Coming Through the Mud

POSTED ON 2012-02-03
  by Debbie Burgett

The rain kept pounding, and the pools of mud kept spreading. It was supposed to be the dry season, yet it was worse than most rainy seasons. Still the stream of Tobo people kept coming – slogging through the thick sludge – to hear the Bible teaching.

But the literal mud they were now wading through was nothing compared to the spiritual mud they would also have to wrestle with as they listened to the NTM missionaries present the Bible. The Tobo people had followed several other religions and cults over the years. And jumbled up with centuries of animistic beliefs, it was now all blending together – like too many colors – into an ugly brown.

What was the truth? Some Tobos had become so confused searching for it, they had given up all together and had decided to live however they pleased.

But at long last, hope was on the way.  

After living with the Tobo people for four years in order to fully understand their language and their lives and the massive knot their beliefs had become, NTM missionaries now invited the people to come and learn the truth about the Sovereign One and His book called the Bible. The goal was to plainly lay out the truths of Scripture from Creation to Christ and allow its strength and power to untangle the Tobos’ long-held misconceptions – and clear the path to belief.

The messy, yet memorable journey had begun.

Three hundred pairs of mud-caked feet squeezed into or around the clearing at the center of the Tobo village. They sat on banana leaves, hardwood plank pieces or long, rough-hewn firewood logs – anything to keep them off the soupy ground. Scarfs, towels or umbrellas shielded them from the relentless sun above. The Tobo people chatted as they waited for the teaching to begin. Missionary Jason Knapp stood in the middle, along with any pigs, dogs, chickens or toddlers that happened to wander by, and began his introduction.  

Suddenly, three men came running into the circle out of breath.

“There’s been an accident down by the river!” the first one shouted. “A man stumbled and fell off the cliff!”

“I saw him jump on purpose!” exclaimed the second one.

“I saw someone push him!” yelled the third.

“This is just an example of how people can tell us different things,” Jason assured the anxious people as the three men sat down. “If this incident had really happened, how would we know which story was true and correct? Each person may or may not have told us the truth based on what they saw or thought they saw.”

The missionary then went on to explain that people cannot be trusted to deliver oral messages. Being human, we’ll forget parts, add parts or leave parts out.

Now a long line of people joined Jason and his co-worker Chad Mankins at the center of the clearing. Chad whispered an important message into the first man’s ear.

“God’s Word was written down by more than 40 different men called prophets from a land called Israel. God spoke and they wrote it down carefully so that His message through all time would never be lost or mixed up.”

Of course, when the message was whispered person to person down the line and the last man spoke what he heard, the Tobo people enjoyed a good laugh. The end message had become so ridiculous, it was not anything like the original. 

“So how do we know that the oral stories our ancestors have passed down to us are really true?” Jason pointed out. “Perhaps the messages have gotten all mixed up.”

The tribal people weren’t laughing anymore. All their beliefs were based on oral stories.

Now they were introduced to the ever-existent Sovereign One who had an important message for all the people of the world, including the Tobo people. He alone knew the whole truth of mankind’s story and could be trusted to tell it correctly. But He hadn’t left His important message to oral chance. He had it carefully written down so it would remain true and unchanged forever. Now they were hearing that message for themselves.

“In the beginning God …”

Immediately, mud began to rise in Tobo minds.

What? The Sovereign One meant His message for all people? So the white men have been keeping it from us! I knew it! That’s why we don’t have all the secret riches like they do! These missionaries can’t be trusted! But I’ll listen anyway to learn the secret too.

But the more they listened, the more surprised they became. This God was unlike any they had ever heard about before. He alone was all-knowing, all-powerful and all-present everywhere at the same time.

What? He alone? But isn’t He just like Satan? Don’t they both do these things? We don’t even know who will win the battle yet – He or Satan!   

“… created the heavens and the earth.”

 Yes, we’ve heard this before. He created everything. So what? Different spirits do different things. Some are dead ancestors that come back as fireflies and crickets. If we don’t treat them right, they curse us at night and that’s why we die. Others are bush spirits that try to trick or kill us when we travel. And this creator spirit of the air needs to be appeased the right way or He will hurt us too. We must listen carefully to know what to do.

But even muddled confusion couldn’t lessen the impact of the Creation story.

The Tobo people sat in awe as pictures of tigers, lions, elephants and other animals were passed around for them to look at. Even the beauty and intricacy of their own jungle ferns and flowers surprised them.

We didn’t know Sovereign One was this powerful! We never even thought about these things before!  

