On the first day of class here at BCCL, I had each student write a short pop-quiz essay entitled, “What is worship?” I got a lot of varied responses from them, and it was enlightening to see their collective perspective regarding this very big and deep word. On the last day of class, I surprised them and gave them the very same pop-quiz: “What is worship?” The point was to see how their perspective of worship has changed over the last two weeks of study.
In these last two weeks, we’ve learned theology, philosophy, practices. We’ve discussed Trinitarian, ecclesiological, sacramental, and dialogical aspects of worship. We’ve broken down Scripture, from Genesis to the Gospels to the epistles. We’ve also gotten very practical and discussed service flow, song lyrics and selection, musical arranging, and other practical considerations. We talked about the calling of the worship leader, and the qualifications of the worship team. And we’ve worshiped a lot in class too, to practically put action to our words. We’ve traveled quite a journey of discovery together. So the answers to the question were considerably different and thoughtful, even profound.
As a gift to the class, I put on a short mini-concert for them, for which they were very appreciative (I had given them all CDs of my music as well as my book at the beginning of the first class). There were many gifts and well-wishes given to me at the end of our class, and about a million photos were taken (did I mention yet how much Filipinos love taking photos?).
There is one other thing too. After reviewing everything I had taught them, I took a moment and shared with them some of the things that they had taught me. Here are a few reflections, some things my class has taught me.
A Greater Humility. I’ve been teaching worship for the last two weeks. But I have been teaching people whose lives are so completely sold out to Jesus, saints who have paid a tremendous price—persecution, isolation, economic hardship—for the joy of sharing their faith in their own part of the world. They totally love God, and are totally sold out to His Kingdom-purposes. In many ways, through their lives, they have been the ones who have taught me instead. Honestly, I am humbled in their presence.
A Thankful Heart. One of the things that missions trips almost always provide—if your eyes are open to it—is perspective. And traveling to a part of the world that is less advantaged than we are will certainly give you perspective. I think about how amazingly easy life is in America—everything from hot running water to washing clothes to getting coffee—we are simply an over-privileged nation. I think about what hardships people here have to go through just to get to church. And that doesn’t even take into consideration the persecutions—both from family and from society—that they have to go through just to attend an evangelical church. And I contrast that with how easy it is for American Christians to justify staying home on a Sunday morning. We really don’t understand the degree to which we make God our servant. I come away from my experiences here in Legaspi with a renewed spirit of thankfulness, one that doesn’t take for granted our privileges and blessings.
A Bigger Picture. One of the things I continually preach in worship is the idea that our corporate worship activity is an entering in to a larger, continuous worship that extends through time and history, place and geography, and spiritually into the heavens. When we worship as a local church, we join other Christians around the world, the saints through history, the angels and the heavenly realms, and ultimately all of creation in glorifying God. More than just a few moments that start and stop on Sunday morning, worship is a continuous and eternal act that we join into. My time here has been bathed in the act of worship, through constant singing, exclamation, teaching, exhortation, training, fellowship, and even eating! Through it all, I have gotten a much bigger picture of who God is, and what He continues to do to advance His Kingdom in the hearts of people. It has been an exciting thing to see firsthand.
When I first got here, I would lead these people in worship and picture my congregation in Folsom worshiping with them. Now, when I lead worship in Folsom, I will picture my Filipino friends singing and raising hands in worship. It’s a beautiful thing.
A Larger Picture of Myself. My cultural heritage has always been something experienced through my childhood—my parents, extended family, and the Filipino Community I grew up with in Salinas. But now I have a first-hand understanding of the land of my Father and Mother. I’ve experienced a whole lot of the Philippines in my short time here, and it has given me a greater perspective of where I’ve come from.
Though we will be far apart, I will keep these memories and people in my heart wherever I go.
Neither Red Nor Green: Legaspi is a city of almost 800,000 people, yet there is only one stop light in the whole city, and it’s turned off. Believe me when I say driving around here is more than a ride, it’s an adventure.
