Saturday, September 23, 2017

Pastor Ratings

Earlier this week I sat down with my dear friend Pastor Ronald and his wife Mavielle whom our family has known for the past 27 years.  We reminisced of stories from the past when we saw God at work.  Changed lives.  Miracle provisions.  Incredible testimonies.  Instant healings.  Today, Ronald is probably sharing the gospel with more people through the computer school he manages than any other pastor in our entire region.  And he never went to Bible school.

My supervisor recently asked if we should focus on providing more theological education to our churches.  I’m all for education, but I did a little research and came to some conclusions.  First, I made a list of all our pastors for the past 20 years.  Then I gave each one a subjective rating from 1 to 10.  Ten meant he was an outstanding pastor, mature in godly character, able to communicate well, and strong in his relationship with the Lord.

I had 32 names on my list, each with a rating.  Next I divided the pastors into 2 groups: those with a Bible school or seminary degree and those who only had some informal or self-training.  Interestingly, those with a degree had an average rating of 5.6, but those without a degree averaged 8.3.  I further noted 8 pastors with whom we had problems with (bad attitudes, immorality, irresponsible).  Of the 8, 7 had degrees.

In addition, I’ve noticed that the enrollment at some of the theological education schools in Iloilo is far below what it has been in the past, even when offering free tuition.  There just isn’t as many people interested in spiritual things as before.  My conclusion is that theological education is not the best determiner of a quality pastor.  Rather, pastors who are mighty in spirit and mature in character will do far better, regardless of his theological knowledge.

I think of Pastor Joey who leads one of our largest churches in a neighboring province, who also organizes retreats and fellowships for our other churches in the area.  Never went to Bible school or seminary.  Same for Pastor Joshua who leads our largest church on a neighboring island.  His God-given love for people and humble spirit endears him to his church.

As I sat across from Bro. Ronald, listening to his amazing stories of God at work, I remember the Scripture that says “knowledge puffs up, but love edifies.”  Please pray with me that God will give us more men who are humble in character, mighty in spirit, and passionate to see God’s kingdom grow.

Friday, September 8, 2017

Hurricanes and Typhoons

I’m watching the news as Hurricane Irma plows its way through the Caribbean islands toward southern Florida.  Fifteen casualties are already reported; more are expected.  Last week it was Hurricane Harvey that dropped a U.S. record rainfall on Houston, causing over 30 deaths.

Fortunately, the U.S. has resources to prepare for such calamities.  We have dikes, dams, reservoirs, spillways, flood zones, warning systems, shelters, insurance programs, FEMA, and others.  But countries like the Philippines cannot afford such infrastructure and programs.  When a typhoon/hurricane hits, the human toll is much greater.

Each year, the Philippines is hit by about 6 typhoons.  (A hurricane originating in the Pacific Ocean is called a typhoon.)  Nearly each one results in deaths, ranging from a few into the thousands.  Houses are blown away, mudslides wash away villages, trees are toppled, and floods pour through rivers and lowlands.  

In 2008, Typhoon Frank killed 1,400 people, about half of them were here in Iloilo where rapid flood waters covered nearly half the city.  Two years earlier, Typhoon Reming killed an equal number of people.  Typhoon Winnie in 2004 killed 1,600.  In 2012, Typhoon Bopha killed 1,900.  But none of these typhoons come close to the loss of life and damage caused by the two worst typhoons to pound the Philippines.  I have a friend who lived through both.

Inday’s family lived in Ormoc when she was a girl.  Inday’s father was a business man that allowed him to live in a concrete house near the river.  When Typhoon Uring struck their island in 1991, torrents of water raced down the mountain flooding the city of Ormoc.  Inday’s family had to climb to the roof of their house.  As the waters rushed by, Inday remembers seeing her best friend struggling in the water, lifting her hand in the vain hope that someone might rescue her.  But she was washed out to sea and never found.  The death toll was more than 5,000.

A few years later, Inday’s family moved to Tacloban.  On November 8, 2013, the strongest typhoon/hurricane to ever strike land blew into Tacloban with wind gusts of up to 195 mph.  Thousands of houses were totally destroyed, infrastructure was wiped out for months, flood waters inundated the entire city.  Inday’s home was nearly a mile from the coast, but the waters rose several feet into their home, forcing Inday and her family to crawl onto the top shelves of their closet, expecting any moment for their roof to be blow off or the waters to continue rising.

But after two hours of terror, the water and wind began to recede.  The next day, desperate for food and water, Inday remembers climbing through the broken window of the grocery store, still flooded with water.  Stepping over dead bodies, she and others gathered what items they could find.  For several days, the streets were clogged with debris mingled with corpses.  Total casualties: 7,000 plus.

