What a week!

The sound of metal grinding on metal is never a good thing with a car.  Rattling stuff isn’t much better.  Yet when we pulled into Baucau Friday afternoon I heard both.  I’d turned off the AC and rolled down the window for a bit of fresh air after what we affectionately call “the angry backrub.” The “angry backrub” is 4 hours of driving over a dusty washboard road between Dili and Baucau where the average speed is 20-30 km hour.

We’d been in Dili since Sunday to get our young friend Leyla registered for a midwifery program starting in January, and to renew our visa.  Getting Leyla registered was easy; if all goes well, she will pass her basic entrance exam and her blood tests, and we will have another young person off on an adventure of learning and discovery.

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Leyla and Hannah enjoying breakfast at a roadside stop

The visa renewal was a different story.  Describing it charitably, I’d call it an annual spiritual pilgrimage wherein we learn about patience and going with the flow.  Each year there are different requirements in a process that is never 100% clear but always involves multiple steps to obtain the necessary documents. The office is only open for a few hours every morning and different officials there tell you different things about the what, when and how of the process.  This year the hang-up was a letter from the Ministry of Education certifying that the kids were in fact students in Timor Leste.  We spent two days trying to get a letter and finally resolved to head back to Lospalos with the hope that the plan we made through a friend of a friend to get a letter written would pan-out and we could have someone from the church turn in the letter on our behalf.  That is, if we could convince the immigration officials to go ahead and take the kids’ pictures (the last requirement) so that they wouldn’t have to come back to Dili yet again.

When we walked into the office Friday morning (aka “Day 5 of Trying) accompanied by our good friend Rev. Juliana, we were happy to see that a particularly unsympathetic immigration official we’d encountered several times during the week was not working.  We decided to try turning the documents in again without the required letter. It worked!  She looked through the documents, we paid, they took the pictures and that was it.  We were on our way back to Lospalos.

The route through the town of Baucau provides a welcome bit of pavement and it was easy to hear that indeed something was both loose and grinding in the right rear wheel.  I hoped it was a stuck pebble or something. I tried my first trick: driving backwards and forwards a few times.  Sometimes if it’s a stuck rock it will pop out.  Didn’t work.  We rolled on down through Baucau to the church in the village of Buruma where our friends Meri and Duarte are pastors.  Given that the brakes were still working I briefly entertained the idea of continuing to Lospalos.  Boy would it be nice to be at home in our own beds!  But it was late in the day and the prospect of car trouble in a remote area at night was unappealing.  Been there, done that.

When we pulled into the church compound I jacked up the car and took the wheel off.  I pulled the brake drum off.  It wasn’t a pebble I found, but rather multiple loose parts of the brake system lying there in the drum.  Some were broken.  Initially I figured there would be replacement parts available there in Baucau, but I was wrong. Locals told me I’d have to go to Dili. So the next day I got to do an unexpected endurance day to fetch car parts while Monica and the kids enjoyed an unexpected and most welcome day at the world’s best pool (still enduring from the Portuguese colonial era).

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Baucau Pool: constant supply of fresh water coming in

My day, though long and tiring, couldn’t have gone smoother.  I got started at 6 am and got a ride to Dili with a nice young couple in an actual car (people driving actual cars in Timor-Leste is about as weird as people driving SUV’s in urban America, but anyway…)   The night before I’d sent pictures of the parts to my American friend Curt.  By the time I got to Dili he’d located the parts.  He picked me up at the bus terminal; I bought the parts and got on a standing room only bus back to Baucau.  Total time in Dili was under 45 minutes.  Five really dusty hours later, I was back in Baucau.  Man, what fun! I’m glad I’m still doing this stuff at 47; it’s either keeping me young or wearing me out, but either way, I’m grateful!  Two more hours with the help of some local guys and a Leatherman tool, our only tool, and we had the new brakes installed.

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Sunday morning we headed back to Lospalos with a nice stop for a breakfast of grilled fish and katupas.

