Saturday, March 31, 2012

After the seminars

(Above is a pic taken by Sharon of me writing this post.) I am sitting just outside the door of our room at Villa Igang Resort on the island of Guimaras. The Pacific Ocean -- or at least a little bay of it -- laps at the bottom of the concrete steps twelve feet below me. A fish just swirled the water in the roots of a mangrove to my left, and the sun is just climbing out of the jungles straight ahead of me. Last night when I sat on these steps in the dark, I could have sworn that I was facing south -- but maybe that’s because the thunderheads were marching in from my right, and I assumed that they were coming from the west. So it turns out they were coming in from the south.

We have completed three GAT training seminars -- two days each in Iloilo and Bacolod, and one brief day on Guimaras. We had about 200 participants in Iloilo, about 120 in Bacolod, and about 70 on Guimaras. I cannot say for sure how many Alpha courses will start out of this work, but I know that many, many people were very interested, and we did as good a job as we could of providing resources for them to be equipped to do Alpha. Each participant received an Alpha Guest Manual (the green book) and we had many other resources available for purchase. In addition, we will have a resource library at the Iloilo Foursquare Bible College to provide people access to some of the other Alpha books and DVDs. If I had to guess, I might say that the churches represented here might try starting fifty different Alpha courses, and that about half of those will continue after the first attempt.

There are many elements that will make it difficult for these people to do Alpha successfully. One is that they can’t afford, most of them, to provide a meal of any kind. We told them again and again that it is the fellowship time that is important, and that even just a pot of tea provides enough for that fellowship time. Another obstacle is that some of them have theological objections or agendas that will prevent them from doing Alpha as it is intended -- either they may leave out the Holy Spirit retreat and the healing night because they believe that the gifts of the Spirit and things like healing ended with the time of the apostles (these are the minority), or they (more likely) will adapt the Holy Spirit retreat and the healing night into their own much more forceful Pentecostal style and will frighten away the Roman Catholic-trained people who make up the bulk of the Philippines. But for those who are willing to “follow the recipe” of Alpha, there is so much potential here! My hope has shifted from starting a large number of courses, which still might happen, and now instead my hope is that a few really strong Alpha courses will begin in some of the key churches in each area. If these key churches are willing to invest some energy and resources and people into their Alpha courses, they could become centers and examples that encourage other churches to try Alpha. (We have certainly seen the effectiveness of this “lighthouse” approach in the Twin Cities. Central has learned a lot from other churches like North Heights, Hosanna!, Calvary, and others that have developed strong Alpha programs. In turn, Central has been able to help other churches get started doing Alpha.)

It is good to sit quietly for a while here. Ronald, Lyn, and Peachy Baynosa were able to join us overnight here so in between incredible thunderstorms we had a delightful supper with them last night including two different kinds of chicken, grilled fish (we’re talking the WHOLE bangus, which is a kind of freshwater fish something like a large, skinny perch), mangoes, and of course tons of rice. This stay at VIlla Igang is sort of a sabbath rest after a hard week’s work, and it is such a gift.

I have to say that our team has done an amazing job. Each one has done a presentation or two during our training seminars, and they have done a great job of communicating about Alpha clearly and in a way that helps the Filipinos understand both the content and the spirit of Alpha. Aside from their prepared presentations, I have done a lot of the up front work and while I have been standing up front talking, or during our breaks, I’ve seen them connecting with people, visiting with them, encouraging them, praying with them, joking and laughing with them. Each one has found a special niche, their own way of connecting with individuals. It has been such a gift to see them growing and leading and experiencing and reaching out beyond themselves! I am incredibly proud to lead such a team.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Quick update

It's Thursday afternoon here, and we've just finished our Bacolod seminar and are waiting for the Supercat ferry to take us back to Iloilo. We haven't had much internet access the last couple days. The ferry crossing to bring us here yesterday morning was fairly rough, so we're hoping for calmer waters. However, the weather here has been interesting to say the least. We've had monsoon-style rains every day, with street flooding and thunder and lightning. The Filipinos just shake their heads and say, "It's supposed to be the middle of summer. This does NOT happen!" Then earlier today there was a tornado in Bacolod. One man was on the third floor of his building praying with some friends for the weather to clear and for safety when the tornado came through and gutted the lower floors of his building. He still came to our seminar.

Another man told us after the seminar that during the talk today on "How Can I Be Filled with the Holy Spirit?" as we were praying, he felt a tremendous sense of heat, and then after the prayer time he passed a kidneystone that had been plaguing him for some time.

Many of the people at the seminar these last two days are very eager to start Alpha. In Iloilo the questions were more along the lines of, "Should we start Alpha?" In Bacolod, the questions were much more focused on, "How do we start Alpha?"

Last night after Day One was complete, we traveled to Hotel Planta where HisLife Ministries is planning a new church with its first service on Easter Sunday. We met with some of their leaders last night for a training. Joebert Ramos, the pastor, asked me to speak on Martin Luther and his focus on the Bible as the believer's authority. (The publicity piece for this evening was included in a previous blog post.) We had a great time with them, and I got to talk for almost an hour about Martin Luther and his passion for scripture. Some of you know well just how much I enjoyed that! The rest of the team did a great job of mixing with the people from HisLife, mostly young adults, and enjoying the grilled hamburgers that they provided us. Delicious!

We are doing pretty well, all things considered. Some minor physical ups and downs are more an annoyance than anything worse. Emotionally the schedule takes a little bit of a toll -- I think we are all very eager to get done with the Guimaras seminar tomorrow afternoon and have some down time at Villa Igang, a resort on that island. I'm excited to be back on Guimaras -- it's less urbanized, with lots of agriculture, lots of little markets, and lots of great fruit stands. (Believe it or not, I haven't eaten a mango in two days. I'm going into withdrawls.)

Tonight we have the privilege of celebrating the birthday of Ronald & Lyn's third daughter, who goes by the nickname "Orange." Ronald likes to joke that he has a "fruit salad" -- his children bear the nicknames Peachy (who has been an amazing help during these seminars, handling everything from leading worship to passing out snacks and selling Alpha resources), Apple, Orange, and Cherry, the youngest. They are all delightful young ladies! It will be fun to celebrate with the Baynosas tonight.

