Philippines Trip Reports 2019

I travel to Legazpi, Philippines, to teach at the Bicol Center for Christian Leadership (BCCL). The following is a trip report detailing my time there in June 2019.

(Posts are in chronological order, so if you are revisiting the site, keep scrolling down.)

This is my fourth trip to BCCL (2012, 2014, 2016, 2019), and I can’t believe that it’s been over seven years since my first visit. Much has changed since that first trip—economically in the region, in the increasing scope of BCCL, and in the spiritual temperature of their worship—and I am privileged that I’ve had the honor of being a small part of what God is doing in Albay. I am also excited to bring Becca Viola and Tim and Helen Lewis with me, to introduce them to my friends in Legazpi.

ARRIVAL :: June 2

Whew! That was a close one. In previous trips, I have always flown Sacramento to Narita to Manila with a one-day layover in Manila before heading into Legazpi (using a domestic carrier). This time, I thought we would save time by traveling straight from San Francisco to Manila, and transfer the same day to Legazpi City. Big mistake.

There are four separate terminals at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport, and they are not connected. So you must take a shuttle or taxi to get from one to another. We arrived at the international terminal about 3:30 in the morning. After several delays, we hustled via semi-crazy taxi to the proper terminal (shuffling with our large suitcases of gifts), and arrived 45 minutes prior to our domestic flight. But they refused to let us on board, insisting that boarding had already closed. Further, we were told that there were no other flights to Legazpi over the next few days.

So we were apparently stuck in Manila, trying to figure out a way out. And no one to help us. Thankfully, we took another taxi back to the main airport, found someone who could finally help us, and booked an indirect route (via Cebu) to Manila. After two more flights and 13 hours, we made it to Legazpi in time for a late dinner.

I will be preaching at the Jesus First Christian Church today, and classes begin tomorrow. From our small apartment, the Mayon volcano quietly puffs white plumes above a blue sky. We are jet-lagged, filled up on instant coffee, and excited to get started!

FUN FACTS

• The Legazpi region is growing—economically and geographically. There are two new major malls in the city that weren’t there the last time I was here three years ago. And with it, there’s a different sense of life and pace. Not surprisingly, a Starbucks Coffee fronts the entrance to one of the malls. On our first evening, we toured it and ate dinner there.

• BCCL is also growing. The visiting teacher apartment on the BCCL campus has been expanded now to include an expanded kitchen, living room, and additional bedroom. Tim and I are in one bedroom and Becca occupies the other. It is comfortable and well air-conditioned. Thanks to all who have contributed to the BCCL expansion!

• I’ve mentioned in the past that coffee is not as big a deal here. Both Tim (who is a seasoned traveler to Asia as he is the CTO for a Chinese company) and I had the same idea—bring Starbucks Via instant coffee. We are topping our columbian coffee with condensed milk.

• Food! Both Tim and Becca are true Filipino foodies, and they are determined to eat all sorts of Filipino delicacies. I feel like I’m along for the ride this time! Mayette and Tony have now only just met Tim and Becca, but she has already remarked to me, “They are both more Filipino than you are!” So far: lechon kawali, tinapa fried rice, and Bicol express.

JESUS FIRST :: June 3

We didn’t waste much time. Our first full day in Legazpi was Sunday, so we attended Jesus First Christian Ministries for their Family Day Celebration. JFCM has a number of extension communities in the area, and they don’t have the opportunity to all meet together often. So this Family Day is an opportunity for their many on-site services, as well as their extension communities, to gather together for worship, fellowship, and some fun. Standing room only in a packed, very warm, 260 seat room. As Mayette stated, “Mainit ang mga JF”ers” sa Panginoon.” (Translation: Jesus First’ers are hot for the Lord!)

Pastor Tony Bueno invited me to share the message that Sunday which was appropriately titled, “Worship God.” It was wonderful seeing so many familiar faces and being able to worship God with them. It was especially wonderful to see so many young people taking the reigns of leadership, and also being able to see some of the worship team from previous trips now three years older and still participating.

