Wednesday, July 19, 2017

"You Just Have to Go"

Years ago in Russia, a Christian pastor was arrested and put in prison.  His wife and children were sent to live (or die) in the cold wilderness of Siberia.  One wintery night, in their dilapidated wooden cabin, the children divided their last crust of bread, drank their last cup of dirty tea, before climbing into bed, still hungry.

Kneeling to say their prayers, they asked, “Mother, where are we going to get some more food?  Do you think Papa knows where we are?”  Their mother assured them that their heavenly Father knows where they are and what they needed.  They prayed.

Thirty kilometers away, in the middle of the night, God woke up the deacon of the only church in that place and instructed him. “Get out of bed. Harness your horse, hitch the horse to the sled, load up all the extra vegetables that the church has harvested, the meat, and the other food that the group has collected, and take it to that pastor’s family living outside the village.  They are hungry!”

The deacon said, “But, Lord. I can’t do that! It’s below zero outside.  My horse might freeze and I might freeze!”

The Holy Spirit told him. “You must go! The pastor’s family is in trouble.”

The man argued, “Lord, you’ve got to know that there are wolves everywhere.  They could eat my horse and if they do, they’ll then eat me! I’ll never make it back.”

But the Holy Spirit told him, “You don’t have to come back.  You just have to go.”  

So he did, making several trips to the needy family in the months that followed.

Last week during our annual mission meeting, we heard stories of how God is at work from Vietnam to Thailand, from Laos to Indonesia.  We were challenged by our IMB president, David Platt, that the measure of our success as missionaries is not how many we baptize, the number of churches we start, or how many leaders we train, as important as all of these are.  But our ultimate goal, in the midst of all our hard work, is simply to be faithful.  When the Lord calls, we go.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

A Besieged City

Eight Christians were attempting to flee the ISIS controlled city of Marawi in the southern Philippine island of Mindanao.  As they walked the backroads toward a neighboring city, they were stopped by ISIS militants carrying a black flag.  “Do you confess Allah as God?”  “Do you follow the Quran?”  When the Christians confessed Christ, their hands were tied and then the militants executed them, throwing their bodies into a ditch.  One of the militants placed a sign by the bodies that said “Munafic” which means “traitor” or “liar”.

Ian Torres is a Filipino house painter.  When ISIS invaded the city, he and 2 other Christians hid in a basement.  Outside they heard the militants shouting, “Allahu akbar’ and asking neighbors about their religion. “We could only hear them”, Torres said.  “If they could not answer questions about Quran verses, gunfire immediately followed.”  After 2 weeks of hiding in the basement and having almost no food to eat, Ian Torres and his companions slipped away during the night, climbing over dead bodies in the street, then swimming the Agos River under sniper fire before eventually escaping the besieged city.

So far, about 300 militants, 70 soldiers, and dozens of civilians have been killed in the battle for control of Marawi.  The commander of U.S. Pacific forces, Admiral Harry Harris, told congressional leaders that Marawi is a wake-up call that ISIS is seeking to expand their Islamic State to Asia.  The fighting has forced about 300,000 Filipinos from their homes.  Those remaining are being held as hostages.  Young women and girls are forced into sex slavery for the militants.  Portions of Marawi city are in ruins.  Philippine President Duturte has declared martial law – military rule, over the area.  

Why the city of Marawi?  When I lived in Mindanao in the early 1980’s, we traveled extensively throughout the island.  But we never traveled near Marawi.  Even then, the city was controlled by Muslims and generally unsafe for Christians.  Today the city, more than anywhere else in the Philippines, offers ISIS the greatest chance of finding sympathizers.  During raids, the Philippine military has uncovered hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribe money for locals who will join and fight with ISIS.  The fact that fighting continues shows the resources and determination ISIS has in establishing an Asian stronghold.

But there are many Christians living in the surrounding cities where Marawi refugees are fleeing to.  Now is our time to pray that these Christians will let their light shine brightly so those living in darkness can find their way to a new life of inward peace and joy through Jesus Christ.  The intensity of pain and suffering that the people of Marawi are experiencing now are unimaginable.  As we pray for an end to the conflict, we also pray for a new beginning in God’s kingdom for those who will call on the name of the Lord.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

A Filipino Wedding

Unlike the U.S., the authority to solemnize marriages in the Philippines is strictly limited by the government.  I have never sought such authority because of the paperwork and costs.  Anyway, we have always had one or two pastors who had obtained such authority.  My preference has always been for new couples to bond with their pastor rather than with me.

It is also a known fact that many couples here in the Philippines live together out of wedlock, not because they don’t want to be married, but because of the cost.  Like in the U.S., weddings are expensive.  A lavish meal is even expected as part of the ceremony.  Also, completing a marriage license can be difficult for a couple when government officials insist on bribes before they approve the license.

So, when a sweet young couple in one of our churches asked me to officiate their wedding, I referred them to one of our pastors.  Unfortunately, that pastor was leaving for the U.S., leaving only one other pastor who had a marriage license.  “Mark,” he said, “why don’t you just officiate the wedding and I will sign the certificate.”  I agreed.

