Missions

Encouraging One Another

“Now I know what you were talking about, Pastor. After the police arrested me because of my Christian faith, I remember the story you told us before, when you were in prison yourself.” These are the words of one anonymous brother who is sharing to Pastor Ben Mann (a pseudonym) his experiences with the local authorities.

Ben Mann, an FM pastor here in Asia, recounts to me this story over breakfast here in Thailand. We are here for a time of resourcing and mutual encouragement. We have different sessions to consult on the state of the work, as well as skill building and ministry equipping on different leadership needs and issues. Ben Mann and I are enjoying some down time over a meal and spontaneously sharing about what God is doing in Asia.

Many Christians here in Asia are persecuted because of their Christin faith. Mann’s story of one of his members is just one of the many examples that the Free Methodist Church is facing in its mission to spread the Good News of the Kingdom of God. We keep going. The Spirit of God continues to move, and so we move with God. Yes, we pray, but we don’t stop there. We  keep on encouraging each other and use these difficulties and persecutions to be a channel of the Good News. 

In 2 Corinthians 1:4, Paul says:  God is the One “who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.” (ESV) One reason Christians face persecution is that they can use these experiences to encourage one another, to uplift a brother or sister in the Lord, who is going through a similar trial or a time of suffering because of one’s Christian faith. Ben Mann’s story above is an example. Ben and his Christian brother are encouraging each other, sharing their common experiences when they were in prison because of their faith in God. Together, they partake of Christ’ suffering and comfort (2 Corinthians 1:5-7). Together, they glorify God.

So, the next time you are in a difficult situation or going through trials in your life, remember Pastor Ben Mann from Asia. Remember Paul’s words from the Corinthian Epistle. Remember the comfort of Christ and the hope that our Lord gives to us. Also, remember that in the years to come, someone with a similar trial and suffering will come to you, and the two of you, together, will encourage each other in the Lord. And your sister in the Lord will say to you, “Now, I know what you are talking about.”


My Past Connections

I am eating “Arsik.” Arsik is a fresh water fish cooked in a spicy sauce which is a special delicacy for residents in Medan. It is a bony type of fish and usually eaten with rice. Indonesians, especially those living here in the city of Medan, love to show off their native flavors, including Arsik, to foreigners visiting their country. Shirish and I are here in Medan for a few days of meetings with our new found friends. He flew in from Mumbai, India, and I came straight from Kaohsiung, Taiwan. We were invited by a group of Christians who identify themselves as Free Methodists, and they wanted to ask us some questions about the possibility of partnering with the other Free Methodists around the world. So, before we headed out to several meetings, we visited the home of one of the pastors and had a great Medan meal with his extended family. I had to be extra careful eating Arsik because the fish bones were extra hard and could get lodged uncomfortably in my throat. In the end, we had a great time of eating, singing, sharing stories, and praying with Pastor’s (Artinus)  family. 

Saying thank you in the local language is a little challenging; “Terimakasih!” Whenever I try to say it to them, they all smile and cheer me on for speaking their Bahasa tongue. Shirish and I try our best to connect with them. We are only here for a couple of days, so we go straight to the main issue of what it means to partner with all the Free Methodists from around the globe. I remind their leaders that partnership means connection in three aspects. One, we all need to be connected to our God, as He is revealed in His written word, the Bible. Two, we all need to be connected to each other, growing in a healthy relationship with every Free Methodist from many different cultures and races. Three, we all need to be connected in our common vision to spread the Christian gospel to every person in the world. They all agree with me regarding these three aspects of connection. I begin to think that eating the Arsik fish was harder than explaining to these Indonesian pastors the implications of our connectional heritage as a Free Methodist Church member. I think I spoke too soon, because . . .

On the second day, these Indonesian pastors start asking the harder questions of being connected to the global family of the Free Methodist Church. “We have our own Statements of Faith. Who will decide if these Statements are good enough? Will the other Free Methodists, our international brothers and sisters, be interested in coming to Indonesia to help us? What do we need to do first before the Free Methodist International will show interest to Indonesia FMC?” I feel a lump in my throat. I think the Arsik fish bones are finally making their presence known, stabbing the inside of my esophagus. 

I remind these Indonesian leaders that the final decision of this partnership will be with the Council of Bishops of the World Conference of the Free Methodist Church. My role is to make the initial contact, gather some facts, and explore the layout of the land, so to speak. Fishing! That is my purpose here in Medan. I am here to fish for information and set sail for the open seas. Okay, okay. I think the metaphors are getting out of hand. Blame it on this “Arsik bone” in my throat.

