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Look, if I can do this…

“How old are you?” and other cultural questions

“How old are you?”

When I meet new people, one of the top three first questions they ask is my age. For someone my age in British culture, it’s a bit of a shock. This is private information. We don’t put it on our CV or résumé. At first I was a bit surprised and embarrassed, not that I’m ashamed. It’s just that ‘we don’t do that’. I wondered why the difference here. I found out the reason while I was listening to some teenagers introducing each other. They also needed to know each other’s ages, although it is actually more common for teenagers anywhere in the world to ask this question. Age is a big deal to them and kids use simple ritual questions like this to help them to talk to strangers in spite of their shyness. But one comment help me understand that there was more to it here in the Philippines. When one of them found out she was younger than another, she said “Oh, so I’ll have to call you ‘Ate.’” ‘Ate’ means older sister and is also used to address older women or superiors at work. It’s an honorific, a title showing honour to the person being addressed. “How old are you?” isn’t a trivial question in the Philippines. It’s actually establishing rules of status within a new relationship.

Honorifics are common to all SE Asian cultures. European cultures also have them, although our egalitarian trends have made them old-fashioned. Years ago we would never have called our bosses by their first names. (Apparently Asda changed all that.) It’s like the British tradition of calling strangers ‘Sir’ or ‘Madam’. Maybe you still say ‘Officer’ when talking to the police or ‘Doctor’ with your GP. Children address their teachers as ‘Sir’ or ‘Miss’ and judges are literally ‘Your Honour’. These honorifics are legacies of our own hierarchical class heritage. They are valuable in the way they encourage respect, but they can be damaging in devaluing those who have no right to be addressed in an honourable way. Those without title are without honour.

Really? But it’s just words, right? Ate, Kuya, Nay and Tay. Isn’t it harmless? Well, language is the tip of a cultural iceberg. Many cultural influences are not even perceived, because they are so immersive. I work in a prison. I guess I’m a prison chaplain, although I have no official title. In the West, this kind of work is applauded and respected, especially among Christians. I’ve come to think that attitudes here are different – yes – even among Christians and I think it comes down to who is and isn’t honoured in Filipino culture.

When we talk about honour we have to talk about money. Wealth and status are hugely linked. Money is quite literally and unashamedly the biggest god in SE Asia. Money is honoured above all things, and all other social honours are connected to it. Filipinos are the most widely dispersed people in the world because they can earn more abroad. Many leave their families and travel all around the world for better-paid jobs in order to improve their families’ social status at home. I’ve learned here that being poor doesn’t mean that money is not your god. It’s just less obvious because you don’t have much. It’s less obvious in the churches too, but it’s absolutely there.

The newest and biggest ‘city’ churches have been founded on student ministries. College campuses are a fertile place for the gospel. They are also big money-makers and going to college or university is expensive. If your family can give you a college education, it’s because you have more than most Filipinos or because you have a sponsor. So students and their families are already more likely to be well-off, simply because they can go to college. Then, of course, students graduate and (hopefully) get well-paid jobs. Churches complement their heavy investment in students with special groups and venues to nurture their ‘young professionals’.

Money gets you into college. Money gets you out of jail. The criminal justice system here is based on patronage. If you have influential friends, or the money to buy them, you can get justice and you can avoid it. The Philippines has no ‘Get out of jail free’ card. The poorest people here are simply forgotten. Whether the people I meet are guilty of a crime or not, I rarely know for certain. They aren’t in prison because they are guilty. It’s because they are poor. One good thing about this terrible injustice is that it helps me keep an open mind about the people I meet and work with. Much better to have nice thoughts about people. It shows on your face.

One of our leaders in the prison, Vito, has a public defence attorney, which means he doesn’t have to pay for his legal costs. That’s good, right? Not really. I went to see his attorney recently after Vito’s father died. I went to ask him to make a request to the court to allow Vito to visit the funeral. ‘Don’t bother,’ he said, ‘this judge always refuses.’ ‘Let’s try,’ I said. He humoured me and put in the request. Request granted. The judge was sick that week. Different judge. Ok, thanks to God we got a miracle, but who needs a defence lawyer with that attitude? Vito’s next hearing is in six months. That’s a long time to wait on remand. He’s already been in prison – on remand – for over three years, since before Yolanda. His attorney didn’t appear concerned as he told me these things. As I left, he said it’s good that someone like me is helping Vito. ‘Yes,’ I thought, ‘because that’s a job that you’re clearly not interested in.’

Edsel is our worship leader and his trial is on hold because the SOCO (Scene Of Crime Officer) is on maternity leave. Elisyo’s documents were destroyed by Super Typhoon Haiyan. He may never be brought to trial, but never released. The list goes on and the only explanation I have is that these people are just the lowest of the low. The culture just doesn’t care what happens to them. It’s why a man can say he’ll kill 100,000 of these people and still be elected as President.

