An excerpt from Stories from the Front Lines:

The Healing of Hogwanobiayo

Hogwanobiayo was sick.

Headaches. Malaise. Achy bones. Hogwanobiayo felt every one of his 45 to 50 years—an old man by the standards of Samo culture. The lowlands Samo people in the Western Province of Papua New Guinea contended with sickness and disease about as regularly as they harvested their staple foods of sago and plantains. Survival was a tough business.

Dan Shaw had been adopted as one of Hogwanobiayo’s “little brothers” after he and his wife, Karen, moved to the remote Samo village of Kwobi as missionaries with Wycliffe Bible Translators. Now a professor of anthropology and translation at Fuller Seminary’s School of World Mission, Dan learned of his friend’s illness during his second term in Papua New Guinea, about 1975. Hogwanobiayo, a good listener, had given Dan stellar help rewording and polishing draft portions of Scripture in the Samo language. Losing him, Dan knew, would be a real blow. But Dan had no personal experience with prayer for healing.

Hogwanobiayo tried to shake his malaise by moving the place where he slept. In traditional Samo culture, the spirit world interacts with the natural world at every point, and it is impossible to take too many precautions.

“If a spirit who knows where I normally lie down sees me in this weakened condition,” Hogwanobiayo reasoned, “I could get attacked while I sleep.”

But a few nights in a different spot brought no improvement.

Then Hogwanobiayo asked a close relative to lead a mimi ora ceremony in an attempt to beat out of him the evil forces (mimi) that might be causing his illness. Making a paste with yellow ochre and fashioning a brush from leaves, one of his brothers dipped the leaves in the paste and beat them on Hogwanobiayo’s back while chanting spells to evict the evil spirits.

Nothing happened. Hogwanobiayo was still sick.

His family decided to find out what was wrong. They called a spirit medium to conduct an all-night ceremony seeking guidance from the ancestor spirits. While the family sang and chanted to the spirits, the medium in a trancelike state attempted communication with the ancestors to gain information about Hogwanobiayo’s illness. Hours passed; no message came.

“The ancestors cannot tell us what’s wrong with Hogwanobiayo,” the medium concluded. “There seems to be no spiritual influence—he’s just sick.”

And getting sicker. After several weeks, the brothers of his extended village family tried another tack—an all-night party with dancing and drunken revelry. This bash, they hoped, would ward off any evil spirits by mesmerizing them, the way the bird of paradise goes into display to entrance its predators. Enthralled by the riotous scene, the spirits would conclude that everything was fine and leave the revelers and Hogwanobiayo alone.

The hundred or so Kwobi villagers enjoyed a torrid celebration. But Hogwanobiayo only got worse.

In desperation his family moved him to an isolated long house out in the forest, with only his wife and a few attendants. Perhaps removal from any contact with the forces surrounding the village might cut off the disease.

No luck. With resignation Hogwanobiayo moved back to the village. Not a single thing had helped. Even medicine from his “little brother” Dan Shaw had not stopped the course of what by now was pneumonia and probably malaria. Weak with chills and fever, Hogwanobiayo could not face making the two-hour trek through jungle and swamp to the nearest medical facility. He shut himself up in his home, now considered socially dead. People began referring to him in the past tense.

With Hogwanobiayo confined to bed, Dan brought more doses of medicine, along with rough Scripture translations for him to correct.

One afternoon Dan brought a portion that included John 5:1-15, the story of the disabled man at the pool of Bethesda. Dan began to read aloud in the Samo language:

One who was there had been an invalid for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there and learned that he had been in this condition for a long time, he asked him, “Do you want to get well?”

verses 5–6

As Dan continued reading, Hogwanobiayo became very still. Suddenly he cried out, “That’s me! That’s me! That’s me!”

“What do you mean, that’s you?”

“Don’t you see? Look at this guy. He’s been sick for a long time. He’s tried everything. There’s nothing more he can do. I’ve been sick for a long time. I’ve tried everything.” His dark eyes fixed on Dan’s. “Do you think Jesus can heal me, too?”

