We have the same spit.

We climbed the small ladder into our friend’s house, sweaty and out of breath as usual. His house is situated on the slant of a hill that overlooks the mountains that surround the nearby river. Fog settled in over the slopes of mountain ridges already blanketed in the green of rainy season. The view is gorgeous from his village. We sat in his house, his wife diligently weaving her basket, dogs running in and out, corn or something  boiling away in a pot hanging over the fire. As usual, he began to chat about this-and-that and we discussed random news as of late. Eventually he brought up the fact that his audio Bible wasn’t charging any longer (it has a solar panel). Disappointed at the technical failure, I told him we would see if we could get the stories “out” and put them somewhere else. (I was able to get the audio files onto a memory card he can use on his daughter’s phone). However, I figured now was a good time to ask about the stories, and see if he had actually listened in a while. I asked what his favorite story was and he said, “Oh I like the one about where God tells us to be good and not steal things”…..ok that’s kind of generic and I am not even sure there’s a story about that specifically in the New Testament…. So, I began to tell him the story about Peter walking on the water toward Jesus. To my great delight, he began finishing all my sentences and even managed to throw out the punch line, “Your faith is small”. Yay! He actually listened to the stories! We began a chat that was headed in a more spiritual direction.

He brings up his understanding of God.  “People say we worship many gods, but we don’t, we worship True God and the ‘Rice God’.(Most Palawanos would assure me there are many other lesser gods of rain, thunder, water and so on- he says he only worships these two) You foreigners also worship two gods- the Father, and the Son Jesus, right?”

Hm, he hasn’t even gotten to the Holy Spirit… how to explain the Trinity…. I try for a minute or so to explain the three-fold nature of God, but realize this is something the Holy Spirit must reveal to us, so I leave it be for now. He interjects, “And really, we worship the same God as you do, you just call him something different. We call him Grandfather Ketungkulan (which means he just added one more god).You call him Jesus. They are the same. Grandfather Ketungkulan had a mother named Mary, died on a cross and rose again.” Hm, that’s curious. “We shouldn’t say the name of Jesus, or if we do, our stomachs will swell from a curse.”

Ok, this is familiar now. It is taboo for Palawanos to speak the name of their in-laws, the name of the dead, and probably a few other names as well. They believe it will cause you bodily harm if you show such disrespect as to speak their name. Now he is applying this to the name of Jesus. In some ways, this reminds me a little of the Jewish refusal to speak or even write the name of God (G-d) outside prayer and reading of the Torah for fear of blaspheming his name. (although I believe the Palawano motivation is different, it bears some resemblance…I don’t press this issue with him.)

Instead of refuting his claim and starting a “yes-it-is, no-it’s-not game” about his remark, I ask him about his ‘Rice God’. How is he the same, how is he different than the God-man we call Jesus? I bring it back to God’s character. If you say they are the same things, then the same things need to be true of one and the other, both in their history and their present character. Our friend still holds to his worship rituals of drunken trances to communicate in the spiritual realm, and calling on spirit beings, a far cry from the teachings and character of Jesus. Yet referring to “Grandfather” and Jesus, he reiterates that they both died and rose to life. I bring up the teachings of Jesus, which are unlike any other I have ever heard. Yes, he told us not to lie or steal, but he also told us to not only forgive our enemies but to love them, and do good to them, to die for them even. Our friend responds “Yes, Jesus says that we should forgive and so now, that is what we do.”

Now that is what they do.

Although I believe our friend is still combining his traditional beliefs with the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, I believe he is closer now than ever to coming to faith in Jesus. Jesus told us to go “make disciples”. Disciples are students. Right now, he is a student of Jesus. He is listening to his words, (which God has promised will not return to Him void) and learning to do what Jesus said! There are a lot of “saved” people who have a hard time accepting Jesus’s teachings. Anyway, what I am trying to say is that for our friend, his understanding seems to be unfolding each time we meet with him. A year ago I doubt he would have ever said that he worships Jesus but just “calls him something else”. On the contrary, he would speak about “your God” or the “American’s God.”

