From the Front Line in Papua New Guinea
Geoff Thomas once shared a conference with Trevor Johnson in the USA when he was home on furlough from Papua New Guinea. He watched his slides and heard him describe his work. It made him feel ashamed. What an easy life he lived as a pastor in Wales while Trevor has laboured for many years in Papua among the Korowai tribal people. Now he is seriously ill. He has had to go to Malaysia for long-term recuperation and medical treatment. He has had malaria over 25 times and also mercury poisoning from the rivers where they have been living. This has led to major. problems with internal organs and severe ongoing pain.
He has sent out this letter of faith and reality which opens a window on the cost of serving God. Many of Christ’s servants are paying such a price for that privilege today. Trevor and his wife Teresa need the ongoing prayers of God’s people for his assistance. plus future clarity on their life’s work, whether they can ever return to Papua. Is God indicating to them another direction? This, along with the seriousness of Trevor’s physical condition, is a matter of spiritual concern.
We are sharing his letter because of the transparency of Trevor’s words. In many ways the letter has echoes of the 19th century missionary pioneers who brought the gospel to west Africa and suffered immensely in their lives. This is what Trevor writes:
My health is still bad, but the pain is less. This week a doctor told me that I was physically a ‘wreck’ and had ‘ruined’ my body by jungle living. My internal organs are still swollen, my labs still weird, my mercury levels high, and sleeping problems are still bad. My metabolism is out of whack and I’ve gained some weight due to inactivity and metabolic damage. My liver, spleen, and gallbladder are still enlarged and my thyroid is not functioning right. I am urinating out protein for some reason.
I’ve had lots of online advice sent my way. Thank you for your efforts, even though some of your medical advice was really quite bad! Some of it did help, however. Since I am grumpy and sensitive, some emails sometimes seem like condemnations, (‘what have you been doing to prevent malaria? I know so-and-so who spent 28 years in Africa and NEVER had malaria as bad as you. You should be taking this essential oil or colloidal silver, or this special compound the FDA is trying to ban. . .’, etc). I’ve simply not been able to filter through some of the emails. I even had a ‘prophet’ sending me ‘Words of the Lord’ telling me to come back to America asap. I know some of you try. . .but bless your hearts, I wish some of you would just pray silently instead of sending me medical advice!
Please remember, we lived in a lowland swampy area for years. I would trek through many swamps to check on sick patients (up to my waist or neck sometimes). Most of my tribe is dead by my age. I’ve lasted longer than many, but yes, I am sure there is somebody out there who can survive 3 decades without internal organ damage in a jungle. And maybe there is, in fact, an essential oil that can combat malaria (but I doubt it). And maybe you do feel as if God is ‘speaking to you’ that I should take the next flight home. Meanwhile, my liver doesn’t function right anymore and I heard a person refer to me as that ‘sick American guy’ the other day. Illness consists of many small humiliations and aggravations.
Bible verses about suffering forming us into better Christians are appreciated. But I can feel sick of reading these sometimes. My grumpiness makes me question my qualification for the ministry and even as a Christian at times. Teresa and I have discussed this at length and the best way to describe our feelings throughout this period of time is that we are ‘numb’ — we feel numb and don’t even know what we should feel. We stick to our duties, but our feelings feel dead. Even simple decisions are hard to make currently and so we’ve tried to cancel and simplify our lives for a while until the wave passes. We are underneath the water at times and cannot see the horizon clearly. But sometimes just treading water is enough.
Some kind people have shared their own stories of struggles with illness and chronic pain without merely mentioning the rosy spiritual lessons at the end but also the failures and struggles in the middle. This has been most helpful, because we are in the middle right now. It is good to know that most people feel as if they also don’t get it all together all the time. It is okay to struggle. It is okay to stumble through sometimes. It is okay not always to have the answers.
But we have a good apartment given at a discount from a Christian family. We are seeing medical personnel every week. The kids are doing homeschooling and have a routine. I’ve enrolled Noah in many MMA and boxing/jiu-jitsu classes and the girls have art supplies. We have access to good healthy food and vitamins. And when I feel up to it, there is a nearby pool so I can play with little Gideon.
I am glad for the support of many churches. Instead of dropping my support for being non-productive, you’ve sent extra for medical care and advised me just to rest and write when I can. And my days have consisted of doing some writing (about an article a week have been published this month). Many poets and artists are tortured souls, so maybe my present miseries will help my literary efforts! Pray that I can finish my book and dissertation. I can work about 4-5 good hours a day and then I am fried.