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Fresh Lobsters for sale: $10!

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Fresh grilled fish for breakfast

 

 

 

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Blessings and Woes: A Reflection for World Communion Sunday

Last week when we got back to Dili we had to renew our visas.  Part of that involved a trip to the Ministry of Finance, the only multi-story building in the country.  The ministry is a towering, architecturally modern building made of glass and shining steel.  Inside, it’s clean, air-conditioned and opulent. Out front, brown marble steps descend to the Ministériu da Finances sign embellished with a fountain and beautiful potted flowers for trim.  But from these steps one looks out on hundreds of rusty, corrugated iron shacks where thousands of Timorese live crammed into small houses with dirt floors.  From day to day they struggle to find water for washing and cooking, not to mention food for eating.

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 Photo by Dan McGarry

Against this reality we have Jesus’s Blessings and Woes:

“Blessed are you who are poor,

for yours is the kingdom of God.

Blessed are you who are hungry now,

for you will be filled.

Blessed are you who weep now,

for you will laugh….

Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you and defame you on account of the Son of Man.  Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.

But woe to you who are rich,

for you have received your consolation.

Woe to you who are full now,

for you will be hungry.

Woe to you who are laughing now,

for you will mourn and weep.

Woe to you when people speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.”

The text is consolation for the people in the shacks, which is the vast majority of Timorese. They are those who are excluded from the world’s “goodies” and are thus literally hungry on a daily basis.  But the Gospel insists that the future God will bring will be different.  Tears will turn to laughter and hunger pangs to satiation.  Holy Communion anticipates and celebrates this eschatological reality. Each time we Commune with Christ through the bread and wine we are thus invited to reflect on the world’s realities and to take sides with the oppressed.  World Communion Sunday is therefore not simply about the unity of the worldwide body of Christ, although it is that.  It’s also about the hungry oppressed people with whom Jesus is always identified.

 

 

 

There and Back Again

Greetings Friends!

We just returned to Lospalos after a two-month visit to the U.S.  I had intended to write a few reflections while we were there, but I never found the time.  I suppose that’s a reflection in and of itself!  Despite the fact that we were on vacation for a month I never seemed to have enough time to sit down and write something.  Needless to say the pace of life is notably faster in the U.S. than in Timor-Leste.  Indeed one of the things I value about life in Timor-Leste is its relaxed pace.

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Nashville, Indiana

Now that we are back in Lospalos life has slowed back down considerably.  Back to daily work in the clinic for Monica, pastoral work for me and school for the kids.  We got our pig back too (the neighbor had been keeping her).  So now I’m learning how to process dry coconut for pig food, a labor intensive process about which I’ll say more later…

Anyway, during our trip we had some great time with family and friends in Minnesota and Indiana.  We also had the opportunity to speak in a number of churches.  It was great to reconnect with churches that have supported us, share a bit about what we’re up to and receive some encouragement.

Many thanks to the churches that invited us to speak about our work in Timor:

Galilee Lutheran

UCC New Brighton

Peace Church Duluth

First Congregational Zumbrota

Mac-Plymouth in St. Paul

Cherokee Park United Church

First Congregational Cannon Falls

And let me not forget the great people of UCC Bismarck ND!  They hosted Hannah and I for several days and showed us around a few of the many great sites in Bismarck.

We’ve had this blog going for two years now and tried to put something up monthly.  One thing I learned when we were in the States is that at least a few people actually read it!  So we’re going to try to write a bit more.  We’d like to try to do shorter posts about daily life more often.  So if there are particular things you might be interested in knowing about, please let me know via an email (tomasliddle@gmail.com) or a comment on the blog.  You may sign up for the blog and receive an email notification when there’s a new post.

Grace and Peace,

Tom

It’s Not In Vain

“Therefore my beloved, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labor is not in vain” 1 Cor. 15:58.

 

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Oral surgery in Lospalos! Dr. Mark is a medical doctor, oral surgeon, and dentist.  He is spending his vacation treating patients in Lospalos, Timor-Leste.

