This blog post documents my 2016 Philippines Missions Trip, the third trip I have participated on behalf of our ministry partners, the Bicol Center for Christian Leadership (BCCL) in Legazpi City, Philippines. During these trips, I teach worship and the arts theology and practices, as well as provide music and band instruction and participate in leading worship at various events. For background information on this latest trip, please hit the link.
BEGINNINGS :: May 31
Towering upright like a green pyramid on a powder-blue sky, the Mayon volcano greets me this morning with a spectacular view from my second-story terrace. Already the sound of Jeepneys and roosters and high-pitched scooter horns have begun their cacophony from the streets below.
It’s early Tuesday morning, my second morning in Legazpi. After a 20-hour trip (not including losing a day due to crossing the international dateline), I spent a day in Manila acclimating to the time change before pushing on to Legazpi. My first night here, I attended the evening service at Jesus First Christian Ministries, the church of BCCL director, Mayette, and her senior pastor husband Tony. I am heartened to hear about how their church is growing (three Sunday services now!) and how they and other churches are making a difference in this region.
A bit of history. When the North American Baptist (NAB) Conference first sent missionaries to the Bicol region, it was the least evangelized, most resistant non-Muslim region of the country. While this is still so, there are now many thousands of evangelical believers. Jesus First Christian Ministries is now close to 150 men, women, and children, which makes them one of the larger, growing churches in the area.
As I sit outdoors with my instant coffee and review my curriculum for the day, I am reminded that it will be a hot and humid day in a string of hot and humid days.
Yesterday evening was the first of a four-day intensive on worship theology. About 100 people have signed up for my four-day worship intensive, most of whom are young people, and over half who have never heard me speak or lead. In contrast, my first class four years ago was about 20 students and another 25 audited people, which was at that time record attendance for a BCCL class. This first night was more introductory, as I took the class through a process of trying to define worship—What is worship, why is it important, how we were designed to be beings who worship, what is it to live a life of a worshiper. We looked at biblical encounters of worship and studied a definition of worship that Jesus gave us (Matthew 22:37, citing Deuteronomy 6:5). Tonight I will expand on these thoughts and discuss the relationships of worship (Trinity and ecclesiology), and then we’ll get practical and talk about how to design a worship experience. In the midst of the teaching, I intersperse times of worship using new songs that I want to teach to the people. Hopefully, this will help inspire them as they go back to their churches with new material to teach.
- Yesterday was my very first time going to a McDonald’s in the Philippines. It looks very much the same as any other McDonald’s in the US, but the workers are much better dressed. I ordered a chicken sandwich with fries, standard fare, but you can get fried chicken and rice there too!
- To those of you who gave to BCCL’s Building Program—Thank You! They have begun using their new third floor classroom as well as new office space, and it has been a wonderful blessing! They have a clean, safe, air conditioned room for meetings and classes, as well as areas for their library and other materials. Building continues out front and around the grounds, and it’s an exciting time of growth in ministry here.
- I need to slow down when I teach. I need to remember that, while they speak English here, they don’t speak Californian. So I just need to remind myself to take a deep breath and allow the Holy Spirit time to catch up with me.
- Those of you who followed me on my last trip in 2014 know that we were plagued by a continuing series of power brown-outs that left the city without electricity, and me without power for computer, internet, sound systems, keyboard, etc. Last night, during my first session, the power unexpectedly went out for a few minutes, and I thought to myself, Okay, here we go again! Thankfully, the power was restored quickly, and the rest of the night was uneventful!
A JOURNEY OF WORSHIP :: June 2
Probably the most notable thing to report over the last few days is the success of the theology of worship intensive I’ve been teaching. Word of mouth has spread and we are over 120 people in attendance now [see photo]. BCCL made arrangements to meet in a larger church sanctuary, and I am grateful for the spirit of cooperation that the many churches have shown. Last night was particularly fun, as we moved beyond theory and theology and had the different groups circle together and design an entire worship service from scratch. I think they liked the freedom and creativity of the exercise. Another well-received sidebar was a graphic I created titled, “A Journey of Worship,” which graphically depicts a corporate worship experience [I might have to blog on that some time].
