Filipinos in El Paso: an Invitation

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I shared the story of our move to El Paso, Texas a few days ago.  Now that we are here we wanted to extend a special invitation to the Filipino community: you are welcome to join us for worship and Bible study at Apollo Heights Baptist Church.  Mare Cris is currently the only Filipina member, but we are hoping that will change soon.

Just to be clear, our church is a multi-ethnic/multi-cultural congregation and all races/nationalities are welcome. But we wanted to specifically invite our kababayans here in town that may be looking for friends.

Life 3.0: Confessions of a Former Missionary

This post may get kind of long, so here’s the short version: I am gainfully employed!  I have begun my new job/ministry as senior pastor of Apollo Heights Baptist Church in El Paso, Texas.  Keep reading if you want the long version (over three years in the making).

Best laid plans

As many of you know, Mare Cris and I decided we would apply for her spousal visa and move to the USA after we married.  We were prepared to wait out the long (11-month) process together in the Philippines.  But neither of us realized just how long we’d wait for some sense of direction after arriving here.

I was interviewing with a church here in the States before we even left the Philippines (2013).   We had agreed to spend a week with them after we arrived here and enthusiastically took a (long) road trip with high hopes.  We assumed we’d be starting our new lives with me as pastor of that congregation.  Things with that church didn’t work out (long story), so it was back to square one.

I still believed God was calling me to be a pastor, so I took every imaginable step in pursuit of that goal.  I added to my theological library.  I read books and blogs for pastors.  I updated my resume and sent copies out nearly every day.  I (naively) assumed we’d find another church within a few weeks or months.

What happens in Asia . . .

Starting over has been a humbling experience.  My time in the Philippines was filled with all kinds of ministry opportunities: Bible study groups, speaking engagements, books, a radio show, interviews on radio and television, etc.  I still get speaking invitations from there via email (from those who don’t realize we’re no longer in the country).

But missionary experience is not what the typical pastor search team is looking for.  Most of them want candidates that have been staff members in the American church context for at least 5-10 years.  I’ve often joked that “missionary” carries about as much weight as “pizza delivery man” on a pastoral resume.

Supply, demand, and delays

I thought the ubiquity of the internet would make it easier for me to find a church, but I think it’s had the opposite effect: pastor search teams are now bombarded with hundreds of resumes if they advertise a vacancy online (one church recently informed me they had received 441 resumes, and I’m sure some receive more).  Starting out with a 1 in 400+ chance of getting selected is daunting to say the least.

I’m speaking from the perspective of a pastoral candidate, but I also have great sympathy for pastoral search teams: sifting through all these resumes must be an overwhelming task.

Then there’s the time issue: hiring a pastor is usually a 6-12 month process for the typical church (sometimes longer), so a vacancy doesn’t mean they will be making a choice right away.

Combine all these factors and you can imagine the outcome: months of sending resumes and waiting, interrupted by the occasional “God is leading us in a different direction” letter or email (I affectionately called these “dear John” letters).

Every once in a while I would receive a lengthy questionnaire from a church that wanted more information about me.  I would fill these out and return them as quickly as possible.  We even interviewed with another pastor search team in 2014 (in Alabama), but they decided to hire another candidate.

Rejection from all directions

As time went by I expanded my job search into more familiar territory.  I applied for a vacant position where I used to work as a drug abuse counselor before moving to the Philippines (a non-profit organization/ministry in Alabama).  I did good work for them and assumed that would give me some advantage.  I was wrong.   The first two times I applied I was interviewed, but not hired.  I was not even interviewed when I applied the third and fourth time.

2016

Mare Cris and I experienced another ministry search mishap early in February.  We thought we had found a perfect fit for us only to see it completely fall apart (another long story).  The experience was devastating for both of us.