Funniest Road Sign: “Piglets for sale.”
New Favorite Food: The best thing I ate in a restaurant here (and I’ve eaten a lot of stuff here) is called “Bicol Express,” a local pork dish with coconut milk and red and green peppers. A bit hot, but amazing over white rice. Yum. [BTW I think I put on 5 pounds easy on this trip.]
Our Schtick: One of the common occurrences traveling with Gregg Evans is that when we go to a restaurant, the waiter will always look at me and begin to speak in Tagalog. I’ll give him a sheepish shrug, and then Gregg will begin ordering for us in fluent Tagalog. Freaks the waiters out.
Mayon Volcano: We took advantage of a relatively unrainy day and took a motor tour around the Mayon Volcano, the primary landmark in this area. Known as the most symmetrically formed volcano in the world, it is a marvel of beauty, so much so that any photos pale in comparison. I don’t have the words to express it’s beauty. And that’s on a cloudy day.
Pili Nuts: One of the delicacies of the region, pili nuts are sugared, coated, salted, and buttered. I think I have a half dozen packages of pili nuts, as well as assorted pili nut souvenirs, to take home with me. Sometimes you feel like a nut…
[Top photo: The BCCL Worship and Arts Class of 2012. Second photo: The wonderful staff at Bicol Center for Christian Leadership. I hope to see them again. Third photo: Gregg shares some coinage with some quite disadvantaged local children during our sightseeing trip around the volcano. Fourth photo: My distant cousin, Tony, and I share a meal in Manila after all the fun of ministry is done. This was my first time to meet him. Bottom photo: A view of the Mayon volcano. Startlingly beautiful, beyond words really, even if you can only see the bottom half.]
It’s raining again. Through last weekend and throughout last night, the weather has been a continuous cycle of drizzle, downpour, and brief pauses of run-off. Gutters swell periodically and the drainage canal next to our apartment rises threateningly, and I wonder where all the water goes. Pedi-cab drivers in the street below struggle to pedal their cabs while holding umbrellas, dodging puddles and other street spills. Some simply give up—drenched to the bone, they will their way to the corner to drop off their umbrella-clad fares, then turn and head up the street, looking for their next passenger.
In the distance, beyond the sound of Jeepneys beeping and whistles blowing, I can hear the sound of the Philippine National Anthem being played. The day has begun at the nearby private Catholic school. The morning sky is a blanket of dirty white. I try to picture the Mayon volcano in the distance, but I cannot. The drum roll of raindrops on corrugated rooftops, like white noise on the radio, crescendos and decrescendos, momentarily drawing me away from my thoughts.
And my thoughts now are of home. I think about what it must be like in El Dorado Hills, California, right at this moment. Blue skies, moderate temperatures, wall-to-wall carpeting and hot water coming out of the faucets. Debbie is probably thinking about starting dinner—maybe something Mexican like fajitas or taco salad—with all the conveniences of a modern kitchen and a well-stocked refrigerator at her disposal. I think about the girls probably having a post-school snack, doing their homework, texting their friends about the day.
I muse now about how different this world is than the one I call home. Ironically, the more I am with these beautiful people—people that I look like and look like me, people who love Jesus like me, people who live and breathe just like me—the more I am reminded that I am not like them. I grew up in a fundamentally different culture, with a fundamentally different set of social and cultural and economic values, and as a result, I think fundamentally differently than they do.
They have a humorous saying here: “Nosebleed.” It’s the lighthearted word they use to describe the struggle they have when speaking English to Americans, Canadians, Australians, and other travelers. I am giving the people I have met—especially the enrollees in the class I am teaching—nosebleeds.
Several times each session, I will say something that they will not understand, or tell them something that might be misconstrued in an unintended way. I will share an example that in our context is quite normal, but for them, may be inappropriate. Or I will tell a joke that will simply bomb big-time. I feel a little embarrassed because I am so woefully mono-lingual, but they have been very gracious and kind and forgiving in our communication and interaction.
