when the romance of missions crashes into reality…

Author Archive

Seeing Rainbows

I always said I would never move to Florida because they have hurricanes there.  Then God calls me to follow Him to the Philippines, a tropical island ring-of-fire country on the edge of the Pacific Ocean.  Typhoons (as hurricanes are known in Asia) are not foreign to these parts.  Then God calls us to a small island called Catanduanes.  In conversations with Filipinos from other parts of the country, a reference to Catanduanes is almost always met with a, “Oh!  They have a lot of typhoons there!”

img_5626When we first moved here some of our World Team field mates told of a typhoon that left them without power for two or three months.  I secretly prayed and hoped and wished and begged that that would
never happen to us.  And by God’s grace to us it hasn’t…until now.

The beautiful thing is that even though it has happened to us now, God’s graces are around every corner.  Rainbows of His faithfulness shining into my heart in more ways I can count.

It started months ago with an email from my best friend, Mandi.  She wanted to spend Christmas with us.  At the time, I thought the Lord was sending her to help me through the stress of a provincial Filipino Christmas (which she did), but I didn’t know until Boxing Day that He had really sent her to get me through a Christmas typhoon.  She was a rock for me, even when I knew she was nervous.  We were nervous together.  In cleanup the two days following the storm she worked like our house was her own home.  She helped mother my children with the same discipline and grace that I would want to come from myself.  She cried with me as we sang worship songs through the storm, laughed with me as we slipped and slid all over the house as we worked the following day to get the water out, and built me up as we took a break on her last day with us, reminiscing about college, remembering God’s goodness to us, talking theology, confessing and loving and being friends.

God’s grace to her and us is evident to us today in that her originally scheduled flight went out without a hitch, and she made it to our World Team Guest House without a problem.  She’ll make it home when she expected, with stories and experiences to tell!!

God’s grace went before us as we did storm prep Christmas Eve, expecting a brownout that didn’t come until Christmas Day.  We were then able to turn our thoughts to storing our electronics and important documents in waterproof bags so that we could get out of the house quickly, if necessary.  A preparation that proved wise, as water splashed and leaked and seeped and blew through every crevice of our house during the worst of the storm, making it literally rain inside.  At one point water was coming in from the top of the door, not to mention the unsealable windows.

God graciously sent the storm in the early night hours, instead of in the middle of the night, when we might have fallen asleep in our beds upstairs, thinking we would be safe enough, only to be surprised and potentially injured by the storm’s dangerous intensity.

God’s grace glowed in the face of Josiah as he laughed and giggled through the storm because his sweet friend Sandra was with us, as her mom felt this would be the safest place for her.  Sandra understood the danger ahead of us and was afraid for her mom’s life, as were we, but her presence here quieted the soul of our son, a grace for which I was truly grateful.  His four-year old heart was terrified of bad weather after Yolanda three years ago.  To have him go through a worse storm than that and come out smiling was a gift.

Even more, Sandra fell asleep rather early, and then slept hard until after we were awake the next morning.  I did not have to calm a terrified child through the night through worried and faltering words regarding the safety of her mother.  We were able to go out while she was still asleep, confirm that her mother and the rest of her family were well, and return with good news to a happy child, who played with our kids the whole day as we worked to make our home liveable again.

God’s grace rested in my arms as our youngest fell asleep, exhausted from all the Christmas visitors we had had earlier in the day.  She slept through the whole thing, and then all through the night.

God’s grace went before us yet again in that we had had storm shutters built a few years before.  If we had not had them on our windows, we would have certainly had broken glass flying in the only “safe” room for us to be in.  Our first expectations of waiting out the storm in our upstairs because we expected downstairs flooding were quickly dashed as the winds rose and the pressure of the storm made doors stick and light fixtures rattle in the ceiling.  The door to our roof blew open and was quickly abandoned as the intensity and seriousness of the storm settled in our hearts.  We went to the only corner of the house where we had two walls of safety, one of them only being safe because of those storm shutters.

As the waters rose from below and rained on us from above, and the winds howled and our ears popped from the pressure, we told the story to our children of the scared disciples in the boat.  I entered the fear of the disciples, but I, unlike they, knew that Jesus could calm a storm.  Edwin and I tag-teamed the story so both our English-speaking children and our Tagalog-speaking friend could understand that even when we’re afraid, even when we think  Jesus doesn’t know our trouble or our fear, He is there.  He was with the disciples, He was just silent.  But when He arose, when He spoke, the waves and the wind listened to His voice.  “Do you believe it, children, that Jesus is with us?  Do you believe that He hears us?”  Wide eyes responded a serious, “Yes.”  “Do you believe it, Sandra, that that same Jesus is with your Momma?”  “Opo.”  (“Yes, Ma’am.”)

Yes.

Yes.

Yes, Jesus, I believe it, too, my heart said.  You are with us.  You are with us in this storm.  You are with our loved ones who are in weaker houses than ours.  You are with us.  You are with them.  Yes, Jesus, I hear you, and I believe.

God’s grace was with us as we heard metal scraping across the street.  Whose roof just passed our house? … As the shutters that were keeping us safe rattled against the windows.  What is banging against our house? … As metal and trees and limbs and plants and glass and … what else? … banged against street and house and fence and wall, we wondered, “Is our car ok?  Is our motorcycle ok?  What about our neighbor’s house?  It’s only made of wood.  Oh!  We wish they had stayed with us!  Oh Lord, protect our people!  Oh Lord, save them!  Save us!”

When the storm passed we took a look outside.  The electric pole in front of our house was leaning over, draping power lines in front of our house.  Our gate and fence were completely flattened, our bamboo kubo (like a gazebo) leaning against our car.  But our car was fine!  If it had been parked any closer to the kubo, it may have been damaged, but as it was, it was merely holding up a bit of the thatch roof that had fallen.  No flat tires.  No broken glass.  Grace.  Even more, its muddy bottom, which had needed a pressure washing, was completely clean.

The next day we had no gas to cook with, as it was used up as the last leftover was heated for supper Christmas night.  We needed to use a small grill that was in the kubo.  The grill was located holding up the kubo!  And the kubo had served an excellent purpose of covering and sheltering a week’s worth of trash that would have otherwise blown all over the yard.  These small graces mean a lot when you have no running water or electricity.

