Storming The Gates

"I come inside through the big wooden doors. These are elaborately decorated with religious symbols of dragons, monsters, and fiery animals real only to an Asian religious practitioner. I see many people with their prayer sticks. I smell the incense engulfing the whole prayer room. I come inside this beautiful temple and soak in the presence of spirituality that I cannot comprehend. To my right, a person whom I presume is an expert--not only because of his dashing robe and regal hat, but mainly because of his confident way of explaining things--is showing some visitors the way to use the prayer gong in their time of worship. Everyone is lost in their utterance, petitions for a need that I will never understand. I say a prayer to the Almighty God and Savior of all people to hear the prayers of these people."

One afternoon, I was in the streets of Kowloon and came into a Chinese temple. I went inside through the doors that were open to both tourists and worshippers. I went in, in a manner of speaking, "storming the gates of heaven" for the people who are seeking true spirituality and needing the answers to their supplications from the Creator of the universe. I went in and prayed with the Chinese people in that prayer room. I was engulfed in the smell of the incense. I was lost in the rhythmic sound of the prayer gong. I was shoulder to shoulder with them. However, I will never know the intent of their hearts. Nor will I ever come close to comprehending their religiosity. All I could do is say a simple prayer on their behalf, or as some of my friends would say: storm the gates of heaven. In that Kowloon temple, I asked God to listen to us. I probably would never witness the answers to these prayers. One thing I knew then that is still true now: God is moving in every place of worship and all the prayer rooms in the world, and He is drawing every Asian to Himself. 

Easter Even Reflections From Henri Nouwen

This Black Saturday (Great Sabbath), I share with you some thoughts on prayer and the disciplines of grief, forgiveness, and generosity--excerpts from Henri Nouwen's writing.

"Can I give without wanting anything in return, love without putting any conditions on my love? Considering my immense need for human recognition and affection, I realize that it will be a lifelong struggle. But I am also convinced that each time I step over this need and act free of my concern for return, I can trust that my life can truly bear the fruits of God's Spirit." (Nouwen, Henri. 1992. The Return of the Prodigal Son) Nouwen suggest three disciplines. Grief is the discipline that allows us to see the world as God sees it. Forgiveness is the discipline that gives us the courage to welcome the other to our lives, no matter who they are and wherever they come from. Generosity is the discipline that moves us to a life of freedom, away from fear and greed, control and power. These three make the image of the Heavenly Father grow in each person.

And Jesus said to all, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it. (Luke 9: 23-24. ESV)

Let us pray. Lord, in Your mercy, hear our prayers.

Giving Away Our Prayers

“Let us pray for the Clementes.” They all gathered around my family, the four of us, and prayed for us with everyone extending their hands in a symbolic gesture of affirmation and faith. This prayer time is extra meaningful, not only because all of the church members who are praying for us are our good friends from many years, some from 25 years ago. Their prayers are also significant because this local community is giving to us, their missionaries, out of their poverty. This local church is a small congregation of 50 or so, and financially challenged, and struggling to make ends meet. And yet, they are generously giving to us. We receive prayers from God’s people, even from those who are struggling.

“May I pray for you?” Our friend offered her words of comfort to me and my wife, Sarah. And right there in the kitchen in front of the dishwasher, we joined hands together with her husband and prayed to our God. This request to pray for us is very significant because, a few days back, our friend had shared her desire to minister to people in the area of prayer. But due to the nature of her work, people do not see her as a person to seek counsel from or to ask to share a prayer. With us as missionaries visiting her local church, our friend is able to exercise her gift of prayer and intercession on our behalf. We receive prayers from God’s people, even from those who are seeking spiritual affirmation.

“Please continue to send me your newsletter. I would like to keep on praying for you and your family in Asia.” Our friend is retiring this year and will no longer be the pastor of a local church that has been faithfully supporting the Clemente family. “Of course,” I respond to his email and acknowledge his dedication to pray for missionaries around the world. He also writes of his battle with cancer. I was amazed with his passion for God’s work in the midst of his struggle with a terminal disease. We receive prayers from God’s people, even from those who are going through physical difficulties.