Our conversation ends soon after this remark. He enjoys talking about spiritual matters, and he is grateful that we seem to respect him and want to know more about his culture. He feels very misunderstood by some of the foreigners he has spoken to in the past. Near the end of our conversation, he pays us perhaps the funniest and highest compliment that he can offer.

“We have the same spit.”

Ha! That’s an idiom I won’t soon forget. He is telling us we have the same thinking, that we understand one another. I really hope so. Yet, I hope even more that he will understand God Most High- Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

 

 

 

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Unsolved Mysteries Revisited

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A friend and storyteller stops to talk to us in a nearby village

The sun began to heat the trail just as the steady incline of the hill warmed my leg muscles that morning. This was just a couple of weeks ago. My crafter and I were headed to a friend’s house to test a new story. He was there, as usual, only with a bit of a cold this time. He gladly agreed to listen to our stories as long as he didn’t have to repeat them. Surprise, surprise. No worries though; Salmidu had proven to be an invaluable resource for us in asking cultural questions in regards to our stories.

I plowed ahead with the stories. This day I was not to be deterred- I had the “Prophets of Baal” story in my hands and  I was going to test this sucker and get feedback one way or another.  Ana and I had been struggling to understand the spiritual landscape here. If you haven’t already, I suggest you read my last post here “Welcome to My Brain…” to see what kind of confusion we were encountering. The rest of this post will make more sense. In any case, the story of Elijah and the prophets of Baal (see 1 Kings 18) was sure to bring up some interesting questions about worship of other gods.

We decided in this stage of the testing to translate the name “Baal” as “God of Rain” since Baal was a Canaanite deity that had power over rain, thunder, or storms. This immediately went over well during testing.

Me: Do you all have Rain God?

Salmidu: Yes, there is Rain God, Thunder God, they have the authority (hello, there’s a word I’ve been looking for) of rain and wind.  They are down here, watching over those things. True God is above.

I continued to ask more about rain god versus thunder god until he clarified:

Salmidu: You see that is the rain god, the thunder, not something else. If he speaks, wherever the sound is, that’s where he sends the rain.

Now I understand that the voice of rain god is the thunder.

Me: Do you have a rice god?

Salmidu: Yes, Rice God- that’s another one. He watches over the rice and waters it or it will die.  Also the woman, the shaman that we buried. When we cook food and bring it to her (grave), its like we are bringing it to God. You ask for rain because its so hot, and you bring a sacrifice.

Me: So you bring this to the grave? And your asking the person right….the one you buried?

Salmidu: We are still asking God above. (here we go, back to the confusion…)

Me: But you are at the grave, asking the person?

Salmidu: Talking to this person is like talking to God. You ask, and they will confer with God.

Me: Like when you make the lutlut (* a traditional thanksgiving feast) you thank the rice god?

Salmidu: Yes, and he goes and tells True God.

I am beginning to get a picture here…..maybe this isn’t such a foreign concept as I thought….

Salmidu: Ok, like if I die, and its really hot and you need rain…. You can come clear off my grave, and I will go speak to God for you.

Me: So what do you call the person, or the god…who speaks to God for you? That person in the middle??

Salmidu: That’s  a mediator. They confer with God for you.

THAT’S IT!! That’s the key to unlocking the mystery of all the previous confusion!

This was the conversation that needed to happen. Mediators are a concept that I do understand. It makes sense why they don’t see prayer and sacrifice as false worship, but rather a means of getting to True God. If you believe someone is more capable or worthy of approaching God, or more so that you are incapable or unworthy, then a mediator becomes necessary. And really, this is true. We incapable, but the difference in understanding is that there is only one mediator- Jesus Christ- (1 Tim 2:2) and that because of this we can approach the God of Heaven.

The rest of the conversation was great in that we got a better understanding of Salmidu’s (and others’) worldview and were able to tweak our retelling of the Elijah story to make it clear that rain god was indeed powerless, and thus could not answer the prophets cries. That Elijah prayed to God himself, and we can too. Will the changes be clear? That remains to be seen.

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Welcome to my brain, enter at your own risk.

 

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Friends walk down a street near our house.

 

 

A fan whirs next to me. We have just finished lunch and the heat of the day is setting in, but I grab my notebook and try furiously to keep up with the ideas my language helpers throw at me. It doesn’t always work. Mostly I ask questions based on things I’ve heard in conversations here.