This storm, Nina, was apparently a leader, and had recruited all the ocean’s clouds to her efforts to destroy us, and for two days we had blue skies and hot sun, something a water-logged community needs when it’s drying out its houses.  Grace.

As of yet we have not heard of a single casualty.  Amazing.  In a category storm of this magnitude, with so many people living in bamboo and wood houses, and with as many poles, trees, and houses as are down and in ruins, it is amazing that no one perished.  Grace.

Power will be out for months.  Water hasn’t been restored to our town.  But we are whole, with no injuries.  Our home is in tact and already clean, although still a little unorganized.  Our neighbors are fine, our church members are ok, and we have the ability to acquire resources for the most challenged.

At one time I would have described this scenario as one of my worst nightmares, but God has brought me through a suffering road that has prepared my heart for this current trial.  What would have been suffering to me a few years ago is today a trial, but not suffering.  Like the song, “Oceans,” that says, “Spirit lead me where my trust is without borders, let me walk upon the waters wherever you would call me; Take me deeper than my feet could ever wander, that my faith would be made stronger in the presence of my Savior”… I call upon the Lord to take me to and into the hard things so that I can lean ever more intently into His goodness, which becomes even more evident and profound in the midst of trial.  In the boat the disciples were witnesses to a miracle.  But they had to be in and go through the storm first.  And when the sun came out, I bet they saw rainbows.

I’m seeing spiritual rainbows all over the place.  Kisses to my spirit from a God who loves me so much He takes me to live in typhoon alley, then gives me storms, and carries me through them.

“The LORD thundered in the heavens and the Most High uttered His voice, hailstones and coals of fire.  He sent out His arrows, and scattered them, and lightning flashes in abundance, and routed them.  Then the channels of water appeared, and the foundations of the world were laid bare at your rebuke, O Lord, at the blast of the breath of your nostrils.  He sent from on high, He took me; He drew me out of many waters.  He delivered me from my strong enemy…”  -Psalm 18:13-17

If you would like to give to our relief efforts, please go to 

https://us.worldteam.org/typhoon-relief

All our relief work is about local empowerment, and not mere bandaids.  We aim to help people live in rebuilt homes, not tent cities.  To do this we need funds.  Share this so we can rebuild Catanduanes!
-Amy 


Home Assignment/Furlough: “Garrison Life” for deployed Missionaries

Military service and Missionary life have poetic parallels in my world.  

I’m one of those obnoxiously nostalgic veterans that prefers to wear my old, tattered unit t-shirts rather than my college sweatshirt and remembers details from the service more vividly than conversations had just last week. I still think of things in military terms. Bathrooms are heads, doors are hatches, walls are bulkheads, hats are covers, cars are POVs…you get it. And though the last thing I ever want to do is associate my current Christian calling with imperialistic aggression (think: crusades and colonialism), there is surprisingly much to be compared.

FMSS

A Metaphor: Forward-Deployed Missionary Units
I was talking to a Marine friend of mine who is also serving as a missionary and we joked about how overseas Christian workers are like forward-deployed military units stationed abroad. We try to avoid pompously describing ourselves as being on the frontlines or as the Christian world’s special forces because our calling is no more special than a businessman sharing his faith to colleagues in corporate America.

(I’m second row, second from the left)

But…
In the military, forward deployed units serve in foreign nations participating in various operations. A service member stationed abroad doesn’t make him any more of a Sailor than those that are stationed at home, or “in garrison.” A Marine is a Marine when he’s fighting terrorists in the Middle East or when processing orders at a headquartered building in California. Many National Guard Soldiers and Coasties will never leave the U.S. but they are still defending America’s freedom as part of the greatest force on the planet. Point: In the same way, a servant of Christ is a servant no matter where he or she serves.

But the truth is there are people who have an innate desire and longing…people who seem to have been specifically built and subsequently trained to be deployed. Being in the field away from home, based in remote locations, interacting with foreign cultures, sometimes working alone or with a small team, employing initiative and specialized training and not relying on direct supervision, often in harm’s way – this can describe troops requesting to be continuously deployed. For them, being home is more temporary than being away. The military thrives because of people like this and relies on their willingness to go to the far reaches of the world to serve their country.

Is the connection a little more clear? Keep reading because eventually you’ll see how the metaphor doesn’t completely do missionaries justice.

You have to come home at some point
Missionaries….err, I mean Marines and Sailors have a sea-shore duty rotation. They have to be back home for extended periods of time for a number of reasons. For morale and emotional health it is important to commune with same-culture people. Also, because living in high tension and dangerous situations can cause post traumatic stress disorder, psychological debrief is needed at times. Service members must ensure their personal affairs are still in order (i.e. power of attorney, last will and testament, finances, etc.) as well as their medical health. Visiting and reconnecting with relatives and other loved ones is a given. And in order to keep the military at tip-top shape, sailors, marines, soldiers, and airmen come home to continue their education and receive further training.usscarl

It’s not a vacation. Uniformed personnel keep normal working hours, sometimes more demanding than when they were overseas. And even if reporting to base daily consists of 14 hours of administrative duty – a far cry from protecting villagers threatened by insurgents – garrisoned warriors still exemplify highly motivated work ethics. In the end, in order to be redeployed, the service member’s chain of command must re-evaluate and re-affirm his or her ability to serve abroad again before releasing motivated troops back to the field.

(Pictured Right: USS Carl Vinson Homecoming)


Going Beyond the Metaphor
You can replace the titles of marine, sailor, soldier and airmen with “missionary” in what I’ve described above. I’m not trying to insult other Christians by creating a separate, “elite” category for missionaries. And I’m definitely not trying to offend military warriors by declaring the two callings as synonymous. A missionary and a sniper are obviously two different things.
My statements above are intentionally fashioned to describe a missionary’s life through the lens of a military veteran. But this is where the metaphor ends. Missionary units (that’s what we actually call families in our industry) go through a set of experiences very few people in this world can ever relate to.

familyMy family and I have served together as a small team on a remote island in a town with a handful of Christian workers. It’s lonely, grueling work that can be dangerous and is certainly challenging. After being away for over 4 years, our organization’s chain of command has temporarily reassigned us to Stateside duty. It’s not a vacation. But since only missionaries can truly understand the furious pace of life we must keep in this year back home, let me offer up a glimpse of life in garrison (aka furlough or home assignment) to our supporters.