I was pleased but not surprised that Tim and Becca were both warmly welcomed, and each shared a very small role in my talk (Becca taking the crowd photo above and Tim sharing his greetings in Tagalog, to the astonishment of the entire congregation).

One final comment about our time there. Worship was heavy on the music, but there were elements of dance, drama, and video used as well. And an original song was performed by one of the young worship bands. It is so good to see the arts flourish and become a natural expression of this community of faith.

FUN FACTS

• Us Americans are such a spectacle-oriented society, where distractions surround us, every experience is rated, and boredom seems to be the only real sin. I contrast our evangelical church’s Sunday mornings, with built-in high-engagement programs and facilities, to my experience at the JFCM Family Day, where perhaps a hundred children sat for three and half hours, and all were well-mannered and generally attentive. I heard one adult remind them to sit and be still only once in that entire time. No children’s programs or programming or anything geared specifically for youngsters. But it didn’t keep them from having fun.

• “Pastor, can we take a picture please?” If you’re in the right circles, you’ll be seeing a lot of Facebook and hashtag pics with me in it. In the words of the penguins in Madagascar, “Just smile and wave boys, smile and wave…”

• For breakfast this morning, we took a stroll down the main drag to the local Jollibee restaurant, which is the Filipino equivalent of McDonalds. We weren’t able to get the hot plate in our apartment to work, so off we went. Hopefully we’ll be able to get that going and have longanisa and eggs for breakfast soon.

TALKING ABOUT WORSHIP :: JUNE 4

Last night was our first evening of teaching at BCCL—Becca providing vocal instruction, and Tim and I teaching the 12-hour Theology of Worship intensive course. Because BCCL was unable to secure a larger room for us to teach, Mayette has limited the attendance for both courses to 50 (really much more than the classroom can comfortably fit). So in my course, there are 19 legit enrolled students and another 35 attendees who are auditing. (Some of the attendees have come from far away, so BCCL kindly accommodated above their initial limit for them.)

I designed the curriculum for this class in my first visit in 2012 and I’ve been tweaking it ever since. Yesterday evening, we spent time talking about worship—what it is and what it is not—and looked at some Biblical encounters in worship. The point is to challenge their perceptions of what worship is, and to help them see both the larger definition of worship (as an expression of life lived in Christ) and the smaller definitions (what we do on Sunday morning). Tonight we continue with some heady subjects, including the priority of worship, Trinitarian worship, and a smattering of a worship ecclesiology. We’ll be having fun after that, by introducing how to “design” corporate worship experiences.

I am so delighted that Becca and Tim are co-teaching with me. The students are responding to them both, Becca with her humor and Tim with his Tagalog. I’m also seeing this on-going ministry fresh through their eyes, which is also exciting to me personally.

FUN FACTS

• Yesterday morning, Tim and I strolled up the hill behind the BCCL neighborhood and had coffee at the Oriental Hotel. This has some great views of Legazpi (as shown in the two photos).

• I had just been remarking to Becca that, while it is hot and humid, the weather here has been better than I had experienced in recent memory. No torrential rains, no flooding, no volcanoes erupting, no rolling brown-outs and lack of electricity. That’s when all the power went out and the air conditioning stopped. Turns out that a truck may have clipped the power line outside our building, severing the line. After a number of hours of sweaty waiting (and no opportunity to print curriculum or prepare for classes), we were up and running again. Just one of many weird instances happening on this trip.

• Thunder! We were awakened in the middle of the night by a flash that lit up our apartment like the noonday sun, followed almost immediately by a thunderclap that felt like it was in bed with me. Okay, I’m awake now!

• Through the generosity of many who contributed to this trip, we were able to gift 50 copies of Honest Worship to the attendees. They were all quite grateful to us, as I am to all of you as well.

TEACHING WITH HUMILITY :: JUNE 5

This post is less about what we’ve been doing, and more about how I’m feeling. And that feeling is an appropriate humility in my role here, and perhaps my place in the universe.

There are over fifty people each coming to our classes. Some are younger and some older, some in ministry a long time and some still learning what it is to serve God. Some are professionals or students, working as lay leaders in their churches, and some are pastors, striving to honor God through the small but significant actions of being Jesus to others. Most of the churches are small, but their commitment to the cause is mighty. Their lives are marked by a very, very different culture and economic status and opportunity than mine.