So far, we are excited about the potential for fruit from these Alpha seminars. As I understand, the National Alpha Organization in the Philippines has not had a lot of luck planting Alpha in congregations. They run a very successful Alpha program in the south, on the island of Mindanao, in a high school; they are currently working on an exciting project to do Alpha in Hong Kong using radio broadcasts for OFW's -- Overseas Filipino Workers -- who can then gather into small groups after they hear the teaching on the radio broadcast. Kind of a neat model. There are a few churches running Alpha in Manila, I think, and maybe in Cebu -- but the NAO guys seem to have high hopes for what we're planting here.

Thanks for your ongoing prayers and for all your encouraging emails and facebook posts. It's amazing how much easier communication is on this trip even than it was in 2005! We are also making many connections with the seminar participants on Facebook and via email. We continue to entrust all of these efforts to God -- we know more than ever that whatever fruit comes out of these seminars will be to his credit, not ours. It's clear he has planted many good seeds here ahead of our coming, and that he is Lord, and we are servants. That is such a comfort. If we had to be in charge of these things it would be tremendously stressful! So we ride along and let our Father do the heavy lifting. What a joy to be a passenger in his plan, and to get to help along from time to time!

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Tuesday evening update

Today has been a good day. This was day 2 of our Alpha training in Iloilo. Our participant numbers were down just a bit, but I expected that. Some are just too busy to take two days to listen to a presentation, and others heard things on Monday that just didn't sit well for them, I'm sure. I realize again and again that Alpha is not a good fit for everyone. If you're willing to get outside your own needs to reach people for Jesus Christ, Alpha might be a good fit. If you're too rigid, too tradition-bound, or too inward focused, Alpha will probably be a difficult thing for you.

I had the privilege today of answering a lot of questions. Many of the questions came from pastors who were concerned either about Alpha's emphasis on relational evangelism -- doesn't that mean you have to compromise the truth of the Bible? Others wanted to know where Alpha stands on speaking in tongues, and whether it's considered the normative first gift when an individual is filled with the Holy Spirit. I thoroughly enjoyed sparring with some of the pastors, and it was kind of entertaining to watch our team get protective of me when the Q&A went long. We have grown together as a group so that even as we tease each other mercilessly, we are watching each others' backs.

Which was especially entertaining today when a gecko fell off the wall and down Sharon's shirt, and Vic was the closest person there to help her figure out if the gecko was still in there somewhere. I was talking while this disruptive scene was going on over by the window. Oh, my goodness. It was very, very funny. Even Sharon saw the humor in it, eventually. She doesn't like geckos much. Pastor Ronald seemed mildly confused by this. "Why not like geckos?" he asked. "They don't have any teeth."

Tomorrow morning, very early, we leave for Bacolod. We'll catch a 6 am ferry across the straits to the southeast, then lead the first day of the seminar at the Captel center there, the same place Julie and I led our seminar in 2005.

Pray for the pastors in Bacolod. Ronald has shared with me that there are several factions that take the form of four local pastors' associations. There is not a lot of trust between the various factions. We pray that God would use Alpha to break through this division to build his kingdom.

Thanks so much for your prayers and your encouragement! During the opening worship at our seminar today (the musicians here are amazing!) I saw a momentary vision of a tidal wave of prayer lifting our team up from Minnesota and carrying us toward the Philippines. It was such a beautiful way of understanding what you all have done and continue to do for us. Thank you! We are so impressed by how God has coordinated so many details and arranged so many different factors to make this trip fit together. He is amazing, and he is so faithful to answer the prayers of his people!

I should add, too, that many people expressed after today's seminar ended how excited they are to start Alpha in their churches here. I have no doubt that many Alpha courses will begin in the Iloilo area soon!

Monday, March 26, 2012

Catching you up on the latests

It's late evening in Iloilo, and outside the thunderstorm is just pouring. We've done our team devotions and prayer time, debriefed today's seminar a bit, and most of us are headed quickly toward unconsciousness. It's been a pretty intense couple of days.

Yesterday morning we worshipped at Grace Church. Grace is a petite church building, neat and clean in a ceramic tile style, with a small congregation -- maybe sixty people? -- that loves to worship in a loud, rock-and-roll kind of style including liturgical dancers in flowing blue gowns who dance a flawless tambourine accompaniment to each contemporary worship song. Pretty cool. I had the privilege to preach, and worked verse-by-verse through the last few verses of Mark 4. In the evening we worshipped at the Iloilo Foursquare Gospel Church on Fuentes, just a few buildings down from our hotel.

After the worship service, several of us, including the newly arrived members of the National Alpha Organization who are in town for the seminars this week, were planning to go out for a meal. (Unknown to us, Pastor Ramon Plaza from the church on Fuentes had made reservations at a truly amazing Chinese restaurant. Oh my goodness. We started with shark's fin soup and it just got more incredible from there. Part of the ambience of the meal was that there were conversations going around the table in at least four languages.) Before we could go out for supper, though, three young people approached us to ask for prayer. One was a young man who has wandered far from God, but who happened to come back to his home church last night. Because it happened to be his birthday, two of his friends accompanied him. Both friends were raised Roman Catholic, but they never connected with Jesus in that upbringing. One still attends her parents' RC church regularly, but in her words it is totally out of a sense of obligation. The young man hasn't been to a church in years. During last night's worship, God touched their hearts and they came forward after the worship to ask if I would pray with them to receive Jesus and start a relationship with him as Lord. I quickly pulled Julie K. and Sharon from our team in, and we spent fifteen or twenty minutes praying with and talking with them. Then it turns out that the birthday boy -- he's probably in his mid-20's -- who brought them has been distant from God partly due to some medical issues. He's supposed to receive some kind of test results tomorrow, so I prayed with him for healing, and that he would surrender to God and stop running away from him. He told me that he's always had a powerful sense that God wants to do great things in his life; he's just been running away from that lately. I pointed to his two friends a few feet away, in tears, holding onto each other and being held by Julie and Sharon. "This is a pretty great thing that God has done tonight through your life," I reminded him.

Please pray for these three. When we explained that there are many believers back home following our work here and lifting us up in prayer, and that these Americans would be praying for them as well, we experienced a whole new round of tears. Thanks for your prayers!

