Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Learning to Survive

The average missionary stays about 7 years before returning to the U.S.  While there are many reasons missionaries return, it’s beneficial to the mission organization and to the ministry for them to stay as long as possible.  So, last month during our annual mission meeting, I was asked to share with the group any insights I might have about how to endure on the mission field.  I shared two stories, both of which occurred in 1987 - our second year here in the Philippines.

Jan and I were nearing the end of language study.  We were attending our second annual mission meeting.  During a break in one of our sessions, I was outside talking with a veteran missionary, Stan, asking him about starting churches.  “Stan, what would be the best strategy to use?  How many churches should I expect to start during my first term?  What should be my goal?”

His answer to my last question was two words, “Just survive.”  New missionaries often set for themselves unrealistic expectations for their ministry, then become discouraged when the expectations are unmet.  Unexpected events will happen that cause further discouragement.  The weight of living in a new yet unfamiliar culture can be heavy.  Language learning is a stress.  Living conditions are always a challenge.  Any of these factors can send a new missionary home.  Added together, the words, “just survive” becomes a worthy goal.

The other event occurred just after we had finished language study.  I was ready to begin my ministry.  So, I decided I needed to hear from the Lord about how to begin.  What should be my focus?  Where should I start?  What strategy should I use?  How was I to win this part of the Philippines to the Lord?  Jan allowed me to check into a cheap hotel for 3 days and 3 nights bringing nothing with me except water and my Bible.  I have never heard God speak to me in an audible voice, but a few times He has come close, and this was one of those times.  Near the end of the third day, God spoke to me.

“Mark, you need to be a better husband and father.  Here’s what you need to do…”  Within a couple of minutes, I had a list of things I needed to do better, like help Jan with the dishes, play with David and Sara more, change Sara’s diapers, say encouraging words to Jan, and other things.  I knew this was from the Lord because at no time during those 3 days did I think I needed to be a better husband or father.  I thought I was doing OK in that department.  But God let me know that my ministry to others would never be successful if I neglected, even a little, my ministry to my own family.

Prioritizing my family rather than my work, and keeping realistic expectations for myself and ministry have helped me enjoy an exciting missionary career for the past 30 years.  I suspect that these are relevant for whatever area of work or ministry God calls us to.  May God continue to be glorified as we listen and follow His voice.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Encouraging One Another

I am in another Asian country this week meeting with several hundred of my fellow missionaries.  We gather once a year to worship, pray, give reports, and discuss strategy.  It’s an exciting time to hear how God is at work, especially here in Asia.  Perhaps the biggest thing we do at this meeting is to encourage one another.

Living on the other side of the world in a foreign culture carries unique stresses.  In addition, being on the front lines of expanding God’s kingdom against the evil forces of this world adds to the stress.  I have been blessed this week to see the many ways we encouage one another.

The first step for new missionaries is language learning.  During our yearly meeting, we set aside time to celebrate those who have achieved various levels of language proficiency.  After their name is called, thunderous clapping amidst shouts of praise are given as they come forward to receive their certificate of completion.

Several times during the week, we pause to recognize those who have endured unusual hardships during the past year or have demonstrated exemplary commitment to the mission task.  Once again, a standing ovation with an applause of appreciation express our respect as they receive a certificate for their faithfulness and perseverance.

During each worship service, we focus on the missionaries working among a particular people group.  As they stand, we gather around them with supportive prayer and arms of love, lifting up to the Lord both their ministry and their personal prayer requests.

During our final day, we also give certificates to those who have reached 5, 10, 15, 20, and 25 years of mission service.  We stand on either side of the aisle reaching out to ‘high 5’ the recipient as he runs the gauntlet of whistles, shouts, and deafening applause.  Last year I received my 30 year certificate.

During the week we also give special recognition to our graduating MK (missionary kid) high school seniors, to our organization leaders, to those who volunteer from the States to come help us during the week, and for all of those who work to make our meeting possible.  

God tells us to think about “how to encourage one another toward love and good deeds” Heb.10:24.  In a time when Christians are facing increasing pressures and persecutions, it’s a good idea to think of creative ways we can encourage one another to “not grow weary in doing good” and to “bear one another’s burdens” Galatians 6.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Making Arrows

During recent weeks, the topic of having children has come up several times in my conversations with Filipinos.  Now, I’m a proud parent who loves bragging on my kids.  (Have you noticed?)  I’m amazed they have turned out so well considering my own shortcomings as a father.  But the usual response I get from Filipinos is that I’m just ‘lucky’ to have such good kids.  

So the question I have been asking people is: What should be the reason for a married couple to have children?  The answers I have received go like this: to feel fulfilled; to experience being a parent; to pass on my heritage; to feel loved; to have someone take care of me when I’m old.  Notice that these answers are rather self-centered.  While children can certainly bring about these experiences, they are not the reason Scripture says we should have children.