This past week we’ve hosted a team of dentists from The Gap Uniting Church in Brisbane Australia. This year was their second visit to Clinic Immanuel.  During four 10-hour days they occupied two rooms in the clinic pulling teeth and filling cavities on people who rarely have had oral healthcare of any kind. Probably most Timorese families have at least one member who suffers from chronic tooth pain.  Timor Leste has about 12 dentists for a population of over a million and most all of them are in the capitol Dili.

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Talia on the left is 14. She is on her second trip to Timor-Leste.  She and Hannah met when they were 6.   Talia and Jo sterilizing the instruments.

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Dr. Malcolm, left, is mission and outreach team leader at The Gap Uniting Church.  Here he and Dr. Trish are working one of a number of kids that had rotten teeth.  “Coca-Cola always gets there before we do,” he said.

Another exciting thing that happened is that the team from The Gap and Immanuel Church have agreed on a church partnership.  Last night we sat together with members of both churches and talked about why it’s important to be connected across cultures and national boundaries as the body of Christ.  It was great! The two congregations agreed on a number of areas they could work together: youth, Sunday school, community mission and engagement.  Both congregations agreed the main thing is that they can learn from one another and pray for one another.

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Australians and Timorese coming together in Christ.

As we were closing our meeting last night the group from Immanuel Church, who are also clinic staff, thanked the dental team for their visit.  They expressed hope that they would return next year, noting that the need for dental care is so great here in Lospalos.  Throughout the week more than one person acknowledged that in their visit they were only “scratching the surface” of the needs.  This is a constant theme in a ministry of this kind. From Moses to MLK Jr., Oscar Romero, Dorothy Day and thousands of unsung saints in between, a reality of faithful discipleship is that no matter how hard you work, you cannot fix all problems, heal all wounds or calm all anxieties.  But the good news is, you don’t have to.

 

“Therefore my beloved, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labor is not in vain” 1 Cor. 15:58.

The assurance we receive here is that the small things we do in faith do not go to waste.  Whether marching for justice in the Poor People’s Campaign or pulling teeth in a remote corner of SE Asia – it’s not in vain.

And the promise implied by Paul’s previous detailed discussion of the resurrection, is that our work done “in the Lord,” however seemingly insignificant, will be brought to completion in the new creation that God has inaugurated in the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.

These two things coupled together means that while Christian discipleship always implies engagement with the pain and suffering of the world, we need not be overwhelmed by it.  Christ’s resurrection means that a new world is underway.  We are therefore summoned to get on board.  Simple acts of mercy, words of consolation and prophetic acts of justice are not in vain they are the ingredients of hope and signs — pointers — of God’s future bursting into the present.

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Lunch on the porch!

Reading Exodus in Timor

Timor-Leste had its 16thanniversary of the Restoration of Independence on May 20th.  The day is called Restoration of Independence Daybecause at the end of Portuguese rule in 1975, Timorese declared Independence. And the next day, Indonesia invaded and occupied the country for 25 years.  For the tiny nation of Timor-Leste to gain independence was a miracle. Indonesia, itself a large and powerful country, was backed by powerful Western actors like the United States and Australia from start to finish.  And yet in the end, Indonesia’s efforts failed and Timor-Leste is free.

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Exodus is one of my favorite books of the Bible.  As far as I can tell though the Exodus story is not very well known in Timor-Leste.  At least it doesn’t appear to have played a significant role in the spirituality of the people in the way that the suffering of Jesus has.  That may be because there isn’t yet a translation of the Old Testament in a language most people understand.  But if there were one biblical story that is appropriate for Timor-Leste, it’s the Exodus.  I refer to it frequently when I am teaching and preaching because I believe its message is revelatory for all people in terms of learning who God is by what God does.  Not only the liberation of the slaves, but also the drama of the people learning what it means to be God’s people and God’s accompaniment of them in the wilderness.  Personally though when I read the story of the Exodus I do so as an “Egyptian.”  Let me explain why in the context of Timor-Leste’s history.