“Uh, yeah, Jesus could heal you,” Dan replied, knitting his brow.

“I don’t know how He might do that, but it’s possible.”

Hogwanobiayo tried to raise his head. “I want you to ask Jesus to heal me.”

Adrenaline pumped as Dan’s theoretical beliefs crashed head-on into the reality of the moment.

Me? he thought in silent desperation. I’m just a Baptist boy from Tucson. This isn’t in my bag of tricks.

Aloud he asked, “Why me? There are some other believers in the village now.”

“You are my little brother,” Hogwanobiayo said. “It’s the brother’s responsibility to be involved in the healing of another brother. I want you to ask Jesus to heal me.”

With a few gulps and silent pleas for divine help, Dan began to pray aloud. “Dear Lord, here’s my brother and he needs Your healing. He says he believes You can heal him, as You healed the man at the pool. We’re asking You to do that now for Hogwanobiayo.”

After prayer Dan scanned his friend anxiously for any sign of improvement. He saw no change, but Hogwanobiayo thanked him warmly.

Dan went home practically sweating blood. He and his wife prayed together as they had never prayed before: “Lord, You brought us here. These are the moments we read about in mission history. Your name is on the line. Our name is on the line. You’ve got to come through!”

Three or four days passed with little noticeable change. Then one afternoon, when Dan was working in his office, distant shouts reached his ears. Some children from the village ran in crying, “Come and see! Hogwanobiayo is up and around! He’s telling everybody that you prayed for him and Jesus healed him!”

Dan followed them and found his friend hobbling around on a cane, skinny and covered with bedsores, but up and out of bed for the first time in a month.

“Look!” he said to Dan. “I’ve got fresh energy. You prayed and Jesus gave me wonderful new vitality!”

Sincerely happy for his friend, Dan also acknowledged a bit of anthropological skepticism. “You know, Hogwanobiayo, do you think it’s possible that all the cultural things you did to try to get well finally accumulated, and now you’re getting better?”

Slowly Hogwanobiayo picked up his walking stick and planted it between Dan’s ribs. One word at a time, with great deliberation, he croaked, “Don’t—you—believe?”

Hogwanobiayo’s cane seemed to pierce Dan like a hot spear. With tears welling in his eyes, Dan confessed, “Yes, I believe!”

“Before you prayed,” Hogwanobiayo went on emphatically, “nothing. After you prayed, I’ve been getting my strength, and now I’m up and around. Jesus healed me!”

Dan Shaw’s eyes were opened to a deeper reality. He found that the healing proved a turning point not only in Hogwanobiayo’s conversion, but for the whole village. Hogwanobiayo, like others, had never personalized the message of the Gospel. But now Dan saw a great increase in receptivity among the Samo as a result of the healing—and the witness of a young man named Tiyani, whose story will have to wait until chapter 8.

Stepping Out in the Power of Word and Deed

Hogwanobiayo, elderly as he was, lived for several more years and became a leader in the Samo church. Eventually the people adapted one of their all-night rituals into a Christian ceremony featuring praise to God in song and dance and prayer for the sick.

Dan Shaw’s experience illustrates the interaction between the living Word of God and the supernatural power of God. In a situation of desperate need, the Lord quickened Scripture to Hogwanobiayo’s heart and faith arose. Then, in the demonstration of God’s power to answer prayer (even through a very tentative mediator like Dan), the Samo saw God’s supremacy over evil spirits and the true meaning and relevance of the Book the Shaws had come to bring them in their own language.

Dan faced a direct challenge to put his faith into action. We, too, if we want our beliefs to reflect more than abstract theories, need to be willing to step out boldly, however the Spirit leads, to pray for His intervention in the lives of others.

After all, we serve the same God today who declared to the Israelites in Exodus 15:26, “I am the LORD, who heals you.” Many in today’s world have concluded that a God with both the compassion and the power to heal is a God worthy of unreserved allegiance.

excerpted from Stories from the Front Lines
©Jane Rumph, all rights reserved


©2003–2014 Jane Rumph. All rights reserved.


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