These are all typical issues in any cultural interchange. But I realize it is more than language. And so I am trying to learn, not just their culture and their ways, but trying to grasp how they think as well. Now I believe I have a leg up on most of the Americans who come to this part of the Philippines, because some of their ethnocultural values were passed on to me by my parents. But as I said, the more I am here, the more my “California-ness” pokes out.
The rain has paused briefly now. What remains is a cool damp air that sticks to the skin. The morning rush of traffic has slowed a bit, and I suddenly recognize the sound of clucking chickens somewhere in the neighborhood.
And then I suddenly think, maybe Debbie is making chicken for dinner.
• The class that I have taken on is a relatively new batch of BCCL students, so it is early in their two year cycle. (Students take a series of intensive classes over a two-year period resulting in a Graduate Certificate in Urban Ministries, or GCUM.) As a result, the students are not just getting to know me, some are still in the process of getting to know one another.
• This fact is for all my builder friends. There’s very little building lumber here. Unlike California, where most homes are built with doug fir stud frames overlayed with drywall and siding, almost all the buildings here are cinderblock with plaster over the top. Houses are sturdy, but they don’t wear well in this climate. Most of the forests in the Philippines have been stripped, so there’s a moratorium on hardwoods.
• Our last trip to the grocery store, I bought some ensaymada ube, which is a sweet pastry flavored with ube, a sweet purple paste made from a root of some kind. This was one of my Mom’s favorites, and she would buy it regularly at the Filipino Store in Salinas. It’s a pretty good substitute for apple fritters.
• Speaking of breakfast, Gregg made French toast yesterday, and purchased some “maple-flavored hotcake syrup” to go with it. Among the nutritional facts on the label, instead of the word “calories,” they use the word, “energy.” The first three main ingredients: glucose corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup, invert sugar. Yum.
[A collection of miscellaneous photos today. Top photo: A view of the Embarcadero in Legaspi City—Beautiful and upscale, but also empty. Second photo: Rufus Genovea and Gregg Evans at the church in Ligao City. Third photo: Part of the Worship Team at Jesus First Christian Ministries at their Sunday morning service. “Purihin ang Diyos!” Bottom photo: The nutritional label of our hotcake syrup.]
I find myself at the mid-point of my trip here—and it’s been a very full agenda so far. The Worship & Arts Class I’m teaching is half over, the all-day Worship Team Workshop was well attended, I’ve visited three different church services, and we also squeezed in a trip to Naga to visit a BCCL satellite location. I’ve also been able to experience a “pedi-cab” ride (basically an old Stingray-style bike with a hooded sidecar welded on), a “tricycle” ride (a small motorcycle with sidecar), and a whole host of Filipino dishes and desserts. Details below.
College Group Tonight, I was the guest speaker at the Fifth Anniversary Celebration of YHB (Yeshua Heart Beat), which is a relatively large college group associated with the Albay Bible Community Church. (My topic was “Abiding in God’s Love” From John 15.) There’s an explosion going on among the young people here. There are over 100 students regularly involved in the ABC youth ministry. Engineering, architecture, business, education, and medical students—and they are involved, aware, and alive in Christ. I see them as being among the next generation of Christian leaders here in the Philippines. Unfortunately, the Philippines economy can’t support all the grads coming out of their schools, and many of them are having to take lesser jobs outside of their fields of education. It was exciting being with them and sharing in their joy and passion and fun!
Filipino Worship This morning, I visited Jesus First Christian Ministries, where I experienced an entire worship service in Tagalog. Songs, Scripture, sermon, and even offering was given in Tagalog. Amazingly, I was able to follow along pretty well (due to the occasional word I could pick up, plus the PowerPoint that was in English), and I was even able to sing along with most songs. As we sang, I could picture my home church, Oak Hills, half-way across the world, worshiping as well. It was a very cool thought.