They use a word for a most-high God that means “true, real, or very” so I have translated it as “true” here, and other people talk about lesser dieties such as the rice, moon, or thunder god- at least one of which I have heard has a name. So here are some snapshots of my conversations:

Me: Ok, so….you have True God…right?

Jolibeth: Right

Me: And you have God of Rice, right?

Jolibeth: Right

Me: And True God is higher than rice god, he is the highest?

Jolibeth: Yes, he is the highest.

Me: Ok, then what is a “Datu, or a Linamin? Can you see them?”

Jolibeth: No, you can’t see them, they live in the forest. Well, people used to be able to see them, but not now, we cant see them anymore.

Me: Why can’t you see them?

Jolibeth: Well, there’s just too many people on the earth.

(In my head: huh??)

Me: Ok, and this God of Rice, you sacrifice to and praise him, right? (she nods) So if True God tells us to only worship him….

Jolibeth (interrupts): No, they are the same- God of Rice and True God. They are the same.

Me: But I thought you said True God is higher?

Jolibeth: No they are the same.

Me: Ok, well, if Pelawans have True God, and God of Rice, and God of the Moon. And maybe other people have other gods, like in America, they have God of Money. What about when True God tells us not to praise those gods?

Jolibeth: No, that’s different.

Me: (Massive confusion)

The next day, I have a similar conversations:

Me: Ok, so you have True God, and God of Rice, right?

Ritchie: Yes. And God of Rice is a baby.

Me: Oh, right, like the story about the origin of rice? (This is a traditional story about how humans first attained rice and other crops…a couple’s only child had to be sacrificed so that food and thus life could be provided to all people…..sound familiar???)

Ritchie: Yes

Me: And what about the Evil Creatures, can you see them?

Ritchie: No, you can’t see them

Me: Can anyone see them, maybe the Shaman?

Ritchie: Maybe the Shaman can talk to them. He can tell them to stop hurting people.

Me: And what about Datus and Linamins?

Ritchie: I don’t really know about them, I think they live in the forest.

Me: And if True God says to worship him, why would you worship God of Rice?

Ritchie: Well, they are the same.

Me: But you said God of Rice was a baby. Isn’t that different?

Ritchie: *furrows her brow* No…I don’t know.

Me: and Ranggek told me about Bangbabang, the moon god, what about him?

Ritchie: I don’t know who that is.

Later that day….

Me: Ok, so you have True God, and you have the Evil Creatures in the woods, but what about Datus and Linamins?

Gina: Well, I don’t really know anything about them.

Me: What about Diwatas? Are they good or bad?

Gina: They are good. Sometimes they are angry.

Me: Why are they angry?

Gina: Well, if you cut down a forest to make your farm and they live there, they will be angry.

Me: Would they hurt someone if they are mad.

Gina: Maybe, yes they might hurt you.

Ok, I am at the point where some of you might disagree with me, but I am not going to refute the existence of evil creatures in the woods; I won’t refute them to my friends nor to myself. I know, I have lost some of you right there. If so, maybe you should go back and read my post on the “Middle Realm”. You make think their worldview sounds so different, but really now, we syncretize our beliefs all the time. We play switch with our allegiance to True God and God of Self all the time. Anyway, I am with them on this one: there are evil beings that a real, that seek to destroy and deceive.

What I am struggling with is to comprehend how they understand this world, what these realities look like through their worldview. What I have discovered so far is that it’s really fluid. Its not an “organized” theology as we might think of it, but no less real and concerning their everyday lives.