People are praying. They are committed to pray for missionaries and missions work, even in the midst of affliction, lack of affirmation, or financial uncertainty. This summer, we have seen our friends from Michigan, Illinois, and California dedicate themselves to a life of prayer. Visits to the hospital are still present. Tensions at the workplace are still happening. The occasional stress from family meetings, they still come and go. Pain, disappointments, failures, and spiritual struggles, they are never the reason to stop interceding for people in the missions work. I admire the commitment of my friends. It is truly easy to pray for missionaries when the funds are there or when life is joyful and fulfilling. However, when things go wrong, it is more challenging to get down on our knees and pray for people who need our prayers. We receive prayers from God’s people, even from those who are facing challenges in many different forms.

This year, I will be going to Cambodia and Nepal to teach week-long seminars for our ministerial candidates and pastors working in our Free Methodist ministries in these countries. For the next 4-5 years, I will be helping these pastors get ready for ordination and local church work. When I visit these Asian pastors, I will tell them of the prayers of our various friends. “All of them are praying for you, for this week-long seminar we are having.” So, from the city streets of America to the village roads of Asia, prayers are uttered for God’s work. From the woodlands of Michigan to the mountains of Nepal, hearts are joined together for the Free Methodist missions work. “On your knees and pray for harvest hands!” (Matthew 9:39, MSG) We receive prayers from God’s people and we give them away, because we are committed to the Lord’s harvest and we want to be obedient to the call to prayer. Will you pray?

Prayer For A Student

“So, how are you?” I never realized a casual greeting could turn out to be a question of deep significance. But, Jane Hsieh, one of our seminary students, responded with a lengthy telling of her current family situation. I listened and we prayed. Right there at the motorcycle parking area, we bowed our heads together and I put my hands over her shoulders and we prayed.

Right about the same week, I bumped into Pastor Lawrence, one of our seminary alumni and a recent graduate. So, I asked the same simple question: “How are you?” And he responded with a long explanation of their local church’s condition, its move to a new location. He also recounted some of his struggles with pastoral life and the joy of expecting a second child. So, right there and then, in the hallway in front of the main entrance of the seminary bookstore, we prayed. I placed my hand over Lawrence’s shoulder and asked God for more blessings and guidance for this new local church pastor.

“Continue steadfastly in prayer, being watchful in it with thanksgiving.” (Colossians 4:2) I have to confess I haven’t been praying with all steadfastness, as Paul has reminded us. However, I am grateful that “being watchful” in prayer is not an individual endeavor. My prayers for our seminary students resonate with the prayers of our faculty and staff. Prayer is a community thing. I give thanks to God, because whenever I pray for Jane and Lawrence, I know that many friends in Michigan and Illinois are also praying together with me.

At our graduation day, right before the ceremony started, Jane Hsieh came to me and we both had our selfies taken together with our cell phones. She graduated this year. I was so happy for her. Honestly though, when I first met her and had her in my class a few years back, I never thought she would make it. I saw a lot of hardships and trials that might keep her from reaching graduation. But, she made it. To God be the glory! This year, she finished with an MA in Christian Studies. In between our selfie photo snapshots, she repeatedly thanked me. I felt a little embarrassed. I did not do much. All I did was encourage her with her reports, coached her on some writing assignments, and some other small stuff that any teacher would do for one’s student. Obviously, she did the hard work to get to this point. I took her hand, and together we smiled. I whispered to her and said: “God’s grace is sufficient.” 

Second Generation

“Maayong buntag!” (Good morning.) I hear the booming greeting of our guest, Rev. R. Cranston, from outside our house. I hurried out of our living room and head for my sister’s bedroom. “The missionary is here. The missionary is here,” I tried to make an announcement hoping that my Dad would hear me and our guest won’t. I did not want to embarrass him. Pretty soon I hear heavy footsteps coming up our stairs that lead to our front door. Knock! Knock! He is here, I thought to myself.