Aside from the physical destruction typhoons cause, there’s an enormous emotional cost for those who survive.  Inday still has nightmares of fierce winds and rising waters.  Several of her friends perished in the storms.  Uncontrollable fears often plague survivors whenever storms come.

In counseling Christians who experience such storms, we focus on resting in God as the source of our security, not this earth.  We comfort ourselves with the assurance of heaven.  We renew our trust in a loving God who can work all things for good, even tragedies, to conform us even more into the image and character of Jesus Christ.  He will always be our solid ground of faith no matter what this world throws at us.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Community Development

The narrow road was curvy, snaking a path through rice fields and clumps of bamboo houses.  Mountains hung on either side of us, covered with coconut trees and cogon grass.  Monsoon rains had softened the underlying dirt, making the certainty of our arrival a bit more suspect.  My passengers were the 3 staff members from our BOOST-agricultural ministry, 3 recent BOOST graduates, and a fellow missionary.

Fortunately God’s angels were able to keep both me and my car from stumbling and we arrived at the one-room village community lodge at 9 a.m.  For 30 minutes we greeted the villagers as they entered.  This was the home of one of our BOOST graduates and he had texted the village leaders to gather the people to hear a presentation about how to improve their community.

For the previous 3 days, my fellow missionary/agriculturalist had trained us on Community Development – a process on how to help community members improve their livelihood while allowing us to cultivate relationships to share the gospel.  We learned that there are two categories of human needs: acute and chronic.  Acute needs arise from disasters (wars, floods, famine, etc.) and require immediate outside resources to relieve hunger and meet other human needs.  Chronic needs develop over longer periods and are the result of deeper problems within the community.  

Interestingly, most benevolent organizations meet chronic needs with outsiders coming into the community to distribute food, provide health care, build roads, improve sanitation, and other give-aways.  Aside from being very expensive, such an approach usually robs the native people of their self-dignity, creates dependency on the outsiders, and hinders the people from developing their own creative solutions.  Haiti, for example, receives more outside humanitarian aid than any other country, yet it remains one of the poorest.

As the villagers seated themselves, we began asking questions about the community.  We explained that we were not there to give away anything, but instead to help them identify their own community problems, prioritize them, and using readily available resources to come up with an action plan to begin solving the problems.  The process would take several weeks and involve several meetings.  But the goal was to strengthen the community by educating them how to creatively meet their own needs: physical, spiritual, psychological, social, and economic.

Interestingly, Jesus and His disciples met human needs while sharing the gospel twice as many times as when they shared the gospel alone.  They healed, fed the hungry, and delivered from evil spirits, while sharing the gospel message.  When we do community development, our goal is to demonstrate God’s love by building capacity and confidence in a community.  As we go through the process, we build relationships.  More times than not, they inquire why we are there to help them.  When we share the gospel, they are far more likely to listen and respond, knowing we are there to help them.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Christy Joy

Christy Joy made her appearance into the world on Saturday morning, July 29.  Eight pounds and 21 inches long.  Sara and Andrea’s mother were with David in the delivery room as Andrea labored for several long hours.  Fortunately, Christy made a natural exit and was welcomed into the loving arms of her parents.  

I didn’t get to see pictures of Christy until yesterday morning when I arrived home from a week-long ministry trip where me and several others focused on community development with a kingdom purpose.  We met with 4 groups of community leaders, assisting them in meeting local needs while sharing with them the love of Jesus.

Andrea’s labor was a bit of a drama that lasted over a day as her contractions progressed.  Martha assisted with her nursing skills, but reluctantly had to leave for work before the delivery.  Being on a Saturday, Sara was able to come and help.  But perhaps the biggest story of Christy’s birth was that David survived it!

You see, David is strong in many ways.  He has great character, decisive thinking, a compassionate heart, and a gentle spirit.  But show him a drop of blood and he melts (that’s an exaggeration, of course, but you know the type).  But his squeamish nature with bodily fluids wasn’t going to keep him away from experiencing Christy’s entrance into the world.

David was excited and amazed as Christy’s wet head appeared, followed by the rest of her slippery body.  He stood beside Andrea all the way through.  But when the doctor offered David the chance to cut the cord, David hesitated.  The doctor insisted.  He shouldn’t have.  David did the deed, but immediately felt his knees weaken and his head dizzy.  It took a few moments for him to recover.

But hats off to David for braving the whole event, and especially for Andrea as she bore the pain of childbirth yet expressed gratefulness and joy to all who were there to help.  David and Andrea are now back home with Andrea’s mother staying with them until Andrea has all her strength back.  We welcome you, Christy, into our family with great love and affection, eager to be front row witnesses to the beginning days of your blessed life.

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.