On December 5th 1975, just days before the Indonesian military invaded this land of paradise, then U.S. President Gerald Ford and his Secretary of State Henry Kissinger were in Jakarta meeting with General Suharto, the military strongman who had become the leader of Indonesia in a U.S. backed coup ten years earlier. Between 1965 and 1967 Suharto’s regime orchestrated the massacre of hundreds of thousands of Indonesian intellectuals, educators, peasant farmers and others thought to be associated with left-wing politics.

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At their meeting in Jakarta, Ford and Kissinger virtually gave Indonesia a “green light” to invade Timor-Leste (then called East Timor) assuring them that the U.S. supported their objective.  And on the morning of December 7th,1975, Indonesia invaded.  The idea was that the Indonesians would quickly subdue the Timorese and East Timor would become part of Indonesia.  Instead the Timorese fought for freedom against all odds. For 24 years the Indonesians continued their assault on East Timor with the support of the U.S. and other Western powers. That support included military training and intelligence, financing and U.S. manufactured weapons and aircraft.  That vigorous support continued during both Republican and Democratic administrations until the late 90s when it became a political liability to continue supporting Indonesia’s occupation.

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The OV-10 Bronco made by Rockwell International was used in the invasion and occupation of East Timor.

During the Indonesian occupation over 200,000 Timorese were killed or died of starvation or untreated illness, approximately ¼ of the population.  The Indonesian military was responsible both for its own actions and those of Timorese militias who were often sent in to do the dirtiest work including brutal massacres in Timorese churches. Yet despite the continuous support of the U.S. and other Western powers, the Timorese eventually won independence.

From that history I think you can understand why, as an American it’s appropriate for me to identify with the Egyptians in the story!  Not real comforting.  As an American I repent in sack cloth and ashes.

Sixteen years on from independence it seems fair to say that Timor-Leste is in a “wilderness” period of its history.  I emphasized this in a reflection on a youth retreat yesterday.  Freedom is a process.  Actually my text was Galatians 5:1 “For freedom Christ has set us free.  Stand firm therefore do not submit again to the yoke of slavery.”

What would it mean to “submit again to the yoke of slavery” in this context?  Further foreign invasion is unlikely but I suggested it might happen if you sit around and wait for someone else to complete the liberation that began with the end of Indonesian rule.  You’re free, yes.  And by the high participation in the recent election it’s clear that people take the responsibilities that go with freedom seriously.  But when so many are unemployed, access to education and health care is so difficult and so many children are physically stunted due to malnutrition, there is work to do to make freedom meaningful.

Getting down to specifics, “standing firm” in this case might mean rejecting an afternoon staring at a smart phone in favor of working with neighbors on a garden, chicken coup or a pig pen.  Learning about horticulture rather than bothering with computers and English.  I’m not against English and computers.  But practically speaking knowledge of horticulture and skills like welding, carpentry and masonry make most sense for most people. And those things would raise living standards more quickly for more people.

Anyway, the good news of the wilderness period in Israel’s history are the closing verses of Exodus (40:34-38).  Those verses give us the image of the glory of God filling the Tabernacle, the “portable temple” the Israelites took with them on the journey.  The image is apt for Timor-Leste as well.  Freedom for the Timorese represents what seemed like impossibility; for the world it’s a historical flash of the subversive power of God that “…brings down the mighty from their thrones and lifts up the lowly” (Lk. 1:52).

 

 

 

 

 

A Test of Faith

Seven youth from Lospalos recently spent two days traveling to a spring youth event that was attended by 70 youth of our partner church here, the Protestant Church in Timor-Leste. During the two nights spent in the village of Beasu, evil spirits struck all five of the Lospalos girls who went. Some had stomach pains, minor tremors and brief moments of dissociation.  Two girls had hysterical outbursts and had to be physically restrained for up to two hours. Afterwards, the girls claimed to have no recollection of what had happened to them, what they said or did.

