Over The Sea

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Therefore in the east give glory to the LORD; exalt the name of the LORD, the God of Israel, in the islands of the sea. (Isa 24:15 NIV)

Sing to the LORD a new song, his praise from the ends of the earth, you who go down to the sea, and all that is in it, you islands, and all who live in them. (Isa 42:10 NIV)

In October my son Joshua and I traveled with Jay Graham to the Philippines to visit brethren, teach from the scriptures, encourage congregations, get acquainted with fellow workers, try to be of help to those who are already serving the Lord, and to learn how to be more helpful. We spent three weeks in the company of the brethren there, traveling about 10,000 miles each way, and about 2,000 more by plane, bus, and “jeep” in the islands. We enjoyed the hospitality of believers who opened their homes to us, shared their food with us, guided us, and generally served us in the best way they could.

On the clock, the Philippines are 15 hours ahead of the Pacific time zone where Joshua and I live. Leaving San Francisco on Wednesday morning, Oct. 2, we arrived in Manila about 17 hours later, after a brief stop in Seoul, Thursday night. There as we exited the terminal we were greeted by oppressive, humid heat and warm, welcoming brethren. The only face familiar to Joshua and myself was Roger Wanasen who spent several days traveling with us in the U.S. last year. Jay knew a few of the others, and he also met several for the first time. Some of them had traveled far to be with us and welcome us. After greetings and introductions we were all sorted out into a couple of “jeeps” (a jeep in the Philippines is a vehicle assembled locally, usually incorporating used engines and other parts from Japan with sheet metal bodies and generally with facing bench seats in the back – the look is often like a WWII era jeep, stretched to resemble a small school bus, but with two bucket seats in front, and two parallel facing benches in back – and low roof lines that compel most American men to hunch) and proceeded toward the outskirts of metro-Manila, where Roger Wanasen lives. Along the way there was a stop at McDonalds (yes, the golden arches), where most of our party ordered chicken and rice, and we Americans began to watch what we consumed very carefully (no ice in the sodas, please). Besides other differences, the armed guard at the door (of McDonalds and nearly every establishment that handled money) helped us to remember that we were not in America anymore. After a long comedy of trying to get an order straight for so many, we had a very pleasant get acquainted (or reacquainted) visit with our welcoming committee. After McDonalds there was some sorting out of people and soon some of our party were on their way back home, or to arranged accommodations, while a remnant of us continued on to Roger’s house in a jeep he’d borrowed from his uncle for the occasion. From the map I’d guess that it was about 40 miles from the airport to Roger’s place, but in the traffic of the Manila area it’s usually at least a 2 hour drive. Traffic in Manila is nothing short of awful, with apparently millions of people on the move practically all the time.

It would be easy to spend a lot of space talking about the experiences we had in the Philippines with travel and food and language and culture, but those things were not really the point of our trip and our efforts. It is worth repeating though that brethren there were very gracious in dealing with us, careful to try to provide well for us (we often ate much better – richer – food than our hosts could afford to eat normally), and eager helpers and guides. We had far more invitations to visit churches and eat with brethren and stay in homes than we could work into our few weeks of travel there. In fact we were unable to visit some of the gatherings we’d planned to be with, sometimes due to weather or danger, sometimes just due to too many places to be in too short a time. Altogether I believe we visited about 35 congregations, as best I can now reconstruct our actual travel schedule. In various settings I think we met with and presented teaching to several hundred brethren and more than 75 men who are working as preachers, with or without support.

Naturally we had a mixed reception. Some were wary and cautious, others were eager and many curious. Our planned teaching emphasized the self-sufficiency of the church in God’s plan with its Biblically described organization and the contribution each member makes to the building up of the whole group. My perception is that while the Philippines have many who are eager to preach the gospel to the unsaved and establish congregations, which is wonderful, there is a need for balancing this with strengthening the congregations and developing mature leaders within them. Many of the churches are small rural groups with few men, and (again my perception) often those who might become effective teachers within a congregation instead start a new group and call themselves preachers. Since transportation is a problem, having many small groups is advantageous, but again, this needs to be balanced with developing the stability of congregations led by mature men who can become elders.

