Pohnpei Preaching

preach the word; be urgent in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with all patience and teaching. (2 Timothy 4:2 WEB)

I once spent two weeks on the island of Pohnpei teaching at the Summer Institute for Pastors. The second Sunday I was asked to attend the local church and present the sermon from God’s Word. This was an honor and I was thrilled with the opportunity.

After a little discussion with my teaching colleague I discovered there were certain rules concerning preachers in the local Baptist church. First I needed to wear a tie. This was the first problem.

After living on Guam for many years, I no longer owned a tie much less an appropriate shirt for a tie. Traveling about the islands my wardrobe consisted of colorful, flowered, island shirts and the occasional formal Filipino Barang. Discussing this island wardrobe with my colleague, from Chicago, the land of suits, ties and fancy dress, he looked in his room and brought out a nice tie I could borrow. When he saw the shirt, it was intended to adorn, he just shook his head and wandered away mumbling something about the island lifestyle versus good Christian tradition. I held the two up in a mirror and thought, cool! But somehow I doubted my wife would agree. Her sense of fashion was much better than mine. She had great sense. I didn’t, and still don’t.

So on Sunday morning I put on my best flowered shirt and donned the requisite tie for the service. It would have made a fashion statement anywhere in the world, maybe not a good fashion statement but a statement none-the-less. An hour before the service my ride arrived in the form of a pickup truck, loaded with the driver’s wife and mother-in-law.

On Pohnpei a pickup truck is considered a family vehicle, something to be treasured. Men are also to be treasured and, unfortunately, considered of more value than women. Thus the wife and grandmother were required to sit in the back of the truck while I was motioned to sit up front with the driver. I try not to make cultural waves when I travel. Watching grandma, not a young lady, creak out of the cab and start to climb into the back of the truck, I just couldn’t keep quiet. After a few minutes of discussion, and insisting on my love for a good open breeze, the wife, not the aged grandmother, was installed inside the cab while I rode in the back of the truck. Grandma and I had a great view, and cool breeze as we bumped and jostled our way along toward the inner part of the island. Considering the heat and lack of air-conditioning, it was probably the coolest place in the vehicle.

Down dirt roads, up the side of a mountain, we arrived at the concrete church and were greeted by the elders of the church. They were excited about the morning service and people could be seen arriving in the occasional pickup truck but mostly on foot. I joined the church leaders in a prayer meeting in preparation for the service. We asked God to bless the meeting, guide me to say the right words, and to touch the heart of someone new that morning. The prayer ended so we had time to chat. While talking and waiting for the prescribed time the head elder turned and asked, “Where is you jacket?”

“Jacket?” I asked, “What jacket?”

“The preacher must wear a jacket,” replied the Pastor with a knowing nod of his head.

“It is tradition in the church from the time the first missionaries came to our island,” responded the sincere Elder. He was concerned their guest speaker, me, was underdressed.

I told them I didn’t own a suit coat or sports jacket. I liked the island lifestyle and clothing. After a few moments of consternation and a few wagging heads, one elder jumped, smiled at the rest and went to a cabinet in the open air room. Proudly, he pulled a wool suit coat from the closet which, unfortunately, fit over my shoulders. I was obliged to adhere to their traditions. I donned the hot and itchy coat and we headed into the church.

The singing was impressive, the enthusiasm evident and the room hot. I was starting to understand the feelings of a log on an open fire. No fans, no air-conditioning, no breeze worked to accentuate the warmth of my wool coat. This was not going to be easy.

I opened my Bible and began to preach. For the next forty minutes I shared the word of God. I had to stand arm’s length from the pulpit to keep from dripping on my notes. The pages of my Bible began to curl from all the dripping perspiration.

Just before I reached the flashpoint of the human body, I apologized, turned to the Elders, and asked if I could remove my jacket. I was about to faint. They looked at each other, mumbled a few words, shook a few heads, and then agreed it was permissible. I continued the service cooled by the evaporating moisture in my drenched clothes. I was a human swamp cooler.

Tired, dried out and ready to sit down I concluded my message. I asked if anyone was interested in coming forward for salvation, dedication, or prayer. Praise the Lord the message was well received. A couple people came forward for prayer.

I returned the wool coat to its treasured closet and thought about the first messengers of the Gospel coming to the island. I wonder about the wisdom of some early missionaries. Insisting a tropical island don their attire was silly then and is silly now. Clothes don’t make the believer, it is their relationship with God. Granted there are times we must all get uncomfortable to be God’s servants. This wasn’t one of them. Sometimes we must get uncomfortable because those before us set an unusual example. What examples are we leaving in our wake? Will future servants of God be glad we passed through or wonder about our sanity. Maybe its time to take a little survey and see where our traditions just might be altered for the present and future generation of Christians.

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