Josh and Autumn Miller
Before me sat an older PNG man who had become our friend. He was weeping as he whispered softly to Josh and I, explaining this hope that had been growing inside of him.
“I can’t even express how much joy I had when I realized that you’re my dead sister, come back to life with white skin!”
My mind reeled as he continued the most surreal conversations I’ve ever had.
“The first time the two of you came to visit my family, I thought to myself that you reminded me of my older sister. She died some years ago. After you left, I kept thinking about you and I thought that maybe you WERE my sister. But I didn’t say anything. I thought if you were my sister, then eventually it would be clear. After your next visit, my wife came and told me that she also thought that you were my sister’s spirit come back to us.”
As hard as I was trying to keep my face neutral, I have to wonder if some of my shock wasn’t written on my face! This was our friend who we’d been going to visit regularly for over 5 months. We met him on a walk shortly after we arrived in PNG, and he and his family had been eager to help us learn Tok Pisin, “straightening” our mistakes and answering lots of questions. We had laughed with them, eaten lots of popo (papaya) with them, and storied about our homes – his in the mountains of PNG and ours in the farmland of the USA.
And now I’m hearing this – He thinks I’m his dead sister, back in spirit form? My mind was racing as I tried to keep listening to make sure I didn’t misunderstand him.
“Some people here in Papua New Guinea have this kind of thinking; when people die, they can shed and change their skin, like a snake or a lizard can do. When black people die, they can shed their black skin and their spirit can come back with white skin. So when both Jolinda and I both had this thought, I was so happy! When you both kept coming back to visit us, I was happy each time to see you, because I thought ‘Now my sister has come again to see me. And my brother-in-law too!’ I decided not say anything, because I was so happy you were coming back again and again.
Two months ago, when you met some of my relatives who were visiting from my home in the mountains, they both told me that they thought you were my sister. Then, I thought it MUST be true. I didn’t tell them what I had thought. But we all saw it.
It was so hard when my sister died. I have wished so much to see her again. I had asked Papa God to see her again. I’m so happy you are here.”
At this point in the conversation, Peter broke down completely, a grown man sobbing before me, wrestling with a mixture of pain over the death of his sister and hope that now he is speaking with her spirit again!
For almost an hour, Josh and I listened to Peter explain to us the “evidence” that had led him to this conclusion. And it grieved my heart so deeply to realize that this was the perfect example of the syncretism and folk Christianity that has become the norm more and more here in PNG.
Did you catch that reference to “Papa God” that Peter made?
This is Syncretism – the mixing of animistic beliefs with a few elements of Christianity creates a hybrid belief system; a person who still has all of the same beliefs in the hundreds or thousands of spirits that control every aspect of their physical world, and still lives with the fearful “necessity” of manipulating the spirit world in order to survive, but they’ve added a “belief” in Jesus” or “Papa God” who they hope will give them physical and financial success. And if the key to getting lots of stuff from the Jesus spirit is to take on the title of “Christian” or occasionally take communion at a local church, well that’s a cheap price for the success they hope will come.
So Peter, our friend, who grew up in a very remote people group in the mountains of PNG, calls himself a Christian, and talks about how important the Bible is (which he has never actually read in his heart language because there IS no Bible yet in his heart language). He could tell you that Jesus died on a cross, although he has no idea why or what that means for him.
But he also explains to us about the trees near their house that we shouldn’t approach, because the invisible “masalai” spirits live underneath the roots of those trees, and if we upset them by entering their tree homes, they might hurt some of his family. And he warns us about people who have made deals with the spirits to be able to put curses on others and kill them. And he continues to be convinced that I’m the spirit of his dead sister come back to see him. THAT is syncretism!
Please pray with us for Peter and for all the souls of the unreached people groups in PNG – including our dear Pano people, who we so desire to reach – as syncretism grows and creates more confusion and even wider barriers to truly understanding the story of the great Creator God who made a way for them to actually have true hope both in life and death.
We know that many of the Pano people have these syncretistic beliefs, and we will need so much wisdom to confront the dangerous misunderstandings and fear in which they live.
Pray for us now during this time in town to continue to gain these kind of insights and further understanding of the beliefs, culture, and ways of thinking that will impact and affect our teaching one day!
We are continuing to stay busy preparing for housebuilding, whenever the door for that opens. COVID restrictions have gotten a lot tighter here in PNG in 2021, and right now, we aren’t able to travel to another province, so we can’t go back and visit the Pano people right now. So we are working to prepare as much as we can to help expedite the housebuilding process. Over the past several months, Josh has been doing a lot of prefab work on doors, cabinets, and stairs for both ours and Noyes’ house.
Right now, our mission base is switching properties and taking over management of the property where Josh and I have been renting our apartment, and Josh has been overseeing the majority of the move from the previous property and the management of this new property until a permanent LC comes to fill this position (Keep praying with us about the need for a Logistics Coordinator and see our last post for more information about that).
We’re excited that God opened this door for a different property for our mission which will be a blessing both to our team and future teams, giving a lot more space for storage, housing when we are taking breaks out of the tribe, and housebuilding prep.
Thank you for praying with us for God to open doors for us to move forward with housebuilding in His perfect time. Also, please pray for PNG as our already limited healthcare system is quickly becoming overwhelmed by increasing COVID numbers. Right now, we have very few options for medical help if an emergency arises, which is one more situation we have to surrender to our Father. Pray for us as we face a lot of uncertainty from situations beyond our control. We know that our God is in control and sovereign over all that is happening!