Way Back in Another Lifetime – Part 2

October 31, 2009

J driving carabao

Where's the clutch?!

My previous post brought this story to mind. I hope you enjoy it. Please pray for those in the Philippines, even now facing yet another major typhoon. They’re heavy on my heart tonight…

Epiphany in a Smelly Barn

 Christmas Eve, 1997, found me ten thousand miles from home headed for the back side of a barren wilderness. This desert was a young one, surrounded by what had been lush, tropical rain forest. It grew out of the aftermath of Mt. Pinatubo’s eruption in 1991. Mudflows hardened, creating an eerie moonscape where villages once thrived, burying lifetimes of memories in gray-green volcanic ash. I was there on purpose, serving God as a missionary.

Five of us climbed aboard a two-wheeled, flatbed wooden trailer behind a tired-looking water buffalo. Our cargo included two cardboard boxes loaded with brown paper lunch-bags. Inside the bags, Melanie and I had brought small gifts from Manila for the Ayta farmers and their families who had moved back to the ash-laden hillsides. Though determined to eke out a living from their devastated homeland, basic survival was a challenge for them. Among the isolated groups were some of my former literacy students. I had to see them one last time before my furlough, and this would be my only chance. Star, a young pastor, brought his Bible along. Noel took his guitar. Helen, my Sambal language teacher, came along for the ride to visit relatives. Melanie and I were the only two from the city; she the only one who didn’t speak the local dialect, and I the only foreigner and the Aytas’ former neighbor.

We started off from the last outpost of settlement, Poonbato, early in the morning. Our ox lumbered along, and the wagon bumped across the rutted ground in rhythm with the sway of his broad hips. Once we were in the middle of the wasteland, Noel handed me the reins. The only challenge in the trackless flatland had nothing to do with the absence of a road; I simply had to keep my face out of the way of the carabao’s rough, brushy tail. Traveling perhaps six hours on the waddling wagon, we saw nothing but gray expanse. The sky mirrored the earth, making us glad for the light blankets we’d brought along. Mt. Pinatubo had certainly left her mark. Miles of what locals called “lahar” filled the riverbed, covered hillsides and even buried coconut trees so that the very tops stuck through the soil like stubby stem-less bushes.

“Our village used to be here,” Noel said, pulling the carabao to a stop.

I couldn’t see a structure of any kind, and wondered how he knew.

“Your house was there,” he said, pointing to nothing. Loss overwhelmed me. I’d only lived among them three years; I could only imagine the grief my companions were feeling.

We moved on in silence, now climbing from the lahar up a rough hill. The carabao trudged on, the wagon bouncing over rocks as we held onto one another. Star hopped off to walk, and Melanie and I followed. We easily kept pace with our weary beast, but we were glad not to have to carry the cargo such a distance.

Now we could see green sprigs of grass and a few other plants poking through the gray dirt. A few trees pierced the horizon.

“We’re almost there,” Noel assured us.

I wasn’t sure where we almost were, but I believed him. He turned his obedient animal into the high grass, and we all piled back onto the cart for the last leg of our journey. A half-hour later, we broke into a clearing. We’d arrived at Noel’s brother’s abandoned barn. A low-slung roof covered a two-sided shelter with an open portion down the middle. On either side, a raised wooden floor about two feet off the ground housed piles of loose hay. This would be our quaint hotel.

Star and Helen set to work building a fire while Noel took care of the carabao. Melanie and I gathered dry grass and unloaded the rice and canned goods we’d brought for supper. The rice and sardines tasted marvelous. We’d worked up our appetites crossing the desert. After supper, we sang some songs, shared a prayer time, and then pulled out our blankets and pillows to sleep. Each of us chose a spot on one of the wooden platforms and cleared it enough to create a make-shift bed. Soon I could hear the deep breathing of four people sleeping. The next day would be a long one.

Although my companions curled up inside their blankets, I was taller and had to choose between covering my feet or protecting my face. The mosquitoes were ravenous, and I was their only choice for fresh fare. Besides that, a scrawny bitch chose the spot just below me to nurse her puppies. Just as I started to drift off, a noisy pig squealed in the clearing and ran, snorting, through the barn.

Sometime after midnight, I gave up trying to sleep and decided to spend my time praying. It was Christmas Eve, after all, and I anticipated bringing a little joy to those we’d visit on the coming day. I thought about the people I loved here and would soon leave behind. I had no idea if I’d see them again. I sat up and wrapped the blanket around my knees. Looking up, I noticed a star shining between the grass roof of our shelter and a board holding the two sides together. The star, perfectly framed by the triangle, shone into the barn and painted a streak of light across the otherwise totally dark room.

God whispered into my heart and I enjoyed our private moment. He reminded me Joseph and Mary had come to a simple barn, also surrounded by smelly animals and moldy hay. In a crowded town they were isolated, not by a volcanic desert, but by the uniqueness of their mission. They came bearing a Gift, for the spiritually empty people in the hills and the ones in the busy city. For those wee hours, time was irrelevant. I had enjoyed Christmas in the very presence of the Living God on the back side of the desert in a broken-down barn.

Noel woke before dawn and built the fire where we cooked more rice and ate more sardines from the can. We boarded our carriage just after sun-up to deliver the small gifts to our Ayta friends before they went to their fields. In several places, they gathered in groups to sing with us and listen as Star read from the Scriptures in their language. Children delighted in the small toys we’d enclosed and their parents were happy to get matches, salt, small cans of food and special treats. Seeing the joy on their faces, though, I realized the best gift was our presence. Someone cared enough to seek them out.

Although I never tried to explain my experience to anyone, I understand now what the best gift is all about. It is His Presence, coming into a smelly barn, seeking me out.

Jennifer Evans
April 10, 2008

 

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2 Responses to “Way Back in Another Lifetime – Part 2”

  1. paul merrill Says:

    Beautiful story!!

    I can relate to the insomnia. That is part of my life, many times.


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