Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Theological Reflections on My Trip to the Philippines

As a middle-class American driving through the Palawan countryside, I cannot help but be taken aback by the deep poverty of the average Filipino citizen on this island. I have already posted several pictures of the terrible living conditions that these people endure. Many have no electricity; most have no running water. The “bathrooms” that I have encountered on this trip, even in the tourist-friendly locations, often leave much to be desired (to put it mildly).

It is natural to wonder about the eternal state of these people. Scripturally I know that apart from knowing about Christ and the gospel they have no hope. Thankfully, I have seen many missionary endeavors on the island, and even seen tangible fruit from their labors. God’s light has reached this corner of the world but there is no question but that many of these people have yet to be evangelized.

My human response to this fact is to question the fairness of it all. At least those in America or other westernized nations have had the opportunities granted by wealth and development to enjoy their time on this world before they face eternity. These poor people live in squalor and then face the judgment of God. How is that fair, I found myself asking.

As I reflected on that question, I began to wonder if it was not my own materialism that caused me to think as I do. Compared with eternity, what do material things really matter. Is the rich man who builds bigger barns to hold all his stuff really better off? God calls him a fool. Riches often bring about additional cares for the things of this world that rob us from enjoying what we thought we just had to have. Ecclesiastes speaks of the frustrating endeavor to get just a little bit more, an effort that never satisfies (Ecc 4:8). I obviously do not have the right perspective on things.

A passage that God has laid on my heart during this trip is Acts 14:15-17. This is Paul and Barnabas reacting to the crowds in Lystra who thought them to be gods after healing a man:

Acts 14:15-17 (ESV)
And saying, Sirs, why do ye these things? We also are men of like passions with you, and preach unto you that ye should turn from these vanities unto the living God, which made heaven, and earth, and the sea, and all things that are therein: 16 Who in times past suffered all nations to walk in their own ways. 17 Nevertheless he left not himself without witness, in that he did good, and gave us rain from heaven, and fruitful seasons, filling our hearts with food and gladness.

The people of Palawan, Tokyo, New York City, or Suwanee are all men of like passions. We have the same human, sinful nature and all need the same savior. We all need to repent, to turn from the vanities of this world, whatever our own way is, to the living God – the God who created the world that we all share. The vanities of Lystra may look different from the vanities of Broadway, Atlanta, or Sabang, but they are vain nonetheless because are not satisfying or eternal.

For years God allowed us to go our own way, yet He still gave us revelation about Himself so that we would know what kind of God we were offending when we sinned. The revelation that all men receive, regardless of time or place, is that God is good. He gives us rain, fruitful seasons, and the subsequent ability to be fed and glad. Yes, sometimes God sends famine or sorrow but the typical human experience is rain on the just and the unjust, providing nourishment to the ground for harvest, and the ability to have food, clothes, and shelter. It may be meager; it may be plain; but it is God’s good provision.

The other thing God gives men is gladness. One of the most striking things about my experience here in Palawan has been seeing the good cheer of the residents. They may be poor but they are a happy people. The children run and play. The men and women laugh. They enjoy life. Now, deep down there will be an emptiness in all men who live apart from God. No one experiences the true joy of being right with God unless they know the Savior. Yet, it does appear that God gives happiness and joy in some measure to all men. It gives a glimpse of what all men really desire and that is deep abiding joy. When I see these poor little children living in deplorable conditions I also see a laughter and joy that tells me that God really is good.

One last quick thought comes from a verse in 2 Corinthians:

2 Corinthians 8:9 (ESV)
For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich.

Honestly, I could not picture myself stooping to live in the conditions in which so many Filipinos find themselves. Yet, Christ must have humbled Himself to a much greater degree when He came to earth and lived as a man so that He could save us from our sins. The depth of His love is unbelievable to me. He became poor – that phrase has a new, more vivid meaning to me now – so that I might gain the unsearchable riches of Christ. I am left speechless at the thought….