On the third day, I preach in one of the services we visited. I share from John chapter 6, and in one of my illustrations, I talk about the Filipino fish “Bangus.” One of their leaders from Medan, in the early 1970s, came to the Philippines for his theological education. His name is Johnny (John) Hutabarat. He became a family friend and visited our fish farm very often. I have memories of my older brothers together with Johnny eating Bangus fish grilled in an open fire pit. I never thought I would have this beautiful opportunity to visit his homeland, his hometown, and be with his co-workers in the harvest field of the Lord here in Medan, Indonesia. Later, I learned that Johnny passed away about five years ago. I am sure, the next time I see him, I will have plenty of time talking with him about Arsik and Bangus. I never imagined that my past will catch up with me here in a foreign country.

“Horas!” This means “welcome!” or “hallelujah!” in the Batak language. (It could also mean ‘thank you’ or ‘long live!’) Most of the Christians in Medan and Northern Sumatra come from the Batak Tribe. Our new Indonesian friends are Batak people. 

When Jesus saw his disciples by the lake, he said: “Horas! Do you have any fish?” (I think this could have been the translation of John 21:5.) We all know the story. The disciples caught so many fish that they could not haul the catch into the boat. 

Arsik or Bangus? Not all Free Methodists in Asia are Arsik-eating people. Whatever kind of fish they eat, or whatever culture they come from, the mandate of Jesus is still the same: “Feed my sheep” (John 21:17). Horas!


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. 


When God Moves Me

We ate good food. We shared many stories. We encouraged each other with visions of our God working in Southeast Asia. How can we participate in God’s work and follow His leadership in this region of the world?

I am here in Chiang Mai, Thailand, visiting with our Free Methodist (FM) missionaries. My primary goal is to see for myself some FM ministries located here in Thailand so I can prepare a mission trip for the following year and bring some students from our FM seminary in Kaohsiung, Taiwan. So, while I am learning new things about the work, I am enjoying delicious Thai food and renewing friendships with my FM colleagues here in this city of Chiang Mai.

Mr C, who is doing missionary work in Country L, is here in Thailand, as a non-resident cross cultural worker. Are you confused now? This simply means that I cannot divulge the identity of our FM missionary or the nature of his work because he is working in another country that is restricted to Christian work of any kind. So, now, let me share with you some of the encouraging stories we shared with each other.

Five Christian workers are crossing the border to see Mr C. They are interested in knowing more about FM work in Asia. When they go back to their country, even with all the government restrictions and sometimes religious persecution, they share God’s message of salvation and tell their friends about the FM ministries happening around Southeast Asia. Are you encouraged now? So, I ask my missionary friend: With this limited time you have with these Christian workers, what do you share with them? Without batting an eye, he said, “I share God’s holiness.” Isn’t this an uplifting thought? Amidst persecution and through these secret meetings of Christian workers, there is a revival of biblical Christianity, akin to that of the early Church from the Book of Acts, with a focus on the Wesleyan theme of holiness. Hallelujah! 

This month of March, Mr. C will meet with these five Christian workers. They will spend two to three days of sharing time, a series of training sessions on the topic of God’s Holiness. I told him we will pray for this March meeting. I will ask all my prayer partners in the USA, Philippines, and Taiwan to say a prayer or two for this time of leadership training. God is moving in Southeast Asia. Let us pray that these five Christian workers will prayerfully consider Free Methodist work in their country. More importantly, let us pray that we, both our Asian brethren and us from other countries, would seriously follow God wherever He is moving. I ask you now to participate in God’s ministry here in Southeast Asia, whether with the FM work or some other Christian ministries. Will you intercede with me?


Investing In God's Kingdom

“What can we say the kingdom of God is like? How shall we put it in a parable? It is like a tiny grain of mustard-seed which, when it is sown, is smaller than any seed that is ever sown. But after it is sown in the earth, it grows up and becomes bigger than any other plant. It shoots out great branches so that birds can come and nest in its shelter.” (JB Phillips NT)

Everyone knows that investing one’s money in a bank is a good thing. You make deposits because you know that in the future you will withdraw your money back with interests. This is very similar to the Free Methodist (FM) work in Asia. We make deposits by building relationships with existing Christian ministries in the region. In places where there are no church witness, we reach out to people in need and connect with community leaders in hope that we will gain their trust and have access to the local people’s love and friendship. In some of these places, there are resistance to the gospel and political opposition to Christian missionary work. However, these do not stop us from finding creative ways. We still go and make investments in these areas. Sometimes we send English teachers to work in universities. Sometimes we use child sponsorship to connect with families in cities and villages. In a few cases, we work from a neighboring country and cross the border from time to time and provide training to local Christian leaders in the hope that they will train their own people and nurture them to Christian maturity and leading them to a life of fruitful discipleship.