What I am hoping and praying is that all these conversations that seem to leave me puzzled or even frustrated at times, will lead to ideas of how to connect the truth of the power  of the gospel to their current lives

So here’s a look at what goes through my head all the time:  How do I talk about what we put our trust and our hope in? Or rather, in whom and why for that matter? How do you get across what false worship is? Hmm, maybe the story about the creation of the spirit world will have to be longer. Will people identify Satan and the fallen angels with the creatures they fear? Can I be that explicit?…what does Scripture actually say about this stuff? Maybe the prophets of Baal verses Elijah will resonate with them. Maybe I understand what she’s saying…maybe I am way off. What about the trinity? Nah, I can’t even properly explain that to myself in English let alone try and make that into a story…maybe just let that unfold like it does in the Bible. Am I forcing the issue? Should all of this unfold naturally …we have to select stories at some point. I am not here forever, and we aren’t crafting every single story. Just pick one and see what works, Christina. But what if they are all like the Isaiah story…that’s been what….8 months? Still no solution. Surely all the stories can’t be confusing. What about our term for “spirit”…should we change that? To what??? Do I really even know this language? What did she just say again? Man, I’m hungry. I need a nap. I need to wash my clothes. I wonder how I can get rid of the ants that seem to be accumulating under the sink….

The questions here (and in my mind) are never-ending. This, my friends, is why some days I veg out on facebook and Instagram and sit around my favorite coffee shop and eat copious amounts of cake when I come to town. I gotta give my mind a rest. Ok, at least that’s what I’m telling myself. That’s probably just cause I love cake and coffee.

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“Bind them around your neck”

Our crafter’s father was not a kind man. He expressed very outwardly the inward truth of someone who rejects the love of Christ. (This is everyone’s original state, and many people still do, they maybe just aren’t as demonstrative about it) Some of you read my letter where I shared about this man Inampun*, from the village where we used to live. He was often angry towards his family members, threatening them for following Jesus. This saddened us and pushed us to pray for him. Ana and I prayed continually and very specifically for this man. We asked that he would become a “second Maman Medelen”*.

If there was antithesis to Inampun, it was Maman Medelen . Both men came from the animistic worldview- which is dominated by fear of spirits and finding ways of placating them. Both were traditional healers. However, Medelen heard the stories of Jesus and believed in Him! He put his trust in Christ to save him and has been different ever since. His whole countenance exudes someone who has met Jesus. Joy pours out of that man. He has a little audio Bible that he tied a string to and carries around his neck. He tells all his friends at the market about Jesus, even if they laugh him off. He excitedly told us one time- “people in the other mountains don’t know about these stories, I need to bring them to them!”

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Maman Medelen

 

This transformation was what we bodly prayed would happen to Inampun.

And it did.

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Inampun

 

Ana and I returned from our trip to the US and within a few weeks, our crafter came to our house. She was sitting outside one evening working on some of her school work when I approached her. I asked her how her father was and reminded her we were still praying. She said, “Oh he loves listening to the Bible stories now. And he has been coming to church.” I was surprised. “He isn’t angry any more.  And he wants to be baptized!” Then she told us later that he listens to the audio Bible all the time. “He even put a string and wears it around his neck,” she said. She told us how he goes around boasting that their town has so many Bibles! She was very happy to tell us how his character has changed. And now, to top it off, he is working on memorizing the book of Matthew.

We were just floored at how perfectly our prayers were answered. His testimony, and his habit of wearing the audio Bible is a striking picture of Solomon’s words in Proverbs 3: “…let your heart keep my commandments….do not let kindness and truth leave you! Bind them around your neck.”

And it didn’t stop there. The ladies from a village about six hours hike into the mountains came to visit a few weeks ago. Well, more precisely they came to sell baskets. Anyway, we gave them an audio Bible to take home. I saw one of the women yesterday at the market and I asked her to listen to a new story we are working on. “We have been listening to those stories you gave us!” she told me with a contented smile on her face. “There was the one with the man who was blind since he was born. Yes, and Jesus spit in his hand and then made mud and put it on his eyes…and he was healed! Yes, and the other one about the boy who had a spirit that threw him in the fire…Jesus helped him too! Jesus helped so many people…. Those stories are so good!” She was just overflowing with her memories of which stories they had listened to in her village. She says her father really loves them too.

This is particularly exciting as this was the first woman to tell us any stories in her language. She had been selling baskets about a year and a half ago and came to our doorstep. There, she and her sisters told us folktales and riddles until Ana and I were having fun, laughing, and thoroughly confused at the same time from all the new vocabulary. They told us they only knew the words of their ancestors, not the words of God. And here we were this year and a half later and she was retelling the words of God back to me. How beautiful! The Palawanos’ love for stories is an encouragement that once the stories of the Bible are heard in a way that makes sense to them, they are prone to tell and retell them as they do with their own history and folktales. May it be for the Palawanos (and for us) as God intended it: that they love the LORD their God with all their heart, all their soul, and all their strength….that they commit themselves wholeheartedly to these commands … that they repeat them again and again to their children…that they talk about them when they are at home, and while they are on the road, when they are going to bed and when they are getting up. (Deut 6).