Monday, July 27, 2009

Worshiping in the Philippines

Grace Baptist Church, Puerto Princesa, Palawan

One of the things that struck me as we traveled through Tokyo and Manila on our way to Palawan was that the sun I saw here was the same sun I see when I’m back home in America. Japanese, Filipino, American, or whatever, we all benefit from and enjoy the same sun. This simple fact brought home to me again the truth that one God created that sun, the moon, the stars, the earth, and all that is in them. We all, wherever we may live, owe our existence to the God who is the one and only Creator of the world. This God desires his creatures from every tribe, language, people, and nation to worship him. It was my privilege this past Sunday to worship with a church family on the other side of the world from where I call home. Ironically, the name of the church was the same – Grace Baptist Church.

In some ways, the experience was totally different from what I am used to. There was no air conditioning, just fans, even though it was quite hot and humid outside. The benches were wooden and quite uncomfortable, at least to me. The preaching and Sunday School sessions were spoken in both English and Tagalog (by the same man). These external differences were things I expected. The thing I really wanted to know was, how did this Filipino church – one that was pastored by a Filipino national and that has been in existence for 30+ years – how did they worship in their culture? and how different would it be than mine? The answer is that there really was no difference from what you might see in any average Baptist church in the USA, other than those externals.

They started their worship service with a “meet and greet” time to the song, “There’s a welcome here!” One either likes these times as a way to show friendliness to those around you, or you don’t, thinking it turns a formal time of worship into a circus. I don’t like it any more in the Philippines than I do back home. They sang songs from a PowerPoint display, just like many of our churches do in America. Most of the songs were old-time gospels songs. It was great to sing “Wonderful Grace of Jesus” with church folk on the other side of the world. They also sang a praise chorus called, “I Stand in Awe.” It was a typical, shallow praise chorus that could be about one’s boyfriend. There was no rich doctrinal content or even explicit mention of whose “presence” we wanted to be in or whose “eyes” we wanted to look into. They used a worship team to help with leading the singing. They had a small choir. They had an offertory and a special number (my wife, Daphne, was privileged to minister those). Maybe they learned all this from American missionaries that ministered 40-50 years ago. The faces were different, the seating was different, the heat and humidity were different, but everything else, including typical problem areas, was about the same.

I wonder if I should have been surprised. We both worship the same God. Should we not use the same elements of worship, regardless of culture? I tend to think so.

This is the church that Daphne’s grandmother has attended since it started from another church in the area over 30 years ago. It was started as a church plant from the church that Daphne’s mom went to in another part of Puerto Princesa. Daphne’s mom was led to the Lord through the work of American missionaries, so I think the other church was founded by those same missionaries (the DeVries?). It was wonderful to see the fruit of faithful missionary activity – founding a church, installing a national pastor, and then having that church multiply itself. There were more people at Grace Baptist Church in Puerto Princesa, Palawan this past Sunday than what we normally have at Grace Baptist in Dacula, Georgia – and we have padded seats and air conditioning.

Entering the church

Inside the church

Choir singing Amazing Grace

Daphne singing "When I Survey the Wondrous Cross"

Across the street from the church

Group picture after church

Sunday, July 26, 2009

More Pictures from the Philippines

One of the most interesting days for me so far was our trip to the Underground River on the other side of the island near Sabang. We saw incredible scenery and incredible poverty all along the way. I have all the pictures from this trip on my facebook page, accessible here for those without a facebook account:

The road to Sabang was mostly paved -- they are wanting to make this area more accesible to tourists. But the pavement would disappear for no apparent reason every once in a while.

Typical scene along the road to Sabang

Here is a typical shelter-type dwelling that we saw all over the place. My son, JD, said they looked like forts that he would like to build...but not live it.

Here is another

Here is another

Here is our destination, the famed Underground River. It took a 2-hour ride from our Puerta Princesa, then a 3 kilometer (or so) boat ride, and then a very short hike thorough the jungle to get here. We actually saw real wild monkeys in the jungle area.