 “And the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground …”

Yes, that’s how He made white people. They come from Adam and his son, Abel. We come from Cain. Abel offered a good sacrifice and got the riches, but Cain, our stupid ancestor, offered a bad sacrifice and that’s why we don’t have the riches.

But the Tobo people were surprised again when they learned that the Sovereign One lovingly placed the man and his wife in a beautiful garden and provided everything they needed not only for their survival, but also for their enjoyment. And even more amazing, that He wanted to have a relationship with them and came to the garden to walk and talk with them in the evenings.

Do the white men have two Gods? This is not the same angry, punitive God our forefathers heard about. He has many, many rules that are needed to appease Him or else you go to the place of fire. But this God sounds kind and loving. Does He have the secret of the riches?

“… took of its fruit and ate ...”

What? The first sin was not that they took the forbidden “fruit” and slept together? They disobeyed God and ate real fruit?  

“The Lord God sent him out of the garden …”

The tribal people could relate to this painful reality. Just like Adam and Eve now had to work hard for their food, the Tobo people did too. And they didn’t have the benefit of electrical, digital or climate-controlled conveniences to help insulate them from the effects of the curse. They experienced its full impact every day.   

That’s why we need to learn the secret of the white men’s treasures! This work is killing us!   

But other Tobos cried as they realized they were sinners too and that there was no way to get back to the tree of life.

“There has to be another way,” they said to the missionaries, “or we will all die and go to the lake of fire.”

And there was a way.

Story after story throughout the rest of the Old Testament, the Tobo people learned how the Sovereign One always provided a way – for those who would choose it. Others went their own way and suffered for it.

With Cain and Abel, God provided a standard for offering sacrifices. Cain chose differently. 

With Noah, God provided a boat for escaping the flood. Only a few got in.

With the Tower of Babel, God provided a plan for repopulating. Not everyone agreed.

With Sodom and Gomorrah, God provided a warning of pending destruction. Only Lot’s family listened.

This particular lesson struck an unexpected chord with the Tobo people.

Sodom sounds just like us. Our men don’t sleep with men, but we sleep with women that aren’t ours. And we do much more than that. We do whatever we want. What will happen to us?

The unsettling pattern was clear. The all-knowing, all-powerful, ever-present, kind, loving and just Creator of the universe asked something of His creation. Come to Him on His terms – or be willing to take the consequences.

And it was about to get much worse – with Moses.

 Silence followed the lesson on the giving of the Law. Even the pigs, dogs, chickens and babies seemed to forget to make noise. This was a topic that had always haunted the Tobo people. They looked down, ashamed, scared. Some cried.

We’ve been told our whole lives to keep the Law or be doomed to Hell. And we have tried over and over to follow it. But we keep failing! What can we do? We have to please this God of yours so He’ll give us the riches too!

Again, the answer was clear – God’s way. The Tobos learned that the Law was doing exactly the work in their hearts that the Sovereign One intended – it was showing them their sin and their complete inability to follow it. However, God had even provided for this problem too. He instituted animal sacrifices to provide a temporary covering for the Israelites’ sin – promising someday to send a future Deliverer to solve the problem permanently.

This must be the secret! The Deliverer will solve all our problems! He will bring back the riches that our foolish ancestors lost for us! Treasures will spew from the mountain and we won’t have to work anymore! When will He come?

As the journey through the Bible progressed and now transitioned to the New Testament, the answer was coming. But it wouldn’t be a welcome one.

Over the course of the teaching, the missionaries had told the Tobo people over and over that they had not come to help them find the “secret riches” that they were always waiting for. They had explained that the promised Deliverer’s mission to the world was to deliver people from sin and Satan’s power, not from a life of hard, physical labor. They had stressed that eternal life did not equal material wealth here on earth.

And that message was about to be highlighted even more – with the same results as in Jesus’ day.

With the feeding of the 5,000, the Tobo people saw that the ultimate purpose in Jesus coming to earth was not to feed people’s bellies or to give them any other material thing. In fact, as with the Rich Young Ruler, He often asked for quite the opposite. What Jesus was offering was the riches of Himself. He was offering the answer to the sin problem and the only “bread” they would ever need. Would the Tobo people receive His spiritual provision or keep trying to find their own?

For some Tobos, this particular lesson clarified their decision to keep coming to the teaching. Somehow, they knew that more was at stake here than just physical comfort. For others, hearing this unwelcome news once more greatly angered them and they stopped coming altogether. Still others wanted to “ride the fence,” hoping to believe both ways – just in case. They would come to the Bible teaching and then leave immediately afterward to change into their traditional bark loin cloths and grass skirts (necessary for the “magic” to work) and then participate in the rituals and traditions so the riches would come.