A few more months passed without hearing anything new from pastor search teams.  Mare Cris and I made a decision not long after my 44th birthday: we would give up on vocational ministry if nothing happened by the end of June.  We had held on for so long, believing God was calling me to be a pastor.  But God’s only answer had come in the form of closed doors, so I was preparing to stop searching for a pastoral position.  We believed three years was long enough to wait.

A pastor search team did interview me (via Skype) in June.  We did really feel good about the interview but we weren’t sure how long we should wait for them.  Their timeline was “sometime before the end of the year”–not exactly what we were hoping to hear.

Mare Cris and I decided to plan a month-long visit to the Philippines not long after the June interview.  She had not seen her family in over three years, so it was time.  September seemed like a good month, so we made the arrangements.

I was going to go ahead with our plan to abandon vocational ministry if nothing positive happened by the time I returned to the States (we would still serve the Lord, of course, but I was planning to find another vocation other than full-time ministry).

Out of the Blue

I received an unexpected call on the morning of August 8th.  A representative from the Apollo Heights Baptist Church (El Paso, TX) called and asked if I would do a phone interview with them later that evening.  I had long forgotten sending them a resume so hearing from them was quite a surprise.

We spoke for a while that night and things went fairly well.  They called the next week and asked if Mare Cris and I would fly out and visit them before we went to the Philippines (the last weekend in August).

Our visit to El Paso went extremely well.  I was struck by the ethnic diversity of the church: black, white, Hispanic and Asians–all worshiping our Savior under one roof.  I’ve never seen so many ethnic groups represented in a church of this size (about 80-90 people).  I preached Sunday morning and shared my testimony Sunday evening.  We knew the church would be voting the following Wednesday and we left it in God’s hands.

We received a call Wednesday night (the night before we left for the Philippines).  The church voted and the overwhelming majority wanted me to be their pastor.  Mare Cris and I were a bit stunned by how quickly all of this happened.

Putting things in perspective

I should clarify something before I go any further.  I don’t want you to get the impression that the past 40 months have been all bad.  They haven’t.  Mare Cris has been able to meet and get to know my family (they love her almost as much as I do).  We’ve successfully navigated the visa process and are close to acquiring her US citizenship. God has given me several opportunities to preach at different congregations in the Birmingham area, and our time with these churches has been extremely encouraging.  God has also provided for every single financial need, even in the absence of a steady paycheck (needs including extensive dental work, fees for visa/citizenship processing, day-to-day expenses, and even helping family members back in the Philippines–I could write a whole blog post on His provisions).  He has richly blessed us in spite of all the uncertainty and disappointments.

But being in limbo for over three years has taken a severe emotional toll on both of us.  Sometimes we questioned our decision to move to the States.

From the Tropics to the Desert

Franklin Mountains
Franklin Mountains (the view from behind our house).

So here we are in El Paso, Texas–we packed up and moved soon after making it back to the States from our Philippines visit.  The palm trees of the Philippines and the pine trees of Alabama have been replaced with a majestic view of the Franklin Mountains. This is all unexpected, like many of the greatest blessings in my life. We are looking forward to this new journey and we covet your prayers.

Job: a Testimony Against Easy Answers and Shallow Teaching

Job (oil on canvas) by Bonnat, Leon Joseph Florentin (1833-1922)

I was a high school student when I first read the Book of Job. I had (finally) gotten serious about my walk with the Lord and began reading through the Bible. Job’s story was deeply encouraging to me as I struggled through those awkward teen years.

To be clear, I have a lot of fond (and some quite hilarious) memories of my high school days. But I also learned that walking with God did not guarantee that I would always “win” or that He would give me everything I wanted. I discovered, in fact, that God allows His children to go through trials. The “trials” I experienced seem kind of trivial now, but I suspect all of them will once we reach eternity (Romans 8:18).

Here’s a quick summary of the Book of Job:

Job had everything a man of his era could want. He had the perfect family (seven sons and three daughters) and was the wealthiest man in the region. But Job was also “blameless and upright.” This doesn’t mean he was sinless, of course, but he did walk in the fear and admonition of the Lord. He even made sacrificial offerings to God on behalf of his children.