I’ve had a blast with these people—most of them young adult—and as I end my class tonight, I will carry with me memories of some sweet worship with them.
The other sidebar that has transpired is that I presented a sixteen track digital studio recorder to BCCL. This portable, battery-powered unit can now be used by different musicians and songwriters to hopefully inspire them to write indigenous worship songs. This has been a growing vision for a while now—to have original worship music from the hearts and hands of Filipino songwriters written for and sung by Filipino congregations. As I began to teach the basic functions of the unit to a few of the budding songwriters, I could see the waves of epiphany wash over their faces, as they started to understand what they will soon be able to do. To those of you who have contributed to my trip, please know that some of your funds directly went to this special project.
- So this morning, about 6:30 AM, I was summoned by the faint sound of a trumpets and trombones and snare drums coming from somewhere in the ether. As it grew louder and louder, I walked out to the balcony, just in time to catch a small marching band lead a parade of people down the main thoroughfare near our street [see photo]. Only in the Philippines!
- Upgrades continue here at BCCL which is exciting for the ministry, and none to soon. I’ve been watching the carpenters and construction workers work with much skill and ingenuity and resourcefulness. As a side bar, construction in island climates is very different than in the US or Europe. We have an abundance of forests from which to draw wood, and our typical California home construction is 2X4 douglas fir stud framing with drywall on the inside and wood or siding on the outside. But here, most everything is concrete with metal framing and corrugated metal roofs. I have yet to see a single worker with a circular saw or a nail gun…or a tape measure for that matter. Amazing!
WORSHIPING HALF A WORLD AWAY :: June 5
There was a moment today, in the midst of worship with the lovely people of Jesus First Christian Ministries in Legazpi, that I pictured my own congregation worshiping, half a world away. One of my worship teams will be playing some rock-beat tune, my congregation will be swaying to the music, my tech team will be upstairs mixing sound and running lights and multimedia. And as I remembered that I am a full 15 hours ahead of Pacific Time, I was struck by the fact that the worship I was participating in was nevertheless still connected to the worship they have yet to experience.
Connections. We are all interconnected melodies in the New Song God composes in the universe, connected spiritually through our connection in Christ, and connected by relationship—me with them, them with me, me with my church. Worship is a beautiful thing.
The first full week of ministry here is in the books, and it has been a blast! Lots of busyness teaching and leading worship during the Theology of Worship intensive, the Visual Arts Workshop, and an all-day Worship Team Workshop, and then guest preaching at JFCM on Sunday morning.
During the latter workshop, I wanted to make sure that I did something different than the last time I was here. So in addition to wood-shedding new music, I introduced the concept of the Drum Circle. We had a lot of fun exploring rhythms and trading beats and measures. The Drum Circle is also a metaphor for Biblical community, so I used it to teach concepts such as listening and communication, mutual submission, working together, and learning to play the rests.
Also, the Sunday worship at JFCM was great. It was a quarterly gathering of not only three services into one, but also of outlying Bible studies that are too far to attend their church services. Almost 300 people were standing room only in the room. I loved being able to not lead, but be led, both in worship and in other ways. I preached a sermon on Psalm 98, which was on the subject of Celebration, which I thought was well-received. I also requested that they put together a multimedia show of a series of baptisms that the church had last spring, and it dovetailed out of my message nicely. Finally, after lunch, gathered again to celebrate the Lord’s Supper. I was wondering why Pastor Tony was going into great detail about the meaning and importance of communion, when Mayette leaned into me and explained that there were some people there today, particularly from the outlying Bible studies, who had never taken communion before (at least as a born-again believer). It gave the sacrament renewed meaning to me, as I realized that I was sharing with people for whom the Christian faith is so new and alive.