This May, I will be going back to Nepal. Just like last November 2017, I will be there to provide assistance to our partners in the area. Just like me, there are other FM pastors who are coming in March, August, and October of this year, with the same goal of helping our Nepali church leaders prepare for pastoral ordination in the Free Methodist Church. We come and teach courses that encourage these pastors to get deeper into the word of God. We hope that they will make a decision to join the FM work in Asia. Some from the city of Kathmandu have already made a strong commitment to become FM members. Others around the country are still in the early stages of understanding our FM heritage and exploring future possibilities of partnership. Whether or not these leaders have made a final decision, we keep on investing, building relationship with local pastors and visiting with them and encouraging them as Jesus would. Making deposits in the Lord’s work is a good thing, even if there are no visible results yet.


Wondering With My Friends

I am learning the names of the pastors and leaders. There are more than 35 in attendance to this 5-day Pastors’ Training Seminar. I try my best but in the end, I can only remember a few.  I give more emphasis on knowing the types of ministries these pastors are involved in. Here are a few question I gathered as I went around talking to our Nepali pastors.

How do you write songs for your worship time in your local churches here in Nepal? Some of these Free Methodist pastors write their own worship songs. Pastor Padam uses his sarangi, a native bowed musical instrument, similar to a fiddle. At this Seminar, before my time of teaching, we hear Padam’s music and singing, together with his son and youth member playing the guitar.  At the same time, we also witness Pastor Prem’s singing his own worship song. He sings the song with some dance movements. I see the participants of this gathering joining  Padam and Prem in worship full of enthusiasm and with loud singing. I wonder what my American musical friends would say when they come to visit Prem, Padam, and the other Nepal pastors who write their own worship songs. It would be a great learning experience.

How do you celebrate your local church’s anniversary service? Pastor Prem C. is a pastor of a local church with 1,200 members. A few years back, when their church building suffered from a terrible earthquake, they needed help with some building repairs. Our Bishop’s Development Fund gave some assistance. Now, Prem C. and his church members are ready to give thanks and express their gratitude for this new found partnership. I wonder what kinds of celebration will occur when a thousand people gather for a worship service. The food alone would be a managerial challenge. Will there be dancing on the streets? Will the young people provide dramatic presentations and skits? I wonder what suggestions my Filipino friends will give to this Nepali church.

How do you construct a church building on a mountain side? Pastor Yam asks me to come and visit his area and see what had happened to his local church building. A few years back, when the great earthquake hit Nepal, Yam’s church building fell down. Now, there is a need to build a new structure. They only need three thousand (US) dollars to complete the project. His church members are willing to help out and gather some stones and slabs from the nearby mountainside for the church’s use. I wonder what my Taiwanese pastor friends would say to this construction. What kind of pulpit should they make? Can we add some colored glass windows? Maybe, the best way is to bring my Taiwanese friends to Nepal and let them see for themselves the needs of Pastor Yam. It takes about three days of hiking from the nearest city to the church’s location on the mountain. I wonder if my friends would be willing to take this three-day journey with Yam. Would you?

I am back here in Kaohsiung, Taiwan. I asked these questions above when I was still in Nepal teaching and training our many pastoral candidates. Until now, I am still learning, not just the names of our Nepali pastors, but also the many challenges our Free Methodist work has in this region of Asia. I wonder who would like to learn with me and join me in this great adventure in the Lord’s harvest  field.


Christian Greetings From Where?

Kul and Minu invited me to their home for a time of dinner and fellowship. I gladly accepted their invitation. It would be a good break for me from my usual time of lectures and teaching. And besides, they have one-year old Joyce, whom I met earlier, and she is such an adorable baby. She has the prettiest smile and would respond to my questions when prodded. It did not matter that she understood my questions, or if I can understand her gibberish baby talk. Her giggles and passionate monologues were always fun to watch. I looked forward to meeting her again. Moreover, I heard they were going to serve good Nepali food. So, I am happy to accept their invitation.

Last November 2017, I was in Kathmandu, Nepal to resource our Free Methodist pastors as they prepare for their ordination. It was a five-day Pastors’ Training Seminar on “Wesleyan Thinking And The Bible.” It was here that I met Kul and his wife Minu. Both are attending the Himalaya Free Methodist Church (HFMC) in this city of Kathmandu. Kul is one of the Assistant Pastors of this local church. Minu is the ICCM Director (International Child Care Ministry) for Nepal FMC. It was such a joy for me to spend time with this family and get to know them better. Of course, it helped that their daughter, Joyce, endeared my heart. If ever I return to Nepal just to see this family, it would all be worth it.