After a way-too-much-food-way-too-late-night, we got up early this morning and made our way to the church where today we start our real work -- the GAT seminars, training local church leaders to lead Alpha in their churches. The whole day went very, very well. One of the strongest impressions from today was the amount of fatigue that the pastors and church leaders are carrying. We prayed for pastors in the morning, just having them stand where they were, and then offered that those who needed prayer in their roles as church leaders could come forward for prayer near the end of the day today. We probably prayed for at least forty people. Some of the stories of what these leaders are facing were pretty daunting.

So after a long day of Alpha training, many pastors and church leaders are considering, tonight, how their churches might start Alpha. Some are cool to the idea, others are pretty excited. They are recognizing that Alpha might be a powerful tool for evangelism. I am more convinced than ever of a couple truths. First, Alpha is a great fit for the Philippines. One pastor I talked to yesterday said that the statistics are that 70% of Filipinos are nominal believers, meaning that though they claim the name of "Christian" (or more likely they would claim the name "Catholic") they are not practicing their faith. So there is a basic loyalty to Jesus over other religions, but there is little knowledge and no relationship in a huge segment of the population here. The three young adults we prayed with Sunday evening are perfect evidence for this. Second, I'm convinced that I have the best mission team imaginable, both the ground crew back home and the flight crew that I am privileged to work with here. They stepped up and taught the Filipinos about Alpha with amazing clarity and joy. They bit down on their fears and prayed over the Filipino pastors at the end of the day today even though it was a real challenge for some of our team. What a great group of people!

Tomorrow we will spend the day with them again, talking more specifically about prayer and the Holy Spirit weekend / retreat.

Then on Wednesday morning, even earlier, we will board the ferry to Bacolod, where we repeat the same two-day cycle of GAT seminars. Also, Wednesday evening I'll be speaking at HisLife ministries where Joebert Ramos is pastor. Here is a picture of the promo one of JR's staff put together:

Thursday we present day two of the seminar, then return to Iloilo and check back into our hotel for one night. I'm afraid our life of relative luxury and ease is coming to an end and we'll be quite busy for the next few days! Keep us -- and those who are being touched, especially the three young adults described above -- in your prayers. Thank you!

Sunday, March 25, 2012

What is a jeepney?

The jeepneys are like buses. They have their own routes. We found this out when we got on the wrong jeepney going home last night.
Each jeepney has a distinctive design.
Passengers jump in through the opening in the back and pass their money up via the other passengers and get their change passed back to them.
Sharon & Julie C on the jeepney as we were going to dinner Saturday.
Vic, Julie K and Jeff
Yet another jeepney. They are everywhere!
Vic hanging out in the (wrong) jeepney on our way home after dinner. See previous post for details.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Sunday morning

Good morning! It's Sunday, about six a.m. We had a great transition day yesterday -- a couple of of slept and mostly we stayed awake, did a little preparatory shopping, and last night had a non-guided adventure, taking a jeepney -- hopefully I can post a picture soon; for the moment imagine a fleet of miniature buses driven by weld men who generally speak little English and who can immediately tell you how many people are riding in the back of their jeepney, how many have paid, where each of them is headed, and whether the guy on the bicycle ahead will veer in front of the jeepney and cause them to hit the brakes hard. Incredibly, in all the time I've spent hear I've never seen anything resembling a traffic accident. Thousands and thousands of near misses, but no damage.

So yes, we went adventuring. Julie C. says, in her words, that she's "all about the food." So she got a recommendation from the hotel clerk yesterday that we should go to Smallville, a tiny island of restaurants, bars, and dance clubs about three or four kilometers (get used to it) north and west of here, just across the river. We had some choices. We could take a taxi, which is more expensive, and tends to get you ripped off by taxi drivers that offer you a bargain flat rate rather than making you pay according to that annoying meter. We talked to a taxi driver and found out that at least in that one case, all the stereotypes are well deserved.

So instead we took a jeepney. A helpful policeman got us on a jeepney that was going the right direction, in daylight, and we got to Smallville with no problems. Wandered around for a while, found a great restaurant, and enjoyed an amazing meal.

It got dark, and it was time to start back. So we got on a jeepney headed the right direction. South. Yes. But the wrong route. When we finally gave the name of a large, well-known store close to our hotel, he shook his head and wanted to put us off the jeepney. We were by that time in a deserted area of town that looked like every nightmare you've had about being lost in a strange city in the Philippines as night is deepening and the scary things come out to play. We stayed on that jeepney like woodticks on a dog. Finally he took on two young men who spoke English and could do some translating. They got us to an intersection where we could wait for the proper route and gave us a little info that would help us pick out a more appropriate ride.

We got home just fine. Adventure had. Many lessons learned. Stomachs full, we had devotions and collapsed into bed.

Eight hours of blessed sleep later, I'm wide awake in the hotel lobby. It's getting light outside and I've been laying in bed talking to God for quite a while about this coming week and what I hope, dream, and pray about for this Global Alpha Training time.

And now I'm going to spend some time going through my notes for my sermon this morning at Grace Church. Preaching through the end of Mark 4, where Jesus takes the disciples to the other side of the lake and on the way calms an incredible storm.

Come to think of it, being in a boat on the Sea of Galilee when a storm is coming up might be a little like being on a jeepney in Iloilo as night falls and you realize you are outside of your own control -- you have to trust and pray to make it through this. If Jesus isn't in that boat with you, you are in a lot of trouble.

The key thing in both cases, of course, is making sure you're doing what Jesus tells you to do. It was his idea to get in the boat and go across the lake; the disciples were just following him. That status -- being an obedient follower of Jesus -- doesn't guarantee them safety and security. But it does mean that they can trust that what happens to them along the way is Jesus' business more than it is their own, and in the end his word is good -- he will never leave them or forsake them.

Have a great Sunday!

P.S. Those of you who are leading and helping with Alpha tonight (Saturday evening) at Central, know that you are in our prayers this morning. If I've got the time change figured right, at this moment you should be gathering to prepare things. May you know the presence of Jesus in your boat this evening!

The shape of things

Seven years ago, this wall held a banner advertising some Lutheran preacher from Minnesota, USA. Today, four team members from Central Lutheran are here to share the powerful gift God has given them in the Alpha course. Pretty cool.

Checked in!