And so I stand before these dozens of people and share what I know and have learned about helping foster a community of worshipers. And they are eager to learn, and earnest in their desire. But in the back of my thoughts, in the place where my heart feels deeply, I am humbled to be in front of them.

Each of them is running the race, learning full devotion in the midst of sometimes difficult and challenging obstacles and circumstances that we—in our American culture—have never experienced. These churches, and these people, do so so very much without the extravagant excesses which we take for granted. Limited in technology, resources, finances, culture—and yet they run the race, day after day after day. It is a beautiful thing to see the Bride of Christ moving and thriving in this time, in this place, in this way.

And so I am humbled, appropriately so. Humbled by the devotion of these good people. Humbled by the faithfulness of our good God. And humbled that I get to be a small, small part of what He is doing in His Kingdom.

FUN FACTS

• The time difference between Legazpi and Folsom this time of the year is 15 hours.  In other words, if I’m having a cup of instant coffee at 10 AM, my family is cleaning up from dinner at 7 PM the previous day. And if the Warriors and Raptors are playing Game 2 of the NBA finals at 5 PM, then the entire nation of the Philippines is watching it at 8 AM. The next day.

• We are told that there is not a lot of musical instruction in the public schools here. And private musical instruction of any kind is just way too expensive for normal folk. So very few people here know how to read sheet music, and most all songs are learned by ear (along with chord charts). It is a little ironic, in that the Philippine culture is a very musical one. Everyone sings, karaoke is a big deal, and yes, there is a Philippine Idol. Which makes Becca’s vocal class all the more important (see photo of the vocal class reading music for the first time).

• Originally, Becca was not on the agenda to come on this trip at all. Late in the planning process, I was simply having a conversation with her one day, and it suddenly struck me that she should be a part of the 2019 team. When I said it out loud to her, it suddenly sounded like the only right thing to do. She prayed about it, and later said “Yes.” And I am so glad she did. She is having a profound presence here with the BCCL folks, not only with her valuable teaching, but with her presence with the students, one on one. They are so appreciative of her, and are responding to her teaching in really cool ways.

TRINITY, ECCLESIOLOGY, SACRAMENT, AND OTHER BIG WORDS :: JUNE 6

At the very start of my curriculum, I try to make it a point that the word “worship” is both a big word and a small one. It is big in that it can refer to the Spirit-driven, relational lifestyle that Christ followers enter into in order to bring glory to God. And it can be a smaller word, referring to what we do on a Sunday morning, or even what we do when we sing to God.

As Tim and I continue to teach the Theology of Worship class, I have to admit that Tim is doing a lot of the heavy lifting. While I am teaching concepts like song selection and service planning, he has opted to teach the more difficult sessions—Trinitarian worship, ecclesiology as it relates to worship, sacramental worship (including baptism and communion), etc. And this has been a great blessing to me.

But this can be a tricky thing. Not only do our students have to work through the cultural and linguistic nuances between us and them, most all of them work or go to school during the day. So we must limit our teaching to what is essential and applicable and teachable. Also, I’m determined that there be no homework (how would they have time?), so all assignments are completed during the class lecture. That all being said, I am so impressed by this particular group of 19 enrollees. Their assignments have been thoughtful, largely articulate, and sometimes personally touching.

FUN FACTS

• One thing that is different now than previous trips is that BCCL has built a bit of a restaurant on their campus. It’s an outdoor canteen, where you can order food, cafeteria style, and sit outside in the shade. It provides a food alternative to the hospital workers across the street, as well as a little income to the ministry. What is significant for us is that we have done almost no cooking in the guest apartment since we’ve arrived (as opposed to previous trips where I had to basically cook most meals). And it is delicious!

• I did a little laundry yesterday (just a bunch of shirts) and hung it on the railing on the roof, thinking it would only take a few hours to dry in the hot sun. Didn’t account for the sudden wind and downpour. When I went out to pick up my shirts later, I noticed that one of them blew off and landed on the roof of the patio next door. Had to get someone to go over and fish it off with a stick. Glad I wasn’t washing underwear!