But the church is different, right? I thought so too. I got involved in this work because it’s clear to me that God is especially interested in these people. It’s also clear to those I work with, and there are many others who have rooted out their pagan values. But they are exceptions, in my view. I cannot find support from local churches for prison ministry in the same way that I see churches enthusiastically investing in their campus and young professional ministries. Local churches, whether they admit it or even see it, are biased to the rich. I’m hard-pressed to otherwise explain why I’ve found such a shortage of leadership and investment in a ministry which Westerners, even non-Christians, on seeing the challenges these people face, would support without hesitation. The liberal West is more egalitarian. Prisoners have rights and organisations exist which defend them. Prisoners are without honour in Filipino culture. Inside the prison they have created their own hierarchy and honorific titles, but outside the walls they have no value. And the church appears to have to same attitude. Nowhere else – even here in the Philippines – have I found people meeting together to worship God having to sit on their flip-flops because they have nothing else.

The overwhelming reason people go to jail in this country is because they have no money or social position. This isn’t supposed to tug on the coat strings of your compassion. I didn’t have to follow my wishy-washy Western liberal values or my ‘heart’ to do what I do. Investment in this kind of ministry is biblically unquestionable and that’s why I do it. James outlines the reversal of social status in the kingdom of heaven. “The brother in humble circumstances ought to take pride in his high position. But the one who is rich ought to take pride in his low position..” (James 1:9) Often when I visit a church, I’m shown to the front row for a seat. Many times I’m offered food, and if there is a meal, I am given a place of honour with the pastors. It’s the legendary Filipino hospitality because I’m a foreigner. I smile and accept out of politeness but I feel awkward, ashamed even, because it clearly falls foul of God’s priorities. This hospitality is not shown to less glamorous newcomers. The words of James burn my heart.

James goes on to make God’s priorities in the world abundantly clear. “Listen dear brothers: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and inherit the kingdom he promised those who love Him?” James walked with Jesus and heard first-hand these words: “Whatever you did for the least of these brothers of mine, you did it for me”. Not ‘even the least of these brothers of mine’, which would remind us to treat them equally as well as others. Not even ‘especially the least…’ which might suggest that what we do for the least is of higher value. Read that sentence again. No-one other than ‘the least of these brothers of mine’ is either mentioned or implied. Taking the words at face-value, whatever we did for anyone else doesn’t actually count.

Poor ministry is not just a ‘heart’ question. It’s simple, biblical obedience to the teaching of Jesus. There’s no doubt in my mind where the reward is, both for me personally (Matt 25:40) and for the building of the church and God’s kingdom (James 2:5). Couple these scriptures with Jesus’ words on the eternal chances of the rich “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven” (Mt 19:24, Mk 10:25, Lk 18:25 ..take your pick) and I’m left wondering why ‘poor ministry’ is just a department of large, rich, middle-class churches. Surely – biblically – ‘rich ministry’ should be the compassion-led side-line, the struggling department of a churches packed full of poor people because these are the people God wants in heaven. They are the white fields of the kingdom.

I made it my mission to provide these men with all the things that I expect to see in a church. Again, the Philippines is not poor. Most church buildings are well-equipped. Now we have instruments, PA, projector, tables and chairs. We still meet in a corridor with no fans, but I’m working on that. Attendance has more than tripled in the last year. It’s taken investment from outside this culture to do that. This isn’t because the church here lacks resources. The church I partner with at the jail is half-way through constructing a five-story building on its downtown site. It’s huge. In my view, the problem is the infection of cultural values that the church has failed to identify and remove.

No church or Christian is immune to the Trojan Horse of cultural influence. I can see this issue because I’m an outsider. Outsiders to my own culture will see my own compromises more clearly than I and I welcome their discernment. Filipino culture has some very sophisticated defences. It presents itself as vulnerable, exploited and threatened by foreign influence. However true this is, it’s dangerous for the church to think like this about its own traditions. Insecure leadership means that critical friends become a threat. Habitual cultural sins are not dealt with. Protected by a cloak of familiarity, they then spread as an infected church replicates them as it grows. Worst of all, the seeds of revival are rejected because they were blown from abroad and not home-grown. The hypocrisy of welcoming foreign money but rejecting foreign leadership reveals a proud church with a divided heart.

I like the poorest and lowest people. They are more often less proud and more ready to receive new teaching. I think it’s why I have been most successful with prisoners and children. These are the humblest people in the Philippines. Their welcome is more genuine and their openness more real. Prisoners have been rejected by their people and culture so they are more than ready to return the gesture. Children are freer from prejudice and not yet indoctrinated into their culture. Both groups are ready to trust a newcomer, even a foreigner, who shows them care and attention. Leading children and prisoners is not the greatest of positions but I accept it wholeheartedly in order that a kingdom revival finds a home somewhere in this country.


The dead baby’s name was Maruel.