Fundraising
We don’t earn a salary from an employer that pays out of earned revenue. Though we are technically employed by a non-profit organization, we are responsible for raising enough money to survive in a foreign country and to start ministries. We understand that God provides our every need and that He mobilizes believers to give. But we have to go forth and find those people. It’s hard to meet with individuals and families, some we know, many we don’t, and then ask for money. And it’s not like we’re PBS, NPR, or some art museum hosting a benefit for philanthropists. There’s no honor in this type of asking. Just a reminder of living in humility. Donors get nothing back in return. There’s no plaque, memorial, gift, praises, or social status associated with giving. Supporters aren’t going to see the fruit of their sacrifice in the form of a newly constructed building…only knowing that they have a part in spreading the Gospel to the nations. And trust me, that doesn’t make fundraising any easier.

We connect with hundreds of people over lunch, email, the phone, Facebook, whatever it takes. We invest a lot of money in printed materials and exhaust a lot of time to drive hundreds of miles just to meet one potential supporter. And out of the uncountable connections we make and the money drawn out of savings to invest into people, we’re blessed to find the select few who are willing to partner with us. Sometimes it takes months of stressful work to find just one person who is willing to donate .05% of the need.

But that’s the life we’re perfectly comfortable with and we wouldn’t have it any other way. Even if another mission organization offered to pay a hefty salary to do exactly what we are already doing, we would never go that route. Being faith-supported is a blessing and being dependent on God and His church is one of the greatest experiences anyone could ever go through.

photo 3Reconnecting with Supporters and Churches
In the first several months of our home assignment we travelled well over 5000 miles by road to connect with people and churches that have supported our ministry. We’re only a quarter of the way through with updating/reporting and thanking those that are on our team who are scattered all over the United States. If we go to a church, we speak, we present, we preach. I am a “pulpit supplier” and I give pastors a break by providing full sermons on Sunday services. It’s fulfilling to think of myself as one of the circuit riding evangelists bringing revival during the Great Awakening periods. But I’m no Billy Graham that can come up with a good sermon on the spot. It takes time to prepare. An average pastor needs a full week to compose a sermon.

And Amy and I have to prepare more than just a message. We have fundraising packets, videos, souvenir gifts, and scheduling outlines to put together. Most weeks are a mad dash preparing for Sunday whether we’re the guest speakers or not.


Luxurious Poverty
Everything we own has been given to us. From children’s toys to gas money, we survive through the generosity of others. While home from the mission field we still draw a salary out of the support account that donors have put into. But can you imagine what it’s like to live in the United States on the same income adjusted for a 3rd world, rural province? Fortunately, supporters have blessed us with the necessities (we are aware that these blessings are luxury items for the rest of the world).

We have stayed in at least a dozen homes since being back and will probably stay in a dozen more before our furlough is over. Currently we’ve been blessed to live in a fully furnished house and we are settled and unpacked…at least for the next few months. We have cell phone service because of a particular family’s generosity. Friends have loaned us their vehicles.  Now and until the day we leave for the Philippines, we get to use Amy’s family’s van. Benevolent people have taken us out for meals and bought us groceries. Our clothes are donated, purchased at the Goodwill, or sometimes someone gifts us with money to purchase something new. People have even bought us tickets to amusement parks!IMG_3459

But everything we have is temporary. Though we are stocking up on supplies to send to the province through boxes, we have to be selective due to space and finances. Even our gear in the Philippines is temporary. We can’t take it back to the States with us. It will all be given or sold when and if God calls us back to our passport country.

We have chosen the path away from the American dream and toward downward mobility, irrelevance, and obscurity. Compared to many of our friends, we are living in poverty. We call it simplicity – not a post modern minimalist approach to life, but a contentment to receive the exact amount of provisions we need from God…no more, no less.

Administration
Like I’ve said, we’re not on vacation. We have office hours and a lot of over-time to fill. Amy is the organizational mastermind of anything administrative in our household. Logistically, managing our life and ministry is as complicated as handling a small business. She pours over hundreds of files and pieces of paper to keep our databases updated and our business affairs in order. We are crossing the 500 person threshold on our email listing. People that request materials and appointments are taken care of by Amy during her working hours while simultaneously taking care of our own children. She’s superwoman.

And did I mention that we still have an non-governmental organization called the International Service Corps of Asia that we’ve established and lead? Try managing a non-profit’s business affairs from overseas and you might understand the complexity of our work.

IMG_2480Education
Often, missionaries enhance their skills by continuing their education. Though I already have a master’s degree, our organization felt that the ministry could see more fruit if I completed a second one focused on International Development. So on top of the other daily tasks, I am also taking classes and completing assignments. We have books to read to keep us abreast in current missiological and church planting trends as well. And Amy has completed online modules given by our mission for further development. She is also learning how to properly home school our kids. Each class we take, module completed, and book read helps us in our mission to further the Kingdom of God, but it is certainly an enormous time commitment.

This includes brushing up or maintaining our skills for the community development projects we do. So we’ve got to learn more about teaching and maintaining computers, discovering creative ways to enhance our elementary school programs, finding new exercise and diet techniques to teach in our health and wellness initiatives (and actually doing them here before going back to the island), and creating better English class modules. I’m getting anxious just thinking about the tasks that still lay before us!

Serving in our parent organization and witSmall Grouph the local Church
And finally, just because we’re home from the mission field doesn’t mean we’ve stopped being missionaries. We are a part of a separate committee within our organization that keeps us busy with regular meetings and doing assignments like coordinating with leaders of other development and relief organizations.  We’re working to implement ways to partner social justice and mercy ministries with church planting initiatives – no easy task. Additionally, we serve in the local church. We’re still starting Bible studies, doing evangelism, and serving the community…all of which often feels like a full time job. Just the other day we were in a Louisiana penitentiary leading inmates in lockdown to Christ and held an impromptu church service in the commons. Then we went into a bar/casino, shared Christ’s love to the patrons and had them circle up, holding hands, for prayer. In a few weeks we’re hoping to hold a seminar for our home church on organizational leadership. Serving – it’s what we do.