I am a second-generation Free Methodist growing up in the Philippines. My parents knew the first missionaries who came to the Philippines. I heard about Greenville, IL and Winona Lake, IN, even when I was child. My father and mother became Christians early on and got involved in the Free Methodist missions work through the leadership of the early missionaries in the Philippines. I knew all of them as a child. My brothers and sisters knew the missionary kids and played with them from time to time. Soon after, my grandmother, Lola Alud, also came to know the Lord and started going to the Butuan City Free Methodist Church (BFMC). And this is where this story begins.

Let me tell you a beautiful memory I have of my grandma, Lola Alud. She passed away when I was in College, but when I was growing up in Butuan City, Philippines, she stayed with us for quite some time. We lived in a medium-sized house, not too small. However, with eleven of us siblings, Grandma, two other relatives and their families, and helpers living with us, the house gets crowded. My three younger siblings and I would sleep in the living room. We got used to waking up to noise of people getting ready for the day.

I remember grandma and her song. Every Sunday morning, she would wake up early and pray for us. She would walk around the living room and sing songs of praise, and we would get up to her singing, get dressed for church and walk to it (BFMC), which was only a block away from our house. I remember her song very clearly. She would sing: “Laoman ta, Ug tahuron ang Dios. Kay way laing mahimo. Nga ikabalos.” This is the Cebuano version of the song Trust and Obey. “Trust and obey, For there’s no other way. To be happy in Jesus; But to trust and obey.”

I thank God for grandmas and grandpas who pray for us so that we will grow in the knowledge of God and serve Him. I thank God for fathers and mothers who encourage us in the faith, send us to Church activities, and even to missionary gatherings, so that we will understand the love of God for the world. I thank God for Sunday School teachers, youth leaders, mentors, and others who help some of us because we do not have Christian parents or grandparents who pray with us. However, I thank God the most because He is the God who answers prayers. He answered the prayer of one grandmother from Butuan City, Philippines. And here I am now, a testimony to God’s answer to the prayers of His people. He will answer your prayers. The answers might come tomorrow, next year, or 20 years from now. That is okay. What is important and most essential is that the God of the universe is the One who is answering our prayers. I thank God that He is a prayer-answering God.

Actual Missions Work Here

“We pray for our missionaries.” Everyone is gathered around me. Those close by have their hands on my shoulder. Some are praying out loud. A few mention Sarah, Carmen, and Jacob.  I am here in central Illinois visiting one of our supporting churches and the members are praying for me and my family. I am here sharing about our lives as missionaries in Taiwan and the Free Methodist work in Asia, and after my time of sharing, the local members are gathering to pray over me.

Some Sundays, I go and visit churches in central Michigan. And almost the same things happen, just like in Illinois. After my sharing time, people surround me in prayer. I raise my hand in response and to receive God’s blessing in behalf of my family left behind in Greenville, IL, and to represent the many Free Methodist members scattered in Asia mentioned in my stories and sharing time. I join them in their prayers for missionaries and Free Methodist missions work around the world.

Some days, the prayer time for missions happens in someone’s living room. I go and pay a social visit with some of our friends. We talk and eat. We show pictures of family and sometimes brag about the accomplishments of our relatives. We reconnect. Almost always, we end our visit in prayer. And just like my church meetings in IL and MI, we end up praying for other missionaries in the Congo or Hungary, or petition God for His help among the people suffering in Syria or the regions of East Asia. “Lord, we pray for our missionaries.”

Often times, my visits bring me beyond the borders of our supporting churches and prayer partners. These past five months, I have had a few opportunities to visit actual missions work here in North America. There is a group of Filipinos starting a new work in Calgary, AL Canada. I am now acquainted with a Burundi congregation here in Grand Rapids, MI. A small Chinese fellowship is gathering with our Free Methodist leaders at Decatur, IL. A few of our local churches in St. Louis, MO is helping a group of Christians from Nicaragua to establish their local congregation. It is in these kinds of situations when our prayers for missions begin to take a different form. Now we say: “Lord, we pray for your missionaries here at home.”