Maruel is not like the old man on the cycle path. The old man was advanced in years. Apparently the old man had told his wife that he was just popping out for a walk. I think he knew it was his time. It was not Maruel’s time to go. Holding him in my arms he looks like he is just sleeping. It was not hard to think that God could do a miracle and bring him back to life. Who wouldn’t want to save a baby, right? I repeated the words of Elijah “O Lord my God, return this boy’s life back to him.” I thought I saw him move, but it was just my imagination. I am convinced that God did not want the child to die and that something else was preventing a miracle.

Everything is possible for the one who believes.

Mark 9:23

Jesus spent his entire ministry teaching people two things: holiness and faith. “Repent and believe.” It’s the gospel in three words. Without holiness, no-one will see God. Without faith it is impossible to please God.

I’m not beating myself up about it. Occassionaly I am remorseful when I look back over how I handled the situation, when I think of the things I could have done but did not do, but I comfort myself with the fact that this is the first time I’ve tried to raise a dead person. God is good and reminds me that there is no condemnation for me. No-one is expecting me to have that kind of faith and that no-one is disappointed in me. Except me. And also God. Yeah, I think God is disappointed. My belief is that Maruel is still dead because I didn’t have enough faith to bring him back to life.

God is a God of comfort. That’s a biblical truth. But it would be wrong to deny another biblical truth for the sake of my comfort. Many people have said to me that it must have been God’s will. It’s a kind and well-meaning thing to say. But it’s just not true. Jesus’ words to Peter as he faltered in his faith were not “it’s ok” but “Why did you doubt?” God expects us to believe for the impossible to happen.

John was a minister in Australia where he endured the deaths of forty of his congregation to a cholera epidemic. When others would have revised their faith downward, this disaster became a spur for John to dig deeper into God. God worked with John to strengthen his resolve to see the miraculous. In spite of this terrible disaster, John G Lake went on to become a renowned man of faith and saw many miracles of healing. Bill Johnson wrote about a time when he was ministering in Southern California:

..a mother brought me a child who was tormented by devils. The child scratched and clawed at me while I prayed and bound and did what I knew to do – and yet my prayers had no apparent effect. The mother looked at me and said words I will never forget: “Isn’t there anyone here who can help me?”¹

In his account of this event, Bill refuses to accept that this was God’s will and calls out his own failure. He accepted personal responsibility for the absence of a miracle. Failure is not to be covered up or denied because in God’s kingdom even failure can be made useful and given purpose. Disaster and failure can move us to seek greater faith equally as well as success.

When the disciples asked Jesus why they could not deliver a boy from an evil spirit, He did not pat them on the back and comfort them. He did not say, “it’s ok, you‘re just not as special as me.” He said, “Because you have so little faith.” God is disappointed when we don’t do miracles. In other accounts of the story of the boy delivered from an evil spirit, Jesus says, “this kind can only be removed by prayer and fasting.” Let’s not be distracted by the differences in these two reports. Both of them place the responsibility for the miracle on the disciples, not on God. Notice this: In Mark’s account Jesus says “You unbelieving generation, how long shall I stay with you?”. In other words “When will you learn? How long will it take before you get this?” It’s a clear indication that a central objective of His ministry was to train the disciples in miracles. When miracles don’t happen for us, let’s put the words of Jesus above anyone else’s words of comfort.  Let’s pray and fast and do whatever it takes to increase our faith. After their failure, Jesus did not tell his disciples to revise their expectations down. He encouraged them to raise their game and get more faith by telling them what faith can achieve:

I tell you the truth, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.

Matthew 17:20

Jesus said “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.” Anyone who says that Jesus never claimed to be God can read that and think again. To proclaim that a man’s words will last beyond the existence of all creation is deranged and arrogant unless it’s actually true and Jesus is in fact the Son of God and has authority over all creation. There is nothing that can be said and no greater truth higher than the statements of Jesus. “If you have faith… Nothing will be impossible for you.” Reflecting on this statement of Jesus, I’m wondering how many of us really believe it to be true. If we really believed this statement then we would make getting faith the second highest priority in our lives. Only the second highest, because love is greater than faith. But if love is gold then faith is silver. These are all that matter. Getting faith is more important than getting a qualification, a job, muscles, a wife, a house, a car and everything else that everyone else puts value on.

I have a seed of faith, therefore nothing will be impossible for me. Seeds can be grown or they can be killed. If I twist the words of Jesus to fit my experience I am killing my faith. If I say it was God’s will that this child died, I am denying the words of Christ for the sake of my own comfort and I am killing my faith. I refuse to be comforted. I refuse to make my own tidy little theological box and bury my faith in it to die. I am not going to make the words of Jesus Christ subject to my experience, I am going to make my experience subject to the words of Jesus Christ. I am going to bury my faith in the words of Jesus Christ and I am going to grow my faith. I am going to do this because when you are holding a dead baby, nothing else matters.