Before David was born, Jan and I were challenged by Psalm 127, “Like arrows in the hand of a warrior, so are the children of one’s youth.  Blessed is the man whose quiver is full of them.”  A stick becomes an arrow after it is whittled smooth to remove imperfections, equipped with feathers for stability and direction, and given a point to defeat the enemy.  Likewise, children must be disciplined to remove wrong behavior, taught character for stability and godly principles for direction, and made to know that their purpose in the world is to defeat evil and glorify God.

One day Jesus asked some fault-finders whose image was on a coin.  “Caesar”, was their answer.  Jesus said, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.”  Genesis 1 says that we are created in God’s image.  Therefore, as parents, our children do not belong to us, but to God.  We are merely stewards entrusted by God with children for the purpose of making them into arrows useful in the Master’s hand.

Any parent who desires children for personal fulfillment may be setting themselves up for disappointment.   It doesn’t take too many days of dirty diapers, crying, hitting, biting, shouting, name-calling, broken dishes, ruined clothes, rebellious attitudes, and a host of other grievances, to hope that there is a better way to find fulfillment.  Indeed there is.  From our experience, only when Jesus is our first love – our source for acceptance and significance, can we have the patience to love these warring little creatures in our home.

One has to be intentional to make arrows; they don’t just form by themselves.  God entrusted parents, not schools, for this task.  Jan and I were motivated daily by our God-given assignment to raise kids who were mighty in spirit, who recognized the enemy (lust, greed, rebellion, anger, selfishness, etc.), and whose purpose was to show up the world for the darkness that is in it so that the light of Christ could shine clearly through them.

A few hours ago I was talking with Hannah via Skype.  I asked her why she would want children some day.  Her quick answer, “To take on the challenge of raising kids who will be good.  Our world needs good people.”  Exactly!

Monday, May 2, 2016

A Praise for Jonathan

October 9, 2009.  Martha, Jonathan, and I were in the Philippine city of Cebu.  Early in the morning I left Martha at an International school where she took her day-long PSAT – pre-college entrance exam.  I then took Jonathan to a Pearson Testing center to take the CompTIA A+ certification exam, a test usually taken by college seniors seeking to become certified in computer troubleshooting and repair.  Jonathan was 13.

Months earlier I had concluded that computer hardware was one of Jonathan’s strengths.  For years our family endured Jonathan’s curiosity of taking things apart and attempting to put them back together.  Eventually he got good at it.  Before his 13th birthday, I bought 3 super thick college computer hardware textbooks and said, “Jonathan, see if you can work through these and we’ll see if you can pass the CompTIA exam.”  

Now I waited nervously in the Pearson Testing center reception room.  Jonathan was inside the next room at a computer terminal answering hundreds of questions.  After 3 hours, Jonathan came out.  As he did so, the testing supervisor gave a thumbs up.  Jonathan had passed.  He was now a certified computer repairman!  For the rest of his homeschooled high school, we emphasized computer courses.  

Soon after his 17th birthday, I enrolled Jonathan in college to earn an Associates degree in computer networking.  Midway through his 2nd year, Cisco Co. (the worlds supplier of networking equipment) hired him full time as a laboratory technician.  Last month, we got the good news that Cisco promoted him to work as a team member on a computer network security team.  It’s rare for Cisco to hire someone to this level of employment who is still a teenager.

This also marks a milestone of sorts for me.  All my children have now finished their formal education and hold professional jobs.  They are fully self-supporting.  Daddy’s wallet can rest.  Today I got teary-eyed as I talked about my kids to one of our pastors.  I’m so proud of each one of them.  God’s grace on them has been strong.  I’m super blessed.

Friday, April 15, 2016

Summer Days

April and May are the hottest months in the Philippines. It’s the later part of dry season and cloudless days heat the air and bake the ground.  By early June the rains begin and clouds blanket the country in shade.  For farmers, there’s not much to do until the rainy season comes and planting season begins.  

Because of the intense heat, April and May are also the months of summer break for schools.  Tin roofed buildings become ovens in the afternoon, just too hot to study.  Summer break is when churches (and missionaries) are quite busy with activities for the adults and programs for the kids.

During the past 3 weeks I have traveled from farms along the coast to bamboo homes in the mountains to conduct Bible trainings.  During the weeks ahead we will be busy with rice/vitamin distributions, Vacation Bible School, youth camp, weddings, associational meeting, and more Bible trainings.

On a sad note, Rev. Jun Ceballos (Feb. 20 and Aug. 3 blog postings) passed away this past Sunday morning after his kidney cancer returned about a year ago.  Just last month, his sweet wife was diagnosed with breast cancer.  They have 4 children who love their parents dearly.  Pray for them.

In the midst of sad events, hot days, and busy happenings, it takes effort to “be still and know that I am God.”  But Isaiah 26:3 reminds me, “You will keep in perfect peace those whose minds are steadfast, because they trust in You.”  Please pray for me, that during these summer days neither my mind nor my trust will waiver as I labor to serve the only One I cannot live without.