- Bearing Gifts. Because of the generosity of my many supporters, I’ve been able to provide small gifts to the various participants to my workshops and classes. I was able to give my book, Imagine That, to each of the full enrollees in the Theology of Worship class. During the Worship Team Workshop, I gave away drum sticks to all the drummers and guitar strings to all the acoustic guitarists. And I gave away sketch pads to everyone in the Visual Arts Workshop. Thank you to all of you who gave to this trip! It was all very much appreciated!
- Nosebleeds. Those of you who supported and followed me during my last two trips might remember the phrase, “nosebleeds.” That’s the term that Filipinos use to describe what they feel when they are trying to talk to Americans in English. While they are skillfully bilingual people, some have problems expressing themselves easily to me. So they are sometimes a little reluctant to engage in deeper conversation or discussion. This was one of the issues when we brought together a group of visual artists to plan a large worship arts project for the upcoming Free To Worship Concert. At some point, I mentioned that I appreciated their respect for me, but I wanted to give them permission to speak Tagalog in my presence so that we could have a more free-flowing, creative discussion. I hope that they took that well, and I did notice that the dialog began to flow a little more freely.
- Small Victories. Overseas trips like this sometimes can be measured in small victories. Like if I tell a joke, and everyone actually laughs. Or I flush the toilet, and after some hesitation on the part of the plumbing, it flushes. One of the small victories which I count is during the Visual Arts Workshop, which was attended by eleven people. I was taken aback a bit by some of the abilities of some of these fine people—which included three students in 3D animation, painters, and others. They are cooking up some interesting visual arts ideas for our concert, and working with the dancers on it too. The small victories that evening came when I began to see the light bulbs going on in their heads, as I explained a theology of the arts, and how important their calling is to the body of Christ. I was told that this was the first time these concepts have ever been explained to them. Cool stuff!
SINGING A NEW SONG :: June 7, 2016
We had a very successful kickoff to our Songwriting Workshop last night. I was expecting 5-10 students in the three sessions, but 29 people showed up! It was very encouraging, but at the same time, I realized quickly that I have to teach the class in a different way, with less time per person coaching one-on-one. In this first session, we reviewed the attributes of a good worship song, then covered the five elements of a song—melody, harmony, lyrics, rhythm, and structure. I played a lot of pop tunes (Jason Mraz, Michael Buble, Beatles) as examples, which I think they enjoyed.
I am encouraged for a lot of reasons. One, I get to stir the creative hearts of a lot of young people, which is fun. Two, I want to explore what God is doing here, in terms of creativity and the arts. I can picture a whole songbook breathed out of this group of composers, edifying the church through a uniquely Legazpi-birthed voice. It’s exciting, no matter how it goes.
One of my personal convictions is that people in the pews form their opinions and theologies about God as much from the songs we sing as from the sermons we hear. The lyrics of these songs are so much more than just words on a screen. They form our ideas about God and His Kingdom and our small but vital and precious place in it. So it is important to write songs that are not just Biblically correct but poetically true.
Words matter. Author Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote a book, and it started the Civil War. Priest and theologian Martin Luther wrote a series of theses, and it started the Protestant Reformation. John Lennon and Paul McCartney wrote “I Want To Hold Your Hand,” and popular music (and church music for that matter) was never the same.
At the same time, it’s not the role of lyrics to preach. That is the job of the sermon, the expositor, the preacher. The role of lyrics is to reveal God, and help people express how to respond to Him. So worship lyrics should be true to who God is and what He has done for us. And lyrics should also be true as an authentic expression back to Him.
I also encouraged these budding composers to see songwriting primarily as a type of musical journaling. Their aspiration should not be to write a hit song, or even a song that is sung in their church, but to write a song that connects them to God first. If it happens to go beyond one’s private journaling, then that’s great. But make the focus of songwriting to be an expression of one’s spiritual journey.