I made a vow to find more faith as I hung my head and listened to the nails being hammered into the baby’s coffin amid the sound of his mother’s uncontrolled weeping. I vowed to God that I would find the faith I need so that the dead baby in my arms does not stay dead. That much faith is not impossible because Jesus said that it isn’t. I am somewhere down the road. I have the courage to hold a dead child and say to his mother “it’s not too late for a miracle”. That’s more faith than I had the first time I saw a dead person. So help me God.

¹ taken from his book The Supernatural Power of a Transformed Mind


Before I came to the Philippines, I’d only ever seen one dead person.

I was on my way home one afternoon and lying there on the cycle path was an old man. A small crowd had gathered and someone was on the phone to the ambulance. Apparently the old man had collapsed. The ambulance operator wanted someone to administer CPR. Ironically I was on my way home from a First Aid training course. He looked pretty dead already and I kept quiet. Obviously I’m not a medical expert and I didn’t know for sure that he was dead already, I was just too scared to do mouth-to-mouth on a dead person. The poor guy on the phone reluctantly did it, following the instructions of the operator. Mercifully the ambulance arrived quickly and the paramedic team took over. They got out the defibrillators but after a few tries the paramedics put their kit away and took the old man’s body to the hospital. I kicked myself afterwards for my fear.

So that was the first time. This past year I’ve had the discomfort of being around a lot more of death. I remember very early in my stay at the Bible College, late one rainy night a pastor arrived to stay the night. As we introduced ourselves he explained that he had been to visit his friend who had been taken to hospital and now the weather was too bad for him to make the journey home. Then he said he had arrived at the hospital too late, and his friend had already died. I wasn’t expecting that last part.

Filipino tradition is that after a death there is a vigil. The body of the deceased is embalmed and placed in a coffin with a glass cover which is brought into the family house for people to visit, pay their respects and pray for the dead person. It’s a testimony to the power of tradition that people will find the large amounts of money needed to pay for these services even when they don’t have enough to eat properly, send their children to college or pay for medical treatment. I’ve been to three vigils since arriving here and so I’ve become used to seeing the embalmed faces of someone’s mother or father. The first was the mother of a friend from the bible college. She had died of cancer. When she discovered she had cancer, she didn’t tell anyone because the family could not afford the treatment. The family only knew two weeks before she died, after she couldn’t hide it any longer.

The second vigil I visited was for a friend’s neighbour. She had died of heart failure. Her vigil lasted more than a week and many of the local people gathered outside the house, spending the entire time drinking and gambling. The third was a man who had been killed in a landslide after a storm. The landslide killed 24 people, pretty much instantly. I went to visit the site, expecting to see a rescue effort in operation, like in an earthquake. But landslides are not like earthquakes. A pile of mud sweeps away everything in its path and there’s almost no chance of survival. The only job left is to try to find the bodies. All the vigils I’ve visited here were for people in their forties. It’s not hard to find a young person who has lost one of their parents or a sibling. I’m 42, the youngest in my family and I still have both my parents and all my brothers and sisters. I’m thankful, but that fact was not remarkable to me until I arrived in the Philippines.

Last weekend I passed a parade line of officers on the road leading to the police headquarters, which is near where I live. They were waiting to receive some of the coffins of the 44 police commandos who had just been killed in an anti-terrorist operation in Mindanao. Even the arrival of the Pope brought death. On the day he visited here in Tacloban, at the airport a scaffolding holding PA equipment collapsed in the wind and a young woman was killed.

Death visited again last Thursday night. Some friends have just had a baby boy. I got a text from his mother that he had died earlier that evening. He had been discharged from hospital with no problems the day before, but he had simply stopped breathing. He was five days old. When I got to the house the parents were alone with the baby. I prayed for a miracle but really I was out of my depth and the grief was overwhelming.

I stayed and continued to pray until it had become insensitive to stay any longer. It was well into the night and I was a long way from home so I walked around the village until it got light. At daybreak I called on a neighbour who gave me breakfast and let me sleep in their porch until it was time to take the baby to the cemetery. On returning to the house, a coffin was being prepared from roughly-cut plywood and painted white. As they placed the boy in the coffin and sealed the lid, his mother’s cries competed with the sound of the hammer on the nails. The sound was brutal and final. I couldn’t look but only hang my head and pray that I would never see this scene again. The last nail held in place the ribbons bearing the child’s name. After this, two men on a motorcycle carried the coffin to the cemetery with others following behind.

I was surprised to find that the cemetery was a busy place. A lot of people seemed to be milling around making it feel like a public park on a hot bank holiday. We arrived as a hearse was just leaving. We found a piece of unoccupied ground around the edge of the cemetery and one of the men began to dig a shallow grave. After the coffin was placed in it, each person threw in a flower, picked from the ground around us. A plywood cross had been made to mark the grave. The name couldn’t be written on it as the marker pen wouldn’t take on the still-wet paint. Instead the ribbons were taken from the coffin and attached to it. The only ceremony was the placing of flowers on the coffin, picked from the ground around us. After covering the grave, we returned to the village. We left the cemetery just as another procession was arriving. Death’s business is brisk.