*names have been changed for privacy

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If you look, you will see.

As I stumble into the bathroom before dawn, I hear a faint cacophony of sounds in the distance. A motorcycle roars, a dozen roosters competing to herald a new day, a dog barks. Fortunately, the sounds are far enough away that they are still drowned out by the sound of my fan as I crawl back into bed for another half hour.

When the day begins, I go through my morning routine and then sit down with my story crafter. We listen to recordings of people who answered questions about the stories we are working on. She helps me understand what people are saying (sometimes they mumble, sometimes they use words I’m not familiar with, sometimes they just talk too fast for me to comprehend). Based off their answers, we volley ideas back and forth about how to edit our story to make it easier to remember and comprehend. This is the part I love. We laugh about some of the ideas. We record about 20 times due to all the outtakes. Then we are ready to take the story to a village the next day and test it out with new listeners.

Ana and I have only been “back on the job” for two weeks, but already we have been able to grind out some new stories and get back to the routine I just described. We had been in the States for almost two months, and I was admittedly nervous about coming back. Would it take a long time to get back to the rhythm of work? Would people still be available to meet with us? Would we even be allowed to live in our allocation or would we have to move again? Would I forget everything I had learned? Would I be terribly homesick?

It may have helped that I was actually pretty tired and ready for some routine by the time I arrived back in Palawan. My last few weeks in the US were filled with visits and speaking engagements. I then flew to Manila and then on to Korea to see my sister. I was getting over jet lag, but enjoying all the time I could spend with her for a week.  Then when I came through Manila I had to head to our organization’s guesthouse to drop off paperwork and do some laundry before making a quick turnaround to hop on the plane once more to come to Palawan. I was so frazzled that by the time I got off the plane, I ran to the bathroom so quickly I didn’t realize I had run straight into the men’s room. It was empty when I went into the stall but definitely not when I came out. Talk about embarrassing….and hilarious. Needless to say I was ready for a few days of sleeping in and doing laundry so that I was ready for a regular work week of testing stories.

And you know what? God answered so many prayers. We were able to go back to our allocation and house. People have been able to meet with us. Even people that were previously uninterested. I didn’t  forget the language. (I was a little tongue tied at first but no, I didn’t lose it!) Our crafters did show back up, and even a few extra people willing to help. I haven’t been overwhelmed by homesickness. Its  a reminder to continually commit these things to prayer (as I had asked many friends and family to pray over these things before I left) and that I can trust Him with how he answers. Its amazing to see how God works and how we really shouldn’t worry about anything, but submit everything to him and thank him for the answers. (Phil 4:6)

Last year, I jumped on the bandwagon and chose one word to focus on all year. My word was “listen”. I chewed on that word and what it meant and how it could apply to my life. It was great. I learned a lot about listening to other people (please tell me if you feel otherwise, I want to know!), listening to God’s Spirit and even about how the voice of Jesus will make the dead alive! This year, my word is “see”.  The verse that sparked it was Psalm 27:13-14 “Yet  I am confident that I will see the Lord’s goodness while I am here in the land of the living. Wait patiently for the Lord. Be brave and courageous. Yes, wait patiently for the Lord.” I am not saying my year will be a bed of roses. The psalmist wrote these words as he was crying out for mercy, but he was confident that God would hear his plea and answer. And that he would see God’s grace and mercy in his lifetime. I am confident of the same. Sometimes my vision may become blurred by hardships or distractions, but his goodness is still there. He makes the sun shine and the rain rain on the just and the unjust. He brings us a new day every 24 hours. He changes hearts of stone into hearts of flesh. He gives us his Son, Jesus. And not only that (although that would be enough), he gives us good gifts- little things- all the time. Like all the answers I mentioned before about readjusting to life in Palawan. Like a day of rest once a week and joy at meeting with other believers. Even the gift of laughter and learning to laugh at yourself.