They had spent their whole lives constantly preparing and waiting and hoping for all the secret, wonderful, magical treasures of the white man to suddenly burst upon them and give them the life of ease they so desperately longed for. Riches were the god they craved. Riches were the god they served. It was too hard to give up the possibility that it might be true.  

But then the day came when everyone did have to choose.

Seventy-five pairs of mud-encrusted feet – many more than expected – showed up in the clearing for the conclusion of the story.

“For God so loved the world …”

From the beginning of Creation, the message had been clear. The Sovereign One always provided a way. Now, the Tobo people learned of His ultimate provision to the world. Jesus Christ, who had healed the sick, raised the dead, and calmed the sea, became the substitute Lamb when He died on the cross. He was the promised Deliverer. But unlike the animal sacrifices, which could cover sin only temporarily, His blood cleansed mankind once and for all. The death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ, took care of the sin problem forever.

Now the question was: Would the Tobo people accept their Deliverer or continue their own way?

After the lesson, a cluster of excited people surrounded the missionaries, pelting them with questions. After talking with the people and answering questions, it was evident that several understood and believed that Jesus, the promised Deliverer, had paid for their sins with His blood.

The three-month chronological journey through the Bible had accomplished its purpose – and cleared the path to belief. A muddy little band of Tobo people were now white as snow. And they were grateful.

“Thank you, Yesu!” the people cried.  


That was five years ago. And while the celebrating was very real for some, it was not for others. When the newness wore off and the riches never came, when fears escalated that the spirits were angry and would never send the treasures, when immense social pressure mounted to return to the old ancestral ways, when threatened with eviction from their homes, families and marriages if they didn’t return, and when jeers, insults and persecution from both inside and outside the village became too demoralizing, the little band shrank even more.

Tribal church planting is messy.

It’s messy for tribal people whose centuries-old culture is structured on the concept that the group is right and the individual is wrong. So to believe or act independently is not only considered extremely disloyal and the worst kind of pride and presumption, it also leaves the entire culture, its history and leadership open to doubt. So the group acts quickly to stamp out differences at all costs.

It’s also messy for missionaries who have given up everything to bring the light of the Gospel to tribal people, only to have them choose or be coerced to stay in their darkness. Imagine rushing out on the edge of the remotest quicksand, thrusting out your hand in urgency to offer the lifeline of truth, love and friendship – then watching in horror as a fearful, resistant people, clutching and clawing desperately at their old beliefs, ignore your hand, and are sucked down into a Christ-less eternity. Yes, it’s messy. Yet, the missionaries stay for as long as they can bear it. Because sometimes, a hand will shoot out of that cultural quicksand and reach back – and they want to be there to grab it.

Eight Tobo hands reached back.

Now the tiny church meets around a fire to sing songs and listen to teaching from Ephesians. One lady slowly roasts sweet potatoes over the open fire. Little kids play soccer on the grass nearby. Dogs bark. Babies cry. When the sweet potatoes are done, they are peeled and sliced and passed around with some water. And together, eight Tobo believers in Papua New Guinea remember the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Was it worth all the time and effort when the end result was so small – and guarantees a huge messy job to raise it to maturity? Ask any parent cradling their newborn baby – or missionary sharing tribal communion around a flickering fire. They would do all the labor again in a heartbeat.

Though slow and wobbly, the Tobo church is stepping its way toward maturity. Sometimes, the growth and progress comes from a totally unexpected direction.

Last year, two believing men joined in an effort to extend a hand to others. Welsin and Ambox accompanied missionary Jason Williamson to help teach in a neighboring village 30 minutes away. Jason’s good friend and language helper, Unex, asked that they come teach his family and another family in their village. Unex had heard parts and pieces of the Bible message and was left confused. This time, he wanted to hear the whole thing from start to finish.

But when Welsin’s wife became ill, Ambox had to do even more of the teaching. The quiet, unassuming man calmly took it in stride and proved himself a very capable teacher. His profound and insightful statements surprised everyone.

 After one of the lessons, while other people were asking questions, Unex said, “I don’t have any questions for you because this talk, for the first time in my life, has become clear in my insides and I’m understanding it. Before, other religions and people would say this and that and I couldn’t understand it and didn’t know who to believe. But this teaching is clear and I’m happy to come and sit and be a learner of this big true talk.”

Unex and his wife, Eski, reached out for the lifeline and left the mire of their old beliefs behind.

The sweet echo can still be heard as the muddy little Tobo church marches on.

“Thank you, Yesu!”

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