It is unfortunate that some consider teaching the need for elderships, the need for individual ministry by every believer, and the need for balance in growth and leadership to be dangerous or controversial. Perhaps it threatens personal turf or endangers a carefully constructed power base (see 3 John). Since arriving home we have had letters from some who met with us or graciously received us informing us that U.S. groups that had formerly supported them would cut of their money – not because they’d made some terrible change, but just because they considered the scriptures with us. Nevertheless, our general reception among the Filipinos was very gracious, and very encouraging. We hope and pray that the church there will continue to grow in every way, and that the needs of the brethren there will be met by God’s grace, using American resources in the most helpful way, and using Filipino resources also to their fullest potential.

During our travels in the Philippines it was wonderful to have a friend along with us an interpreter and guide. We enjoyed Roger Wanasen’s company everywhere we went, and appreciated his efforts in our behalf. We also spent many hours in personal study and discussion with Roger, wrestling with issues and needs as we traveled the roads of the Philippines or “rested” between ventures. Many other brethren likewise assisted us, traveled with us, interpreted for us and opened their hearts and homes to us. Listing all of their names would not be helpful here, but our Lord knows who gave a cup of water in his name and who went the extra mile to be with us. And several set aside everything else to spend days with us, including farmers and students and self-employed who made sacrifices to do so. Joshua also enjoyed building a few bridges of friendship with young people there, especially on the island of Mindanao where a half-dozen or so teens skipped school all week to travel with us to all of the meetings we had. If there was one thing I would have liked to do differently, it would have been to spend more time in a particular region, as we did for the week on Mindanao, really getting to know some of the brethren and studying together enough to have some idea of whether goals had been met. One highlight of the trip for Joshua was at the end of our first week, the last night we spent with our numerous traveling companions in the home of Sonny Tobias on Mindanao, where we studied and sang together late into the night and then visited until well into the morning, finally stretching out on bamboo mats for sleep before departing the next day. It’s a blessing to share with brethren in all circumstances, but even more so when there has been time to build some familiarity and develop some mutual respect and concern.

For the foreseeable future the churches in the Philippines will need American help. Several brethren we met with, including many of those preaching the word, survive as share-croppers or make ends meet with backyard livestock – or even household livestock (dogs) in some cases. The poverty there is real. There are also real limits on what can be done to alleviate poverty, and help has to be supplied with a concern that it be for God’s glory and truly be helpful, using limited resources with good stewardship. Knowing how to do this properly does call for knowing at least some brethren well enough to have confidence in their integrity and judgment (2 Cor. 8:18-24). Some things are easy to endorse, such as purchasing Bibles in local dialects (U.S. brethren again funded the purchase of 150 Bibles in three Filipino dialects during our visit this time, as well as completing the purchase of a special printing of hundreds of song books in the same three dialects). Yet even the proper distribution of Bibles and song books depends on honorable brethren doing their part. And of course all of these things will be better served if, God willing, in the passage of time the churches in the Philippines become stronger and more mature, depending ever more upon God and their own resources, and less on foreign (U.S.) help.

May God help us appreciate our abundant blessings, and use them wisely and for his everlasting glory.

1997 is almost upon us. Mindful of the new year, and the one just spent, consider the following:

“We are facing a new year with all its possibilities and its probable disappointments and sorrows. The first month of the year, January, is named for the mythical god Janus, who reputedly had two faces, one looking forward and the other backward. It is well that every Christian should take a double look at his life. Make an appraisal of the past year to see what progress we have made and wherin we have failed to live up to our possibilities, and look forward to the coming year with a steadfast resolve to make it the best of all years the Lord has put into our keeping. We should look back that we may profit by the mistakes of the past, and look forward to greater accomplishments in the year that awaits us. –Roy Loney, Meditations At The Lord’s Table

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