Worship Team Workshop The BCCL rented a large hall right in one of the provincial government buildings in Old Albay for this all-day event, which meant that we were worshiping at one of the seats of local government. (How weird is that!) During this workshop, I lectured briefly about the importance of the worship team, the roles of each of the instruments of the worship team, and then taught them a bunch of songs. Specifically, I took volunteers from the crowd to form a worship band, then taught them one of the newer worship songs. I did this about five times, with different groups each time. I think this was helpful, as they learned new songs to bring back to their congregations, and I was able to show them how I run a rehearsal and put the different elements of the band together. I also took the time to teach worship concepts in the midst of it all too.
The best thing about this workshop was when Mayette Ativo-Bueno (BCCL Director) told me during the break that the teams I was working with were formed with people that had never even met before. She was quick to jump on that, and before the end of the day, she had brought together the worship leaders from all the different churches and formed a twice-a-month gathering for them. Yeah!
Naga Friday, we took a field trip to the city of Naga, which is about two hours drive from Legaspi. BCCL does satellite classes there and has plans to put a facility in the city, to increase their visibility. It’s exciting to see BCCL extend their influence and continue to make a difference in this region.
• When I took the pedi-cab, it was raining like crazy. Mayette and I piled into the cab, and the driver, a man in his sixties wearing shorts and flip-flops, began pedaling us vigorously down the street. I felt like telling the man, “That’s okay, let me pedal for you.” Except that he was in better shape than I was. FYI, the cab drive cost us 20 pesos, or not quite fifty cents.
• It’s amazing what the musicians here are able to play and do with the equipment they have. Our drummers and guitarists would be appalled by the condition of the instruments and sound systems, which don’t age well in this humidity and heat (which is another way of saying that all of us instrumentalists need to be a lot more thankful for what we’ve got!). I have made a mental note to come back next time with a brick of drumsticks and a bag full of tuners and guitar strings.
• The Filipinos love their cameras—especially the young people. I am finding photos of me popping up all over Facebook!
• Today, I missed Justin’s birthday. So I miss him. And on Tuesday, I’ll be missing Valentine’s Day with Debbie and the girls. I’ll have to make it up to them somehow.
• I can’t let a blog go without talking about food somehow. One of the foods that I ate recently was lugaw, a soup made of rice and chicken with hint of ginger. I remember my Mom used to make it for us when we were sick (kind of like chicken soup). It tasted great, and brought back lots of memories, but I couldn’t get over the fact that here, this warm soup is considered a mid-meal snack. I’m also quite bummed that I can’t try one of the desserts of my childhood, halo-halo, because it is made from ice (which I’ve been warned to stay away from).
[Top photo: I lead and instruct different musicians at the Worship Team Workshop. That was a blast! Second photo: They start them young early here. The god son of Pastor Tony Bueno, of Jesus First Christian Ministries, can't keep from whacking away with the drumsticks. Third photo: Another photo of the crowd from the Worship Team Workshop. Fourth photo: I have a late lunch with BCCL Director, Mayette, along with her husband, Pastor Tony. Bottom photo: This is the "tricycle" ride I took back to the apartment. This was truly an adventure for me, as it splashed and splayed through an extremely rainy morning.]
The humid morning air hangs thick and a little sticky, and the pale gray sky is beginning to lighten like an opaque curtain hanging primly in a window. I can hear the sounds of Jeepneys and motorcycles honking at one another in the street below me, and a rooster crows steadily above the din of the traffic. Already a steady stream of padjak (for-hire bicycle taxis with sidecars), uniformed school children, and hospital workers are making their way past the apartment to their morning destinations.
A blanket of rain appears, and the street is suddenly dotted with brightly colored umbrellas. It first patters the corrugated rooftops, then bangs like a snare roll, and then yields to a gentle drizzle.
Eventually, these clouds will clear, and the magnificent Mayon volcano will appear, large and looming, filling our second-floor apartment view with a quiet, imposing beauty. It too, like everything I experience this Wednesday morning, is a reminder that I’m not in California.