I didn’t know how to finish this entry, until today, when I got a facebook message from my sister to tell me that my 47-year-old brother has been diagnosed with bowel cancer. (NB We don’t ordinarily have important family conversations by facebook message. We’re just on opposite sides of the world). It’s advanced and they need to operate quickly. Apparently the success rate is maybe 60%. The death I have seen so much of here now casts its shadow over my own family.


It’s Friday night. Earlier I was listening to the radio with my neighbours. The news is that he storm has slowed, so we have a little more time. Also, it’s weakened. Windspeeds have dropped from 250kph to 195kph. The supertyphoon has lost its super status. It’s smaller now – 600km across, down from 700km. My neighbours are encouraged, and the relief is visible on their faces. This is progress, and it gives us hope that by tomorrow, when it is forcast to arrive, it will be weaker still. After listening to the news, we hold a prayer meeting at the church. Before we pray, I tell the story of Jehosaphat, and their response in prayer encourages me. I’m invited for dinner. We eat the pig that was slaughtered this morning. It’s delicious. I’m happy that everyone is more relaxed. I’m happy that the typhoon is weakening.

I’m writing this at “The Lighthouse” of Kid’s International. Like everything else, the internet cafes have closed. A sign at Robinson’s Mall states in typical Filipino understatement “This store will be closed on Saturday”. The Lighthouse is staying open. Here, we are right on the seawall. Everyone around has evacuated to escape the possible storm surge. They are staying. Nicola, the manager, wants to be here for those who didn’t leave, and who will need a place to run to if the storm is strong. Their house is as strong as any storm – it survived Yolanda – but most of all, so is their faith. As I rode here, the streets were deserted. The wind picked up and as I now look at the weather report, it shows that the fringe of the storm has made landfall. It’s time. Keep praying and pray with faith. Our God is a God of miracles.

Summon your power, God;
    show us your strength, our God, as you have done before.

Psalm 68:28

SuperTyphoon II

The warning came on Wednesday. I got a text from Isaac, a YWAM missionary in Tacloban. His dad has a tropical storm app, so he is my most trusted source of information. The forecast is that it will arrive on Saturday. Waiting for a super-typhoon is a strange experience. The weather is calm. The sun is shining. Nothing suggests that we are about to suffer a major catastrophe. That’s exactly how it was before Yolanda. Many people were unprepared, despite the warnings, because they didn’t listen. No-one is making that mistake this time. We are counting down the days. It’s good that they have time. It’s just a shame that most people lack the resources to adequately prepare. Yesterday I rode from Burauen back to Palo. People use the road as a place to dry their rice harvest in the sun. Yesterday the road was busy with people laying out their rice. I was wondering why people appeared so unconcerned. But then I realised that wet rice is worthless. They were getting as much in as possible before the storm comes. The queue of farmers at the rice mill is the only tell-tale sign of a crisis. People panic quietly in the Philippines.

Forewarned is forearmed. It’s also foreworried. The hardest thing to deal with is the fear. Packing up my most essential items into a plastic box, I’m hit by the reality of how much I could lose. I’m wondering where to put my stuff to best protect it if the building collapses. The church has a huge cooking pot, which I’ve put my books in. The Waray-Waray textbooks I’m using have survived every storm since they were published in 1967, so I feel it’s my duty to preserve them as best I can. In the cooking pot I think they’ll survive even if the storm comes with an earthquake. Worst-case scenario is that the rain gets into everything and I’m left with the clothes I stand up in. Although I’m not expecting that, I’ve gone from faith to despair and back again. Last night, I sat alone in the church, looking at the walls and wondering if they will still be here on Sunday, wondering for the millionth time if I’m really doing the right thing. But God has demonstrated time and again that He is right here with me.

I’m upset about the things I might lose, but I can replace them. This is not my house. If I’m homeless after this storm, I will have a choice of offers from resourceful friends for a place to stay. But for my neighbours, they will wait for a tarpaulin from the relief agencies. They will lose precious things that they have painstakingly collected and which have cost them a lot. They have no idea how they will replace what they are about to lose.

As I write, some of the local kids wander past and give me a wave, just like they always do. There is no trace of concern on their faces. As I return their smiles I am thinking about how they will feel tomorrow, as they go through possibly the most harrowing experience of their lives. Again. It’s incredible that barely one year after Yolanda, it’s happening again.

