A whole new world has opened up to me; with many new friends I am in awe of. Papua New Guinea was not exactly on my bucket list, but God opened the door for me to train writers there. It was refreshing to be confronted once again by mountain ranges and huge swathes of grassy plains. The climatic conditions of the lowland areas were very similar to the equatorial weather in Singapore and Malaysia. So my first impression of the country was a comforting one. I saw acres of coconut trees, towering rain trees, flowering African tulip trees and mango trees heavy with fruit.
But once we got going in our sturdy 10-seater van on the highway to Goroka (one of the towns in the highlands), the similarities ended. It was a case of whether the chicken or the egg came first. Did the large vehicles cause the potholes in the road, or did the potholes force people to buy huge four-wheel drives in order not to have broken axles every other week? The fact is this one main East-West highway has several sections where the potholes turn it into a slalom course. With some skill and local knowledge of the different stretches of the highway, it would be possible to avoid most of the potholes. But in some spots, the potholes were so numerous and large that there was simply no way to get around a single one without ending up in another.
All this sounds uncannily like a narrative of my life…or like many of our lives, I’d wager. Hey, even Christ had some heavy-duty potholes in His day, the biggest of which was His death on the cross.
I almost didn’t make it to university…my A-level (12th grade) results were abysmal. In my pride and arrogance, I had thought that I should continue to pursue studies in the hard sciences. After all, that’s what the clever people did in my time. Alas and alack (see, I’m more Shakespeare than Schrödinger), I found no joy and no motivation whatsoever to apply myself to my studies. Fortunately, I did well enough in the couple of humanities subjects that I’d taken to get me into the university by the skin of my teeth, but more likely by the grace of God.
I’d like to say that I learnt my lesson after getting out of that pothole, but when you’re the elder of two daughters in a Chinese diaspora family, you feel the full weight of taking over as an income earner when formal education is over. So, although I was in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, I took majors (economics and statistics) that I thought would earn me a good living. I sweated blood through those majors. I did, however, allow myself an indulgence: a minor in Malay Studies. Guess what landed me my first job — my ability to handle the Malay language. Yet again, God worked good out of a seemingly bad situation.
When I was widowed not too long after turning 40, my life was suddenly filled with potholes of all shapes and sizes. How was I going to provide for my two sons when I was working in a relatively new and small publishing house? How would I juggle my breadwinning and parenting roles? Was this the end of my ministry in church? Why did I no longer receive invitations to events that I would have when I was part of a Mr & Mrs package? Navigating these questions was difficult, but in the company of God and good friends, I managed to negotiate the treacherous journey. And perhaps, like another widow in the Bible, I found myself.
In spite of her heathen background and association with the degenerated tribe of Moab, Ruth became a devout worshipper of the true God. … Perhaps in her somewhat short married life, her heart was stirred by what her husband had told her of the greatness of Jehovah. Then she must have seen that Naomi’s God was totally different from the lifeless deity she worshipped. (Herbert Lockyer, All the Women of the Bible. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1973, 146.)
I could just as well have been Naomi’s other daughter-in-law, Orpah, had I not decided to follow Jesus when I was in my teens. But it wasn’t till I had experienced desolation that I learned to love the Lord with a depth and reality that I hadn’t known before. The meta-narrative of the Bible is one of love and redemption. That narrative intersected powerfully with my life at key potholes.
So, even though that journey to Goroka was an extremely bumpy five-hour ride, it reminded me yet again of a constant refrain in Soo Inn’s and my life:
And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. (Romans 8:28 NIV)
Knowing this as a certainty in our lives has made all the difference to how we’ve handled the curve balls life has thrown us. Knowing also the certainty of our final destination has given us stamina for the ride. In Papua New Guinea, when we finally made it to our conference centre at Orobiga, all the weariness disappeared at the sight of the green haven we were in. It was all worth the bone jangling we had to endure.
We’re all on our separate journeys, and ever so often we encounter potholes that threaten to derail us. But with some guidance and experience, we learn to navigate them. Sometimes, even with the best of intentions and preparation, we still encounter adverse situations that we cannot get around. But if we have a sturdy vehicle (a firmly Christ-centred life) and fellow travellers who can help to point out the potholes that they see up ahead, we can continue our journeys toward our destination. So, just as Jesus’ death on the cross was not the end of His journey, we too have the hope of a new heaven and new earth at the end of ours. And it’ll be worth it.