We are on the ground in Iloilo City, the Philippines. Ronald and Lyn met us at the airport (along with brother Tony) and took us out for a wonderful breakfast. Checked into the hotel, and found that they're doing some construction on the floor above us. Very annoying. But in the grand scheme, it could be a lot worse.

We took a look at Fuentes Church, the place where I will be preaching tomorrow evening and where our Monday and Tuesday seminars will be held. It's the same place I spoke in 2005, and it's a good venue for the Alpha training we're doing. We had a few questions about getting a compatible power supply to my laptop, but Julie K figured that out, so we're good to go.

Now we're in recovery mode -- trying to adjust to the time changes, trying to get some sleep or avoid sleep in order to adjust faster, depending on personal preferences. Today is one of the few days we won't be scheduled tight, so we're enjoying the opportunity to adjust and decompress a little bit. Tomorrow morning we worship at Grace Church in the morning and Fuentes Church in the evening. I'll be preaching on Mark 4 in the morning and Mark 5 in the evening, looking at how Jesus calls the disciples (and us) to go across the lake -- and what happens when they (and we) get there.

Friday, March 23, 2012

En route

The picture is Julie and me somewhere above Siberia, en route to Japan, then to Manila, then to Iloilo. Took it while most everyone on the flight was sleeping, at least back in our section of cattle class. Here's what I wrote a little earlier than this photo:

I don’t know when I’ll be able to post this, but at the moment when I’m writing these words, I’m in the air over Barrow, Alaska. I have no idea what time it is; it’s probably early evening in Minnesota, but it’s 7:45 am in the Philippines. I’ve been awake since a little before 5 am. Julie is snoozing to my left, and a few rows back Julie C., Sharon, and Vic are either sleeping or working through their Alpha talks.

There’s not a seat open on our 747. I looked around just after we got started and thought, figure an average of $1200 per seat, and start adding it up. At least 60 rows of seats lettered A through J. Maybe not quite so many in the business class up front. Say at least 550 people on this plane? Wow. That’s a lot of money.

It is costing us a lot of resources to do this. Many of you reading have provided, and provided so generously, out of your own resources to make this possible. You know we are so grateful to you!

I had a conversation with a man about a year ago who talked about orphanages in the Philippines and feeding the hungry. We tried to set that up for this trip, but it didn’t work out. He pretty much ridiculed the idea of bringing a team. Just go yourself, he said, and you can spend the cost of those extra plane tickets on more food! I can see his logic.

The only way this trip makes sense -- the only way any of this amazing adventure is reasonable -- is if our coming as a team is God’s design for this trip. And I firmly believe it is. In the economy of the kingdom of God, I suspect that five Americans taking the time and money and energy and effort to come to the Philippines is going to carry some weight. My hope, my prayer is that when we get back to the States, that a critical mass of church leaders in the central Philippines will have a vision for starting Alpha through their local churches. To do that, they will need to have a team, not just one excited leader.

For the record, I was one lonely excited leader about Alpha for a long time when I first heard about it. It took a lot of time and a lot of energy to try to translate my eagerness and passion for this new ministry into something that a team of leaders could get behind. I’m guessing that a team of experienced Alpha leaders can communicate the need for a team to lead Alpha in a way one lonely leader could not do -- no matter how passionate he might be.

No, it doesn’t really make sense. We could send DVD’s and books. We could provide funding for the Philippines National Alpha Office to do some local training. But I don’t believe those things would have the impact that our team going to Iloilo will have. I am already seeing the impact on Central -- on present and past Alpha leaders; on the wider congregation; and on the community of Elk River, who lined up a week and a half ago outside the Pizza Ranch to support this trip. We’ll also see the impact on the Filipino church leaders, and eventually on their churches, if they grab hold of Alpha as a tool for evangelism and discipleship. And if this idea of Global Alpha Training takes off at Central, we may see the birth of an ongoing ministry of Alpha leaders traveling to other parts of the world to train church leaders to start Alpha courses.

So the only way this whole adventure makes sense is if we -- the ground crew and the flight crew -- have experienced something through Alpha that goes beyond simple economics, beyond pure rationality. If we have been touched by Jesus, filled with his Spirit, and drawn into a new kind of Jesus-focused community as we have experienced Alpha and led this simple ten-week course, then it makes sense for us to go across the world to invite others to experience what changed us.

This has always been the story of Christian mission. Jesus gets a hold on a group of people and transforms their lives. They explode with his Spirit and his presence and they have to go and tell others about it.

So in that way, it makes perfect sense.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012


That's definitely the word. Giddy. Listening to the chatter back and forth on Facebook and in emails and the odd telephone conversation (yes, some of us still actually speak words to each other) you'd have to say the whole team is a little off-balance.

I guess it's only fair. We've been planning, plotting, fundraising, scheming, agonizing, and pondering this trip for how many months? Now in less than 36 hours we'll be in the air. East, first, to Detroit ... then taking one of those great circle routes -- probably over the arctic -- to Japan, then to Manila, then to Iloilo where we'll finally try to get used to the eastern hemisphere.

Bags almost packed. Alpha resources wedged into suitcases (thanks, Sharon and Heather, for doing that!) and the to-do list keeps getting shorter and shorter. At least that's the theory. In reality, for every item you cross off three more jump up to take its place. At some point you just crumple up the to-do list and leave for the airport.

Jason's got that under control. He's planning the early morning Thursday bus run to get us all collected and sent off to Tom, who takes the final leg of ground crew work before we leave. Then we're on the plane, and we're really the flight crew.

We're counting on our ground crew -- counting big time. We need your prayers. You've already amazed us with your financial support and your emotional support and the incredible job so many of you did coming out to the Pizza Ranch the other night. (Makes me really sad I missed it!) Now we just need you to pray.

You can pray for our safety if you need to -- that's fine. But in the Bible they don't often pray for safety. In the book of Acts they pray for boldness. So pray for boldness for us, for diligence to prepare our materials and our presentations. Pray for receptive hearts for those who will be attending the seminars. Pray with great thanksgiving for this opportunity and the resources to pursue it. Pray with joy for each of the team members who have given so much of themselves to bring Alpha to the central Philippines. Pray that the seeds planted on this trip might grow into communities of people -- what Alpha does best -- communities of people bound to each other in love, rooted deep in Jesus' death and resurrection, empowered by his Spirit to reach out to their neighbors with his love.