This is what I say to God. Since the warning came, I’ve been telling everyone I can about the story of Jehosephat in 2 Chronicles 20, as he faced disaster in the form of a massive enemy attack. Before doing anything else, he and his entire nation looked to God for help. Full of faith, Jehosephat prayed, reminding God of His promises, saying “we will stand in Your presence before this temple that bears Your Name and will cry out to You in our distress, and you will hear us and save us.” God replied with another promise, fulfilling that promise with one of His most amazing miracles. I’m still believing for a miracle. God has promised me too. But as I prepare for the worst, I realise that my preparations are not acts of faith. As I do the things I ‘need’ to do, I can actually feel my faith ebbing away. It’s wrong to be complacent or presumptuous, but I need to find a way to put my faith into action rather than my fear. It’s not enough to believe for the best. Faith without deeds is useless. I have to balance my preparations for disaster with preparation for a miracle. I look around at a village of vulnerable people, multiplied thousands of times in barangay all around this province. The pressure is immense.

But I know I’m not alone. Thousands more are praying with me. God promised Abraham that for the sake of ten righteous people, He would not destroy the town of Sodom. I’m reminding Him of that conversation, just as Jehosaphat reminded God of all the things He had promised even generations before. Hard as it is to stay here, it’s a privilege to stand before God on behalf of a people needing a miracle. It’s exactly what He sent His son to do. It’s exactly what He wants me to do. “Just as the Father sent me, I am sending you.” How about you? Will you stand with me?

If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare His own Son, but gave Him up for us all – how will He not also, along with Him, graciously give us all things. Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. Who is he that condemns? Christ Jesus, who died – more than that, who was raised to life – is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written

“For your sake we face death all day long;
we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.”

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Romans 8:31-39

God is faithful.

New home

Let me tell you a little about life in my new ‘home’. This area of Leyte is mostly a flood plain punctuated with volcanic mountains. Thankfully the volcanoes are pretty quiet now. Barangay Barayong sits in a cluster of these mountains. Although it feels remote, it’s still within the municipality of Palo and the highway is only a 15 minute motorbike ride away. Getting to the highway is a bit of an adventure. The road is mostly dirt track with the occasional stretch of concrete. There’s no drainage so the flat parts are full of potholes and the climbs are rutted from the rivulets that form when it rains. The road goes past the provincial jail, where the road turns into a small muddy pond. Most households here have a motorbike or scooter. No-one has a car. It’s just not practical. The road is hard work on four wheels and anything other than a 4×4 would have a short and uncomfortable life. Anyway, the locals easily manage to fit a family of four and pretty much anything you might need on a bike. I have yet to accept the challenge of more than one passenger. No wait, the other day I did give a ride to maybe 3 or 4 kids (I daren’t look back to see how many there were). The funniest thing I’ve seen is a bloke carrying four old ladies down the highway, with one sat in front of him on the tank. There’s a saying they have here – “Only in the Philippines..”

In the village of Barayong, apart from a few ‘middle class’ concrete homes, the majority of people live in wooden houses. Many live without electricity and some are still ‘post-yolanda’ with tarpaulin sheets for walls and roofs. Some have concrete floors and some build their houses on stilts and have wooden floors, but many have just earth for a floor. Almost everyone cooks on wooden fires, usually inside the home or porch. Because there is no refuse collection, they also burn their refuse. This is the hardest thing for me to deal with. I’m an obsessive recycler, but never mind the environment, it’s a health risk right? In the mornings you can climb the hill at the top of the village and look across a smoky haze of houses as the sun rises over the mountain. It’s very pretty.

There is no piped water supply. A few are able to buy bottled drinking water but most drink, cook and wash with water drawn from various wells which have been dug around the village. The quality of this water is poor. When I arrived my neighbours told me that they don’t drink it, so I haven’t done, but I’ve learned that the families who don’t have enough money to buy drinking water actually do drink it. Many times people, especially children, become sick because of this. Almost everyone has only an ‘outside lavvy’ and also washes their clothes and themselves outside, which means with their clothes on. Having a bath is done standing up in a bowl. The ‘ice-bucket challenge’ is what we do here twice a day.

My place is attached to the church. I have a concrete floor, electricity, a calorgas stove and also a toilet where I can take a bath in private. Thankfully I don’t have to strip down to my undies and bath in public, which is what the other men do here. In summary I’m camping in a lean-to garage, but that’s a pretty good living here.

From my very first night I realised that the previous tenants, a family of rats, had not yet left the property. For the first few weeks I slept on the church stage. The rats were living under it. I spent the first night covering the hole with whatever I could find to keep them from getting near the floor where I was sleeping. After that first encounter, I made it my mission to buy some poison. It took me a long time to find some. The locals prefer traps, since they are reusable, but I don’t like the mess. Eventually I did find some, which they seemed to like. As I waited for them to die or leave, I took to sleeping with earplugs. What the ear doesn’t hear, the heart doesn’t grieve over. The earplugs also lessen the noise the church gecko makes. Previous to the rats, my only unconquered enemy were the local tiny ants. They are highly-organised machines which get into anything that’s not airtight. They find a container’s weakness and then exploit it mercilessly. Airtight tupperware is expensive here, but some food comes in resealable bags so I’d begun collecting them. The bags have to be quite thick, as the ants gather together to bite through cellophane wrapping. But good enough deterrent for ants is not good enough deterrent for rats. After my rodent housemates had chewed through all my carefully-collected bags – even the empty ones – I realised I needed to take my kitchen security to a whole new level. Now I have a plastic box with a locking lid inside which I keep my new collection of airtight bags. The box keeps out the rats and the bags keep out the ants. Combined with the poison, which the rats loved so much I nearly ran out of, the rats and the ants appear to have retreated. I am victorious.

