater the hedge of protection around her. Her neighbor is a 30-year-old missionary who was born in PNG. Though she is a single white woman, no one dares harm her because she is so well respected by so many nationals. And the agency that Sharon serves is a good agency. They are a beautiful mix of expats and nationals and they have a wonderful reputation in the area. They are taking good care of our gal. Sharon is strong, faithful, and resting in the center of God’s Will for her life. Keep up the prayers – they are sustaining her.**

Jesus told them, “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into His harvest field. Go! I am sending you out like lambs among wolves.” Luke 10:2-3

Jesus said, “For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it.” Matthew 16:25

He makes us family.

From the moment the smooth dirt rises to meet the souls of my shoes, my heart beats different. I know I’m the same person here, but the peace of home washes over me for the first time since I left my gravel driveway in the sticks. Mawan village, we are family now.

Mama is the first to greet me. She carries the shoulder strap of a handmade bilum, a woven bag made from plant reeds, and she stretches the straps over my head, placing the bag around my neck. Another woman approaches me with the same gesture, my neck now adorned with two gifts from my now family. The women position the bilums so that each one can be equally displayed across my body, their respective colors and patterns uniquely beautiful. The bilums fall upon me in such a way that each one lies across the curves of my chest and we all laugh at the comedy of my bilum bra.

For the next hour, Mama parades us around her village. I can’t tell if she is more proud to show us her village or to show her village us, but either way, she is beaming. At each stop we hug the women tightly while dodging spit from the Betel nut they constantly chew. Lips and smiles stained red from buai, the combination of ingredients they add to the bitter nut that creates blood-red juice they don’t dare swallow. Only the youth maintain relatively white teeth.

The longer we stay in Mawan, the larger the mob of children that engulfs us. They giggle when we smile, many shyly reach out to touch our skin. Many of the babies look on with panic, burying their heads in their mommas, wailing in fear at our sight. Without electricity, mail service, or Internet, there is no means by which many of these young children have ever seen a white person. We are the first. The brave ones run to us and weave their small brown fingers into our own. Others excite at the idea, joining in the hand holding. We soon run out of fingers.

We come to the center of the village – a school, an aid post and a trading store. As we approach the dirt-floor school, each of its four rooms reminiscent of a park shelter, I immediately feel sorry for the teacher as I realize the havoc we wreak on an otherwise orderly classroom. The children sit shoulder to shoulder along the ground, their stares, giggles and squeals now a cacophony of noise. We sneak away before I learn how the teachers discipline the disorderly.

We return to the bamboo hut that Mama calls home. The haus cook (house cook – kitchen) stands independently. Women and children have gathered in and around, their noses telling them what I was too overwhelmed to realize: lunch is ready. Mama escorts us to a small folding table with two plastic chairs. We are the first to be served. After our plates are loaded high with rice, sweet potato, chicken, and green leaves – all soaked in coconut milk – the others begin to fill their plates. They sit along the ground and makeshift benches; we are the only ones offered chairs. Mama won’t eat until we finish. She tells us that she cannot. Though we don’t understand the cultural honor she has bestowed upon us, we accept.

The newest addition to Mama’s section of the village is a lik lik haus (little house – the bathroom). Inside the small bamboo shelter, a deep hole centers the dark room. For us, they have fastened a toilet seat to four table legs and positioned it over the hole. Mama tells us that the lik lik haus has been fastened shut until this moment – they have been saving it for us. I am the one to christen it, an honor I awkwardly accept.

After lunch I am told that the young women will take the dishes down to the water to be washed. I insist on helping, and they finally oblige. Mama fills up a ratty, tattered sack with the soiled dishes and places the strap around my forehead, the weight of the bag hanging down my back. Even the youngest carry immense loads using this method – many mommas carrying their young in bilums hanging from their foreheads.

The path to the water is rugged yet defined. Three women and children already at the water look up and laugh at my arrival. They begin the chatter of Tok Pisin with Mama, I assume she explains why the large white skin is among them. Before we reach the water, Mama pulls leaves from a nearby plant, shredding them into thin grass strips. She wads them together and hands me the nature-made scrub brush.

She pats a rock indicating where I can sit. I squat and the rock’s rugged edges cause immediate discomfort. I remove the stone that Mama placed on the stack of dishes now in the water and immediately the plates begin to float downstream. Mama and I scurry to catch the floating valuables as I now realize the crucial role of the heavy stone.

I scrub. Next to me a momma washes clothes while a young naked boy splashes between the rocks, occasionally remembering my presence with a shy smile and thick giggle. The women chatter. I don’t know what they say but I know they spend their days here, joined together to wash dishes, clothes and selves.

On our way back from the water, a young boy, maybe six years old, scurries up a tall thin tree carrying a knife between his teeth. He begins severing the stems of Betel nut from the treetop. To my untrained eye, the tree is identical to a coconut tree. Two more boys stop to greet us, both with machetes in hand and slingshots looped around their foreheads. I realize that no age is too young to contribute to the survival and sustenance of the village.

As the hot fierce sun marks our imminent departure my emotions begin their fight. A day in the bush nearly over and I want more. My soul scattered throughout this jungle village, how will I ever leave?

But it is time. The young family escorting us back to town must catch the last return bus. The jungle mountain roads prove too treacherous for two white meris (white women), this precious family joyfully offers to be our escorts in and out of town. It is an hour journey each way, and they do it twice over. I don’t know how to show my gratitude but I am assured it is their privilege.

As we begin our goodbyes, I squeeze the women, wrapping my soft arms around their small frames and I feel their strength. My heart humbles at our differences. Like the varied colored threads of the bilum I now carry over my shoulder, we are uniquely different yet woven forever together. I wrestle with God that oceans divide us, the travel between us nearly impossible.

As we drive away my mind replays the beauty I traveled today. The village a life I would never have imagined for myself, and now I can’t imagine my life without it. I want its power to move me closer to the earth and farther from the world. I want my village family and biological family to share in the joy I now know from being one, a glimpse into our eternal home.

See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are. 1 John 3:1

Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. Ephesians 2:19-20