Wednesday, July 22, 2009

That others may live

I once had a romantic flight, all alone, across the South China Sea gazing in fascination down at green island jewels covered in coconut trees, with an attractive sandy strip marking a boundary with the clear blue water.

It was the stuff of holiday brochures, but as we circled over Cebu, one of the biggest islands in the Philippine set, I caught sight of shanty-style housing and my first glimpse that all is not perfect.

The plane touched down at Mactan airport and I saw the run-down emergency vehicles in their garage. On the roof outside was the motto, “That others may live” and I sensed the Lord saying that that was why I had been sent, even though I myself felt as battered and run down as those pathetic fire engines.

Pastor Joy Bendoy, sender of my invitation, was waiting for the plane. The heat, humidity and mosquitoes hit me as, without signalling, we launched into a chaotic stream of vehicles that would never pass a vehicle inspection. That doesn’t seem to matter in the Philippines: on a two-lane road there might be six vehicles abreast, some travelling south on the northbound carriageway. My prayer life got better in an instant!

That night we sized each other up. We ate (fish head soup, squid, prawns, odd things in shells and lots of rice—all with fingers off banana leaves) and began to get to know each other.

Although Pastor Joy had invited me, he’d refused to let me know what to speak on, wanting the Holy Spirit to guide me. The only thing I had found out about his church was that they expected to see God work in response to their prayers and other ministry. Quite a challenge for me: here in the West our expectations of what God can do are so low that we’re rarely disappointed.

All I sensed was to speak on grace and was amazed when I walked into their church building and found the theme of the weekend marked out in hand-cut coloured paper letters stuck to the wall under my name and the date: Enjoying God’s grace.

Smiles in the “slam” area
The next day Pastor Joy drove me as near as he dared to one of the rougher parts of the city. We walked the rest of the way with his seven year-old son saying, “Dad, I don’t like coming here—it smells”. We were walking through rubbish, past open drains and the abattoir to cement-block and coconut branch shanties baking in the sun under their tin roofs. Pastor Joy merely replied, “Son, these people need Jesus too” as we arrived amidst a bunch of kids just like our own, except for their homes and clothes.

Each week that he has money to buy rice this pastor goes to minister here. He takes a schoolteacher from his congregation and the kids get just half an hour of schooling from her each week. Then Pastor Joy (or me, on this occasion) preaches and offers to pray and minister to people’s needs before the church feeds rice and orange squash—for some, their best meal of the week.

Pastor Joy interpreted as I spoke and I was amazed at the response: kids and adults mobbed me for prayer and blessing.

Fire victims set ablaze
Later that Friday, before the weekly all-night prayer meeting began, I spoke on Jeremiah 2:13. It contains a challenge to accept the grace of God (the “stream of living water” in the passage) rather than attempting to meet our own needs through digging for ourselves a, “broken and leaky”, tank to hold water.

Virtually the entire church responded and we started praying prophetically into individuals’ lives. This was new for me and I badly needed to know that these were the Lord’s thoughts, not mine. We came to one old woman in the line and I turned, puzzled, to Pastor Joy.

All I sensed to pray about was a feeling of hopelessness and resignation, that life would never get better. He smiled and told me that this woman was the one Christian in her family, persecuted by her husband and children for years.

He revealed that I’d just been praying for these people and they’d all given their lives to Jesus in response to what they heard on this, their first visit to the church. Now, in sheer grace, it seemed that the Lord wished to bring healing to this woman, a faithful witness for years and persecuted for it.

The family was transformed and the following day we went to visit. They were one of sixty families burned out of their shanties in a fire accident. They were now re-housed by the city council in a part-finished factory building. Concrete floor, partial roof, only two walls not open to the elements. Unsurprisingly there was no water supply, electricity or sewerage and the families had made shelters in the factory out of tree branches with plastic rice sacks over the top. The heat was stifling and after two hours with them my legs and ankles were swollen with mosquito bites.

The husband and father from the night before is the head man of this suffering community. Again, we offered teaching, ministry, then food.

The Lord had seemed to direct me to Hebrews 1:1-4. It seemed so theological and irrelevant to their life in the factory shell; but as I taught what the scripture says, virtually every adult responded! Some made first-time commitments, for others it was a return to the Lord or a fresh insight gained after years of purely religious upbringing. Some wanted prayers for healing and we saw the Lord making a powerful difference to people’s lives.

Earlier on Saturday morning I’d been speaking in the mid-morning break for workers in a furniture factory. It was only 8:30 a.m., but again we saw many give their lives to the Lord Jesus Christ…

Saving lives, making disciples
This trip increased my faith and aroused my compassion. It’s so much more meaningful to have been there than to skip guiltily through an article published in a ministry magazine.

We should partner with them and not patronise: They are materially poor but spiritually wealthy. For us in the West it’s often the other way round and we must learn from them.

After a brief trip to relax at the beach we stopped by Pastor Joy’s house for us to clean up. He took me to the water pump in the yard and worked the handle as he washed my feet. They have told me how much they gained from my trip, but I wonder who received the greater blessing.