The basil, the bag and the birthday – part 3

The birthday. The bag, the basil – these are small matters. But when God is faithful in the small things, He’s showing us He can be trusted with the big things too. It was the day before my birthday. I wanted to have a party but I had no money to throw one. In fact, things were financially critical. I had £30 (PHP2000) left in the bank, with £200 (PHP14000) in bills to pay the following week. Plus my visa was due to expire. Changing my flight to go home would cost me even more than renewing my visa, so I was three days from hitting a financial wall and becoming an overstayer. I was beginning to get worried. Maybe I should have gone home while I still had enough money to change my flight.. Foolhardy, risk-taking behaviour. Again. This always happens. When will I learn..

Indeed, when will I learn. That day I got an email which told me that the new tenant for my house back home could move in. £300 (PHP21000) was gonna be in the bank by the weekend, plus an extra £300 a month after that. Oh and the birthday party? Actually I got that too. I spent my birthday visiting a village I’ve begun to work in and where I’m planning to make my home for a while. I was invited into a house to have lunch. Lunch turned out to be a birthday party. Not for me, for a little girl called Kiesha Louise. No-one there knew it was my birthday.

I’ve discovered that I’m on a journey that I did not plan, but God has. It’s like a paperchase. God is always a little way ahead, laying a trail of notes for me to follow. Just when I think maybe I’ve gone the wrong way, there’s another note, a word or a miracle. I learn from it and press on. I don’t know where the chase will lead, but I’m happy to be on it.

The basil, the bag and the birthday – part 2

The bag – One morning I was visiting my friend Gulab in Palo. I had an appointment in Tacloban in the afternoon. That’s all I had to achieve that day. I should manage that, I thought. The afternoon appointment was important. It was with some pastors who’d asked me to visit and who I’d already turned down twice for prior engagements. Turning down invitations in the Philippines is a tricky business, so this time I made sure I had nothing else to do so there were no chance of complications.

Gulab invited me to stay for lunch. That’s fine, still plenty of time, I thought. After lunch, he invited me to stay to meet some missionaries, one of which was a Scot. Now I have been missing my countryfolk, the prospect of meeting one was very attractive, even if he was actually from Scotland, who may not be my countryfolk for much longer. They were going to visit a local village and distribute some food. I was worried about getting to my appointment in Tacloban but Gulab assured me that our excursion wouldn’t take long. Ok, I said. Oh, when will I learn.

I got a lift in the missionaries’ car and when we arrived at the village I realised the place we’d arrived at was near my friend Bob’s house who I hadn’t seen in a long time, so after spending some time in the village I excused myself and went to visit Bob. Now I’d left my bag in the car, but I was expecting to be riding back with them later, so it was OK.  I arranged for them to text me when they were leaving, so I could get a ride with them. Well, I thought I did, but I think something got lost in translation. I returned to find they’d already left. Worse, my bag was still in their car. As I trudged back to Gulab’s house I was thoroughly dejected. I was already pushing it to get to my appointment. Now I had a mission to track down my bag and I expected I wouldn’t get there at all. Now remember I’d already turned Gordon and Emie down twice already. A no-show on the third attempt would be a disaster. Why, God, why…

Anyway, I got back to Gulab’s and managed to get the number of the driver who had my bag in his car. They were in Tacloban. Yes, they had my bag and I could meet them at Robinsons. I texted Emie and she was OK with my lateness, but I had only a vague idea of where they lived and no idea how to get there. At Robinsons, as I collected my bag from the car, someone in the car mentioned “Imelda village” – woah hold it right there, that’s where I needed to be! I inquired. Yes, indeed they were going to Imelda village. Result. Room for one more? In the Philippines, there’s always room for one more.

Ok, we were back on track. On the way, we chatted about their stay. “We’re staying with some local pastors, called Gordon and Emie, do you know them?” Do I know them.. Bosh. In an instant, everything had been turned around. My disaster became a testimony. “Yeah, that’s where I’m going now. Thanks for the ride”.

It turned out that the driver, who I’d been talking to while I was desperately trying to salvage my day’s plans and find my way to Gordon and Emie’s, was in fact Gordon and Emie’s son. Everyone was pretty impressed with this minor miracle. “God is good”, I said, smiling smugly like this happens to me all the time. I thought back to the moment walking down the road when I was kicking myself for screwing up my day, thinking I was a million miles from where I needed to be. Sometimes, when God is silent, it’s because He’s trying to hide a smile: “ Just you wait, son – I think you’ll find it’s all in the bag.”