• One of the unique and much lauded desserts common to this area is sili ice cream. It’s a pinkish ice cream flavored with the spiciness of the sili nut. It hits the tongue cold and creamy but morphs into a hot and spicy aftertaste. Tim, Becca, and I capped off a trip to the new SM Mall with some sili ice cream and a tremendous view of the Mayon Volcano. And we took a tricycle (a low-powered motorcycle with enclosed sidecar) to get there and back. Check two off the bucket list, Becca!

SO WILL I :: JUNE 7

Today, the team was invited to speak at a local Christian radio station, DWAY 104.3 FM, in Legazpi. We talked about faith, worship as a lifestyle, the arts and those who are artists of faith, the role of music in the church, and especially BCCL’s ministry to the churches of Albay. Tim was ever-so charming with his Tagalog, and Becca sang a song live on air. I think it was a really fun half hour or so.

But besides the fun, this was significant for BCCL. Their current group of students will be graduating this month, and they are beginning another two year program, so they are recruiting for new students now. Also, DWAY-FM made some overtures on air about possibly sponsoring some things with BCCL, so that was really good as well.

Last night was our last evening of teaching. This has been an extremely gratifying experience for me, seeing light bulbs going off in their heads and hearing them articulate good theology to go with their already good hearts. I always open and close each evening with worship, and on this last night, we ended with two songs, “Be Your Hallelujah” (an original song) and “So Will I (100 Billion Times)” by Hillsong. It was a very sweet moment, with their voices rising above my own, the poetic truth of the lyrics stirring us up, and falling on us deeply.

If the stars were made to worship, so will I
If the mountains bow in reverence, so will I
If the oceans roar Your greatness, so will I
For if everything exists to lift You high, so will I
If the wind goes where You send it, so will I
If the rocks cry out in silence, so will I
If the sum of all our praises still falls shy
Then we’ll sing again a hundred billion times

It was a tender, and appropriate way to end our time together.

FUN FACTS

• Just want to add some additional items to the menu of foods we’ve experienced: siopao (Filipino version of a pork-filled steamed bun), lumpia shanghai (of course), dilis patties (small fish, like anchovies, cooked in an egg batter), barbecue pork (kind of like Korean style teriyaki), leche flan, ube ice cream, pansit (wheat or rice noodle dish), and some rock-your-world, home-made coconut cake with pilinuts dish that one of the students gifted us with. The list will continue, I assure you.

SUNDAY WORSHIP :: JUNE 9

Friday evening was a stand-alone night where my class, as well as others, were invited to hear me speak on a theology of the arts. This has been a great catalyst for many cool things happening with the churches in the area, so it was good to speak again on one of my passions, and interestingly, I had some great interactive conversations with those in attendance. This was about a two hour gathering.

But after the chat time afterwards, and everyone left the building, a few remained. Particularly there were seven young people from five different churches who formed a circle, grabbed an acoustic guitar, a ukulele, and a WalkaBout Drum, and jammed. Try to picture if Jason Mraz and Plain White T’s were worship leaders. I just sat and soaked up the uniquely and delightfully human vibe of friends living life, having fun, and praising God.

Yesterday was a day off from ministry, and Pastor Tony and Mayette Bueno were perfect hosts in taking us around the Albay area to experience a few of the sights. Breakfast at the postcard-perfect Sumlang Lake. Viewing the stations of the cross at Kawa Kawa Hill in Ligao City. Touring the Albay Park and Wildlife zoo (did you know the Philippines has eagles? Lots of them!). Walking through the Cagsawa Ruins, the remains of a church originally burned down in 1636 and again destroyed with the Mayon eruption in 1814. It was quite the day. We ended it with a walk on The Boulevard, a picturesque seaside walkway in Legazpi that provides amazing views of the Mayon volcano.