Morning's Recreation

As the songwriter goes: "Mine is the sunlight // Mine is the morning // Born of the One Light // Eden saw play."

Early morning here in the woods, well, not exactly the forest of Illinois, but quite close. My family and I are now living in a camp ground here in southern IL, about five minute drive from Greenville. We are surrounded by trees and nature. Beside our house is a lake. Each morning, we enjoy the closeness of nature. This isolation is giving us a lot of time to ourselves, and away from the hustle and busyness of city life, one we are very much familiar with considering our experiences in Kaohsiung, Taiwan.

Today, I got up at about 4:00 in the morning. brewed some coffee and sat by the window overlooking the lake. Except, at this time of the morning, it is still dark outside, so all I could see is pitch darkness. I turned up the lamp and started reading my Psalms. As I was reading, a song came interrupting my thoughts. "You are God, we acclaim You // You are God, we adore You // You are the Eternal Father // All creation worships You, Amen." 

I now join all creation praising our God. I look forward to this day, to see His recreation of my feeble humanity, His restoration of my broken experiences. In a few minutes, my family will start waking up to this day. My children will go to their school at Mulberry Grove. God will be their Helper. My wife will work on her reports. The Father will be her Shield. I will work on my presentations, review my lecture notes, and make revisions to my next year's missionary plans. Our Creator will be my Refuge. We are all born into God's One Light, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. HIs Spirit will make this day like that first day when the first morning brought in the first sunlight. I rejoice with all the trees around me, the squirrels playing their games, and the water fowls I see by the lakeshore. We glory in God's creation and recreation.

As the songwriter continues: "Praise with elation, Praise every morning // God's recreation of the new day." (Morning Has Broken: Traditional)

Listening To God's Silence

How do you listen to someone who is silent?

The Desert Fathers are known for their dedication to prayer. They approach prayer with a passion for the inner workings of the Holy Spirit. They have made the decision to leave everything behind and spend the rest of their time in the desert in silence and meditative prayer. They are not running away from life or their commitments to relationships and people, but they have made a greater choice to seek God’s presence in solitude and meditation. They believe that this initial step of solitude is the first step of faith to knowing God.

I grew up as a second-generation Christian. I loved my family and my local church, but there was a time when prayer became an outward exercise rather than the inward longing of the heart. As a young child, I remember prayer more as a form of expressing our needs rather than a soul’s search for the Creator Savior. I saw prayer in its form and not in its essence. However, Henri Nouwen has reminded us that solitude and silence is essential for every Christian before one can appreciate the inner workings of prayer and meditation. God can only be encountered when we stop bringing our needs to him, stop clouding our minds and hearts with all the concerns of this world, and start listening for the small still voice of the Spirit of God. When we start listening to God’s silence, it is only then that we see Him in His glory and grace.

When is a good time to listen to God’s presence? Sometimes, it is when you are suffering that you are able to listen to God better. Some people say that the early morning hours is the best time to come to His presence. Most pastors recommend reading the Bible first and meditating on the teachings of Scriptures before opening your ears to listen to Him speak.  However, the Desert Fathers have reminded us that the question of when, of a time of listening, is secondary. What is really primary and essential is the question of who we are listening to. Are we listening to God? Are our spirits in step with the Spirit of God? When we are focused on the Person of the Trinity, who God is in our lives, then the time of the day or the occasion of our prayer becomes less significant. What is important is to hear our God say: “This is my child, with whom I am well pleased.” We seek Him out because He longs to put His arms around us. We listen to God’s silence because He is the God of the universe and the Savior of the world. He is silent because He wants us to encounter Him in His own terms and not in the predilections of our humanity or the constraints of our history. He is the Almighty Lord of all . . . and so, we pray.

Quiet My Heart

“I pray that You, oh Lord, will quiet my heart.” (I wonder how the World Cup USA team is doing in its game against Germany.) “Grant me Your mercy as I continue to serve You and obey You all the days of my life.” (Did I lock the doors of the house before leaving? I am sure I left enough food and water for our dog, Emmy, before heading out of the city.)

