Sitting in the darkness of the smoke filled tribal hut, I shifted positions, trying to get more comfortable on the woven bamboo floor. The only light in the jungle hut was from the smoldering fire in the center of the floor, but even that light was suppressed by a thick blanket of smoke trying to work its way up through the thatched roofing. My eyes were stinging because of the smoke and I was finding the heat of the tightly enclosed space oppressive. Though I had recently arrived for a visit, I began thinking of culturally appropriate ways to excuse myself, thinking how great it would be to go outside for a fresh breath of mountain air.
Old man Alimpu interrupted my thoughts with a fit of deep chested coughing. His oldest son who was sitting beside me on the floor looked over to his father with deep concern on his furrowed brow.
Oh yes, that’s why I came to Alimpu’s house in the first place I thought. He had been sick for many months, and had not responded to our recent courses of antibiotics so we feared he was suffering from tuberculosis. His continual fits of wheezing and coughing had stolen his strength to the point that he seldom left his sleeping spot near the fire pit. He coughed over and over, barely able to catch a breath. Gasping for air he pulled himself to a sitting position, his bony hand holding tightly to the pole frame supporting the fire wood rack.
I moved over to where Alimpu was struggling to catch his breath, helpless to ease his pain. The sight of his frail frame and protruding ribs filled me with a sudden wave of fresh grief. From all appearances, my old friend was on his death bed, with only days left to live.
After Alimpu’s fit of coughing subsided, he lay down on the bamboo floor next to the fire, and eventually his raspy breathing returned to a more regular pattern. Then, to my surprise he began to speak, slowly at first, and with obvious effort. “I can’t get baptized,” he managed, barely above a whisper. But then he continued with a seemingly unrelated thought. “This sickness that I am suffering from is the same one that killed that old man in the village of Wite last month”.
There was a long pause, but neither I nor anyone else in the house wanted to interject, knowing that Alimpu was about to say more.
“I know that I am about to die,” the old man continued weakly, “but I’m not afraid anymore. Now that I have heard God’s story, I know that I don’t have to fear death because I am God’s child, and He is going to take me to live with Him at His ground forever.”
Alimpu paused to collect his thoughts but just then his third and only living wife who was holding a toddler on her lap broke into a fit of coughing. I winced when I heard her gargled cough, wondering if she was getting pneumonia and if it might spread to others in the village. But then she sneezed loudly, and then leaning forward blew her nose into the fire, making my stomach turn. I quickly closed my eyes, partly in an attempt to delete the scene, but also because my eyes were stinging from the smoky haze hanging in the darkness. Am I ever going to get used to the bizarre harshness of this way of life, I wondered. Then my thoughts turned back to my old friend as he continued with his story.
“Before I heard God’s story, I was terrified by the thought that a spirit might eat me at any moment causing my death. But now I realize that death comes as a result of my ancestor Adam’s disobedience to God rather than from evil spirits lurking in the jungle shadows.” The old man cleared his throat, spit into the fire and then continued. “If I had died before I heard God’s story, I would have been condemned by God for the people I have murdered and for the other bad things I have done. Now that I believe in Jesus’ payment for my wrongs, I understand that God will not condemn me to judgment, but rather will take me to live with him at his ground.
My back and legs were stiff from sitting on the uneven floor but my heart was soaring as I heard my old friend’s words of faith. I had often wondered just how much of the Gospel message Alimpu had understood as my friends and I taught in this village over the last months. Now my heart was full as I heard him describe in his own words an unprompted account of his trust in God’s Word.
“I know that I am God’s son now,” Alimpu continued, “and I have heard that you are planning a baptism soon, but I can’t get baptized.” The words were barely out of his mouth when a dog fight erupted as two scrawny dogs had pounced, at the same moment, on a scrap of sweet potato that had been dropped by a child. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw movement in the darkness and turned just in time to see an old lady grab a chunk of firewood and bring it swiftly down on the back of one of the dogs, sending it scrambling out the door, yelping in pain while the other dog gulped down his prize.
“Why can’t you get baptized?” I asked.
The old man slowly sat up with great effort, and leaned one arm over the vine that had been tied as a guard rail to keep children from falling into the fire and then started speaking about men who had burned their spiritual objects in a fire. I was having a hard time connecting this odd statement with the question I had asked, so I turned to his son who was sitting next to me, who often helped me understand the aged man’s dialect.