To be concluded…

I hope this helps many of you understand this season of our lives. Bear with us since these transitions aren’t without stress and tears. And the next time you feel the urge to say, “You’ve got time to help me right? I mean, you’re on a year long vacation,” ask yourself if you would say the same thing to a Marine getting ready to deploy.1924319_1111088020262_6625008_n

“And Agrippa said to Paul, “In a short time would you persuade me to be a Christian?” And Paul said, “Whether short or long, I would to God that not only you but also all who hear me this day might become such as I am – except for these chains.” Acts 26:28-29.

 

addendum: I must be very clear about this – missionaries must also come home to be restored and to catch a breath. Though we’re not on vacation for a year, this is the time to plan a vacation within our home assignment. Also, it’s important to go on spiritual retreats, attend conferences, go to counseling, spend time bonding as a family, and do other things to help strengthen our souls. Doing things we couldn’t do on the island like go to a movie, eat at a fast food joint, take a drive down a long country road, attend a men’s breakfast, have dinner with some friends, etc., aren’t work, but they are very important for preparing us spiritually and mentally to return to the field.


Just another Friday on the island

Image

I took this picture in Calolbon on the island of Catanduanes on Good Friday.

I, like the people I serve on this island, have lived in oppressive, misconstrued obedience trying to please and manipulate a deity hoping to gain spiritual acceptance and material rewards. I endured relative suffering, feigning piety that was ridiculously punishing but declaring, “life is grand,” as humble evidence that I had what it took to enter into eternity. Though the Calolbongangons worship a beautiful, hand carved idol stone and shuffle down the road, wailing as it parades through town (some on bloodied knees or bare feet), I had erected my own man-made gods. I appeared to be a good person but with a heart as black as a psychopath’s.” Doing good gave me a better chance at becoming rich, successful, and happy. And I followed those idols until my bloodied knees showed bone.

But my old self died…I killed it. A God unlike any idol I could possibly follow transformed me. He didn’t require me to do anything religious to gain acceptance into his fold. Even if I wanted to, I couldn’t please Him enough to get on the right side of the “book of life.” And He could not be manipulated into doing my will like scores believe supernatural beings will do if you make the proper sacrifices. In fact, it was HIM that moved toward us, willing to pay whatever price was demanded to please the people He created and loved so much…ready to manipulate the very laws of the universe that He set up for the sake of mankind. The ransom paid for our hostaged souls was his life. And he wasn’t just martyred. He wasn’t merely tortured and executed like other humans before and after him. Let’s face it; every person on earth deserves some sort of punishment for something because absolutely nobody is perfect, even good and apparently blameless people. But not Jesus. He was innocent, pure and clean. What must have stung as much as torture and death was enduring the rejection, accusation of unrighteousness, and hatred spat upon him by the very beings He created.

It is by the grace of God that I no longer suffer from man-made oppression. I have been saved through Jesus’ work and my cry of belief has given me the right to be called a child of God. So my Creator has transformed me. Yes, he was crucified, but I also declare that “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me” (Galatians 2:20). And, along with my brethren around the world, we face suffering with our heads held high…a joyful suffering, journeying with the poor, taking care of orphans and widows, visiting murderers in their prisons, holding AIDs patients’ hands in hospice, holding past-out drug addicts on the bathroom floor of a gas station, declaring and sharing our faith in God and blindly loving people, even those that we serve who laugh at our foolish actions and beliefs.

Our great example this Easter Weekend is the God “who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross…” (Hebrews 12:2). Believe that and it will go well with you.


the List

For the past several months I’ve been preparing a list. It is a list full of things to do, to buy, places to go, people to see. Certainly, the list is at times overwhelming, because to accomplish it all will incur some stress. But mostly, the list is a dream; and it’s a dream that will come true. Yet although the list is looking into the future, the we-will-do’s of our coming home assignment, it is somewhat of a testimony to where we’ve been. For, the list would not exist were we living in America. It exists because we live on a small tropical island on the edge of the Pacific Ocean. It has things on it that we would never need if we didn’t reside in the Philippines. Things like: heavy-duty batteries and battery fans to get us through all-night brown-outs in 98 degree temperatures, plus humidity; or children’s books ranging from toddler through first grade because we live where there is no library for our children, much less a bookstore, and their education is so valuable to us that we will ship out boxes of books if necessary. Or there are the food items, like vast quantities of sauce packets and boxed macaroni and cheese, because, even though thosewill run out someday, they will get us through Sunday evening meals when I’m too tired to cook. And since there is no place from which to order pizza, much less a drive-thru ANYTHING (or fast food anything, for that matter), I am often desperate for any food made fast and easy.

And then there are the things to do, with their price-tag listed next to them. These really are the dream part of the list, since we cannot begin to imagine where the money would come from to do them. Things like a trip to Disneyland, or the San Diego Zoo. We hope we can take Josiah to the USS Midway or the San Diego Safari Park. I looked up the prices recently online. Holy cow, do these things cost a lot! But we’ve listed them, hoping we can save enough to at least do one as a family. In fact, we’ve promised Josiah he’s going to Disneyland, so, we’ll be saving for that one!