Believe it or not, I have local and national churches asking me to preach and teach them. But I am just not able to do so. I am an empty tank. It does not even contain fumes. I cannot even get out of bed most days before 11am. Today I dragged myself and sat on the floor for a while until I guess about 1pm and it took about a full hour to be up and have a shower.
I have also been reminded that many people in this world suffer harm due to sin. They die due to sinful choices. A man here just drove drunk off a bridge and was killed. But I was wounded in the line of an honorable service trying to help people. That is an extreme consolation to me but it makes it bearable. I thank God for such a grace. He has not stricken me down for sins on my part, but has injured me in his good service. God has been very kind to me despite many failures in my life and he has even allowed my sickness to be done for Him. They do not merely come from my own stupidity. This may seem a strange point of comfort perhaps, but it is an enormous help to me.
We went to this hard region of Papua because there was not otherwise any immediate medical care for the tribal people. We prioritized such a place because we wanted to help as much as we were trained to do so. My wife and I are both nurses and medically trained. But hard regions are equal opportunity afflicters. The same ailments that have afflicted the tribal people have also afflicted us. We’ve got a glimpse into what it is like to live and die in that harsh region.
A Muslim driver from India two weeks ago even brought this point to me and I was astounded by God’s grace in how this happened. This man stopped his Grab car to talk more with me and even parked and comforted me by his summary, ‘You are sick, but there is nothing to be ashamed of . . . you got sick doing a noble thing. So there is no reason to be depressed about it. Glory in it. God sees it all.’ I have actually avoided much spiritual talk, to my shame, because I am just too tired to engage, and yet God seems to bring me to people several times a week who stop and engage me. Several strangers have even prayed for me by the side of the road or in a mall, etc, after hearing my story. I’ve not wanted any of these encounters and have sought isolation many days, and I am grumpy many times and feel unsocial, but I am thankful for these strange meetings. One man filled with tears last month (the second time since I’ve been sick) as I explained to him what we do. Another promised to read the New Testament starting that week. In 100% of these cases (both to my shame and my consternation) these people have sought me out and initiated the conversation and I have only reluctantly got engaged.
I’ve also recently heard news of several previously healthy friends and acquaintances dying or being afflicted with illness much worse than my own. When in pain we get myopic and only focus on our own suffering when there is, in fact, a whole world of hurting people outside of our little world. Pain can make us selfish. I believe that I often lack proper compassion, but I am believing that if I ever have to return to the USA perhaps I ought to become a hospice nurse or a chaplain or devote myself to assist those who are suffering or dying. Consistent with these desires, perhaps God is putting me through his ‘school’ now so that I might be better able to comfort others in the future. This world is a hurting place, and so our pilgrimage is sometimes very sad. If I can give comfort to even one person during a time of misery I will count my trials as worth it.
Without any boasting, we have helped preserve the lives of many Korowai tribal people — many of them afflicted with malaria, many from the brink of death. And so (on my better days. . .though not all days) I would willingly experience all of this current pain by choice and even try to praise God for it in exchange for this great gift of being able to serve and bless the interior people of Papua. This privilege has come at a steep price. However, I do try to thank God for the opportunity. He has been kind to me to place me where I could be of some kind of help. I am not very happy. . .but I am content. Even if I were to die, I could die a grateful man to have been given the privilege of helping these people, some of the dying infants are now healthy older boys and girls. These are my thoughts on my better days (. . .though not on all days, we are such unstable creatures). Was that opportunity to help that small child worth my liver? Yes! Tribal children are alive now. Was that time trekking to see the old lady worth a spleen. Yes! They are alive now when they were formerly at the brink of death. What about those who died anyway? Were my unsuccessful efforts to help worth this chronic pain that is stealing my sleep away now? Yes! Still Yes. It was done out of love for Christ. It was worth it. He is worth it. I don’t have expensive ointment to anoint the feet of Jesus. But I have my strength. I will give that. What I have left, at least. Thank you Lord for the small price I’ve paid to honourably help preserve the lives of these precious ones. I have wished myself dead before when we’ve had little tribal children die from malaria instead of us. Forgive me for my complaints and depression now. You’ve almost given me my wish before, and I’ve still complained. It seems so easy to wish pain upon yourself rather than others out of sentimentality and so much harder actually living through it later. My life for theirs. . . that is the gospel, after all. Preserving our life and health is not always the most important thing in life. But it is hard to accept that conclusion when in deep pain.