So as I finish up my week, I encourage you to look at your past seven days and see what God has done for you.🙂

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Lots of speaking and sharing about the ministry while I was home.

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Korea was beautiful!

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Small Surprises, Big Hopes

We sat down at our (almost) weekly session with the young mothers in a local village. This time children were calm, babies nursing as their mothers retold the stories we shared and patiently answered my questions I asked to check their comprehension. I was already floored that one sweet young woman named Ana and her friend Nursilin could remember almost verbatim about half of the story on their very first retelling. (That means they had only heard the story twice). They make a strong case for the power of oral tradition and the capacity to pass information on accurately. But then as we wrapped up the session, she astounded me once again. “I go home and write these stories down.” She is a skillful reteller so I am confident that her written record is accurate. What surprised me was that her interest spread beyond our weekly hour together. She isn’t doing this for me, she is doing it for her. I was excited and told her one day she could even lead a group and teach these stories to other people. “No, I’m too shy” she said. “Well maybe if it was just other women, or the children?” I asked. “Yes, maybe” she said and smiled softly. There was a look on her face that told me she wanted to believe she could do something like that, but doesn’t have the confidence…yet. But her words and her quiet excitement encouraged me more than she knew that day. Those are the moments that remind me of why I’m here, of what I hope to see in the future. I want to see the work we are doing passed off to the locals; for them to take ownership of both the process and the results, for it to be their work. I want them to know God is the God of the Palawanos. His stories are theirs too. Its moments like this one with Ana and Nursilin that I can’t wait to work myself out of a job here. 

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A Goldilocks Day

My teammate Ana captured the joy of our adventure yesterday. There was a moment during our laughter and conversation at our new friends house where I realized this is just….right. It was exactly where we were meant to be for the afternoon. Enjoy her retelling!

Pilgrim Songs

The third one was just right. That was our experience yesterday while testing stories in a new village – a place I had no idea we had passed by numerous times. Christina, Gina, and I climbed out of the tricycle and walked around in the peaceful morning looking for people to talk to. After two days of recording testing sessions over boisterous or querulous children, I was grateful that the children at the first house we visited seemed to be in an especially calm mood. The conditions were perfect, but the woman we talked to there didn’t seem comfortable answering questions about Gina’s story.

20151016_130359We continued to a different part of the village, where we met another woman who seemed unoccupied. We explained our intention of telling stories and asking questions about them, and she directed us to yet another area where, she said, there were many people to listen…

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The Middle Realm

I would venture to say that most people reading this blog, believe we can understand the natural world based on empirical evidence and scientific discovery. Theories can be tested, data gathered; we can explain or control most everything we see and experience. We even have ways of defining human interaction, our relationships and our thought life. We call all this realm science, be it natural or social.

I would also guess that your view of reality doesn’t end here. Most people would agree that there is an unseen reality as well. Whatever you place your faith in- whether it is an impersonal cosmic force like kharma, the many Hindu gods, or the God of Abraham- you would likely agree that there are actualities that exist outside of this world. There are answers to questions that transcend human experience on earth. We could call this high religion.

But what about when these two worlds collide? Do we have any room for such an idea in the construct of our minds? Can the natural world interact with the supernatural? Are there beings or forces unseen that interact with humans or nature? For many people around the world, the answer is yes. Some call this the middle realm. The seen and unseen interact, creatures and spirits that can do harm to humans, forces and powers directly affect our destiny. They may consult mediums or others who are in touch with these forces. They seek cures and answers that the scientific community cannot offer them: the inexplicable decline of health, incurable diseases, how to avoid accidents or unforeseeable events, how to avoid or deal with drought and disasters on the land, or even questions like why did my child die?