The grocery list represents to me the glorious trips I’ll get to make to the grocery store down the street from where we’ll stay. I’m excited about the store, but I’m more excited about the whole experience: I can actually go grocery shopping by myself, with my kids! Since Amalie came along it’s almost impossible for me to do the grocery shopping without Edwin’s help, because we have to stop at so many different places on each trip, most of them without decent parking. Even if I could take Amalie in with me, I’d have to hold her while shopping, which is immensely difficult. Then I’d have to leave the hot store with the super heavy box packed with the stuff we need for the next week (it takes at least 40 minutes each way to get to the town with the groceries). Then there’s a stop to the outdoor market (because the grocery stores are all dry-goods and don’t have a produce section), where it would be impossible for me to buy all the fruits and vegetables we need for the week AND hold my heavy baby, trying to protect her from the blazing tropical sun without smothering her in the heat. Then there’s the stop at the meat store, which I’m glad exists because otherwise we’d be buying meat either from an unsanitary wood block outside (did I mention blazing tropical sun and heat?), where the meat sits all day. But parking at the meat store is non-existent, and to make the trip into the disgusting meat store with my baby, then carry her and a heavy freezer bag out to our car parked streets away, while dodging motorcycles with side-cars, would be a stressful day. And honestly, I could do all that with Amalie, because I’ve done it with Josiah, but it would make for a tiring and stressful day. So a trip where I can pile the kids into a van, plop them in a shopping cart, whisk around an air conditioned grocery store with fresh produce inside!, then cart the groceries back to my car, which is parked in a PARKING LOT!, where my children sit nicely (hopefully) in their carseats while I unload the grocery bags into the van and head home, pull into a nice garage and set the baby down to play on a clean, non-concrete floor while I bring the groceries in to our air conditioned house (AIR CONDITIONED HOUSE!) and put them in a sufficiently-sized freezer…oh, these are the things dreams are made of! And if I want, I can make that trip every day! Out of milk (FRESH MILK!)? Jet to the store. Whipped cream? I don’t need to make it from a box of cream…I can just buy it ready made! Cilantro in the salad? Yes, please! The list of what I’m looking forward to eating and preparing for my family could literally reach from this side of the Pacific to the other.

And then there’s the part of the dream list that makes me warm and fuzzy: the people we’re going to see. A major part of being on home assignment is connecting with those who support us through prayer and finances. They are the backbone to the ministry, making it possible for us to be where we are and do what we do. And we get to see them in person, hug their necks, and visit, really visit. This section of the list means community. Community: connecting with and enjoying the presence of loved ones, being bonded through a common cause and loving one another and the King. Community. We have missed this tremendously where we live. We have a small growing community of believers, but there will always be linguistic and cultural barriers that will keep us from connecting on the deepest of heart levels. But to be home, with people with a common culture, heart language, humor, and memory…it will refresh us like nothing else.

And family. What joy I have knowing that this year, our family will be in the Christmas family photos, not crying on the other side seeing them only through facebook. I get to hear the voices of my niece and nephews calling Josiah’s name because he’s become familiar to them, and see him fall into place as one of the grandkids, unified for a time. Our children will have birthdayparties in the comfortable presence of those who love them most in all the world. And I will watch it all with happy tears in my eyes…storing memories in my heart for the future years we’ll have without such loving abundance.

We have a lot of work ahead of us, but most of it is wrapped up in things we enjoy, and miss. Yes, we have to make a three week road trip up through the Midwest and down the east coast, with small children. But that means we get to travel American highways and eat at American eateries. And see friends and make new ones along the way. Yes, we have to raise more money for the ministry, since a lot of our support has dropped off in the four years we’ve been gone. But that means we get to share our mission and vision with more people, and testify to the goodness of God to us and the people we serve. Yes, we will be living on an uncomfortably tight budget, but we get to do it around friends and family, with lots of free things we never get to take advantage of, like public parks (what!? playground equipment for Josiah!? Yay!), public libraries, and clean and safe roads to walk and run on.

As I write, I face the oft-returning struggle I have between missing so desperately the life I had, and knowing I have to continue the life I am now living. My flesh wants so badly to return to the luxuries of American living (running hot water you can drink from the spout!). But my spirit knows our time here is not over…God has begun something good in Catanduanes that He’s allowed us to be a part of, and he has not released us to move from it yet. So while a part of me wishes we were returning home for good, I am thankful to know we are certain of our call here. So we’ll be home to enjoy some really good things and some really amazing people…for a while. And that will have to be enough…until the next list. ~aOur family April 2014


Our journey to the edge of the world…on a Rocket

ImageThis is my friend Rocket. I asked God to give my family a companion to help us struggle through the roughest season of our lives as we moved to a remote island in the Pacific. We knew nobody in town, had no friends, no co-workers, no acquaintances, and did not understand the culture or language… so God sent Rocket.

And just so you know what I’m talking about, when I say we were alone…I mean absolutely companionless. When I deployed to foreign countries in the military I was always surrounded by friends and service members whom I trained with. When I moved from city to city because of work, the only thing I had to worry about was finding the nearest Albertson’s or 7eleven. Friends were inevitable. I didn’t have to worry about learning how to act appropriately in a culture alien to me or get used to eating a different type of food just to connect with people on a superficial level. When families in America relocate to another State, they move into neighborhoods, apartment complexes, or buildings with other people who speak their language. Even many overseas diplomats still work with Americans at a field office and few Peace Corps workers arrive to their allocations without the help of fellow volunteers. For better or for worse, my family did something unique to our profession. Most missionaries nowadays, especially in our organization, do not move into a cross-cultural situation without co-workers.  It is a difficult endeavor. Whether or not that was the best thing for us to do is all water under the bridge now. The fact remains: God called us to pioneer a brand new location on our own and He knew we needed a little help.

ImageFortunately (maybe?) my dog has made me into a sort of infamous celebrity out here.  People refer to me, not by name, but as “that peculiar guy who talks to his dog” or “that crazy man who commands his animal to sit in front of him so he could give him a hug.” Rocket was very friendly and affectionate. Most dogs out here are not used to being petted so if you try, you may lose your hand. Rocket was addicted to human touch. People were drawn to that. Our gate became the entrance to a petting zoo with only one animal as the main attraction. Eventually it became natural for visitors and passers-by to greet Rocket like any other human or to come and see him…just him, not me. All of our friends and acquaintances talked to him like they talked to babies. In America, that’s not unusual. In a provincial culture that rarely names dogs and often acknowledges them purely for their function as guards, that is bizarre. Many would even bring food gifts to our gate. I still don’t know any other animal in the Philippines who has received that kind of treatment and love from an entire neighborhood.