One other thing to mention: The Visual Arts Team has taken off big time [see the photos above]. They came up with a cool idea for a collaborative visual arts piece that will be displayed during the upcoming concert, and I’m jazzed that they are running with it, very much without my supervision. Can’t wait to see it come together on Saturday!
- Pastor Tony and Director Mayette treated me Sunday night to a walk on the Boulevard here in Legazpi. It’s a strip down by the water in Albay Bay with a spectacular view of the Mayon Volcano a short distance away. A beautiful, indigo evening [see photo].
- I keep referring to the Mayon Volcano, and if you’re interested, I encourage you to look it up. It’s an active volcano, spewing a small but constant stream of puffy white smoke. The other night, we were treated to a lightning show that was just on the other side of the volcano. Too intense to even describe!
HOME STRETCH :: June 10, 2016
If this were a race, we would be coming out of the final turn and entering the home stretch. I’ve finished grading papers for my Theology of Worship Class. The Worship Team Workshop was a fun success. My Workshop on Visual Arts was inspiring for all of us. And the three-day Songwriting Workshop was a blast. All that is left for me now is a round of rehearsals and the Free To Worship Concert, which we expect to be very well attended.
One of my goals at the concert—as it was at the last concert two years ago—is to expose the worshipers to some out-of-the-box creative elements. This year is no exception. We will start the evening with a worship Drum Circle, complete with beatbox solos. We will have dancers with flags and tambourines. We will have some spoken word narrative. We will have an original video made by and about the visual arts, and a collaborative display from the Visual Artists Workshop. We will introduce nine new worship songs to the many congregations in attendance. And we will debut a brand new worship song co-written by the attendees to the Songwriting Workshop (wow, that was fun co-writing a song with 29 contributors! So proud of them!).
Yeah, we’ve been busy. But it’s been inspiring to me (and hopefully to all who have participated) to gather so many talented people together for this event. Check in for the next update to see how it all went!
- Was finally able to get my favorite Filipino treat, halo-halo. Pastor Tony and Mayette treated me to a time out at the new mall in town and we ended up sitting in front of these tasty, icy desserts. Halo-halo literally means “mix-mix,” and it definitely is a mix—of shaved ice, evaporated milk, and a blend of different sweetened fruits, beans, and tubers. [Here’s a quick youtube clip which gives a little more background.] Because it’s a mix of all of these different flavors, every restaurant and region prepares it a little differently, and it tastes somewhat different. But to me, all halo-halo tastes like my childhood.
- So every day I hear this weird, haunting melody out on the street somewhere. It sounds like an anime theme song. Every day I hear it, yet I can’t figure out where it is coming from. I would hear it at the BCCL guest house, at the mall, near different churches. Weird. Finally, standing out on the porch, it hits me. It’s the ice cream man, bicycling around in a tricycle with his ice cream treats. I think there’s an army of them around town. They all use the same theme song.
- Workers are pouring the cement for a new driveway today in front of BCCL. It is an amazing process, seeing how they do all this with manual labor—shovels, dirt, concrete mix, and a lot of practical ingenuity.
GLIMPSES OF HEAVEN :: June 12, 2016
It is Sunday morning, the morning after the Free To Worship Concert, the culmination of my trip here to Legazpi. I sit in my normal shaded spot outside the BCCL guest house, sipping instant coffee, watching clouds dance wistfully around the Mayon volcano, and listening to the street hubbub below. My throat is sore from all the singing but my heart is filled from the spiritually-rich experiences of the previous evening.
I’ll be packing in just a few minutes, attending one more Sunday worship service before heading to the airport and Manila. I’ve been here over two weeks now. It’s been a very, very good trip.
FREE TO WORSHIP CONCERT
I had mentioned previously there were issues with the concert. The day before, BCCL received notice that there would be an all-day power blackout in the neighborhood of the location of the concert venue, 6AM-6PM. The concert had originally been set for 5 PM. Our original plan, to arrive at 1 PM to do setup, soundcheck and rehearsals, was now in jeopardy.