Thanks for your prayers!

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Looking back ... how did we get here?

In just a few days our team will leave for the Philippines. I have been pondering just a bit lately about how we got to this point.

It all started when I was pastor of two small churches in Williston, North Dakota. Williston, of course, has become famous as an oil boom town, but in the days when we lived there it was an economic sinkhole, both in terms of agriculture and of petroleum. One of the churches I served was right in Williston; the other was about twenty-five miles outside of town. A couple began attending the church in town (Good Shepherd Lutheran) -- he used to be a pentecostal pastor in the deep south, in a denomination called "Foursquare." (It's similar to Assemblies of God if that's more familiar.) Gordy spent a lot of time on the internet as sort of a fascination / hobby. One day he came to me with a suggestion. He had run across a church -- a Foursquare church -- in the Philippines -- that was trying to raise money to renovate their building. They needed about $1500 to complete the project. (Note: The local economy in the central Philippines means that American dollars went a long way.)

I emailed the pastor at Grace, a guy named Ronald. He emailed back. We communicated for a while. He sent pictures of the church, a financial plan, and detailed information of what they were going to do with whatever money their appeal brought in. We talked about it. We prayed about it. A few key people at Good Shepherd grabbed ahold of this project and started raising money. In a bad economy we came up with a few hundred dollars, and a pastor friend of mine in a larger church pitched in from their mission fund. Ronald and his congregation at Grace finished the renovations and sent more pictures and a statement of how the funds were used.

Ronald and I kept emailing back and forth. I found out that in addition to being a pastor, he also taught business at a local college, and he also served as president of a pentecostal Bible college. It was the Bible college that became the focus of our conversations. Ronald invited me to come and speak at their graduation in early April.

It didn't work out that year. And it didn't work out either of the next two years. Then my family moved to Minnesota, and that year I was in a new job and there's no way I could go to the Philippines. Every year Ronald invited me, and we talked and prayed about it, and it didn't work out, doors closed, and I kept asking God to open the way.

Then came 2005. The new job was not quite so new, and Central was in the process of growing more and more mission oriented. It made sense to go speak at graduation at the Iloilo Foursquare Bible College. Ronald invited, and we accepted. Ronald said, as long as you're coming, would you be willing to do some training for local pastors?

So Julie and I went to the Philippines. I spoke at two seminars with almost 400 people attending, talking about God's heart for the local church and what kind of leadership it takes to give God room to do his kingdom-building work through the church. I spoke at IFBC's graduation, and at the baccalaureate service. Julie and I got to taste some of the freshest tropical fruit you could ever ask for, including the best mangoes in the world.

Along the way, of course, I talked about Alpha. Certainly when I was telling stories about how God does his best work in the local church, lots of Alpha stories came up. One night after our seminar in Bacolod, a pastor asked me to come back to his church for a leaders' meeting where they were going to talk about (guess what?) Alpha!

It was an amazing trip. When we came back to the States, the Alpha leaders at Central got some dollars together and sent an Alpha starter kit to Ronald. He ran a couple Alpha courses. The church leaders we got to know there have a heart for evangelism. Just like in the United States, many Filipinos may attend church from time to time but have no personal relationship with Jesus.

In 2007 I thought we might be returning to the Philippines and I began to make plans, but that didn't happen. 2008, 2009 and 2010 had us focused on a lot of domestic issues, dealing with needs at Central. Along the way, I began to dream of not only Julie and me going back, but taking a team of Alpha leaders along to train Filipino church leaders to lead Alpha..

About the same time, the people who run Alpha International came up with something they call "GAT" which stands for Global Alpha Training. The idea is, experienced Alpha leaders from one church go on a mission trip to an area where church leaders have asked for help learning to do Alpha.

This year we are returning, with a team from Central's Alpha leadership, on a GAT mission. We'll lead Alpha training seminars for right around 500 church leaders, using three separate locations. We're bringing a suitcase full of Alpha print and DVD resources along to distribute to the churches in the area. Our goal, our prayer, is to help churches in the central Philippines learn to do Alpha, and do it well. From day one, we've seen God take what the prophet Zechariah called "the day of small things" and make significant stuff out of it.

Looking forward to seeing what he does this trip!

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

The international (and then some) body of Christ

As I write this I'm sitting in a chair outside the (now closed for the evening) administrative offices of the Canadian Lutheran Bible Institute. Students run up and down the stairs. A few have stopped to turn in papers that were due two hours ago. (To their credit, most checked with me ahead of time to make sure they could turn the paper in later.) Someone is pounding on a piano downstairs, and someone is practicing a presentation just at the edge of hearing. All the other noises are drowned out from time to time by a couple students singing selections from "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" at the top of their lungs. The bulk of the student body (not the best way to put that) is off at a local aquatic center swimming for the evening. My daughter Mathea happens to be with them, having borrowed enough ingredients to cobble together a makeshift swimsuit.

This is the third year I've taught at CLBI. Each year I am inspired by this tiny school -- sixty students this year -- and its laser focus on making disciples of Jesus Christ. They're not primarily worried about issues of accreditation or degrees. They're not focused on academics, though of course students are challenged to grow academically while they're here and expected to do college-level work. Mostly, though, CLBI exists to focus on making disciples of Jesus Christ.

The student body is primarily entering into what Terry Walling would call the "awakening" transition. This transition usually takes place in the 20's or early 30's, and in it young adults go through four steps:

Step 1 -- Anchoring. What has God taught you from his word? This step entails reviewing your biblical calling and purpose as a believer. Biblical purpose anchors your personal calling.

Step 2 -- Assessing. How has God shaped you in your past? In this step it is important to understand your past development and life values as a believer.

Step 3 -- Discovering. What is God calling you to accomplish? Discovering your personal vision provides direction for the future.

Step 4 -- Implementing. How do you plan to accomplish your personal calling?

These students, judging from their conversations in class and their response to pointed questions, are largely coming to the end of Step 1, and beginning to muddle through steps 2 & 3. They recognize that God has given them the gift of a strong biblical foundation in their time here. Now they have to begin to know themselves, to begin to know how God has wired them and what he calls them to do in this world.

It's exciting stuff.