He was the largest canine anyone had ever seen residing in this provincial town. When he walked down the street, proud and tall, chest sticking out, the other dogs would literally run away with a drawn out yelp. Our neighbors told us that they felt safe whenever Rocket stood watch at the gate. People we barely knew were aware of the slight differences in his barks. They knew what types of people were friendly and those that may have been a threat based upon his tone or volume. Once, our neighbor ignored a suspicious bark Rocket was making because he was too tired to investigate. The next morning he realized that all of his tools and construction materials had been stolen. He truly believed that Rocket was trying to warn him of thieves. The dog became a legend after that. My black Labrador retriever also made a fierce name for himself as the predator that killed chickens that entered our yard…and didn’t eat them. People thought that was the most psychotic thing an animal could do. He seemed to kill for fun. Of course no one had bothered to read up on the disposition and natural tendencies of a “bird dog.” A group of men watched him chase a chicken who got so scared that it flew…actually flew…to the top of our second story rooftop.

ImageThe most powerful legend associated with his name was the day he was run over by a tricycle. It was going full speed carrying so many passengers that riders were relegated to standing on the back bumper. The driver didn’t slow down when he saw Rocket. He hit the dog with the most horrific thud and howl I had ever heard. The vehicle clunkered away. I scooped up my bloodied dog and grabbed three of my friends, and we sped to the Capitol to save his life. We found a veterinarian whose experience did not stray outside the confines of livestock care. She couldn’t do much to help so we made a circuit, visiting hospital after hospital to get him X-Rayed and treated. We were a spectacle to the nurses, doctors, and patients. I went to pharmacies and experienced the embarrassment of purchasing supplies for a dog. He lived. The following day I noticed a mangled tricycle being repaired at the shop next to our house. It had apparently hit a dog but the mechanic insisted that the driver must’ve crashed into a tree because of the damage. Of course, the driver wasn’t there. He had his friend drive it to the shop. The dog seemed invincible. People believed Rocket was made of stone. The town also realized just how far I’d go to care for the animal. They recognized him as part of our family.Image

And I won’t get started on Rocket’s nightly walks. It’s a strange activity townspeople had only viewed on television.

The other day, my friend did me a favor and approached a Filipino military commander to see if someone in the unit would be willing to shoot Rocket in the head. They refused. And local law enforcement told us it was illegal for them to put him down but that I could do it myself if I found a civilian with a registered gun. A neighbor has a large caliber pistol that hadn’t been fired or cleaned in years. They warned that it may explode upon depressing the trigger and would certainly “blow Rocket’s head completely off” if functioning.

Sedation, barbituates, potassium…proper dosages administered via catheter in a clinic lying on an exam table. No, I live on a remote island in the Pacific. Maybe if I acquired the drugs myself? They call euthanasia an art and a science deserving of proper technique. Could I go through with it without botching it up? Carbon monoxide poisoning by sticking him in a drum, sealing it up, and connecting a hose into the exhaust of our car; or holding his head in a bucket full of water for a while? What do you think? Or how about what the local vet suggested. Sending him to the buffalo butcher. Did you know that pigs, buffalos, sea turtles, and dogs scream longer than you would expect when you use a machete to end their lives? I do. Hitting him in the back of the head with a shovel or bat? I guess I’m not man enough to do that.

Rocket had canine distemper. It has a high mortality rate, but the dog was so strong that his body’s deterioration could not stop him from living. And no, he did not get vaccinated…again, we live on a remote island. As a dog’s body suffers from this virus, their immune system gets weaker. So he developed a pneumonia that he valiantly fought off. Over the next few weeks after the initial onset of symptoms, Rocket grew weaker and weaker. He started to have seizures that would send him tumbling to the floor. His eyes produced green discharge that had to be cleaned every hour or he couldn’t see. Distemper affects the neurological system. His brain seemed to be pulsating…throbbing. It could have been because other muscles near his skull were involuntarily contracting but his temples started to sink in after days of throbbing. His eyes receded into his head with each throb. His eyelids weren’t even touching his eyeballs anymore because they were so far back. He no longer had fat to pad his bones. We force-fed him baby cereal. But after a week he eventually started eating solids again. He was so hungry but his body could not process food properly. If you placed a bowl of boiled chicken and white bread in front of him, he’d gorge on it like he hadn’t eaten in days. Then he would pass out. If he got up to change positions or go outside, he would crash into the wall and end up on the floor. He struggled like an old, senile, blind dog.

A few days after getting back from Manila, Rocket was so excited to see me that he tried to get back into a routine. He limped over to his leash and happily heaved his body down the street. After a few days, I thought he was getting stronger. But one night he collapsed on one of our walks. I carried him home. We tried again the next evening. He didn’t make it past the corner. And finally he couldn’t even get up off of his bed. He couldn’t use the bathroom either. I tried to support him in the back yard so he could poop and pee. It had been days since he went despite all the food he was consuming.Image

His cries of pain were unbearable. The once booming voice of a valiant guard dog was reduced to a screeching yelp of a dying animal. But his yelping signified more than just pain. He was calling for me to sit with him, to stroke his head. If I left the room, he would cry. I started to sleep next to him on the floor of our kitchen next to his mat. Because he grew blind and probably even deaf, he often did not know if I was still in the room with him. So whenever he would howl for comfort, I would wake up and reach my hand to touch his paw just so he would know that I was still there. At 3am, my exhaustion just could not keep him comforted the way he wanted. So I eventually had to just sit next to him, his head on my lap, stroking him for hours on end. I haven’t had rest in a long time.

Had I been in the States I would’ve taken him to the vet and scheduled a day for him to be euthanized. If I were in the States I would’ve just borrowed a friend’s hunting rifle and taken him out back or to a secluded place to shoot him. But we live on an island where everyone in my town knows every move we make. And if anyone found out that we had intentionally killed our dog, our reputation, even our relationships, would’ve been hurt if not destroyed. Killing an animal for purposes not pertaining to survival or for food is a taboo thing. Many believe that to end a dog’s life is to play God. A dog can’t tell their masters that they’ve given up on life. And the concept of ending suffering does not jive out here. Suffering is a way of life. It is the hand that God has dealt. Many can only eat one meal a day. Some eat every other day. People that have cancer don’t get treatment. Fishermen who have blown their arm off by the dynamite they use continue living in pain without medications until they die a few days later, or in one case, a few years. Divers that have been hit with decompression illness will suffer the rest of their lives as 24-year-old stroke victims. So to tell someone that we have a responsibility to end suffering, is a concept reserved for people of another world.