For Westerners, Christians included, most simply ignore this realm. We don’t truly believe it exists. We see the forces of the world be it gravity or the odds of having a large yield of crops as impersonal in nature. It can fit into the first category of the natural world. We consider ourselves enlightened. We don’t believe in such things as fairies, witches, ghosts. There are no real answers to the unknowable questions, just coincidence. Sure, if you are a Christian, you’ve probably read the verses in about “spiritual forces in heavenly realms”. But thats it, right? That’s all in “heavenly realms”.  We don’t actually believe (at least we don’t act like we do) that this has daily bearing on our lives. Lets look at the whole of that same verse:

 1For we are not fighting against flesh-and-blood enemies, but against evil rulers and authorities of the unseen world, against mighty powers in this dark world, and against evil spirits in the heavenly places. Eph 6:12

I have been challenged recently: does what I say I believe in about the nature of the spiritual realm coincide with what I actually believe? In Palawano terms, to “mengendel” or “mengarap” is a word that means both believe and act upon. It cannot be separated into two meanings. If you don’t act on something, you don’t actually believe it, right? Makes sense to me. Do I actually pray in terms of what the spiritual powers are doing in this community? Do I live with the belief that the Divine interacts with the human?

Over the course of time here, I have met many people who talk about this “middle realm” all the time. They have explanations for why it hasn’t rained enough, or they seek the answers if they don’t know. Often the problem is related to sins committed in the community. Offerings must be made to atone for said sins. Other times, there are spirits or creatures who are envious of the people here, or perhaps angry with them. They too must be appeased somehow, or curative measures taken. Often there are unexplicable illnesses- why did a healthy young man suddenly vomit blood? The clinic in the mountains has dealt with multiple spirit-possessions. The kind that came out only through prayer. This is real. These aren’t children’s stories or something they create to make sense of their world.

As I pray for these people I realize that in our Western “enlightened” ideas, we have comfortably swept all these things under the rug. Its their darkness, their problem. Conveniently enough, we don’t recognize our love of the world, our chasing after things less than God Almighty and our love of SELF as false worship. Our pet sins and weakness are just “struggles”. We don’t see that as being under the influence of “mighty powers in this dark world.” I am convinced that it is.

 First, Jesus had some pretty strong words about those who don’t follow him:

You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, not holding to the truth, for there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies. John 8:44-45

That same father of lies would love for Christ’s followers to believe they too are still his slaves. That they must live under his power and submit to his desires. Peter says he prowls around like a roaring lion seeking whom he may devour. Whether you fear him or he lulls you into thinking he is not actively working to seduce you into sin, he has you fooled.

But there is hope. If the supernatural and natural collide, then this should have major implications for us who believe in Immanuel, God with us. He ensures us victory, if we who have his Spirit but take hold of his promises:

“…if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies because of his Spirit who lives in you… Therefore, brothers and sisters, we have an obligation—but it is not to the flesh, to live according to it. For if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will liveFor those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God.The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship.The Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. If God is for us, who can be against us? No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.” Rom 8

Make no mistake, this is no passive stance- the Lord tells us to “Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes”. It is an active faith, to walk daily with the Spirit of God.

The question is, do you believe in the middle realm? Like, mengendel??

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It’s Just Too Heavy 

It is my job to ask questions. (Oddly enough it has been for a long time, recruitment was all about asking opened ended questions) Here in Palawan, I asked questions to learn a new language: “What is that?” “What are you doing?” “What would you say if….?” This continues as I craft stories, “How can we make this into dialogue?” “In this culture, what would someone think when they hear that word?” It carries on into the village as I collect retellings and ask inference questions to see if people’s understanding of the story matches the intended message. I ask things like “Why do you think he said that?” or “What do you think this means?” Occasionally, a question turns back to me, and stops me in my tracks. Such was the case recently. I have begun to craft a new story in the last week with Gina (the young lady who is our full time crafter). This is the most challenging one yet- it is Isaiah’s song of the Suffering Servant. We actually do want to make this into a song if possible, but I will talk more about that another time. For now, it’s a matter of taking this stirring song, and finding words that cut to the core of the message. We seek to find words that make sense literally and sometimes metaphorically in this context, and still show the wonder and beauty of what the Servant has done.

As I write up questions to ask to check their understanding, I am riddled with questions myself. “Why would the Servant take the suffering because of our disobedience?” “Why didn’t he utter one complaint?” “Why did He give his body as an offering?” Why indeed. The women I asked this reminded me the simplicity of the answer, “Because God loves us.”