Another thing that has been coming up over and over again while I've been here is the way the body of Christ rolls over international boundaries like they don't exist. Harold Rust, the president of the school, and I were talking this morning. The conversation was focused on the way God is creating new forms of Christ-centered community in his church -- forms of community that have their roots in the early church, forms of community that the western church has largely ignored for the last century, at least since the invention of the automobile. The conversation ranged all over the world, from CLBI to Los Angeles, from Minneapolis to Sheffield, England, to Tennessee and back to London, then across the Atlantic yet again to bounce around Canada and the United States some more.

(My writing is getting interrupted at the moment by a young couple, not students, coming in to meet with the president of the school and his wife who are leading them through their marriage preparation work.)

Another conversation today focused on what God is doing in his church in non-Western contexts. Mission teams of second year students from CLBI go each January to an amazing variety of nations -- places like Suriname, Mongolia, Nepal, Kenya, and lots more. These students gain a firsthand sense of what God might be about in the wider world. So earlier today we were talking about what the western church has to learn from community and biblical authority in the church in the rest of the world.

Certain things are clear here. The call of God toward a simple life, for one. The centrality of Christ, for another.

A contingent of students has been working their way through The Truth Project. We did this at Central a couple years ago. Tonight they were talking about the relationship between Church & State. Their teacher just paused to talk with me about the story of King Uzziah who ruled Judah for 52 years. The vast majority of that time he ruled wisely and well, but near the end of his life power got the better of him. It's no accident that Isaiah records his amazing vision of God (Isaiah 6) starting out with these words: "In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord, high and lifted up ..." The uncompromising lordship of Jesus is another thing that remains front and center here.

So here I sit, typing. And without moving from this chair, I am reminded of my connections to believers in Jesus all across the world, all across time. It is a privilege to be a part of this.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012


Today I am packing for the first of two international trips in March. This is the smaller one, the one to Canada, the one that has largely been overshadowed by our team Philippines trip. But packing always puts me in a reflective mood, which I like a lot better than the way it affects some other people I know who get totally stressed out and task-oriented when they pack.

I get reflective. I think partly (here comes the psychoanalysis) because my childhood was so deeply rooted, growing up on a farm in northwestern Minnesota and rarely, rarely leaving to go anywhere. I didn't grow up with international experience and very rarely went out of state. But I developed deep roots. I remember going home after my first year at college and, just to see if I could, one moonless night I walked without a flashlight up into the north pasture woods. This little patch of poplar and oak trees is only about ten or fifteen acres crisscrossed with cattle trails. It was my playground throughout my childhood. That night for hours I wandered back and forth through the darkness, navigating totally by feel, just to see if I remembered my way. I did.

Had a great conversation the other day with my good friend and partner in heresy, Curt. We hadn't talked in a while so it took us a couple hours to scratch the surface of what each of us has been thinking about lately. Oh, that was refreshing!

One theme that he brought up that has also been on my mind has to do with the nature of following Jesus. Curt made reference to the word "walk" as an important way to understand what we do spiritually. This is a fairly common term -- we talk about our "faith walk" or "walking the talk". We get this.

Something clicked in my brain and I thought of a Greek word that has fascinated me since I first ran across it in high school. The word in Greek is "parepidemos". The plural form of this word is used among other places in 1 Peter 1:1, where it is usually translated "exiles".

One Greek lexicon defines this word as:


one who comes from a foreign country into a city or land to reside there by the side of the natives a stranger sojourning in a strange place, a foreigner in the NT metaph. in reference to heaven as the native country, one who sojourns on earth.

The Bible is full of this idea. God's people are "strangers sojourning in a strange place." We are foreigners. We are citizens of someplace else. This does not mean, however, that the old hymn has it right, that "this world is not my home, I'm just a-passin' through". No, that's not biblical.

In Philippians, Paul writes that "our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself" (Philippians 3:20-21). The Philippians were quite familiar with this idea of citizenship. In fact, Philippi was founded as a Roman colony, founded by a bunch of Roman soldiers who were granted citizenship because they were willing to live apart from Rome and found this Roman colony on the eastern shores of Greece, far away from home.

The picture Paul uses in this text is not that the citizens will someday abandon Philippi and go back to Rome. (Part of the reason Rome encouraged these soldiers to found the city of Philippi was to keep the threat of a bunch of retired military men far from Rome!) Rather, the citizens waited eagerly for Caesar to come to them, to honor them with his presence. They built, nurtured, and developed the city to prepare it for Caesar's eventual visit. Philippi was to be transformed by the coming of Caesar; its citizens were not to abandon the city.

In the same way, Christians are not called to live here in anticipation of someday being taken from this world to an other-worldly heaven. Instead, we live here as citizens of heaven, preparing for the visit of our Lord, who will come in glory to transform us -- and this world -- into a brand new creation. Peter writes about the same thing in 2 Peter 3, where he writes:

"Since all these things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of people ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set on fire and dissolved, and the heavenly bodies will melt as they burn! But according to his promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth
in which righteousness dwells" (2 Peter 3: 11-13). Peter and Paul and the rest of the New Testament agree that we do not go away from here to some other place -- except perhaps temporarily after death while we wait for the final resurrection -- but rather that our time on earth is an opportunity for us to prepare the way for Jesus' eventual coming as Lord, as the one who will make all things new. If you want to read about this in detail, probably the best biblical text is 1 Corinthians 15, which after a long discussion of the resurrection, ends with the following rather surprising verse: "Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain."

In other words, we have work to do. This is where our wandering comes in. We do not live according to the world's limits. We do not accept that what is impossible in the world is impossible for us. We can do all things through Christ who gives us his strength. So though our task -- making disciples of all nations (Matthew 28) and foreshadowing the eventual redemption of all creation (Romans 8) -- is far beyond us, we wander this earth as pilgrims, as foreigners, as sojourners, doing the work that God calls us to do, the work that Jesus started in his resurrection, doing this work by the power of the Spirit he has poured out on us.