A Filipino wedding is complicated.  In addition to the traditional parts in American weddings (giving away the bride, the message, exchange of vows and rings, and the pronouncement) Filipino weddings add the recognition of sponsors, the giving of coins, the covering of the veil, and the wrapping of the cord.  But no problem, I knew there would be a rehearsal the night before the wedding and I could familiarize myself with how to conduct these parts of the ceremony.

However, other than the couple, the principle people in the ceremony didn’t show up for the rehearsal.  Most Filipinos just don’t see the need for it.  Unless there is a meal, why come?  So, the rehearsal time was cut short and since I was over 2 hours away from home, I spent the night in a cheap hotel.  

The ceremony was scheduled to begin at 9 the next morning but, in typical fashion, began closer to 10 a.m.  The view from the seaside “resort” was beautiful.  From the outdoor podium shaded by palm trees, I could see distant islands surrounded by deep blue ocean water.  When I asked, “who gives away the bride”, her parents had to be alerted and nudged that this is where they were supposed to say something.  During a special number, I even had to step aside and ask a friend to explain to me the meaning of the vail and cord.

At various points in the ceremony a few people had to be instructed ‘on the run’, but overall the event proceeded relatively well.  The message gave me an opportunity to explain God’s purposes for marriage and the difference between a contract and a covenant.  All seemed pleased with the ceremony, especially with the meal that followed.  Despite the inconveniences and lapses, I was blessed to play a small part in the union of a godly couple.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

The Harvest Field

In a few hours I will leave on a trip to our annual youth camp on the west side of Panay Island.  It’s about a 4 hour drive across decent roads. The last hour and a half passes some beautiful coastal views, especially at sunset.  Seasonal waterfalls are often visible along the mountain range that rises from the ocean floor.

About 100 of our young people will be gathered at Camp Moriah - 2 acres of beach front forested land owned by one of our church members.  The 4-day camp will feature games, speakers, music, and special activities that will serve to encourage each attendee to grow their relationship with the Lord and share their faith to others.

Yesterday I traveled two and a half hours to our neighboring province where Pastor Ronald manages a computer school while also evangelizing and discipling students.  We left 6 big boxes of school supplies for the children of several dozen families where Ronald does his outreach.  The supplies will be divided up into individual packets with a gospel presentation inside.  Each child will know that these supplies were given in Jesus’ name.

On Sunday I will travel to the interior of our island, also in mountainous terrain, to distribute school supplies to the needy families in our churches.  I will have the opportunity to share with them God’s Word and a message of encouragement.  The school year here in the Philippines begins the first full week of June, so this is an opportunity to share God’s love and blessings among the churches we work with.

In the days ahead I will be traveling to other areas to distribute school supplies, to speak in some of our churches, to lead Bible studies, to conduct trainings, and even to officiate a wedding.  Last week I heard that one of our most distant churches baptized 8 new believers just 2 weeks ago.  Another church purchased a vehicle so that they could transport their members to the 4 outreaches they oversee and which they hope will someday become churches.

All around God is at work.  He works because people have prayed for a harvest of souls, others have planted the seeds of the gospel, and still others have harvested the spiritual fruit.  Person by person God’s kingdom grows. 

Friday, May 5, 2017

Hospital Culture

One of the hazards of living in the Philippines is food.  Asians seem to have an inborn immunity to many of the micro creatures that inhabit tropical plants and animals. These bio bugs often make their way into the mouths and stomachs of unsuspecting victims.  On Sunday, March 19, I was a victim.

We celebrated Sunday morning worship at a church member's house followed by a lavish lunch of meats, vegetables, fruits, and more meats.  I ate.  Early the next morning, something was telling me that all was not well in the inner chambers of my anatomy.  By mid-morning my stomach was bloating and pain was stabbing my left abdomen.  

Caution told me to go to the hospital.  But staying in a hospital here is not the same as in the U.S.  I resisted, telling myself that maybe the pain would subside.  It didn’t.  By early afternoon the pain was intense so I drove myself to the emergency room of a nearby hospital and checked in.  Their initial diagnosis was that I had some type of intestinal blockage.

One of the caveats of Filipino hospital culture is that a patient must never be alone.  A family member, neighbor, or friend must be present to help take care of the patient and facilitate the purchase of medicines and other needed supplies.  As an introvert who values privacy, I really didn’t want anyone to know I was in the hospital.  But after 2 hours of pain and going back and forth to the pharmacy for meds, I relented and called a nearby friend.

Unfortunately, the wife of my friend is our WMU director.  By the time I was wheeled to my room, waves of church visitors began converging around my hospital bed.  Another aspect of Filipino hospital culture is that a hospital is considered public space, therefore whatever takes place inside is OK for public viewing. 

So, when a male nurse entered the room to inject my backside with a suppository, I knew I was in trouble.  “Oh my,” I thought, “this is going to be interesting.”  As the nurse slipped on his rubber gloves no one made a move to leave.  Everyone was ready for the show!  Finally I said, “Excuse me, but I think this procedure requires a high degree of privacy.”