When we dug deeper to find out what had happened, we learned that on arrival to the youth event no obvious preparations had been made. There was no water in the bathrooms, no food prepared for the out of town guests, and an unswept church floor.  No one had taken the reins to plan a schedule of activities, so everything happened on the spot.

When the evil spirits happened, some local participants told our youth that the church was built on an old graveyard, and that might be the problem.  Others said it was because they were hungry and dehydrated which provided an opening for the spirits.  Some others suggested to the girls that their faith in God was weak, and so they fell captive to the evil spirits.

In our home church, Peace UCC in Duluth, Minnesota, possession by evil spirits doesn’t come up all that much.  Here, everyone believes it happens and many say they have experienced it personally.

Needless to say this experience has forced us to wrestle with a number of things. How do we reconcile our “modern” worldview which has largely dismissed or at least re-interpreted the notion of evil spirits with a world in which evil spirits, curses and the echoes of ancestors are part of the fabric of daily life?  We could conclude, as some missionaries do, that our Timorese partners are still tethered to unhelpful beliefs that must be expunged by the light of the gospel.  That may be partly true.

But we think it is most helpful to recognize that Timorese are deeply religious people who’s spiritual lives are a woven fabric of indigenous and Christian beliefs.  The indigenous world they inhabit is an enchanted world infused with spiritual realities of all kinds.

As we debriefed the event with our youth we counseled them that their experience might be seen as a test of faith insofar as all of us must decide where our ultimate loyalties are.  And in the end that means deciding what we will trust and what we will fear.

We recognize that Americans are no less subject to this test of faith than are Timorese.  In Timor the test may be between trusting in the light of Christ vs. living in fear of menacing forces swirling about in the milieu of the culture.  In America it may be a choice between risking the vulnerable way of Jesus vs. giving in to the consumer culture where an economy of greed and anxiety lead to a suspicion of the “other” that ultimately eventuates in violence.

To be sure, the New Testament world affirms the reality of evil spirits.  And its central claim is that Christ defeats them.  And therein may be the common ground between two seemingly disparate worlds. Whether or not evil spirits exist in a separate world, none of us would disagree that the world is wrought suffering and death-dealing realities that afflict on both the communal and individual level.  The news of Easter is that in Christ these things are overcome and we can begin again.

 

 

Side Job

Grounds manager isn’t part of my official job description here in Timor-Leste. I But since we live on a large church complex, it’s become kind of a side job.  Aside from the clinic where we live in an attached apartment, we also have the church, two large outbuildings and a significant bit of land aside the church.  One of the buildings is a house where 4 youth from a nearby village live while they are in school.  The other is a Sunday School building.

Recently we’ve been doing some security improvements on the compound because unfortunately in March we had a break-in.  It’s a long story but someone broke-in a side window of our house on a Sunday morning while Monica and the kids were in church here and I was at a village church.  The thief stole $500.00 of the church’s money – about a year’s worth of offerings.

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I could be wrong but I attribute the break-in to one of Timor-Leste’s increasingly concerning issues: unemployed young men with seemingly little hope for the future. There’s really no reason anyone should be unemployed here though.  Lospalos is surrounded by fertile land and there is abundant water.  Recently though I have heard from youth that their friends are “moe” (embarresed/ashamed) to do agricultural work.  Social media has opened the world up for these young people and they seem to think that modernity and technology are where it’s at.  The result? Most seem content to stare at a smart phone rather than pick up a hoe or fix a fence.

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There is however a silver lining to all this.  The break-in has motivated us to repair and place barbed wire a top the wall surrounding an underutilized bit of land next to the church (photo above).  In recent years no one has been motivated to do anything with the land because they assume someone will steel whatever might be growing there (as they often do now with the bananas growing there).  So hopefully with the space now secured we can work with our youth group and plant some papaya, cassava and vegetables.  And hopefully doing that will do a tiny bit to help restore a bit of dignity to rural life and farming.