So we rolled with it. The JFCM tech team got there early and began sound system set up using flashlights (it was dark in the sweltering auditorium). Teams showed up early, and dancers rehearsed outside. Then there was the long wait for the electricity to go on. Eventually the auditorium lit up, and we were able to turn on the air conditioning and begin sound check. There were a few songs yet left to rehearse with dancers, so we tried our best to work through it. We were beset by a hundred different technical problems, from amps buzzing to acoustic guitars not working to instrument cords going bad to having my keyboard go out at the last song to blowing up one of the main speakers. I tried my best to stay hydrated in the extreme humidity (at least extreme for this California boy) and model a positive attitude for everyone. Although there actually wasn’t a rush. Filipinos do know how to wait. Final, after a rough sound check, I gathered the teams outside and we prayed.
We took the stage and began the concert. And it was off the hook! Right from the downbeat, the Drum Circle captivated the audience with energy and enthusiasm. The Dancers were mesmerizing. The Worship Band rocked. The large artwork pieces prepared by the Visual Arts Team were vibrant and colorful, and the video they had prepared was very well received. So was the new worship song co-written by the 29 budding composers in my Songwriter Workshop. Three area pastors led us in an impassioned prayer for the city, the province, the nation. Finally, I shared a short narrative with the audience, a modernized version of the Prodigal Son, which fed into the worship song, “Seas of Crimson.” On cue, the dancers went to the large art pieces which lined the stage, picked them up and began dancing with them. As we hit the chorus, the dancers came together, revealing a much larger image when the ten art pieces were assembled. The crowd “oohed!” loudly as they realized the image—hands in chains, now broken. And as this was all happening, we sang…
“Hallelujah! Death is beaten, Christ is risen from the grave! Hallelujah, now and forever. All to You, the highest praise!”
All of the many technical difficulties that had gotten us to that point seemed to fade away as I was captured in this very special moment. All of God’s people singing and worshiping together, the coming together of three different arts forms to create a moment that focused on worshiping Jesus. In a word, it was awesome. Like glimpses of heaven.
BACK TO REALITY
These are the thoughts bouncing around in my head on this early Sunday morning, as I take another sip of my instant coffee. Thoughts of dozens and dozens of young people learning how to love God in deeper ways. Thoughts of artists unleashed to use their gifts with creativity and excellence and abandon. Thoughts of my wife, my children, my church, and my own expressions of worship and the arts and how they have been further formed from this trip.
In the distance, I can faintly hear Albay Bible Community Fellowship (located next door) begin their Sunday worship service. They are singing a song I introduced to them four years ago. I think to myself, the church is made up of many college students, so I’m sure very few of them know who I am. So they probably learned the song from people I taught.
Time to head home.
- More Connections. There was one notable moment during our last rehearsal prior to the Concert. At the end of the evening, before dismissing everyone, I thanked them all for offering their gifts and talents to God so selflessly. I told them that I counted it a privilege to be able to lead them. And then I said, “I don’t think you know this, but there are a lot of people half way around the world that are praying for you all.” It seemed to stop them all in their tracks, as they contemplated the thought that people half way around the world are connected to them, for this moment in time. For those of you on my prayer support team, thank you for praying for us all. It is deeply appreciated.
- Filipinos love to take photos. I think it’s one of their love languages. After the concert, I was swarmed by groups of young people all wanting me to pose with them. I actually got a big kick out of mugging for the camera with them, though I suspect that I will regret it later when I open up my Facebook page.
- All told, I taught about a dozen new worship songs to the churches of Albay this time around. If you’re interested, the most popular of these songs by far was “Glorious” by BJ Putnam. (“Hands to the Heavens” by Kari Jobe was probably second.) Mayette informed me that “Glorious” will probably be their theme song at their November Provincial gathering.