God allowed the enemy to take everything from Job: his children, his wealth, and even his health. Job never cursed God, but he certainly cried out to Him in his anguish.

His friends offered their counsel, but their insights were based the erroneous idea that bad things only happen to us when we sin (a false notion that many still believe today). Job, they argued, must have done something to deserve the unspeakable tragedies that had come into his life. Needless to say, their words did more harm than good.

The Lord eventually answers Job’s lengthy complaint with an intense rebuke. We could summarize His response one sentence: “Dear Job, I’m God, you’re not.” God never told Job why He had allowed him to experience such loss and misery. This taught me a valuable lesson: God is not obligated to explain Himself to me.

Job’s life does eventually turn around for the better: “And the Lord blessed the latter days of Job more than his beginning.” Encouraging, indeed, but we are never told why God allowed this godly man to suffer.

That’s my feeble attempt at summarizing a magnificent story–I would highly encourage you to read it for yourself. It’s located in the Old Testament of the Bible.

I’ve mentioned how encouraging the Book of Job was for me during my high school years. But I was exposed to some really bizarre teaching a few years later (through television, radio, etc.). It was called by different names: “word of faith,” “name it and claim it,” or more commonly, “the prosperity gospel.” The nuances among teachers vary, but the central message is the same: God’s children should be healthy, wealthy, and prosperous, and a lack of these material blessings in believer’s life means he just doesn’t have enough faith (or has sin in his life).

Job’s life presents a unique dilemma for prosperity “preachers”: How do you reconcile the teachings of this book with claims God’s children should only experience prosperity? They have tried, but their attempts have resulted in some of the most horrendous interpretation of the Scriptures I’ve ever heard. You’d think that even a casual Bible reader would see through it, but the desire to turn God into our personal bellhop can be blinding.

I’ll give you one example. Let’s take a direct quote from Kenneth Copeland, who travels in his own private jet (at ministry supporters’ expense) to avoid “demons.” Here’s a quote about Job, directly from Copeland’s website:

The Bible tells us Job continually made the same sacrifice for his children. The sacrifice was to be made only once. Because he did it continually, he sacrificed in unbelief instead of faith; as a result, the thing he feared came upon him (Job 3:25) . . .

Through all of his life, Job was safe until he feared and lost his faith. And it wasn’t until his faith was restored that God was able to bless him again.

Let’s consider the serious errors you’ve just read:

Yes, Job did continually offer sacrifices for his children: “continually” in the sense that it was his normal practice. But there’s nothing in the text that would lead us to conclude Job “sacrificed in unbelief.” The opposite is true–the Scriptures are highlighting Job’s dedication to God and his concern for the spiritual well-being of his family.

Job laments that his worst fears have come true in Chapter 3, verse 25. But again, there’s nothing in this text that states (or even implies) he lived by fear. This verse is Job’s grief expressed in sacred poetry, and we should simply read it as such.

Prosperity preachers like Copeland propagate the very error that the Book of Job was written to correct–the belief that we can presume God’s favor or judgement based on material blessings alone.

Don’t allow false teachers to rob you of the beautiful, perplexing, awe-inspiring lesson of the Book of Job: God is sovereign, and He allows His children to suffer for reasons we’ll never fully understand this side of eternity.

Four Years of Love

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Mare Cris and I celebrate our fourth wedding anniversary today!

I wish I could say that all of our goals and dreams for life in the USA have come true, but they haven’t. We have, in fact, recently experienced an extremely disappointing setback in our quest for a job/ministry (the most painful one so far). We’re still feeling the emotional aftershocks.

But God has been good to us, and we have much to be grateful for.

And I can handle shattered dreams as long as she’s by my side. She is, after all, my dream come true.

We’ll make it through this . . . together.

Kahit saan, basta kasama kita (translation: anywhere, as long as I’m with you).