ImageI once suggested euthanasia to a Filipino friend and they berated me with phrases like, “Don’t you trust God?” “Don’t you have faith?” “You’re supposed to be a spiritual person!” Others believe so heavily in karma and curses that to kill Rocket would bring bad luck to the community, not just my own household. If someone got sick the same day that Rocket was put to sleep, then it would be our fault. If someone died anywhere near our vicinity the same day we killed Rocket, we may be blamed for that death.

A retired veterinarian working for the agricultural department tried to help me. He looked Rocket over and told me to keep him alive by feeding him and giving him water and administering antibiotics. When I finally decided that Rocket needed to be put down, I called him and asked if he could do it. He would not. Neither would the official veterinarian employed by the government. Fortunately a friend in Manila connected me with a vet that decided to walk me through putting him to sleep.

Caring for the sick and dying is not foreign to me. I’ve spent the better part of a decade working in health care. In the military I was a Navy Corpsman, trained in combat trauma medicine. I’ve administered too many immunizations and started an uncountable number of IVs. I worked as a certified surgical technologist and as an EMT. I spent a lot of time as a nurse’s aid as well. I emphasize that because (this is my pride speaking) it is the aid that has to do all the menial, dirty work. Changing diapers, caring for catheters, treating bedsores, lifting patients to the bedside commode and holding them up as they defecated…all the degrading duties. And as an aid I’ve been there for many a patient’s last breath or violent cardiac arrest. When it came to caring for a deceased individual, I was the one who cleaned up the bodily fluids and waste that pour out when all muscular functions have been lost. I got used to gathering cherished belongings and carting the bodies to the morgue.

Within 24 hours of my talk with the vet in Manila, the medications arrived. I picked it up at the Capitol. I had errands to do, classes to teach, and I knew that at the end of the day, I had a beloved dog whose suffering needed to end. Close to midnight, I called my friend over for emotional support. I talked to the vet over the phone for final instructions. My wife came down from putting the children to bed. I lined the vials of medications on the table and prepared the syringe and multiple needles. Even though I spent years in healthcare, setting IV’s, giving shots, bandaging wounds, I did not have it in me to place a catheter into Rocket’s vein. Fortunately, there was a way to do it intramuscularly. But for that, I needed to overload his system with an incredible amount of poison. I took Rocket’s face into my hands, gave him a kiss and told him that he fulfilled his duty of loving a family that needed it so badly. I stroked his head one last time. My friend, Tom, kneeled at Rocket’s head and petted him gently. Amy spoke sweet words into his ears and stroked his torso. I went to his leg and injected the first syringe…

ImageRocket’s breathing finally calmed down and the wheezing disappeared. His rib cage gracefully rose up and down. Every breath he took before being sedated was a violent gasp of air. Now, Rocket was finally able to sleep. It’d been days since he could lie down like a normal dog and close his eyes. After a few more minutes I continued on with the rest of the vials. Rocket looked peaceful. He was actually resting, breathing normally, if for just a little while. And before his world went black before him, Rocket was receiving the comfort he had been yelping for. The three of us pet him and spoke to him for a good while before leaving Rocket to just rest there on his mat at the foot of the stairs. The poison would eventually stop his heart, but he could still rest for a while before it happened.

The next day Tom and I dug a grave in the backyard. We gathered the kids and a couple of neighbors and we held a short but very sweet ceremony. Rocket was laid into the ground. A few friends even came by to offer their condolences…as if my dog were a human. But as our neighbor said, “I’ve never talked to an animal as if they could respond back. Rocket was different. He was like a friend.”

There was a commotion at the funeral home next door. Someone had just died. Later we found out that a truck had been in an accident with a tricycle full of students. I can’t imagine the kinds of stories people would have thought about us had we not euthanized Rocket in the cloak of darkness within closed doors.

Killing is not a natural thing for humans. We kill because we have all fallen into the diabolical scheme of Satan. In Genesis chapter 2 we discover that Adam had dominion over everything on earth. After falling into sin, the once perfect relationship he had with God and with the earth became marred forever. So now, we must experience blood and gore just to survive wars or to eat a meal, and until recently, just to get clothed. Often, we inflict death to end the suffering a sinful world relentlessly produces.

Last night after teaching class, I pulled my motorcycle to the gate. Rocket knew the sound of my engine’s rumble versus others. He’d pop to, scramble for the entrance, and sit excitedly wagging his tail until I parked. Then he’d follow me in and out of the house as I unloaded all of our computer equipment. He’d station next to his hanging leash, almost unable to control his excitement. Then we’d walk the neighborhood at about 10:30pm at night. I used to hear stories of this mysterious police officer that patrolled the streets in the dark, protecting the people with his black beast. It took me a month to realize those very real myths were actually about Rocket and me. I sat on my motorcycle for a few minutes, engine still rumbling, trying to cope with a new routine…no dog patiently waiting hours for his friend; no moments of hiding treats under mats for him to find; no more entertaining the neighbors with performances of “sit” “stay” “lie down” “kiss.”  And no more walks in the cool island night with Rocket, giving the neighbors a sense of safety that only superheroes can.

ImageI’ve learned a lot about God, about suffering, and about love through my experience with Rocket. Some people believe that dogs are just animals. . Do animals have souls? Depends on your theology, your hermeneutical abilities, and command of Biblical Hebrew when studying Genesis or Psalms. But for me, I can’t possibly believe that an animal with the ability to love is soul-less. This is what I told my son: “Animals were created by a wonderful God. He is a God who values and considers all of the things he made and even called them good“. Mathew 10:29 says that even a sparrow doesn’t fall to the ground without Him noticing. Whatever the fate of animals after this life, I hope I fulfilled my role as a steward of God’s great, living resources. Amy reminded me that there would be a day with no more tears or pain. Isaiah Chapter 11 talks of a day when lions and lambs would lie down together. Maybe I’m getting too emotional or going through unnecessary grief…oh well. This is my story.