My kids have been going through some tough adjustment issues, but are now doing better. Imagine trying to homes school while being sick and travelling to three different islands in 6 months looking for medical care. The adjustment problems of my children are totally understandable; they’ve been through a lot and see their Dad suffering and their Mom tired. We pray for our children during this hard time. And my wife, who has had some exhaustion headaches, takes care of me, and still does the home schooling.
Tonight I did go for a light relaxing jog. This was a major achievement! Instead of pain, it caused a loosening of muscles and relief and gave me new hope. My mind was soothed, I gained a positive outlook, and I was reminded of the improvements I am making (though they be ever so slow). In general the pain has decreased. Two months ago I went through a horrible depression due to severe chronic pain. . . but now I see the light at the end of the tunnel.
I admit this time period has been a major blow to my ego. I used to be athletic. I used to be tough and rugged. Now I am a chronically sick, middle-aged, dumpy guy. Sometimes I limp. I got so exhausted last week that I had to lay down on a bench in public for awhile. The ego has been crushed. My identity is not in my health, or my toughness, or even in my role as a tribal missionary. I am a humble beggar and a simple child of our heavenly Father and nothing more. That is painful. . .but it is a good kind of pain. It is freeing to know one’s insignificance and finiteness.
Here is a quote from The Imitation of Christ, Book 1:
Very soon your life here will end; consider, then, what may be in store for you elsewhere. Today we live; tomorrow we die and are quickly forgotten. Oh, the dullness and hardness of a heart which looks only to the present instead of preparing for that which is to come!
Therefore, in every deed and every thought, act as though you were to die this very day. If you had a good conscience you would not fear death very much. It is better to avoid sin than to fear death. If you are not prepared today, how will you be prepared tomorrow? Tomorrow is an uncertain day; how do you know you will have a tomorrow?
What good is it to live a long life when we amend that life so little? Indeed, a long Life does not always benefit us, but on the contrary, frequently adds to our guilt. Would that in this world we had lived well throughout one single day. Many count up the years they have spent in religion but find their lives made little holier. If it is so terrifying to die, it is nevertheless possible that to live longer is more dangerous. Blessed is he who keeps the moment of death ever before his eyes and prepares for it every day.
If you have ever seen a man die, remember that you, too, must go the same way. In the morning consider that you may not live till evening, and when evening comes do not dare to promise yourself the dawn. Be always ready, therefore, and so live that death will never take you unprepared. Many die suddenly and unexpectedly, for in the unexpected hour the Son of God will come. When that last moment arrives you will begin to have a quite different opinion of the life that is now entirely past and you will regret very much that you were so careless and remiss. How happy and prudent is he who tries now in life to be what he wants to be found in death.
For several months a sweet young lady named Christina came and helped us with our household. Though she planned to be in the village with us for many months, we only spent a total of about 10 busy days doing immunizations in the jungle before I fell so sick that I had to be medically evacuated. I suppose she learned something of missions in that time, mainly the hard lessons that we must be flexible, and that many plans are derailed and do not come to fruition, and that illness quickly strikes down even the strongest in the jungle very quickly.
That occurred at the end of August and I think we’ve moved 8 times since then in desperate search for adequate medical care for me. In Bali they actually diagnosed my problem as ‘heartburn’ and gave me antacids, until a good doctor told me I needed to get out of that country if I didn’t want to die (the Indonesian medical system has some good doctors, but is pretty terrible on the whole). So we then ended up in Malaysia. But Christina accompanied us from Papua to Bali and then to another new country, Malaysia, that is, from the jungle to an urban apartment overlooking an island.
She showed a lot of flexibility and saw our family at their very worst and lowest. We thank this dear lady for her humble service and wish all the best for her in life and we regard her dearly. And we thank her parents for the loan of a child. Much of the time I was confined to my room or restlessly wandering out trying to ease my severe pain. We wish we could have provided a happier experience. But I am sure God has ordained this time for a reason, for us all to learn and profit from in the future. Sometimes you thrive…and sometimes you just barely survive it seems. We did try to do a few fun things, like some swimming and times eating out (the food here in Penang is awesome), and last week Christine went on a short horseback ride on the beach with the kids. We also got to ride elephants in Bali, which was pretty cool.
Hebrews 6:10 is about such service. The word says, ‘For God is not unjust so as to forget your work and the love which you have shown toward His name, in having ministered and in still ministering to the saints.’ That young woman ministered to a wounded family at a rough time in our lives, and we thank her dearly for it.
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