So I am packing a bag, boarding a plane, flying to a tiny school in Camrose, Alberta (the Canadian Lutheran Bible Institute) to spend a little time with students there who are in the early stages of following Jesus. This will be the third year I'm teaching at CLBI. I love doing this, as it feels very much like something I'm created to do. A couple weeks ago on this blog I wrote about my "major role statement," and I've been continuing to revise that statement. It's supposed to be a summary of exactly what God has created me to do. The benefit of having such a statement is that it helps me know myself and know God's call to me. That way I have a clearer idea what opportunities I should accept and which ones I should reject. Here's my statement in its latest revision:

I listen for and discern kingdom possibilities, teach biblical truth, and lead relationally in order to equip spiritually hungry people to go beyond their boundaries into freedom, ministry, and maturity in Jesus Christ.”

This trip to Canada, and our fast-approaching trip to the Philippines, seem like good fits as I reread this statement. This is what I do as I wander. It's how I spend my exile. It is the task of my pilgrimage. It's the role Jesus has given me in his kingdom.

I had to chuckle yesterday -- I'm teaching a high school class on World Religions for the local Christian homeschool co-op. Yesterday we were discussing Islam, and in the middle of teaching the Five Pillars of Islam, a spiritually hungry student asked a question and I was off and running, talking about what it really means when the New Testament says that we are "saved." It doesn't take much for me to start trying to take such people beyond their boundaries and toward maturity in Jesus Christ. It's just what I do. Left to my own inclinations, it's how I spend my time and energy. It takes tremendous focus for me to do something that does not fit into that statement.

So what do you do as you wander? We are parepidemois, we who live as citizens of heaven, wanderers and sojourners, foreigners in this world. What is your job here? How has God wired you? What is Jesus' call on your life? What specific tasks has he wired into you that bring you to life, that bring his kingdom to reality both in you and around you?

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Julie's photos of the preparation party

Julie C, Julie K and Sharon having some dinner and strategizing for the upcoming Philippines trip...not the "official" part of the trip, as we have been doing all along at weekly meetings. We are discussing what clothing, first aid items and other necessities to bring. How will the kids do while we are gone with other people caring for them, etc.

Sharon getting advice about various items she is considering bringing.

Julie K and Sharon brought identical shoes...except one pair was size 5.5 and the other 10.5

Julie C is waiting for the actual trip to lug her stuff all over creation. She was high tech and brought photos of her clothes

Thinking maybe we look like we planned this ahead of time, but we didn't!

Philippines countdown

Sixteen days and counting. This means that Vic and I have fourteen and a half days before we think about packing. We have done the responsible thing and talked about dress codes, etc., so we don't get caught in the wrong kind of pants. Duh. But we're not going to have to think about things too much between now and then. Vic will be working, which he does admirably. I will be teaching a class in Canada most of that time.

But upstairs at my house right now (I, coward, am hiding in the basement) are the three women from our flight crew -- two Julies and a Sharon -- who are discussing in detail every garment, accessory, voltage converter, hair dryer, and so on. At the same time (women are admirable multi-taskers) they are consuming a prodigious quantity of gluten free crackers, Cabot extra sharp cheddar, brie with jalapeno jelly, and smoked salmon. It's a packing party.

I'm not sexist. I think there are gifts God has given to each gender in its own right. Vic and I will, frankly, not worry much about our hair (what hair?), and very little about our clothes. (I spent fifteen minutes the other day setting aside the clothes I'm planning to bring. I'm set.) We will also not party together very much before leaving for the Philippines. The ladies, on the other hand, will have spent many hours agonizing about which pair of capris, one skirt or two, how to accessorize the various outfits, and how on earth it's all going to fit in one small carry-on bag. Don't get me wrong -- they are not packing a ton of stuff. If they were, I suspect this process would be easier. They're paring it down and planning carefully to pack light. At the same time, they are having, by the sound of it, a great time socializing together upstairs.

Moral of the story? If you want to leave in half an hour, bring guys along. If you want to make sure you look good and enjoy each others' company, women are indispensable.

In other news (before I get in any more trouble) we are rapidly getting to the last few details that need to be taken care of before we leave. We ordered Alpha resource books today so that seminar participants in the Philippines will be able to have the books they need that will allow them to lead Alpha courses after we're long gone. We had hoped to have resource materials supplied in the Philippines or by the Alpha Asia / Pacific people, but they don't have the materials on hand, so we've been looking for alternative solutions. Between our Twin Cities Alpha coordinator and a friend of his in the Alpha USA office, we're getting a pretty good collection of Alpha resources that we'll pack in a checked bag and bring along. The goal is for each person at the three different seminars to have an Alpha Guest Manual that they can take home, as well as other resources that they can purchase. Anything that's leftover we'll set up in a resource center -- one in each area where the seminars have been conducted -- so that people can make use of the resources and prepare Alpha courses in the months to come.

We also have one major fundraiser coming up. If you're in the Elk River area, you won't want to miss Monday evening, March 12th, at the Pizza Ranch restaurant. Several members of the team (both ground crew and flight crew) will be there to bus your dishes, to share information about the trip, and to accept tips from anyone willing to donate. (They might promote Alpha along the way as well!) A percentage of the proceeds from your meal, plus any tips, plus up to $500 matching funds from Thrivent, will go to the Philippines trip. So come and enjoy!

If you are praying for us (thank you!) you can continue to pray for good health -- pray with much rejoicing on this score, as we're all doing pretty well in spite of a couple nagging sinus infections. Pray for our preparation as we each rehearse the talks we'll be delivering at the three different seminars. Pray for the seminar participants, that God would create a hunger in them to do Alpha as a way to reach out to their neighbors. Pray with much rejoicing for the ongoing generosity of many on our ground crew who have been providing resources that allow us to be more effective in bringing Alpha to the central Philippines! Pray for the fundraiser at Pizza Ranch on March 12, that it would be successful in three ways: First, as a fundraiser. Second, as a way to inform people about what we're doing in the Philippines. Third, as a way to promote Alpha within the Elk River area!

Thanks as always for your partnership, your prayers, and your amazing support for this adventure!

Saturday, March 3, 2012


I grew up with a few basic beliefs about the culture in which I lived. I believed it was normal for a kid to have both a mom and a dad. Dads were hard working and moms were nurturers. The vast majorities of families lived by basic Christian moral values, even if they were not Christians themselves. So things like excessive consumption of alcohol or use of illegal drugs were, in my understanding, universally frowned upon. Sexual promiscuity (once I got old enough to understand the concept) was also a Bad Thing. Everyone shared a basic understanding that you take care of your own business and you help people who are in need, whether that means they're stranded at the side of the road or needing help getting a crop off the field. Private property was to be respected but not hoarded. Guns were something nearly everybody had and they were a tool, not a weapon.

