Thump da dum. Thump da dum. Thump da da dum. Repeat. Shrieking, chanting, wild cries in a guttural language. The popping and crackle of a roaring bonfire consuming logs like toothpicks. And through it all the incessant, rolling drum beat like a death toll: Thump da dum, thump da dum, thump da da dum. Noise. Chaos. Like rushing water in her head. Emory Roberts gasped for breath and pressed her hands closer over her ears. She was drowning. She couldn’t do this anymore. She crept to the farthest corner of her one-room hut and huddled in a fetal position. Tears trickled down her cheeks and beads of sweat plastered her hair to her neck and forehead. She panted through her sobs.
“Yahweh, my God, help me.”
The orange glow of dancing flames splayed itself on the wall against her, slipping in through the single window in the wall opposite her. Emory squeezed her eyes shut, and the same memories that surfaced every time she saw that glow crowded her darkness. Shrieks, the popping and crackling of flames leaping for her, singeing her hair. The wail of sirens. The weight of her father as he smothered her with his body, racked with coughs, and pulled her through the broken window. Then the crash. His body pinned beneath burning timbers. The horror and pain in his eyes meeting hers before he was swallowed in flames. The orange glow of flames. Those terrible, crackling flames.
Emory struggled to breathe. Her pounding heart wanted to leap from her chest and gallop around the room. She wanted to scream, but the invisible weight on her chest suffocated any chance for even a whisper to escape. Her fingertips tingled with the numbness of a thousand pricking pins, and she trembled like a dead autumn leaf waiting for the last breeze to break her fighting hold from a dead branch.
“God, why did you call me to this jungle tribe?” Emory cried in her heart. Why had she thought it would be such a good idea to pack up her belongings, bid farewell to her mother, and board a plane as a missionary for the jungle of Papua New Guinea?
‘It will be exciting,’ she had thought. ‘A new adventure.’
But had she really understood everything the calling involved? Hostility. Loneliness. Rejection. Threats. Belongings stolen. Sickness. But worst of all, the monthly ritual practices to gods who would never hear. The dances. The chants. The sacrifices. The fires. She had been here for six months. It was supposed to be easier than this. Even now she should be on her face before God, pleading for these desperately lost souls; yet here she was, panicking at the sight and sound of mere flames, the memory of her father’s pain-stricken eyes etched like glass in the ocean of her memories.
“Yahweh, my Lord,” she gasped and fell on her face. Tongues of fire danced before her closed eyes as if taunting her to give up. “My Lord and my Rock, I need you,” she cried into the darkness. “Rescue me.”
For a moment all she heard was the demonic shrieks and cries of the idol-worshipping tribe, and the roaring, crackling fire outside. But then a small voice trickled through Emory’s mind like a gentle breeze over a noisy, rushing river.
“The one who lives under the protection of the Most High dwells in the shadow of the Almighty. I will say to the LORD, ‘My refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.’”
Emory remembered her mama sitting in her rocking chair, dark coffee-colored skin complementing the light tone of the wood, black curly hair blending to gray at the roots. It had been three months since Papa had died, and Emory sat curled up in her pajamas in a chair in the living room, too afraid to close her eyes, too afraid to sleep. Mama rocked slowly back and forth in her creaky rocking chair as she read Psalm 91 aloud in her rich and bold yet gentle voice.
“He Himself will deliver you from the hunter’s net, from the destructive plague. He will cover you with His feathers; you will take refuge under His wings. His faithfulness will be a protective shield.”
For a moment the horrible sounds outside Emory’s hut faded, and peace began to creep into her heart like a tiny trickle, gradually growing until it rushed over her like a river – a blessed, refreshing river. She had memorized these words, and now they came flooding back to her:
“You will not fear the terror by night; the arrow that flies by day. … Because you have made the LORD – my refuge, the Most High – your dwelling place, no harm will come to you…”
Ah, peace. Peace like a river. She repeated the words of the Psalm over and over to herself until her tears slowly subsided.
“Because he is lovingly devoted to me, I will deliver him; I will protect him because he knows my name. When he calls out to Me, I will answer him; I will be with him in trouble. I will rescue him and give him honor. I will satisfy him with long life and show him my salvation.”
Once Emory’s heart had slowed to a steadier pace and her limbs began to relax, she pushed herself into a sitting position and reached for her worn, leather Bible, thumbing through the thin pages to the book of Psalms. Her eyes rested on Psalm 62.
“Rest in God alone, my soul, for my hope comes from Him. He alone is my rock and my salvation, my stronghold; I will not be shaken. My salvation and my glory depend on God, my strong rock. My refuge is in God. Trust in Him at all times, you people; pour out your hearts before Him. God is our refuge. Selah.”
Pour out your hearts before Him. God is our refuge. She closed her eyes against the dim glow of her hut, and a picture began to formulate from the murky waters of her mind. A strong tower built on a slab of stone. Black mire surrounding the tower. The thick, swirling muck shifting from one side to the other, pulling at her legs, her abdomen, her chest, sucking her under. A cry for help uttered from her last gasping breath, and then strong hands reaching down to pull her up, to pull her out of the mire, onto the rock and into the strong, secure, stable tower. The picture merged to another. This time Emory lay huddled on the ground, laughing demons surrounding her, flaming arrows flying at her exposed body. And then suddenly the firm, yet soft and gentle wings of Yahweh spreading over her to cover her. Yes, surely God was her refuge.
