In March 1956, when I was about 6, a tall, pale white man stumbled into my home village of Dibagat in the northern jungles of the Philippine island of Luzon. The man didn’t speak our language, so our elders asked him the best they knew how, “Why are you here?”
“I’ve come to learn your language,” he said. “I’d like to write it down and then give you God’s Word in your language.”
“Who is your God?” the elders asked.
“He’s the God of heaven and earth,” the man answered. “He’s the Creator of the universe. He created you, too.”
“Is He powerful?” the elders probed. “More powerful than the spirits that have controlled our lives from the beginning of time? Is He more powerful than our ancestors, the headhunters?”
“Yes, He’s more powerful.”
Hopeful, we started teaching this man, Dick Roe, our language. Maybe his God could free us from the spirits.
I talked to Dick often. He told us about his exciting God: “He has a Son named Jesus. He came down to earth from heaven and was nailed to a cross.” He tried to explain the concept of God’s grace, but our lives revolved around the revenge killings of our headhunter ancestors. Grace didn’t make sense.
When I was about 13, Dick had to return to the United States to raise support for his ministry. But before he went back, he translated the Gospel of Mark and gave me a copy.
While he was gone I started reading the Bible for the first time, beginning with the Easter story and continuing through chapter 16. Sitting on top of a rock, I read the Gospel of Mark in my heart language. It felt like I was actually there, seeing the characters.
But the further I read, the more distressed I felt. A mob of people came to get Jesus out of the Garden of Gethsemane. What did He do wrong? I read as fast as I could. They accused Him of all kinds of false things. They mocked Him, spat on Him, beat Him and took Him before Pilate. Then the scourge and the crown of thorns. It was excruciating to read that they forced Him to carry a wooden cross and then nailed Him to it.
Deep in my heart a hatred of God swelled. I shook my fist and shouted, “I hate You, God, for being so powerless! Why should I believe in a powerless God like You?” With all my strength I threw the Gospel of Mark down to the rocks and started walking home.
I couldn’t understand why God wouldn’t protect His own Son. Our headhunters defended us to the death. Because of them, no one could touch us. I wanted a god like that, someone who would protect me from the spirits that demanded that we sacrifice our cows, chickens, pigs and dogs. This God didn’t even save His own Son.
Suddenly God reached down into my heart. “Nard, don’t you understand?” I heard Him say. “That’s how much I love you. I gave my Son on your behalf.” For the first time I understood grace. I understood how much God loved me.
“God, if You love me that much,” I prayed, “I want to give You my life, my heart. It’s all Yours.” I went back and picked up my Gospel, brushed it off and sat back on that rock to see what happened next. It was an incredible moment as I read that Jesus rose from the grave on the third day. Nobody in all of Dibagat, nobody from among the Isnag people, had ever risen from the grave. The resurrection story changed my life.
Dick came back to the Philippines in 1964, and I told him I had met Jesus. He was overjoyed. However, he had news for me, too.
“I’m excited about Bible translation work in your language,” he said, “but I have to go to Mindanao [in the southern Philippines] for the next four years.” Disappointment filled my heart. I was hoping that he would help me grow in my faith in Christ.
But he continued, “How would you like to go with me? I’ll help you go to school if you help me finish translating the Bible into Isnag.” So at about age 14, I left Dibagat. It was my first flight, and I clutched Dick’s leg and screamed as we took off. Terror filled me for the next 55 minutes. I decided that flying was meant only for birds.
But God didn’t agree. We arrived at the translation center and got to work. In the coming years, the missionary pilots became my heroes and I developed an interest in flying. Although I found it hard to believe that God wanted me to become a pilot, that’s exactly what happened. After high school, I went to several aviation-training programs in the United States. I met and married Sandy, a missionary’s daughter, and we joined Wycliffe Bible Translators in 1977. In 1979, Wycliffe assigned us to the Philippines, where I served as pilot and mechanic, flying missionaries, government officials and nationals to remote locations. I served with some of the same missionaries who had an impact on me as a young man.
On June 24, 1982, we experienced the greatest moment of our ministry. Sandy and I, along with our eldest son, Steve, packed 500 copies of the newly completed Isnag New Testament into a plane and flew to Dibagat to deliver them to my people. As I loaded the plane, I wondered what would have become of me, and so many others in our village, if Dick Roe had ignored God’s call to bring the Bible to the Isnag people.
When we landed in Dibagat, my relatives came out to greet us. They helped us unload the boxes but didn’t know what was inside. “Hey,” I said to my eldest sister as she lifted a box onto her head, “do you know what that is?”
“It’s just a box,” she answered.
“With New Testaments in our language,” I added. A sparkle lit her eyes. She lowered the box and hugged it.
“Are you serious? I’m going to have my very own copy of the New Testament in our language?”
My heart was about to burst as I realized again the penetrating power of the Bible and what it means to read God’s Word in your heart language.