Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Fresh Ears

One of the coolest things happened last Sunday. I hiked to Pahaw, a neighboring village, with my host mom. There, we attended a small church meeting in a government building. The church is being tended by a pastor couple from Imugan, and they are teaching foundational Bible stories to the 15 or so poor rural farmers who attend. After telling the story of the Transfiguration through stick-figure drawings on the chalkboard, Pastor Albert asked if there were any questions. One old lady was particularly inquisitive, and her question stuck with me, moving me spiritually all week. In its simplicity it may be the most beautiful question that I’ve ever heard. “Where was Jesus from?” she asked. As Pastor drew out a little map of Israel in chalk, I reveled in her thoughts and fresh ears. It was as if I heard the gospel anew. Since then, I’ve allowed her question to crumble some of the timeless gilded arches of Christian religion, a religion that likes to de-humanize Jesus, pinning him to little crosses around our necks, or plastering his face like some timeless superhero on paintings or t-shirts. But he came from a place, a time, and parents. “Where was Jesus from?” Oh, let’s hear the story again for the first time! “While they were there (in Bethlehem), the time came for the baby to be born…”

Teach Us How To Weep.

No wonder the prophet weeps yet--
We begin again, but not innocent…
As we begin, the powers of globalization surge;
There are victims, but we are mostly beneficiaries
There are wars and rumors of war
There are victims, but we are likely perpetrators
There is violence, among women, toward the poor,
Violence that refuses to forgive
And we are a mix
Of victim and perpetrator
The democratic process continue
But it is mostly devoid of gravitas
And our alarm is modest.
No wonder there is fear, reams of despair, and acres of weeping!
And we feebly watch for you and wait
Teach us how to weep while we wait
And how to hope while we weep
And how to care while we hope
Teach us through this strange, ancient, immediate text.

Walter Brueggemann

Wednesday, September 17, 2008


Early this month, I had the chance to meet Maggie Campers and a '96 HNGR alumnus, Sarah Johnson, south of Manila. This picture is near the South China Sea, if my geography is correct. We got to do some hiking and saw a lake within a semi-active volcano within a lake within a volcano crater. Like a Russian doll. It was beautiful.

Prayer by Bishop Romero

It helps, now and then, to step back and take a long view.

The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts,

it is even beyond our vision.

We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction

of the magnificent enterprise that is God's work.

Nothing we do is complete, which is a way of saying

that the kingdom always lies beyond us.

No statement says all that could be said.

No prayer fully expresses our faith.

No confession brings perfection.

No pastoral visit brings wholeness.

No program accomplishes the church's mission.

No set of goals and objectives includes everything.

This is what we are about.

We plant the seeds that one day will grow.

We water seeds already planted,

knowing that they hold future promise.

We lay foundations that will need further development.

We provide yeast that produces far beyond our capabilities.

We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation

in realizing that. This enables us to do something,

and to do it very well. It may be incomplete,

but it is a beginning, a step along the way,

an opportunity for the Lord's grace to enter and do the rest.

We may never see the end results, but that is the difference

between the master builder and the worker.

We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs.

We are prophets of a future not our own.


March 14, 1977 Bishop Oscar Romero

From The Violence of Love

Delighting in place

The other day, I got a text from a friend (Holly), asking me what I loved about where I am. The little question stuck with me, and that day I took note of some of the things that I especially delight in where I am. Usually, it's the hard things that stick with me and that I tend to communicate most with people back home. But it was a rewarding challenge that Holly gave, and I challenge you all as well to open your senses just a little wider than usual today to notice the joys of your place.

Here are mine:

- How juliet lifts her eyebrow in short jumps when she agrees with me
-How the old ladies titter with excitement whenever i sit with them and start speaking their dialect. "amtato!" "she understands!" I love speaking a powerless language. There is no use for it in the city, or even 30 minutes away in the lowlands, but here and now i speak the language of the old folks, the language that communicates more than I say - I care about their lives and their culture.
- I love my host family. they care for me and teach me compassion in little ways, like leaving hot water in the shower for me, or waking at 3 in the morning to cook sweet potato for my trip to Manila. They bid me to share about my family at home, to tell my stories and vulnerabilities at the same time that I listen to theirs.
-How in Imugan, there is no such thing as passing by someone you know with a simple greeting. You must sit down and talk for a little while, long enough to forget that you had somewhere important to go, before moving on with your feeling of being known and connected to community.
-I am learning to like throwing myself to the unknown - walking up a hill near our house after breakfast somedays and praying to encounter a new friend. Last time, I saw three ladies hiking to their swidden farm far in the forest. So I joined them and helped them weed. They told me they would find me a Kalahan husband soon, because the sooner I have children, the better. So if i don't return... jk
-I love fresh air and clouds. Mountains and vegetables from the mountains. Wild forest fruits before and after they are processed at the local processing plant. Life is buzzing, it is bursting at the seams (like my growing rice belly haha). I am feeling full here, now, with these people, in this place.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

My host family

These are my host sisters, Naomi (9, back), and Elna (12, front). They're practicing their beauty-pageant walks in high heels in this picture.
These are my host parents: Aunti Noemi and Uncle Doroteo. She took off his usual hat right before the picture, so he looks a little sheepish here because of his receding hair. They're wonderful people.