- Mayette also let me know that the visual artists who formed my workshop have created their own Facebook page and they intend to keep meeting together. I think some real bonds were formed between them, and I am hopeful that great things will come from these artists, all of whom come from different churches.
- Pilinuts! Of course, my Fun Stuff section would not be complete without me talking about food. One of the specialties of the Bicol region is pilinuts, a type of nut that they serve salted, candied, roasted, rolled. Tony and Mayette were kind enough to go by the factory store and purchase some pilinuts for me to take back to the family. I told them that Rachel and Paige like milk chocolate, so…pilinut chocolate clusters!
HOME AGAIN :: June 16, 2016
Four in the morning, and I can’t sleep. One of the symptoms of readjusting to a time zone 15 hours apart, I guess. I’m also getting over a cough and cold which I picked up on my last full day of ministry in Legazpi. The cold especially made the four plane trips I took to get back home pretty challenging and a bit painful, and I am still having trouble hearing normally. I’ll probably find myself nodding off in meetings and meals over the next week too.
Still, I am marveling at all that has transpired over the last three weeks of ministry. I would say that, without a doubt, this was the most fruitful missions trip I’ve ever been on. In terms of teaching, mentoring, worshiping, connecting, inspiring. In terms of number of people we were able to ignite and unleash. And also in terms of the effectiveness of my time supporting BCCL and their goals.
I could rattle off numbers, quote some metrics, but what really sticks in my mind are the faces, the conversations, the moments. I really feel like God used me to make a marked difference in the lives of a lot of folks, especially young people, this time around. Young men and women who are seeing their roles in the Kingdom in new and profound ways, who are taking seriously their abilities and talents to be used by God. I come away hopeful for them, happy for them, prayerful for them. They live in my heart.
I had extended my trip a day to meet with a handful of artists of faith in the Manila area. Specifically, I met with a few folks affiliated with CANA Manila (via colleague Stephen Scott) over an extended brunch meeting which I hosted, and I taught a basic theology of the arts from my book to them. I also gifted them with copies of my book as well. This eclectic group of artists (including a chalk-talk artist, an oil painter, a songwriter, and a yo yo master) were genuinely excited over our conversations, and I could tell that this was new material to them. I encouraged them to keep doing what they’re doing, and to share this teaching with others.
A THANK YOU…
I especially want to share my gratitude and appreciation to all who were financial and prayer supporters for this trip, and for the two preceding trips as well. My support of the ministry at BCCL has been a cumulative one—each trip building on the last—and I could not have done this without your prayers and your generosity. On behalf of the hundreds of people I taught, encouraged, worshiped with, prayed for, and tried to inspire, thank you so very much.
- One of my nightmares came true the day I was to depart Manila. The cab driver drove me to the wrong airport. After repeatedly explaining where I had to go, the cabbie took me to the domestic airport (there are at least three terminals in Manila), where he dropped me off with a wave and a smile. After the armed guard at the main doors informed me I was at the wrong terminal, there was the mad dash to the nearest cab, who had to drive me over 10 kilometers through downtown traffic to Terminal 3. Not only was I worried I would miss my flight, I was also tapped out of Philippine pesos as well. As fate would have it, the fare plus tip was exactly every peso in my pocket. So, emptying my wallet at the curb, I counted myself lucky and high tailed it to the gate.
- I mentioned that my trip to Legazpi is four plane trips. Sacramento to Portland. Portland to Tokyo. Tokyo to Manila. Manila to Legazpi. And back again. Over the eight plane trips, I saw six full length movies, eight episodes of Big Bang Theory, and highlights of the Golden State Warriors’ last season. Yeah, that’s a lot of cramped sitting.
- This may sound weird, but I had a donut craving almost the entire time I was in Legazpi. Don’t ask me why. So when I got back to Manila, one thing I made sure I did was go to the Starbucks and order a glazed donut and a decaf Americano. Ironic.
- Bonus Fun Fact: Debbie asked me what meal I would like when I got back. My answer: pizza.