What about our FM work in Nepal? The work is growing. And in response to what God is doing in this country, we, our FMWM leadership team members, are preparing our many local church pastors and getting them ready for ordination. This year, 2017, we had three training seminars headed by different FMWM leaders. My time in Kathmandu was the third one for this year. In the coming years, I plan to visit Nepal again and provide some more seminars for our pastors. Rev. Abraham Lama, our Country Leader, is heading our Mission District in Nepal. We are currently focusing our work on the 18 DL (District Leader) pastors. So, how many pastors, how many local churches and church members? We do not know exactly the answer to this question. One thing is certain though. God is working and FMWM is harvesting in this region of Asia.

Meanwhile, I prepare my lectures and training materials, and on the side, I learn a few Nepali phrases. “Jaya Mashi!” This means “The Joy of the Messiah,” and this is the way the Christians greet each other in Nepal. So, whenever I see Joyce, I say this greeting: Jaya Mashi. She smiles and responds in some beautiful baby language. Hopefully, the next time I visit Nepal I will have more words to say to Joyce, and have the courage to carry a conversation with our Nepali brothers and sisters. Dyanyabad! (Thank you.) Thank you for praying.

 


Campfire Stories

We were huddled in front of the campfire exchanging stories and singing songs, old songs. “And he walks with me, and he talks with me, and he tells me I am his own.” I started with this song, and Sarah C., Sarah P., Cindy, Joy, and Marlene joined in the next few lines. We sang in harmony. We did not care when we messed up verses and interchanged lines from one stanza to the other. We were having a great time. “Then sings my soul, my Savior God to Thee.” We moved on to other hymns and great old gospels. “Take it to the Lord in prayer.” Pausing only to share some family stories associated with these wonderful melodies. “My hope is built on nothing less, than Jesus blood and righteousness.” I played my guitar to accompany the singing. Isaac and other family members were also present singing along with all of us. “How marvelous, how wonderful. And my song shall ever be.” We did not have any hymn books or print-out copies at hand. We all sang from memory. “It is well, with my soul.”

Sarah and I are at the Manton Family Camp in Michigan. After our sharing time (the missionary moments) at the evening service, we would go and visit with our friends gathering beside their cabins with a guitar, some marshmallows, and our voices to sing together. What a beautiful time we are having. In front of the camp fire, we praise God and continue to build wonderful memories together as brothers and sisters in the Lord. We are here in Michigan for our time of Partnership Building, the time when we report to our U.S. supporters about the Free Methodist work in Asia, as well as to request for more funding and missionary giving from our local churches. Who knew Partnership Building could be so much fun?


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?


Church For The Unwelcomed

“I want to serve the Lord,” Mr. A shares with me his frustration. “But I cannot. I have to take this job to provide for my family.” He recounts an earlier attempt to play the piano for a local church. The music ministry was fulfilling but there was no steady income. He had to find work somewhere else.

Mr. A is a professional musician working here in a restaurant here in Taiwan. His wife, Mrs. J works in the same location as a singer. Let us call them A&J for short. They sing in a restaurant, seven days a week, 6-8 hours a day. On some days, the restaurant owner sends them to sing at an adjoining bar to entertain some of the more “shady” characters of the city. Needless to say, A&J feel their Christian faith is compromised. “I used to sing and play music for revival meetings,” Mr. A continues. “But now, I am singing for the world. I am pleasing people rather than God.” Both A&J are Christians. They desire to be available for the Lord’s work, to offer their talents for God’s service. However, they are obligated by the nature of their work to go to places that are questionable by the moral standards of their faith.

In Taiwan, the population of Asian foreign workers employed in the entertainment industry is not too many. However, a majority of these workers come from the Philippines. They are in Taiwan as singers, musicians, dancers, and entertainers working mainly at bars, restaurants, and hotels. These are legitimate jobs that pay generously. However, in most situations, they are placed in compromising situations. A few of these workers end up unwillingly as prostitutes and sex workers. Labor abuse is most likely to happen. Needless to say, legal protection for foreign workers in the entertainment industry is very few.

Moreover, there is a stigma against singers and performers working in the entertainment industry. In the Philippines, church people tend to view Filipino entertainers and artists working abroad with suspicion. They see these workers as immoral, or at the least living a questionable life. I am not surprised that A&J feel hesitant sharing their experiences to me. They feel unworthy to be around Christians, much more around a pastor like me.

One Sunday after a church service in Tainan, the members of the church asked me if I could sing a song together with A&J, and their two other Filipino co-workers at the restaurant. They want us to sing an offertory song at the morning church service. I shared this request with A&J and their friends, and they readily obliged. I was a little surprised with their enthusiasm. Later, I realized that they feel welcomed at this Tainan church. You see, this local congregation is composed of Taiwanese Americans, South Africans, and Australians living here in Taiwan. There are no Filipinos among the crowd. A&J and their friends do not feel the shame they would have if they were going to face a church full of Filipinos. I thank God for this Tainan international church. People like A&J can come and join in the service, and they will not feel threatened or shamed. Isn’t this what church is all about?