An overdo update letter

Dear family and friends,
Greetings from the Philippines! Please accept my apologies for not updating you all on my internship here until now. As you know, I am participating in Wheaton College's Human Needs and Global Resources (HNGR) program for 6 months as a student of culture and the church in the Northern Philippines. HNGR emphasizes relationship-based learning from our brothers and sisters in the developing world. I am delighting in the friends and teachers I have found among the Ikalahan people in Imugan, where I am assigned. After an initial three month period of cultural adjustment and learning the local dialect, my "real" work has just recently begun in Northern Luzon! (Since Kalahan is a minority dialect, continuing to learn the language will be integral to my stay and relationships for my entire time here.)
If we had time, I'd like to share a story and a cup of tea with you. How I wish I could convey in one short letter the vast range of sights, experiences, and lessons I've had in just under 3 months! The memorable things are of course the simplest and the most human: how my neighbor, Aunti Esther, always comfortably rests her hand at my elbow as we walk to Bible Study, moon guiding our path; Pastor Rice wiping his glasses again and leaning back before starting, "Did I ever tell you…"; soft dirt rising up between my toes as I help my host mom harvest ginger; the swell of children's laughter as they bathe in a clear mountain waterfall… But I will instead give you necessary details, and we can save that cup of tea for when I return if you're willing!
In addition to teaching four classes of conversational English at the local high school each Monday morning, I am helping Pastor Rice, a retired missionary and anthropologist, with some cultural research projects that he supervises for the Kalahan Educational Foundation (KEF). The KEF is an indigenous people's organization that founded the local high school where I teach, about 30 years ago. The Academy provides culturally appropriate Christian education for indigenous students from all over the Philippines. During the 1970s, the KEF was able to fight off some land-grabbing cronies of Dictator Ferdinand Marcos, who wanted to convert the Ikalahan Peoples' ancestral forest homelands into huge dams. Since this court case, the Ikalahan have been able to secure land tenure for approximately 123,000 acres of ancestral lands. Now that the Ikalahan know that their land cannot be taken from them, they have a reason to protect and develop the tropical forests that are home to many endangered species of flora and fauna. The forests even provide livelihood to the people through a wild fruit processing plant, which turns out some delicious guava jam for sale in the big cities of the Philippines.
In addition to ecological preservation, a secondary function of the KEF is to strengthen and preserve the indigenous culture. The KEF's cultural preservation projects (with which I am involved) center around the indigenous justice system and indigenous rituals documentation. I'm loving travels to surrounding areas with Pastor Rice's research partner and tribal elder, Sario. We tape-record and document cases that go through the tribal justice system as well as traditional rituals performed for occasions such as sickness or blessing a home. Many of the old ways are in danger of being lost when the old people pass on, so it is important to record these practices for the later generations. I'm particularly interested in the ways that some of these old rituals, hailing from an animistic past, are currently undergoing a locally-led Christian conversion process. Instead of addressing the spirits that often cause the illness, the ritual's prayers are now being directed to God. I'm staying with a lovely Ikalahan host family. Aside from being rural farmers, my host father is an evangelical pastor and my host mother works as a teacher at Kalahan Academy where I teach. She is also a liason for KEF, organizing ecology seminars at other schools in the area. They have three children. I feel especially grateful for the ways that they draw me into the pulse of community life through the local church. The one church in the area meets not just in a building on Sundays, but in the homes of local people during a moving Bible-study group during the week. I've been learning of the power of prayer through being a part of a community rooted in Christ and confident in a God that hears, sees, and knows their troubles and joys. The community draws together for all occasions in prayer and song, whether it be for someone who is sick or for a family reunited after a parent's adultery.
My glowing report must now be dimmed a bit -– I'd like to share some of the challenges I've faced and some prayer requests. The first concerns some petty theft issues. The young boy who boards with his mother next door to my house has broken into my room and taken a few small things of mine. We've confronted both him and his mother about the issue, and have prayed about it. Yet he has repeated his theft multiple times, and so my host mother and I recently decided to talk with the community elders about the problem. Please pray that they will have wisdom in disciplining the boy so that he will be led toward change. Also, pray for my relationship with the boy's family, that love and forgiveness rather than shameand resentment will be the defining values.
Related to this request, please pray that the friendships I develop here would somehow breach the gaps that my relative wealth and status as an American automatically create. Most residents in this small mountain town are farmers and earn well below the poverty threshold of $1 per day. As I study the Bible with these rural poor, from their perspective, certain sections are dear to them that I previously did not pay much attention to. So many Old Testament passages show how God's favor is shown to His people on the basis of their relationship with the poor. Yet I find that my material "blessings" often block my own relationships with the poorest. This leads me to wonder if we as affluent westerners can honestly call those resources a "blessing".... when a blessing is defined as something that brings life and signifies God's favor. These same "blessings" often frustratingly stand in the way of the deeper friendships that I desire to develop here.
If I may be so bold as to suggest this, join my prayer that we as American Christians may also confess that we are unjustly rich in comparison with the majority of the world. Pray that I too would fearfully and carefully eye the needle that Jesus refers to in Mark 10. In this place, my skin color, round-trip plane ticket, and educational status all testify that I am exceedingly wealthy and this only seems to distance me from my neighbors. May the Lord give us eyes to truly see this obstacle of affluence. May we all have ears to hear Jesus' words "... How hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God." According to Christ's own words, we as wealthy ones are clearly disadvantaged in the economy of God's Kingdom! What do I do with this verse and many others in which God clearly favors the poor? How can the rich enter the kingdom of heaven? Lately, I've decided to ask these questions of the people around me here, since they are the poor that Jesus called the "blessed ones" in Matthew 5. Peoples' responses to my questions here are often surprising. I feel that God is calling me to live with these tensions and questions right now, to learn from the poor and release my claim to know the answers.
Many of you are my role models and teachers back home. Please feel free to send me your thoughts on this subject since many of you have no doubt wrestled with these things before. Thank you for truly "bearing with me" in the hard spots and encouraging me as God patiently teaches me to think by a different logic here, hopefully a Kingdom logic! I am also grateful for those of you who support me both financially and through prayer. I am confident that He is answering your prayers, for I constantly sense God's active sustenance of my life in this community of believers.
Joy and peace,