Monday, March 28, 2016

David and Andrea in the Philippines

The little house I live in has 2 rooms downstairs – a small living room that can comfortably seat about 6, and a kitchen with a table.  Upstairs has 3 rooms – my bedroom and 2 smaller rooms, one which I use for storage and the other for guests.  Up to now, my guests have been few, mostly pastors.  But this past 2 weeks, I was privileged to have David and his wife, Andrea, stay for 6 nights, followed by husband/wife missionary colleagues who stayed 2 nights.

I flew to Manila on Sunday, the 13th, to meet David and Andrea, this being Andrea’s first trip to Asia.  The next day, the three of us traveled 1 hour by boat to the famous island of Corregidor, where WW2 American forces made their last stand against an invading Japanese army.  Corregidor had been one of the premier military installations outside the U.S., complete with barracks, hotels, hospital, and recreation facilities.  The island was heavily fortified with large canons, air artillery, and a huge tunnel built deep into a mountain.  But Japanese bombings destroyed much of the fortifications, forcing Gen. MacArthur and the Allied forces to flee.  After more bombings, the island was retaken in 1945.  Today it is a top tourist attraction and a monument to the thousands who gave their lives to defend the Pacific islands.

On Tuesday morning, we visited the American Cemetery in Manila, the largest such cemetery in Asia.  Over 17,000 crosses layed in concentric circles mark the grave sites of Allied soldiers who fought in WW2.  In the center of the cemetery is a memorial walkway that lists over 36,000 soldiers who were missing in action, whose graves are “known only to God”.

As I returned to Iloilo on Tuesday evening, David and Andrea flew to the island of Palawan where they enjoyed 2 nights at a secluded beach resort that included a boat ride through the Puerto Princessa Subterranean River, recently proclaimed as one of the New 7 Natural Wonders of the World.  On Friday, they flew to Iloilo and we drove to Roxas City, our home from 1987 to 1995.  On Saturday morning, David and Andrea gave their testimonies to about 80 from our outreach near Roxas.  Andrea played Amazing Grace on her trumpet and gave quick trumpet lessons to some curious children.

On Sunday, Andrea again played her trumpet in morning worship as she and David again shared their testimonies.  During the week, we welcomed visitors to the house, as well as toured Iloilo, showing Andrea the places where David grew up.  On Thursday, David and Andrea took a day trip to a nearby island where they enjoyed snorkeling in amazingly clear waters.  It was obviously difficult to see them leave on Friday evening.

The next 2 days I enjoyed the fellowship of 2 missionary colleagues, which helped fill the void of David and Andrea’s absence.  But now the house is once again empty.  Projects are waiting for my attention, people needing to be visited, and ministry plans ready to be implemented.  But the past 2 weeks were very pleasant as we retraced moments from David’s past and anticipated joyful times in his future as he and Andrea continue their first year together.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

The Church in the Wildwood

A request from a pastor brought me to Lemery, a town I had not been to before.  The last several miles of road wound through tree covered mountains.  Arriving in Lemery, I located the small dirt road that traveled north toward the location of the church where I was to speak.

At the end of the road I was met by the pastor.  “Just follow me, sir,” he gleefully instructed.  The first part of the trail was through rice paddies.  Farmers build elevated mud paths in their rice fields primarily to contain rain water.  These paths are just barely wide enough for young nimble Filipino farmers to walk on.  But for big lumbering Americans they can be a real challenge to navigate.

After about a half mile of meandering through fields and forest, we arrived at the pastor’s house, a simple bamboo structure with a nepa roof.  Attached to the house was a kitchen – a concrete sink surrounded by rusted tin sheets.  Smoke billowed from the wood burning stove.  Food was being prepared.

After traveling for nearly 3 hours, nature was calling me.  The pastor embarrassingly directed me to the place where nature’s business was done.  Just beside a tree on a little piece of barren ground (but still in plane view of anyone who wanted to look) was a badly stained toilet bowl – just the bowl, surrounded by more discarded tin sheets, about waist high.  No water was in the bowl, just a hole.  (I don’t know why I bother to look!)  Fortunately I was able to do my business behind a more secluded tree.

Next the pastor’s house was the church building - an open, hollow block structure with tin roofs, some of which were fairly new.  The pastor explained, “When super Typhoon Hiayan passed through, it destroyed nearly everything here.  The government gave each family 8 tin roof sheets and we used ours to put on this church building.”

Government donated solar panels powered a little amplifier that the pastor used to summon the church members.  The children came first, eager to see the white American, a rare sight in these parts.  The parents and farmers followed.  About 30 people gathered in the small church structure, amused at the American who could speak their language.  For the rest of the morning and a couple of hours after lunch, I shared about God’s love to people who were hungry for it.

I guess these kind of places are my favorite.  Their lifestyle is simple, their needs are few, their values are strong.  It’s easy to see that one doesn’t really need much in order to live from day to day.  From the little hilltop we could breath the freshness of nearby plants, crops, and trees while observing small native-built houses on distant mountains. 

Best of all, the people here seem to care more about their spiritual life than folks in the city, where materialism, entertainment, and busyness seem to drown out any attempt God makes to speak to peoples’ hearts.  I hope, in the days to come, I can find more places like this, where the sky is clear and blue, and where hearts are open and ready, to fellowship with God.