However, the question that lingered in my mind long after I had asked it was “What does that mean: ‘He shouldered our sorrows’? Do you still have sorrows?” Really though. I do still have sorrows, everyone does, so what does this mean??? We live in a messed up, sinful world. Relationships that are hanging on by threads, families are torn apart, sicknesses rack our bodies, people are trapped in spiritual darkness, the defenseless in society suffer immeasurably. Bleakness, sadness, death- it’s all around us. So really- what does this mean?!

I believe it means there is a way out. There is a way out of our sorrows and griefs, our sins. It means that when we come to the Servant, he carries this weight for us. He shoulders our pain; actually he already picked it up when he took the weight of all sin, when he took on the Father’s wrath. There is a song I love that plays on words of an older song you might recognize, “Give it away, give it away, give away now,”… then she continues “let your fingers go, let him take your soul, you can sing a song a freedom, you can sing a song of freedom.” I think this captured a glimpse of what the verse means. We can let our fingers go, instead of holding on to the grief and pain, instead of clinging to our sin. We can let the heartache go.

As the Servant would say, “come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you….my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” He was making a comparison to the weight that the religious leaders of the day tried to put on anyone who would listen. They had law after law to be followed. They literally had more rules than God. No one could carry that. But Jesus had fulfilled the law. He had come and lived up to God’s holy standard, and took on the punishment of those who could not; i.e. everyone. It reminds me of trips I took to the beach as a kid. My father would carry a cooler full of food, chairs, a radio, etc. My sister would carry his towel. She would have never made it to the shore if she had struggled with the load he took. She would have stayed forever in the parking lot.

And so he bids us come to him, lay down our weight we were never strong enough to carry anyway and pick up his burden. Its light because He himself has carried the heavy stuff. When we do this, we can truly sing a song of freedom, we can find rest for our souls, we can make it to the ocean and swim in his goodness.

I am delighted that this is my job, to search for ways to express truths that still awe me every day. I’m reminded that I’m not just telling the good news to people in another culture- I’m telling it to myself, I’m telling it to you.

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“He didn’t see my name.”

We sat in the market place together, surrounded by muddy ground and the sound of people nearby selling fish and shrimp paste (people love it here- still not my favorite). Mothers and their babies lined up in the makeshift clinic that gives out vaccinations once a month. Even with all the commotion wasn’t nearly as bad as it would get later on, so I took the opportunity to share one of our stories with a sweet elderly woman from the mountains. She listened enthusiastically and seemed to understand the story but her memory wasn’t great so she wasn’t able to retell it to me. However, what she did tell me was something unexpected. She told me about a dream she had: she had gone up to see God (“I’m very old now” she explained, “its close to the time I’ll go back to God”) and when she went to God, he “didn’t see her name” and he “couldn’t read her name, so she had to come back (here)”. Wow. Talk about receiving clear messages. So I stopped my storytelling and we went on to talk about the One True Way to God, and how she could have her name for God to read someday. I couldn’t have asked for a better way to spend my time. 
Recently I’ve faced significant challenges in the storying process. People tell me all the time “I can’t remember the whole story” (“Its ok,” I say “Just tell me what you remember”) ” I don’t remember anything, because Ive never been to school”, “my sister knows the answers”, “you’re better at this, I can’t help you”. The locals seem to lack confidence in their abilities to help us in crafting the stories. They come from a background where Bible knowledge has always been brought from the outside sources so of course “someone else” would know better, right? No way! They are wonderful storytellers but just try convincing them of that!

However I’ve realized that these challenges have not been in vain. People are hearing God’s word. They are interacting with it. They are finding common ground with the characters in the story. They are telling me of significant dreams which lead to meaningful conversations. Recently I was told that a young girl who had just been listening to one of our story sessions was later retelling the story to other people in the village! 

All this came as an encouragement because the process of making the stories seems long and frustrating some days. Why did it take nearly a month to get the first draft of one story?? But I’m reminded that I didn’t come here so that people can have a nice neat set of stories to then sit unused. I came so they could hear the Truth. Because Jesus said, “…the hour is now coming, and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live.” Letting people hear His voice so dead people can be raised to life? Now that’s a job I can sink my teeth into.  

 

 

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