There were some deeper truths as well that we didn't talk about, but we all lived. Nobody liked the government much, but we all had a sense of loyalty to the USA. Government was a necessary evil, and the people who ran it were fallible humans who needed to be both trusted and kept within strict limits. Political parties were different tools to work toward political goals that we all shared -- basic safety for citizens, freedom enough to allow opportunity, and an economy that provides adequate return for a good day's work. We all lived with the simple idea that if you broke the law, you would be punished, but within the boundaries of not hurting others or damaging their property, a little rebellion could be a lot of fun.

I know there was a lot of idealism in my upbringing, and in many ways I was incredibly sheltered. But I can't escape the sense today that the culture and I have been on divergent pathways since I was born. I have been drifting one direction, and the culture in which I live has been spiraling in another. Normally I'm fairly comfortable with this divergence, but every now and then it gets stuck in my throat.

Somewhere along the way -- it was October of 1983 for those who are keeping track -- my whole life got caught up in an idea that Jesus called "the kingdom of God." At this point my more-or-less comfortable Christianity took a subtle turn. Instead of being a Christian, I became a Jesus-follower. Instead of living to find my place in a culturally shared dream of peace and freedom with Christian moral principles, I would give my life for Jesus Christ and his kingdom regardless of what the surrounding culture did.

I was living in Seattle at the time, and the culture in the Pacific Northwest was quite different from the rural Minnesota agri-culture where I grew up. Seattle was secular through and through; Christians were a small minority. It was much easier in that context to understand that following Jesus might mean opposition from (or to) the surrounding culture. All in all I spent nine years in the Pacific Northwest and those years deeply shaped my understanding of Jesus-following as a minority way of life. During those years many things Jesus said in the New Testament began to make a stark kind of sense, for example: "In this world you will have trouble, but take heart; I have overcome the world." Seeing Jesus not in partnership with the surrounding culture but in tension with it became a way of life.

When my family moved back to Minnesota in 1995, I saw my original context with new eyes. The cultural drift that was so obvious in the Northwest was just a little more subtle in the Midwest. Minneapolis was on the same cultural path as Seattle, just ten or fifteen years behind. Cable TV was the great unifier. As we all watched MTV and VH-1 everyone began to think the same, look the same, act the same. Even tiny pockets of countercultural expression like punk and grunge and body piercing had to be expressed within very narrowly prescribed boundaries, though the people expressing themselves thought they were all rebellious and free. This unification of thought and expression only intensified as the internet swept us all up in a grand tsunami of information overload during the late 1990's and into the 21st century.

Now in 2012 I have become accustomed to reading the news from the perspective of a cultural minority. Today I am convinced that people are inherently sinful, that we are willfully broken and rebellious, in tension with a culture that tries to find the good at the core of every individual. I believe that humans are called to interdependent corporate existence, and that unfettered individual expression is both the root of most human misery and the delight of hell. I believe that in material terms, getting everything I want is the worst thing that can happen to me. (Do a little research on what happens to those unfortunate individuals who win the lottery.) I believe that without suffering, life rapidly grows self-indulgent, tasteless and futile. I believe that public opinion polls are meaningless and cultural icons are the pinnacle of foolishness (think Lady Gaga, and then apply the same revulsion backward to Michael Jackson and the Beatles).

It's not that I'm against all these things, but I am dedicated to following Jesus, and I stand where he stands. So when I see things in the culture that tend to keep people away from him -- American Idol, for example, or rampant debt, or youth athletic leagues -- I turn away from those things. More importantly, I try to turn toward Jesus, to follow him. I take what he says seriously.

So I still believe that too much alcohol is a bad thing, but so is too much moralism. I believe that in God's intention, a man is designed to commit himself to one woman for life come hell or high water (regardless of what his momentary emotions might tell him, regardless of whether the relationship is making him happy this week), and that in losing his identity, his sanity, and his selfishness in that relationship he will find life. That's why marriage is a covenant. I also believe that standing back and evaluating the conduct of others to decide if what they're doing is okay is a dangerous path that will end with me condemning myself. I believe that I'm responsible for my neighbor's well-being, without being codependent.

In the end, the way I view my role in this culture has changed. I no longer see myself as one among many who share basically the same beliefs. Instead, I see that Jesus-followers are called to live in this culture in tiny pockets of salt, pockets of yeast. We are to live in loving tension with our neighbors and their plasma screens and payment plans and hockey schedules. We are not to give in to their ways of life; we are not to think as they think about the nature of reality, about what constitutes the Good Life, the appropriateness of a couple moving in together, starting a family, and then thinking about getting married. We are not called to agree with the culture about the truth of the belief that "you should act on your feelings" or about the relative value of Obamacare or Rush Limbaugh's latest rant.

We are a people called out of the culture (in Greek the church is ek klesia, the ones called out), called to follow Jesus, and then sent back into the world as citizens of another kingdom, of what Jesus called "the kingdom of God". Our loyalty is not to this system. We live here as foreigners, as exiles, yearning for a day when the king will come and set things right in this place. In whatever ways we can, we are called to begin now to prepare the way for that day, for his coming. We create pockets of his kingdom, his rule, here and now. We should not be surprised when the majority culture misunderstands us or mocks us. We should not fear what they fear. We should not expect sympathy or support. This is one reason we need to be banded together in pockets of Jesus-followers, for the same reason mountain climbers rope themselves together on tricky slopes. We live in danger of falling, of losing our focus on Jesus and returning to the world's ways.

In a culture drifting to whatever new fascination, whatever new polestar of relative truth comes across Facebook this week, we are called to "fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith." It can be an uncomfortable life that constantly calls us to live in tension with so much that we see and hear. Amid the cacophony of strident voices calling us to follow this or that cause, this or that agenda, this or that truth, we strive to focus, strive to see, strive to hear the voice of Jesus, who said, The thief comes to steal, and kill, and destroy; I came that they might have life, and have it abundantly. My sheep know my voice, and they follow me, and no one can snatch them out of my hands.