This morning, we were back at it. Tim preached at Albay Bible Church which holds their services on the same campus as BCCL. I preached at Kingdom Forwarders Ministries in Legazpi. Once again, it was a great encouragement to me to be with another congregation, which worshiped hard and seemed to respond well to my message on “Worship as a Way of Being.” During my visit, I also gifted the church with a WalkaBout Drum, so that they will be able to use it as an alternate to the drum set. I was touched in that one of the people in the church came to me after the service and gifted me with a beautiful homemade rainstick, made from local bamboo.

In the midst of worship, I thought about my own faith community, Oak Hills in Folsom. They will be worshiping fifteen hours later than me today. And I was reminded that, every Sunday, there’s a worship service beginning every hour of the day for each of the twenty-four hours. All of these services are related by our common bond as children of God to our Great God. All of this worship is connected, like a great sea of praise that extends to every part of God’s Kingdom. This morning, I was privileged to be a small part of God’s Kingdom here in Legazpi through the fellowship of Kingdom Forwarders.

FUN FACTS

• Handkerchiefs. There’s a scene in the movie, “The Intern,” where Robert de Niro’s character schools the young interns by explaining the function of a handkerchief. Well, here in the Philippines, no one need explain that one. Handkerchiefs are used to wipe the sweat off one’s face, arms, hands, etc., and I keep one in my pocket every time I step out of the apartment. I remember my father always carried a handkerchief with him wherever he went. Not just to wipe the sweat from his brow—but simply because he was a gentleman.

• Just adding to the food total! Fried tilapia (a freshwater fish), shrimp skewers, grilled squid, laing (shredded taro leaves cooked in coconut milk), chicken adobo in smoked cococream, fish balls, sinigang sa buko (fish in buko juice), and coconut juice sipped from a freshly chopped green coconut. Gotta get back home soon; I’m putting on some weight here!

REFLECTIONS :: JUNE 10

The majestic Mayon volcano puffs peacefully beneath a canopy of lazy clouds, its graceful purple slopes slowly converging upwards into a wispy crown. There’s a bustle of engine noises and polite car horns below the second story window of our apartment. After a morning of fast food breakfast at The Boulevard and another sightseeing trip to the Cagsawa Ruins, we are resting at the apartment. The full ten days of ministry, as well as the brutal jet lag, has finally taken a toll on us, and we are content to simply sit in the air conditioning and ruminate on the last few days.

I believe this has been a significant and unequivocal success for BCCL. Becca’s four-day class on vocal technique has been exceptionally well-received, and the fact that she has been invited out to coffee with several of her students this afternoon testifies to how she has endeared herself to the people here. Tim’s co-teaching was impressive, so much so that Mayette has asked him to come back and teach a History of the Church class next year, a core class for BCCL certification. And my own perspective includes looking back at four visits to teach, preach, encourage, and hopefully inspire church leaders here in Albay. There have been a lot of Kingdom wins in the last week, both small and large, but all significant in their own way.

I am indebted to those of you who contributed to this trip, both financially and in prayer. We were able to overcome a variety of obstacles—technical, medical, and spiritual—in order to get through. We could not have been able to do it without you. Seriously.

Now, I’m thinking about home. I’ll be back by Wednesday (we gain a day back when we fly over the international dateline), and I’ll slide right into Father’s Day on Sunday. It has me reflecting on the sum of my life, and the many undeserved blessings given to me. All told, this is my tenth short-term overseas missions trip. And I can’t begin to tell you how important and meaningful and life-changing it is to be a part of what God is doing in the world.

FUN FACTS

• Halo-Halo! It was fitting that on my last full day here, I was treated to my favorite, halo-halo. Halo-halo is a cold icy dessert that literally means “mix-mix,” and it definitely is a mix—of shaved ice, evaporated milk, a blend of different sweetened fruits, beans, and tubers. On a hot day (like pretty much every day in the Philippines), there’s nothing like it. Different geographic areas throw their own spin on this national treasure, and mine came with a dollop of vanilla ice cream, a sprinkling of shredded cheese (I know that sounds strange, but it is amazing), and a side of ube (sweet purple yam). But no matter what you put into it, it always tastes like my childhood.

5 thoughts on “Philippines Trip Reports 2019

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