I find it hard to stay focused whenever I say my prayers. I find myself thinking of mundane things that clutter my thoughts and distract my heart from communing with my God. I have come to this Personal Prayer Retreat to de-clutter and sharpen my focus during times of prayer and meditation. I started this four-day Retreat by reading Richard J. Foster’s Sanctuary of the Soul: Journey Into Meditative Prayer. Foster mentions that most people use icons or music to help them stay focused during their time of prayer and meditation. For me, what usually works is a close encounter with nature. I take long walks in the woods, spend an afternoon on long hikes on a mountain trail, or sit beside a beach by myself and watch the ocean come and go with its rising and falling tide. Nothing brings me closer to God Almighty better than a visceral experience with His creation. In Foster’s book, he calls these prayer activities as “Beholding the Lord” or in the language of other Christian mystics and prayer practitioners, these are times of Recollection or Practicing the Presence of the Holy Spirit. Whatever terms we use and however we describe these they help us stay focus in our prayers to our God.

I decide on Sun Moon Lake as the place for this four-day Retreat. I stay at a friend’s house inside Chi Nan National University, and take daily half-hour bus rides to Sun Moon Lake. I explore different nature trails around the lake, visit some mountain pagodas and temples, or sit on a bench overlooking the lake and watch the boats come and go. At random locations I open my Bible and read Psalms 63 to Psalms 69. I read God’s Word out loud and pray with the Scriptures. I soak in the beauty of God’s creation and ponder the reading of the Psalms.

"So I have looked upon you in the sanctuary, beholding your steadfast power and glory" (Psalms 63:2). (How I wished I was inside a church cathedral gazing at beautiful stained glass icons of Jesus or at majestic steeples and captivating architectures.) As I was reading this chapter of the Bible in front of a Buddhist temple, it suddenly dawned on me that God is the Lord of the universe and God of all the earth. This mountain, this lake and all that is around it is God's sanctuary. I paused before the God of all creation, and quieted my heart. Even inside this Buddhist temple, God's glory is present because He is Lord of all. Every part of this earth is God's sanctuary. Glory to His name!

"I cried to Him with my mouth, and high praise was on my tongue" (Psalms 66:17). I was reading this verse on top of Ci En Pagoda, a 46-meter high pagoda located on a mountain overlooking the Sun Moon Lake. I yelled at the top of my voice, praising God and emoting with all my being all the adoration our God deserves. "Come and see what God has done" (Psalms 66:5). I wanted all my friends in Taiwan to hear me. I wanted all the people of Taiwan, even those foreigners who are living in this island, to see me praise God and glorify Him because He is God Almighty and worthy of all honor.

I need to quiet down. I need to realize that there is only that much I can share from my personal prayer retreat. My 4-day time in Sun Moon Lake is my time with God, with Him alone. I must remind myself that blogging about this experience will never capture the most intimate and intense communion I had with the God of this universe. Holy is His name!

Longing For Healing

Pray for Jimmy. He is in the hospital going through chemotherapy for his cancer. It is on its stage four, and doctors are finding some complications. His kidneys are failing, and he is experiencing some internal bleeding. Pray for God's healing to come to Jimmy.

Yesterday, I went to see Jimmy in the hospital. His brother, Randy was there watching over him. We prayed. We shared about their families back home. Jimmy and Randy are Filipino migrant workers working in an assembly plant here in Pingtung, Taiwan (about an hour and a half away from Kaohsiung). We expressed our gratefulness for Taiwan's excellent medical care, and the wonderful National Health Insurance that Jimmy is enjoying. Furthermore, Jimmy and Randy's employer, who is a Christian, is giving Randy some time off work so he can take care of his brother. Despite the disease and struggle of being bed-ridden for days, we are all thankful for the blessings we have.

Yesterday, Jimmy's boss was there with another Christian co-worker. We laid our hands over Jimmy. We prayed. Four people from three different denominations, from Taiwan, Philippines, and USA, all united and praying for Jimmy's restoration. Join us and pray for total healing.