Some got up to leave, but others seemed confused as to why this required them to step outside.  I even had to tell the nurse to wait until everyone was out before he lifted my hospital gown.  But he did wait and I was successful in preventing everyone from seeing my better side.

After a couple of days the pain eventually lessened and my insides returned to normal.  Most likely something I ate the day before played havoc with my plumbing.  But the incident was added to my list of cultural adventures and gave me more stories to tell about life in the Philippines.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

An Oasis of Refreshment

“I never knew we were so many.”

“This has been one of the most wonderful weeks of my life.”

“I have learned so much this week.”

"This is what heaven must be like." 

“I have been made happy!”

These were some of the comments during our final worship capping our 3 day retreat.  216 church members coming from our 22 churches gathered at a comfortable sea-side resort about 45 minutes outside Iloilo City.  Inspirational worship services, informative workshops, encouraging fellowship, abundant food, and lots of fun characterized the well-planned retreat.  For many of the attendees, this was the nicest place they had ever stayed in.

Nearly half of our church delegates were young people, age 16 and up.  At a time in their life when they are bombarded with intense temptations and life-changing decisions, the retreat provided them with a much needed Biblical worldview from which to make wise choices.  Our topics included, Knowing the Difference between Love and Lust, Understanding Youth Conflicts and finding Biblical Solutions, How to Build Godly Relationships, Learning to Discern the Dangers in our Technology-centered Culture.  

For our older folks, we had topics of Financial Freedom, Balanced Leadership, Sharing God’s Word, Raising a Godly Family, and Health and Wellness.  During each of our 3 worship services, at least 2 of our pastors gave testimony of God’s work in their lives.  We saw them as real people with real struggles, all relying on a wise and powerful God.  On Good Friday, all of us participated in a dramatic presentation of the Jewish Passover meal as we learned how each of the elements in the meal pointed to Jesus Christ as the fulfillment of the Messianic promise.

Of course, all were very grateful to the IMB and to those individuals who contributed so much so that the people here could attend the retreat at minimal cost.  Actually, the cost per person for the 3 day retreat was about $45, the price for a budget hotel room for 1 night in the U.S.  But here, a dollar can be stretched so much further and accomplish so much more.  Everyone voiced their desire to do this again, but budget limitations means that it is uncertain if we can ever do this again.

The retreat concluded with 3 new believers being baptized in the resort’s large swimming pool.  At a time when worldly influences and cultural pressures are oppressing God’s people, the retreat was an oasis of refreshment.  Thank you so much for each of you who prayed.  My goal was to see God’s people encouraged in their faith and, based on the comments I heard, that goal was aptly met.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Sharing the Message of Jesus

In the Philippines, the school year ends in late March, with baccalaureate services and graduation ceremonies crowding the final week.  Student leaders and college professors are in the hunt for speakers, which often gives me the opportunity to do what I enjoy doing – talking about Jesus. Of the seven major universities in our city (the most in any city of the Philippines outside Manila) I have had the privilege to speak in four.

Yesterday, over a hundred graduating students from Western Visayas State University gathered for a one-day retreat, with me as their speaker.  For 3 hours I shared about God’s design for men and women as image bearers of our Creator.  Instilled with the purpose of reflecting God’s nature, mankind failed in his mission when he chose sin rather than obedience.  But with Christ’s payment of our death penalty and His offering of the Holy Spirit, the opportunity to reclaim our life purpose is available to anyone who calls on the name of the Lord.  I concluded with an invitation to join God’s kingdom.

Afterwards I reflected about the secularization of America and realized how difficult it would be today to share the message of Jesus in a state-run university.  With the increasing moral and intellectual depravity that is inflicting America’s youth, the message they need to hear the most is now largely outlawed in our schools.  While the worldly influences of pop-western culture continue to spread around the world like a plague, the people of the Philippines maintain an openness to things that are eternal.  At some point in the near future I suspect the Philippines will surpass the United States in terms of openness to the gospel.  We will need missionaries from the Philippines to carry the gospel to American shores!

As a part of building God’s kingdom here, we will be having our 3-day retreat on April 12-15 during Holy Week with the largest gathering we’ve ever had of our churches from this part of the Philippines.  Please continue praying that the Lord would pour out His Spirit and grace in every participant and that all would be done for God’s glory.  Also, tomorrow is our 7th BOOST graduation of our agricultural and Bible training ministry.  Pray for the 13 young men who will be returning to their home places, prepared to share with their family and friends what they have learned from God’s Word.

On the home front, baby Moses continues to develop inside her mommy’s tummy.  David and Andrea are preparing their house for her arrival around the 1st of August.  Sara has moved into a new place, a house shared with 2 other Christian ladies.  She is now 8 minutes away from where Jonathan lives and 15 minutes away from the apartment of Martha and Philip.  In addition to her work at the George Ranch, Hannah and a friend have teamed together as conference speakers, traveling to different places in the U.S. to train organizations on how to effectively work with volunteers. She and her siblings try to get together at least once a month, usually at David’s house, for family fellowship.

I hope your Spring is off to a good start and that you are experiencing the presence of our Lord at work in your life.  Blessings to each of you who read these updates.  Your prayers make a difference!