Leaning on God to light the way: Introducing Max and Helen Sahl

Wycliffe Today – June 2019 (PDF

Max and Helen have been on quite a journey since they first met. These former Queensland teachers are Wycliffe members who have lived in Papua New Guinea for 20 years. Their adventures have included a short stint in professional rugby, moving to a new country, raising a family, serving in a variety of roles, several near-death experiences and establishing a new training program for local translators. They are now living at the National Centre for Wycliffe Bible Translators Australia where Max is the CEO. Come and meet the Sahls.

What was it that first inspired you to become involved with Wycliffe?

Max: Before we went to PNG, we had no idea about Wycliffe or SIL. When we first heard about the need for teachers to educate mission kids, we simply followed God’s call. We thought we would only be there short-term. When we arrived, we didn’t know much about Bible translation . . . but it was almost impossible not to catch the vision. I went from being a PE teacher to Principal of the Primary School and High School to overseeing the training program for the Pacific Institute of Languages, Arts and Translation (PILAT) and now stepping into the role of CEO for Wycliffe Australia. I would never have imagined that for myself but God obviously knew what he was doing!

Helen:  During our time in Ukarumpa, we saw people’s lives changed, both at an individual and at a community level, through the power of the gospel. But the gospel is only effective when the people can understand it. Our eyes were opened to the physical, spiritual, educational and emotional needs surrounding us and we developed a heart for making God’s Word clear for all people.

How did your sports career help in that transition?

Max: I was a professional rugby league player in Queensland. My team won the grand final in the biggest sports event in Queensland at the time. This helped me to connect with my new community in PNG, as rugby league is the biggest sport in PNG and most of the people barrack for the Queensland State of Origin team.

Helen: Our experiences as PE teachers also enabled us to spend time with people in more informal ways. Max has hiked the Kokoda Trail and four times has hiked Mount Wilhelm, the highest mountain in PNG. A strong endurance for hiking helps to support translation teams by sharing the Jesus Film with remote villages. Teaching Missionary Kids was a big part of our lives as we worked in PNG and we loved the opportunities to input into their lives.

What was it like overseeing the training program for PILAT?

Max: This was a real highlight of my time in PNG. The Pacific Institute for Languages, Arts and Translation was set up to train Papua New Guineans for Bible translation, literacy and other language development work. It involved taking a huge risk but it was worth it. The program welcomes translators from all villages – the languages literally come to you! The people are hungry to learn but they are geographically isolated and educationally poor. They often make incredible sacrifices to get there, taking a boat, bus and plane. But we’ve found a real synergy in training local translators which is gaining momentum with the local churches. Last year, nearly 500 people attended courses at PILAT.

What are some of the biggest adjustments you’ve had to make going to PNG and now coming back to Australia?

Max: There is a massive cultural shock when you first move into a third world country. It can be very difficult to know where to invest with your giving and your personal social justice program. There are just so many needs.

Helen: It was hard being away from extended family and friends but transitioning back into your home country can be just as difficult. When you’ve been exposed to communities lacking food, water and basic needs, hearing about first world problems in Western media is very grating. Experiencing the hardships other people go through on a daily basis has put things into perspective for us.

Your journey has involved a great deal of change. What does this new transition mean to you?

Max: There are many transitions in life. It can feel a bit overwhelming – but you learn that God always turns up. You need him when you’re stepping out of your comfort zone. You need to pray for supernatural wisdom. One of the most challenging things as I move into this role will be to also transition the organisation. We need to be looking for new ways to do the same job in a new world. I think we also need to be more respectful of the minorities we are working with and to ensure that we are listening to the churches and enabling them to be more involved. Partnerships with other Global Alliance organisations will also be a big focus as we work with other agencies interested in Bible translation.

Helen: I also love the idea of enthusing people in the task of Bible translation. But I know that this won’t come without its own difficulties. This transition is exciting because we are relying on God to show us what he wants for the future of Wycliffe Australia. Proverbs 3:5-6 has been a verse we try to live by: Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him and he will make your paths straight (NIV). When you surrender your will to him, trust and make yourself available, he lights the path ahead.


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