Waiting for the Fish and Loaves

  • December 30, 2016

The following story is adapted from "Sleeping Coconuts," a book by Wycliffe missionaries John and Bonnie Nystrom which recounts the tragedy, teamwork and transformation of their work in the Arop community which expanded to a total of 10 languages in Papua New Guinea.

Palm tree

The decision to expand the project [beyond just Arop] was a gradual process. At times it felt like the decision was made for us, as though we were being carried along in a current we couldn’t control. At other times we found ourselves considering the implications carefully and making conscious choices to move forward. We knew there was no turning back when the Arop translators themselves chose to put the spiritual needs of the Malols and Sissanos ahead of their desire to complete the Arop translation.

Even so, the list of unknowns continued to grow. God knew we needed periodic reassurances that he was still in control and would provide for each need when it was needed, not necessarily when we wanted it.

One reassurance came when a fellow translator preached in church at Ukarumpa about the feeding of the 5,000. God had encouraged us from this passage from the Gospel of Mark several times since the tsunami. Now, God brought the same words before us again.

Immediately the speaker had my attention at the number “5,000.” In the three villages most affected by the tsunami, about 5,000 men — plus women and children — had survived. As the speaker continued to comment on various aspects of the event documented in Mark, I knew we were living out a similar story.

The apostles returned to Jesus from this ministry tour and told him all they had done and taught. Then Jesus said, “Let’s go off by ourselves to a quiet place and rest awhile.” He said this because there were so many people coming and going that Jesus and his apostles didn’t even have time to eat.

So they left by boat for a quiet place, where they could be alone. But many people recognized them and saw them leaving, and people from many towns ran ahead along the shore and got there ahead of them. Jesus saw the huge crowd as he stepped from the boat, and he had compassion on them because they were like sheep without a shepherd. So he began teaching them many things. – Mark 6:30-34 (NLT)

The disciples had gone to this supposedly deserted place to get away from the crowds and have something to eat. Unless they had eaten in the boat on the way there, they were probably still hungry. But Jesus had compassion on the crowd, which was experiencing spiritual hunger. The Arop translators had reminded us that those affected by the tsunami were also hungry to hear these very words of Jesus in their own languages.

Late in the afternoon his disciples came to him and said, “This is a remote place, and it’s already getting late. Send the crowds away so they can go to the nearby farms and villages and buy something to eat.” – Mark 6:35-36 (NLT)

More than once we had wanted to send the Warapus and the Onneless away with only a promise that we would try to find someone else to help them.

But Jesus said, “You feed them.”

“With what?” they asked. “We’d have to work for months to earn enough money to buy food for all these people!”

“How much bread do you have?” he asked. “Go and find out.”

They came back and reported, “We have five loaves of bread and two fish.”

You can almost hear the “I told you we didn’t have enough” in their voices in the verses above. We had an impressive list of excuses as well. To us, this list represented very real hurdles in the humanly impossible task God was asking us to do. I’m sure the disciples expected Jesus to say, “Okay, then send them home.” Instead, he told them to have the people sit down in groups on the grass.

Can you imagine the disciples’ dilemma? At the end of the day, Jesus is done teaching and people are hungry. The disciples have no food for them, but they’re supposed to sit the people down anyway. Jesus was asking the disciples to go public with their intention to feed this huge crowd when they knew they had just five loaves and two fish. We had raised a lot of anticipation and expectation among the Malols, Sissanos, Warapus and Onneles during the translation awareness workshop. But we still didn’t know where all the resources would come to follow through on those expectations. When God first put it in our hearts and minds to expand the translation project, we had nothing. But since that time, he had provided a method that would make it possible to work in multiple languages.

As Jesus filled up the baskets, each of the disciples picked one up and carried it out to the crowd. When they had dispersed its contents, did any of them panic and wonder, This basket’s empty, and there are still way too many people to feed. Now what?

We did. Our basket was empty again each time we saw another need we couldn’t meet.

But knowing we served the same God who fed more than 5,000 people with five loaves and two fish, we too would keep going back to the Lord for another basketful of whatever we needed in order to do what he had asked us to do. 

As we celebrate 75 years as an organization, we continue to thank God for what he has done to advance the gospel around the world. And if you’re interested in reading more from “Sleeping Coconuts,” you can purchase a copy of the book. Or you can watch this story in the Wycliffe film, “Arop.”