Fato, seeing the confusion on my face quickly explained, “He’s talking about those men you told us about when you were teaching the book of Acts who had publicly burned their books about magic and sorcery to show that they were turning from their trust in the spirits to faith in God’s words.
I leaned forward with eager anticipation, straining to make sure I didn’t miss anything. I realized he was referring to the Ephesian believers who boldly cut all ties with their history of sorcery to follow Jesus.
Alimpu seeing my excitement continued “I can’t get baptized till I burn my dog spirit bag”.
I quickly looked back to Fato for clarification saying, “He wants to burn his sorcery stuff?”
“Yes, you know, his bag of bones and dog teeth and magic plants.”
I looked back at Alimpu, wanting to catch everything he might try to communicate on this subject.
“I want to burn my bag in front of everyone in this village before I get baptized so they will clearly know that I am turning my back on the customs of the ancestors to be fully devoted to Jesus.”
I was amazed and elated, but at the same time wanted to make sure my friend was not confused with the idea that he had to clean up his life in every way in order to be acceptable to God in baptism. “What you are saying is so great, but please understand that God accepts your simple act of faith in baptism not because you are perfect in every way, but rather because Jesus’ payment for your sins has made you acceptable in His sight. Your trust in Jesus is what makes you ready for baptism.”
“I know that,” he answered. “When Jesus died, His blood completely washed away the debt for my many sins, so I am clean in God’s eyes. But still, I want to do what the people in the Bible did, and publicly burn my ties with my past beliefs, so that everyone will know that I am not playing games with God, taking the death of Jesus as if it’s insignificant.”
I was blown away by the depth and richness of Alimpu’s testimony. I cleared my throat, trying to suppress the lump that was building. I was so proud of my friend and his new found faith.
The old sick man then grunted something in the direction his wife and she quickly responded by holding out a small stack of stinging nettle leaves for Alimpu to take. He gingerly lifted the top leaf covered with tiny spines and began rubbing it on the skin of his bare chest. I winced as I knew that little blisters would pop up on his skin from the fiery nettles, but I said nothing as I knew this was the common method the tribal people used to counteract the pain they were enduring.
“I want to burn the stuff publicly but I can’t because I am too weak to walk up the trail to the village center.” Alimpu said.
“Maybe we could ask the people of the village to come down here to your house so they will witness you burning your spirit bag in your own yard,” I ventured.
“No, no” Alimpu responded emphatically. “I need to burn my spirit things in the middle of the village, where everyone can watch, but it’s impossible for me to do it now. I’m not going to be strong enough to do it before the baptism.”
I sat there not knowing what to say when Alimpu’s wife dropped a new piece of wood on the fire. Sparks shot upward, bouncing against the underside of the drying rack.
Then I felt the gentle nudging of the Holy Spirit in my heart, so I turned to my friend and said, “We know from the stories we have been reading in the Bible that God has the power to heal you. Let’s ask Him to help you recover your strength so that you can go to the village to burn your spirit bag, and then later to the creek to get baptized.”
Alimpu agreed, so there in that dark and smoky house, Alimpu and Fato and I bowed our heads and made the simple request of our father. “God, one of your kids wants to get baptized but he can’t because of his poor health. Will you please honor his wish to publicly burn his spirit things and to get baptized by giving him health and strength to walk the trails?”
We all raised our heads when we were done and I couldn’t help but smile. Somehow I had confidence Alimpu would recover, despite the fact he looked in every way as if he was on his death bed. My heart soared as I knew God was in the process of building faith in the hearts of His jungle kids.
A week and a half later boys came running up to me with an excited announcement. “Alimpu is walking up the trail with his spirit bag!” I ran over to the bank at the edge of the village clearing and looked down. Sure enough, there was my frail friend leaning heavily on a walking stick, slowly working his way up the hill! It was Saturday, one day before the baptism, and I couldn’t contain my excitement. “Lord, one of your kids is making a huge step of faith” I said in praise.
The spirit bag burning ceremony was simple but profound. I got goose bumps as I listened to Alimpu and two other village men face the entire village and declare their decision to permanently abandon the trail of the ancestors in order to walk on the new trail that Jesus had cleared. I had to quickly brush away tears as the three men dropped the bag full of bones and teeth and also a few spirit plants into the flames, demonstrating their faith. My heart was bursting with gratitude to the Lord the next day when these same three men and seven other villagers took a huge step of faith in public baptism. “Father, may you build deep trust in the lives of these people of the jungle, so they will be faithful to honor You, and so they will be incredibly bold to take your word to the many tribal people scattered over these mountains.”