So far, I’ve taught two sessions on worship and the arts here at BCCL. Twenty enrolled students, as well as twenty-five additional audited students and BCCL staff, are attending my class, by far, the largest class given at BCCL to date. I was reminded that many of these people, both young students and older professionals and pastors, are coming each evening at great personal inconvenience, which is an indication of the great hunger that they have for teaching in worship. It makes me humble, diligent, and a little anxious for the class.
Understandably, the first session was a little hard for me to read. In cross-cultural exchanges, I’ve found it good to not lean on my own American sensibilities, and field director Gregg Evans has been extremely helpful in coaching me to communicate more effectively. After the first break of the first class, Gregg kindly encouraged me: “Don’t tell them you’re passionate about worship. Show them.” So we entered into a time of worship that was both sweet and unifying. The classroom time since then has been much more open and animated.
Teaching worship in this context begins with definitions. And the word, “worship” has many connotations. It is both a big word and a small one. It can mean the way that we live our lives in obedience to the Lord (Romans 12), and it can mean the singing portion of the Sunday morning service. So the first few sessions have been a series of deconstructions and theological reconstructions. But more than just shake up their ideas of worship, I’m trying to give them a bigger, grander understanding of who God is, and what our role is in helping His people enrich and deepen the transcendent dialogue.
I have found the students earnest, eager, and respectful. They love the Lord with passion and obedience. None of them are “full-time” pastors or ministers in the sense that we understand the term, and yet they fill their time with Bible studies, discipleship, and service. I find it refreshing—and somewhat humbling—to be with people for whom following Christ is so deeply integrated into their lives. In particular, there are many younger people (university students and others) involved in the leadership of these churches, particularly in worship teams. It’s great to see the movement of God in this cultural, inter-generational, and interdenominational context.
Please continue to pray for the class, particularly that God would impress upon all of us what He wants to form in our hearts regarding worship. Fifteen local churches are represented in the fifty or so people attending my class, so what we learn together has the capacity to affect many people. Once again, I thank you for the support and the opportunity to represent you here in Legaspi.
• I think Debbie would be appalled (but not surprised) by the amount of white rice I’m eating.
• The Super Bowl was pretty much non-existent here. Flipping through all the sports channels during the Super Bowl (it began about 7 AM Monday morning, by the way), I think we found soccer, rugby, and two basketball games (one US college and one NBA). They love their basketball!
• We are cooking on a hot plate in our apartment, so we’ve been to the grocery store a few times already. The grocery store is always a revealing cultural indicator of any society. Lots of things are different, from cookies to fruit to dish soap. Of greatest interest: the dairy section doesn’t have milk, butter, or cream. And the rice section is huge.
• At Gregg’s encouragement, I played Justin’s Asian-market toothpaste commercial for the class. They immediately recognized the commercial, and if he were to ever come here, he would be an immediate celebrity (especially among a few of the younger female students!).
• Some of you expressed concern to me about the recent earthquake. It was a large earthquake (I was told 6.9 on the Richter scale with aftershocks), but quite a ways away from Legaspi (near Cebu), so we didn’t feel it. Thanks for your concern.
[Top two photos: My second day of teaching at BCCL. Please pray for each of these people, and for the ministries they represent. Bottom photo: Some of the children at the Ligao City Bible Community pile into the main mode of transportation for many here, a motorcycle with roofed sidecar. I counted twelve adults and children on this one as it sped away.]
We arrived in Legaspi on Saturday morning, and settled in to a small apartment on site at BCCL. Gregg Evans showed me around the city, as he is an experienced driver, and the school has a car. So on this day, I experienced the local mall (where we purchased food and supplies for our stay), the upscale Embarcadero (a waterfront tourist attraction that seems too ambitious for this area), and the traffic (the main means of transportation seem to be modified low cc motorcycles with questionable sheet metal and tubing sidecars attached. With up to 6 people on one, it looks like a wild ride!).