Here is a boat, similar to what we took.

Scenery during the boat trip, on the way to the Underground River

Daphne and me on the beach near the Underground River

Friday, July 24, 2009

Our Trip to the Philippines – Part 1

Now that we are on the ground in the Philippines and been here for a few days, I thought I would share some initial reflections.

First, for some reason I never really knew this before, but Daphne’s family is very well connected here on the island of Palawan. Her father’s sister, Dr. Teresita Salva, is the president of the Palawan State University here in Puerto Princesa, Palawan. PSU is a major, 10,000-student university and a very significant presence on this island that is still steeped in third-world poverty. Think of how colleges in America can dominate a small town (Clemson, Penn State, etc) and extend that to dominating an island that is equivalent of a small US state. The university here provides key educational resources necessary to the future development of the entire province. Then, my mother-in-law’s brother, Dave Ponce de Leon, is the Vice Governor of Palawan and former Philippine congressman. He is the equivalent of a lieutenant governor of a state in America. He employs a staff of around 80, I believe. They have facilitated the entire experience so far and have provided wonderful hospitality for our family while we are here. We are staying in university housing that has air conditioning, nice bathrooms, and convenient meals. Everywhere we go, we have official drivers and vans from PSU providing all of our transportation needs. It is great.

When we traveled to Toronto a few months ago, I played a mental game with myself, trying to figure out what would tell me that I was in a different country. Occasionally I would see signs in kilometers, or the radio station would give the weather in Celsius. For the most part, though, there was very little obvious differences between the US and Canada. When we landed in Tokyo, on our way to Mania, the first things I say were rice fields (different) a Sheraton hotel. I didn’t see my first Japanese letters until we got in the terminal. The Manila airport seemed dated but everything was in English (it is the official language of the Philippines), and so there really wasn’t a lot that set it apart from other US airports, other than some of their procedures, etc. Also, it was midnight, so we really couldn’t see outside the airport. Well, when we landed in Puerto Princesa on the island of Palawan, on got outside the small terminal, from that point on, everything screamed, “We’re not in Kansas anymore!”

I was in the back of the van, not able to take pictures like I would have liked, so I missed taking pictures along the road from the airport to the PSU campus. It was instant culture shock – unbelievable hustle and bustle on this small (but important) road, chickens and dogs all over the place, wooden shanty-like storefronts selling food and lumber and whatnot all along the way, and tons of motorcycles, bicycles, very small van/buses, and these tricycle/motorcycle taxi-type contraptions. People walking, squatting on the side of the road, or just hanging out, and children playing. No sidewalks, just dirt, mud, and standing water.

The other thing I noticed were many missionary churches. I saw at least two with Fundamental Baptist as part of the name. Some were simple open-air pavilions and others were very fancy (especially for the area) enclosed “normal-looking” structures. I have no idea who any of these men are or what their works are like, but it was interesting to see a rather significant visible presence of missionary activity on this island. On one of our outings we meet a native boatsman who was a member of a missionary church in Sabang, on the northern coast of Palawan. He was saved through the witness of his missionary pastor, someone named Bowman. It was encouraging for us to meet him and he said it was encouraging for him to meet us. It was neat accidental encounter.

To be continued…

I am posting most of my pictures on Facebook, if you would like to see those send a friend request.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Getting ready for the Philippines

On the Island of Palawan, where we will be spending most of our time.

Our family will soon be flying out for a two week vacation to the Philippines. We are flying non-stop from Atlanta to Tokyo, then from Tokyo to Manila, and then from Manila to the Island of Palawan, where Daphne’s grandmother lives. Daphne was born in the Philippines and moved to the United States when she was five. This trip will be the first time back for her since she was 10. As for myself, I have never been overseas like this before. The most exotic place I’ve ever been was Toronto a few months ago. I am really looking forward to the trip. It should prove to be quite the adventure.

The kids showing off their new passports.

Kid's Baptism

J.D. and Jennifer got baptized at church this morning. Here are some pictures.