The basil, the bag and the birthday – Part 1

The basil – It was a friend’s birthday and, since she likes Italian food, I offered to cook. Pasta and its accessories are not difficult to find here, if a little more expensive than at home, but in the wake of the typhoon supplies of everything are still a bit hap-hazard. There is an abundance of shops and they are all full, but they’re full of pretty much the same things. I’ve no idea why this is, but it left me a little concerned about whether I would find some basil. Normally I would trail round the small shops in downtown, trying to shop like a local, but I feared my fate would be a wasted afternoon hearing the words ‘waray na’ (‘we don’t have any’ – it’s not very encouraging that they named the local dialect Waray-Waray. Waray is their word for ‘no’) So I opted to go straight to Robinson’s, the largest supermarket in Tacloban. To my dismay I found that their herb and spices section consists almost entirely of salt and pepper. And mushrooms. Mushrooms, it seems, when dried and put into 20g packets, are a herb. However, waray basil. My last hope was the veg section. To call it a section would make it sound grand. More of a desk. Nothing. Nada. Waray herbs of any description. I was about to leave when I noticed the shop assistant opening a large box behind the counter. Three things led be to believe that the box contained my desired ingredient. 1. I could see that in the box were lots and lots of large green leaves which looked remarkably like basil. 2. Hand-written on the box was the word ‘basil’. 3. When I asked what was in the box, the lady replied, “Basil”. Wow, now I believe. I was pretty sure I could hear God saying “So, did you want some basil? Have a boxful..”

Ever since then, whenever I go to Robinson’s, I check to see if they have any basil. Waray na.

Romance.. @Robinson’s?

I was trying to leave Robinson’s mall. I couldn’t reach the door cos I was surrounded by hundreds of screaming teenagers. No, it wasn’t a dream, and sadly they weren’t screaming for me but for JC de Vera, a clearly-popular celebrity who had just appeared on the specially-constructed stage in the middle of the shopping centre. As I make my way through the crowd, I see him pick a beautiful girl to join him on stage. He looks wistfully into her eyes while mouthing the words to the Goo Goo Dolls backing track:

“All I can taste is this moment
And all I can breathe is your life..”

The girl is beside herself. Her face is inches away from his as she shyly returns his gaze. But don’t worry for her commercially-exploited innocence. Her heart may have stopped but she hasn’t forgotten about facebook. She wastes no time getting her ipad out for an on-stage selfie. The fake sincerity is entirely mutual.

The somewhat less than star-cross’d lovers and the words of the song made me remember what had happened to me just a few days before. I was lying on my bed just worshipping with my headphones in. I was waiting on God, asking Him to come, directing my prayers to that place somewhere just above my head, you know, where God is. All of a sudden I felt Him say, “I’m already here”. And then I felt myself realise that while I was talking to the top bunk, the “voice” was from inside me. Right after that I felt wave after wave of God’s love flow through me, and after a little while I was completely blown away. The intensity of the moment made every other ‘worship time’ feel like a rehearsal. I had read that day about how in Jewish culture, when a couple get engaged to be married, the groom goes back to his father’s place to build a house for him and his wife, and he leaves his most trusted friend (his ‘best man’) to prepare his fiancee and keep her pure. The Bible describes the Church as the bride of Christ. Jesus, the groom, has gone away to ‘prepare a place’ for us. The Holy Spirit is like the best man. So I was lying there feeling like I wasn’t just with the Holy Spirit, but with Jesus Himself. It’s as if the Holy Spirit is our teacher, teaching us to dance, but what we experience with Him is ‘dance class’. He is our mentor and friend, but He is just preparing us for the big day, when we get to dance with Jesus. On Monday night I felt like I was dancing with Jesus.

Anyway, I needed to get up to switch on the rice cooker, cos I was cooking for one of the students who had arrived early back at the college. After I’d done that I went to find him and he was with Glenn, one of the carpenters on the site here and also a pastor. I was feeling pretty wasted, smiling like I was high on something. I put my arms round them both telling them how great they are and then I said “Hey, who needs healing? Someone is gonna get healed right now, come on”. Glenn said he has a bad knee, so I put my hands on it, said something spiritual and bosh, he’s healed right there.

It’s a simple testimony of what happens when we have intimacy with Jesus. Heaven comes to earth, for us and those around us.

Back in the crowded mall, I’m comparing that moment of intimacy with what I’m seeing. No-one is being fooled about the authenticity of the romance here – it’s all just a bit of fun to lighten up the weekend. But the brief show reflects what everyone watching the stage dreams of – a Cinderella moment with the king. Please God, can we bring a real moment of romance to Robinson’s mall?