Emory glanced out the window of her hut and drew a shuddering breath. The dark silhouettes of the natives contorting their bodies in unnatural dances before the roaring fire filled her with panic and despair. Her heart began to race again and the pricking pins in her fingers resurfaced. She remembered Peter walking on water, starting to drown when he took his eyes off the Lord. Was that what had happened all these months? Had she taken her eyes off the Lord whenever she had seen that terrible, roaring fire and the image of her father’s pain-stricken eyes?
“Father, keep me from drowning. Please keep my eyes fixed on You,” she whispered. She peeled her eyes from the sight outside and rested them on the words from Him who was a fountain of living water and found her refuge in God.
38 years later…
Emory’s sandals scuffed the dust as she trudged along the narrow dirt path to the small church building near her hut. She stood at the entrance to the church and looked all around her. Visions of contorted silhouettes and roaring, crackling flames danced at the edges of her mind. This was the same clearing where, all those years earlier, the village had engaged in their idol-worshipping rituals. See what God had done with it now? The morning was still early; the sun just peeking through the branches of the sprawling jungle canopy. What a different light from that night so many years ago where the light of glowing flames had filled her hut. The light of the sun was a peaceful, refreshing light. She couldn’t help but think of what a peaceful light the Son of God radiated to all who put their trust in Him. Emory inhaled deeply and smiled before entering the low door of the church.
“Halo,” she greeted Miok Marabe, the young pastor who sat bent over his copy of the New Testament. Miok looked up and a wide smile broke over his face.
“Moning, Ms. Emory!”
As Emory helped Hali’a, Miok’s wife, arrange brightly colored blankets on the dirt floor of the church for the congregants to sit on, she envisioned the day many years ago when she had found Miok as a young boy, the chieftain’s son, face coated in the paint the tribe donned for ritual dances, weeping by himself beneath a banana tree. Concern had rushed through her heart like a broken dam as she hurried to him.
“What is wrong?” she asked.
Everything he did for the rituals seemed empty and pointless, Miok had cried to her. Emory shared the truth of the Gospel with him, and soon he came to her to study the Bible. Slowly God softened his heart to understand the truth and receive the water that would make him never thirst again, and he became the first believer of his tribe. Now he was the first pastor to lead the village in worship of Yahweh, the One True God.
It wasn’t long before the villagers began streaming in the church like a desert herd to a pond, and Emory eased herself onto a mat on the floor to rest. Eight-year-old Angu came wandering through the crowd toward her and plopped down in her lap. The precious boy belonged to a different tribe located sixteen miles down the river. He, with his family, was one of the many natives from the surrounding tribes who canoed miles up the rivers or trekked through the jungle paths to worship Yahweh at this little church every Sunday.
Angu combed his little fingers lovingly through Emory’s wooly gray hair. His large, dark eyes were solemn as he paused, cupped his hands around her ear, and leaned close to whisper, “When I grow up, I’m going to be a missionary just like you. I’m going to go to the tribes who don’t know about Jesus and tell them about Him.”
Tears of joy misted Emory’s eyes at the thought. She pulled Angu close in a hug. “That would be wonderful, little Angu,” she whispered back. She could see herself as a little girl on Grandma’s lap, dreaming of becoming a missionary. It had seemed like such a simple calling to her then, easy but with enough adventure to make it exciting. All she had to do was convince the people that the Gospel was the truth. Oh, how wrong she had been. How many times over the years had she desperately fought the rising panic and despair that threatened to suffocate her by preaching truth to herself, falling on her face before God, and spending long hours poring over His word? How many flaming arrows had flown against her in the form of angry threats from villagers, intensified ritual practices, and discouragement over the lack of fruit? And how many times had God covered her with His wings and secured her in His strong tower through the flames that threatened to consume her? These long decades of missionary life had been hellfire, but the fount of living water had protected her from being consumed. Yahweh had been her refuge. And now He had blessed her with tangible fruit, and He was raising up another generation of Christ-followers.
“Lamunka says he is going to be a missionary in his own village,” Angu whispered in her ear. “Can you be a missionary in your own village?”
Emory pulled him away from her to look into his solemn eyes. “Yes, Angu,” she said. “You can be a missionary wherever you are – in your own village or in a village across the world. But listen to me, Angu: you must only trust in God to help you be a missionary. You cannot do it by yourself.”
The church service was beginning, and Angu hurried back to his mother. Emory closed her eyes. The blessed, joy filled sound of the believers singing energetic praises in a guttural language, worshipping Yahweh, filled her ears. How different from that death-toll drumbeat that had rolled so many years ago as these same tribe members had desperately, hopelessly danced and chanted before a roaring fire to gods who could never rescue them.
After the service ended the villagers shared a meal and talked and laughed while the children played long into the afternoon. And then came the sad parting when families began their treks back to their own homes and villages. But they were taking the living water with them. That blessed, living water was flowing from this fountainhead where Christ resided into the homes and hearts of so many others in this jungle.
As she trudged back up the path to her home, Emory whispered into the lengthening shadows, “Truly Lord, as Psalm 90 says, You have been our refuge in every generation. Before the mountains were born, before You gave birth to the earth and the world, from eternity to eternity, You are God.”
“But let all who take refuge in You rejoice; let them shout for joy forever. May You shelter them, and may those who love Your name boast about You. For You, LORD, bless the righteous one; You surround him with favor like a shield.” — Psalm 5:11-12