The Way Out

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{Darryl}We were in Papua New Guinea, boarding the last available flight for foreigners traveling through Australia. This was it. Within a few hours after we landed, the Australian border would close, not even allowing transit through the country. It seemed we were just going to make it.

[Cheryl] We had a tight connection in Brisbane, and the plane was running a little late. Our plane taxied out to the runway, and then it paused for a long time. Then the captain announced that they were working on a mechanical problem. Finally we returned to the gate. This plane was not going to fly today. All passengers had to disembark. We tried to wrap our minds around the situation. We had just been turned back from the last flight we could take through Australia. There had been an earlier flight the day before, on Saturday. Should we have taken that flight? But that would have meant traveling on the Sabbath. Now what? Our chances of getting back to the States were suddenly not looking very good.

[Darryl] Let’s back up and tell you what we were doing in Papua New Guinea, and why we chose not to travel on Sabbath. In early March, Cheryl and I headed to a faraway destination: the Western Province of Papua New Guinea and AFM’s Gogodala Project to help with the construction of missionary housing, a mission training center and a library.

Visiting this area of PNG is like stepping hundreds of years back in time. The villagers travel in dugout canoes. Their homes are made of bamboo and palm trees, tied together with cords and vines. There is no electrical grid. The muddy river is the only “running” water. The closest “hospital” is a two-hour paddle downriver, and it is really just a clinic with no doctor. The best hope for healthcare is at least a two-hour flight from there.

We helped install the windows in the training center and worked on the drywall and bathroom in the missionary house that was being built for the Cabral family. Cheryl worked with the tractor to level the ground in preparation for the dormitories and cook house construction. Our plan was to volunteer at the Gogodala Project for three weeks. But after two weeks of good progress on the construction projects, we started hearing reports of the COVID-19 virus spreading and the world’s reaction. Borders were shutting down. Airlines were cancelling flights. Especially concerning for us was that Australia, PNG’s closest neighbor country, was closing its borders to all foreigners, even to transit. We needed to head back to America earlier than planned. Within another week, most countries would be closed to air travel.

[Cheryl] From the bush, there were only two flights out a week, and Friday was our next opportunity. We knew that when we arrived back in Port Moresby we would have to rearrange our travel back to America as our original flights had been cancelled. What we did not anticipate was that every other foreigner in PNG had the same idea. Flights were already sold out or had only a few expensive upgrade seats left. We worked with a booking agent for two hours, but there were no great options. She finally told us, “Saturday is the day you need to travel! There are a few reasonably priced seats tomorrow, but not afterward. If you don’t travel on Saturday, you may not get out of PNG.”

We told her, “We can’t travel on Saturday. That is our Sabbath, and God has asked us to keep it Holy.”

[Darryl] We knew that to travel on Sabbath would not have been a time of rest or worship. It would have been about saving ourselves. Matthew 24:20 went through our minds: “Pray that your flight be not in the winter, neither on the Sabbath day.” We claimed this verse as a promise that we would not need to flee, or take a flight, on the Sabbath. We decided that if Sabbath was the only day we could travel out of PNG, we would choose to stay long-term in order to observe God’s Fourth Commandment. We left the travel agent with expensive tickets in hand for traveling on Sunday. The way through Australia would close just after our flight, but it seemed we had a plan that would allow us to squeak through. We enjoyed a restful Sabbath. We fellowshipped with the church on the campus of Pacific Adventist University and took part in an AY program about missions in the afternoon. Early Sunday morning we arrived at the airport. As we taxied away from the terminal, we sat back thanking God that we were on board.

[Cheryl] But the plane paused on the taxiway for a long time. Then the captain told us that there was a mechanical issue. When we learned that the flight had to be cancelled, we wondered if we were going to become long-term missionaries in PNG.

[Darryl] I began to wonder, should we have taken the Saturday travel option? Was that an open door in God’s plan? We had stood for the Sabbath, and now even this expensive option was closing down.

[Cheryl] Back in the terminal, we discovered dozens of other Americans frantically trying to figure out a way to leave. Some had been there working on their return since Wednesday. Fear was written on many faces. None of them had enjoyed the Sabbath rest that we had enjoyed. But now it seemed we were all in the same situation—stuck, perhaps for a long time, in PNG. At one point, an airline representative told us there was no hope. They had no options at any price. Psalm 91 had been running through my mind: “Thou shalt not be afraid for the terror by night, nor for the pestilence that walketh in darkness.” Pestilence is like an epidemic—like COVID-19. “Thou shalt not be afraid.” That’s the same language as in the Ten Commandments. It’s a command! And in every command there is also a promise that God will help us. I turned our situation over to God, and peace filled my heart. Promise after promise flowed through my mind: “Fear thou not, for I am with thee” (Isa. 41:10). “The steps of a good man are ordered by the Lord” (Ps.37:23). “Trust in the Lord with all thine heart and lean not unto thine own understanding. In all thy ways acknowledge Him and He shall direct thy paths” (Prov. 3:5-6). I had no idea how God was going to get us out of this mess, but I knew that He had a thousand ways that I knew nothing about, so I chose to trust Him to help us.

[Darryl] As we worked for hours probing every travel option, it all narrowed down to only one. There was a flight connecting through Singapore. But it didn’t leave until the next day, and it was already sold out. After that flight there would be about two weeks when all flights would be grounded.

[Cheryl] The agent placed us on standby, but there were no guarantees. She also said that we would have to pay a lot more to get on the flight. I stood quietly waiting in front of the agent for close to an hour as she looked at her screen, typed, read some more and typed again, all without saying anything. Suddenly she said, “You are both confirmed on tomorrow’s flight. I will print your tickets. There are no extra fees.”

I wasn’t sure I’d heard right. “We are confirmed and have tickets? We don’t owe anything more?” She handed me the tickets—no additional charge.

[Darryl] A prayer of thanks went up in our hearts. Those two tickets had become available just as Cheryl stood in front of the agent. The verse came to mind, “Him who honors me, I will honor” (1 Sam. 2:30). We had put God first, and He worked out a plan for us that we had been told was impossible. The flight on Monday departed for Singapore late but with no mechanical issues. From there we flew to Los Angeles. It was nice to be back in America! We had another flight cancellation, but by the next day we were home. God worked a miracle on our behalf, and we give Him the glory.

[Cheryl] We are thankful that we got to go and visit the AFM Gogadala Project and offer some help. We would do it all over again, because we know God was leading us and was with us all along the way. And we have a testimony of keeping the Sabbath holy, and how God worked out a solution for our return, even when others had worked on their return through the Sabbath and still were not able to get home. God’s people don’t keep the commandments to work their way to heaven. Only Jesus saves us. Keeping God’s commandments is not about earning our salvation, it is about loving to obey what God has asked of us. It is through obedience that we can put our cares upon God and trust that He will take care of us. The Ten Commandments are a transcript of God’s character. Since we want to live forever with Him, we can start now to incorporate them into our lives. When He comes, we can see Him, for we will be like Him.

[Darryl] This is a lesson not only for COVID-19, but also for all the tough times ahead. Trust that God will take care of you, and lean completely on His power to do what He asks of you. No rationalization and no compromise. Then, even though it will not be easy, trust in God and see how He will work out the situation so you can give Him the glory.