The local economy is pretty stagnant, and the average person here makes very little money. Gregg informed me that many workers and field hands might make only 100-200 pesos per day (three to five dollars US). There is definitely a social hierarchy here, with the rich, the very rich, and the very poor, with only a small percentage in between. Gregg mentioned to me that one of the signs of improvement in a third world economy is the growth of a middle class. There is little of that here. My first impression of the urban town of Legaspi is that it is not unsimilar to Mexico or South America (outside of the resort areas).
The facilities at BCCL could be considered spartan by our standards, but impressive given what they’ve built over the last ten years. A large room functions as both classroom for BCCL and worship sanctuary for a number of ministries. They offer clerical help to other churches during the week, and have a relatively large Christian library as well. I already sat and observed a college group worship team that was playing a mix of current worship songs.
On Sunday morning, we visited Ligao City Bible Community, a barrio church led by Rufus and his wife Mirasol. Rufus is a good friend of Gregg, one of his first partners in church planting, and Mirasol is a local school teacher. (Some of you old Oak Hillians might remember Rufus from the “Pray for Rufus” bumper stickers we had about 15 years ago.) Together, they faithfully lead this small congregation of mostly young people. I was asked to share music with them, and shared a handful of songs during their service. Funny that I found myself worshiping with them and picturing Oak Hills worshiping at the same time—half a world away, but worshiping the same God. I will be visiting another church this evening which meets at the BCCL main facilities.
I’m grateful for your contributions that allowed me to purchase a portable but quality keyboard for this trip (sounds great and runs on batteries!). My task now is to do final preparations for the class tomorrow night. I’ve discussed my curriculum with Gregg Evans, and am more settled on how I will approach this first day of studies.
Fun facts: Whereas in Manila, where you would find a Starbucks next to a Seattle’s Best next to a doughnut shop, here in Legaspi, we are enjoying instant coffee with no cream (the dairy section of the grocery store did not stock milk, cream, or sour cream—only yogurt and eggs). I’ll never complain about Pastor Kent’s coffee ever again.
[Top photo: Touching down in Legaspi. Second photo: A view of our neighbors from the roof deck of our apartment building at BCCL. Third photo: Me sharing some music at Ligao City Community Bible. Bottom photo: I’m at the grocery store with Close-Up Fire and Ice toothpaste. (This is an inside joke—my model son, Justin, did a commercial for Close-Up which runs in this part of the world.)]
After the typically long plane flight to Manila, I’m happy to announce that in my first 24 hours, I’ve already had a few delicious Filipino meals and visited the local mega-mall twice. That doesn’t sound like much of a trip report, but the first order of business in any missions trip is simply to get one’s bearings. And it’s obvious that I’m not in Kansas anymore.
My hotel is deep in the heart of Manila, surrounded by high rises and towering construction cranes. The beautiful high-end mall stands in contrast to some of the more economically-disadvantaged people I’ve already met. The local newspaper announces the killing of top Al Quaida-linked terrorists by Philippine military forces, as well as the impeachment of a Filipino Chief Justice. The hotel cable shares Filipino music videos, local talk shows, Letterman, and Japanese Anime. Speaking with locals, as well as being briefed by field director Gregg Evans, I am reminded that the Philippines is a contrast of third world socio-economic issues and first world sensibilities and sophistication.
First thing tomorrow, Gregg and I will be catching a plane for Legaspi City, where the Bicol Center for Christian Leadership (BCCL) is located. I’ll be making that home base as I visit a few churches on Sunday and begin teaching Monday for the following two weeks. I also have an all-day workshop scheduled the following Saturday, and I’ll probably be speaking at a few churches the following Sunday morning and evening. I’ve been encouraged to be flexible as I may be asked to speak or lead worship at other churches and venues as well.
[Top photo: The Manila skyline from our hotel rooftop deck. Bottom photo: Gregg Evans and I having breakfast. Yes, that is fried rice with eggs and pork tocino.]