We got Rocket when we moved into San Andres, Catanduanes. Like a mysterious sojourner, he left our household at an appropriate time during our transition back to the United States. God blessed us with a companion to help us through this season of life and to teach us more about love – something we often take for granted.  Thank you for that Rocket. Thank you for showing us how to love well.


Why We Are Here.

This is fiesta season in the Philippines. Fiestas are the celebrations of the patron saints in each town. Each town is separated into smaller communities called barangays. They are essentially neighborhoods, but they have their own form of local government. And each barangay has its own patron saint. Each town in the Philippines has multiples fiestas every year, celebrating each barangay’s patron saint, and then one large fiesta in which the town saint is honored.

Fiesta is such a sad time for us, because we see repeatedly the misdirected worship of the people. In San Andres, each fiesta celebration lasts about 9 or 10 days. For the first 9 days, every single night there is a procession, in which there are one or two idols on pedestals that are followed by people, with one woman singing what sounds like a dirge all through the streets. It is eerie. Then at the end of the fiesta everyone gathers at a plaza where there is obnoxiously loud (to us, at least) music, a dance, and LOTS of alcohol. There are 2 or 3 of these dances during the fiesta…for each barangay.

When the processions go by our house, Josiah always wants to see the “parade,” so we talk to him about how we worship the True God, and we are sad for the people in the “parade” b/c they don’t know Jesus. He is I’m sure confused at times because some of the idols look like pictures of Jesus, or have crosses, etc. The other night we went out to see the “parade,” and I was moved to tears. The majority of participants were children. They were walking with mothers or grandmothers (men don’t usually partake in spiritual activity). The woman singing the eerie song was a grandmother’s age. So I just had this thought, this image, that that woman was led as a child in procession after idols throughout her childhood, then she as a mother led her children, and now she’s leading them all, in a way, as she sings in the procession. Each person in that procession has been following idols their whole lives. Those children that I saw running alongside, sometimes ahead, not understanding what they were doing, were being taught at an early age to follow idols, and right before my eyes I was watching the beginning of their bondage.

And this is why we’re here.  Wouldn’t it be amazing if we were able to see families turning away from idolatry and toward the Living God? The see the generational influence of a grandmother/mother/child following idols shift to a grandmother and grandfather, mother and father, leading their children in worship to Jesus alone in faith that saves as they turn their lives away from superstitious penitent works toward the God of grace, mercy, holiness, and security?

May it be so.

~a

 


Loving an orphan…my brother.

ImageThis is my father’s son.  He is a myth to me.  But as fate would have it, I was sent to serve on an island in the middle of nowhere overlooking a remote stretch of beach. It’s barely visible, far off into the horizon, but it’s home to an orphan whom I now call brother.

A myth because when I was young, my father joked about adding another boy to our family who endured poverty in a small fishing village.  Said he was just like those kids on the commercials where an old bearded white guy asked for monthly donations to feed them.  Like one of many pictures pasted on my principal’s door of a child clasping a bowl of rice, stomach bloated, an insect stuck to his right eyelid.   We could save him my father said.  I thought he was just trying to make me feel guilty for being chubby and spoiled.  We never talked about it again.

I can’t believe I’m living on this island.  I fling my phone onto the bed frustrated with the 18th text message I just received; same person, not even 24 hours has past since his first text.  It’s from that brother I finally got to meet 3 years ago in a chance encounter in Manila.  Not worth mentioning here.  He needs money for new fishing nets.  I’ve already sent you money!  So he changes his story.  Wants to buy a boat so he doesn’t need to keep searching for one to rent everyday.  I get even angrier at the request.  He tries a different tactic.  Hopes to feed the village with a pig for an upcoming fiesta.  Nonesense I tell Amy.  Then he pokes at my heart.  My kid is sick, help me brother.  So I send money.

I consult my friends in Manila and in the States who support poor family members.  He’s not being responsible, just taking advantage of you they warn.  Watch out, you’re enabling, making things worse.  He’s just a gambler.  They have nothing to do out there but waste money on nothing.  I get more texts from my dad’s kid.  How annoying!  But he’s just checking to see if I’m doing well, hoping I’m getting enough rest from my teaching responsibilities.

I ignore the text, head to my next class to teach poor kids how to read.  I ask them where they’re from, who their fathers are, what dreams may come.  It wasn’t but a few months ago that I wanted to rip their heads off for teasing my dog, sitting on my motorcycle parked out front, yelling for me to come out.  I befriend them and they teach me about their way of life.  God tells me to be compassionate, to persevere in generosity and kindness.  I love them now, though it’s tough.  Today, they’re learning about Jesus.  I learned that their fathers are fishermen.  Along with farmers they are the poorest people in the Philippines.  Squatters in Manila make more money.  Fishermen only work to feed their families, nothing more, usually less.  My dad’s abandoned kid is a fisherman.

Why don’t you go to school?  Why can’t you read?  They tell me it’s because they have to work to help buy rice for their family.  There’s no time.  Why don’t you have good manners?  You’re always yelling out my name, calling my wife and kid Amerikano or whitey.  Why did you buy candy with that change I just gave you?  Save it!  How come your parents don’t properly budget?  I saw them trying to purchase food for a birthday party.  You guys are poor!  Use common sense!

God speaks to me again.  I calm down.  Then this picture arrives – the one with my dad’s kid leaning on a boat.  My heart breaks and I want to cry but I’m not honest enough to do so.  Amy helps, knows what we need to do.

On Thursday my brother is going to travel almost 2 hours to pick me up in his new, second-hand boat.  Thank God for my parents’ help in purchasing it.  I’m going to see what his life is like, what it means to fish in the middle of the ocean from 5:30pm until the morning sun rises; lie on his mat and try to nap in the middle of a scorching, hot day before heading out to sea again; attempt to buy enough food for a family of 6 with less than 3 dollars; learn what it feels like to be abandoned, never having seen his own father until decades after his birth, and then try to establish a relationship with that father’s other son…the son that was the reason his father never came back in the first place.   I want to open my eyes.