Advent in Lospalos: Part IV

Reflection for Advent IV: December 23, 2018

Luke 1:39-55


Christmas Youth Gathering 2018

 This week’s reading is Mary’s Magnificat, a song of praise to the savior God who, in choosing Mary to be the mother of Christ, has “…looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.”  Mary is beloved in the church for her humility and joyful submission to God’s will. But Mary is also a young woman of courage who strikes out, apparently alone, on a journey (1:39-45).  In addition to her humility and courage, Mary is also a mystic.  She has an abiding inner sense of the meaning of her pregnancy.  She knows it means that God has alreadyaccomplished something that will turn the world upside down:

“He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.  He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”


We used this reading in our Advent candle liturgy last Sunday.  Appropriately, a young woman did the reading.  She was also one who played one of the main parts in a play that Monica wrote for our youth event this week.  The play was about two smart young women who make different choices in life.  One gets pregnant early and has an abusive, irresponsible partner.  By age 24, she has 4 kids and a life of domestic violence and poverty.  The other woman has a supportive, loving partner who wants her to go to school and fulfill her dream to be a doctor.  But this young woman’s mother thinks school is a waste of time.  She wants her to get married and start having children. “Jenny” takes a risk though.  She denies her mother and stays with her supportive partner while avoiding pregnancy.  In the end she makes it through medical school and has a successful life as a doctor.


Some of the actors from the play

I think it’s fair to say that the youth who did the play had a transformative experience with it.  Monica gave them the basic script but they wrote their own lines based on their experience of what home life and social expectations are like in Timor-Leste. The play itself was a huge hit with everyone who saw it.  Afterwards we divided into groups and discussed things like domestic violence, teen pregnancy and, well, how to choose a decent husband!  Not surprisingly the youth had insightful responses, questions and more than a few good laughs while discussing things that are usually taboo.


Mary’s poem, it seems to me, is a signpost for the Timorese youth of today. They are torn between worlds, have few opportunities and feel ignored by their government.  But Mary’s poem offers the assurance of God’s providential care and preferential option for those who, in the eyes of society, are lowly, humble and ignored.  The poem assures them that God’s mercy is an available source of strength with the power to overturn the status quo and create newness in ways we can’t comprehend or anticipate.  And that is good news for Timor’s youth, as it is for all of us who live in hope for the in-breaking of God’s promised future.


Heros of our youth event: three moms who did most of the cooking!









Advent in Lospalos: Part III

Reflection for Advent III, Sunday December 16, 2018

Isaiah 12:1-6; Luke 3:7-18

On Thursday of this week we’ll have 40 – 60 youth arriving at Immanuel Church Lospalos for a Christmas youth event.  They’ll be coming from the eastern part of Timor-Leste for three days of fellowship, faith development and fun!  This generation of Timorese youth is particularly vulnerable.  They are, mostly, born after the independence struggle and are therefore somewhat estranged from the identity-shaping power of that time.  They are pulled in two directions: traditional culture with its tight social fabric, and the modern world with its insistence on the autonomy of the individual.  They have mediocre opportunities for secondary education and an economy with little in the way of employment possibilities.

Our theme for this year’s event is “Reading the signs of the times.”  Taken from Luke 12:56, the idea is to help these young people think about what is going on in their lives and society through the lens of faith.  This week I am struck by the simple question the people ask John the Baptist in response to his ministry of repentance for the forgiveness of sins (Lk. 3:10ff): “What then should we do?”  John’s answer is terse.  He tells them to share what they have with those in need and not to use a position of any kind to exploit the neighbor’s financial vulnerabilities.  What both the above readings insist we “get” is that authentic repentance has a social dimension.  It’s about aligning ourselves with God’s purposes in gratitude and freedom, a theme expressed poetically in the Isaiah reading.

For our time this week, Monica has written a drama that deals with various social issues Timorese youth face: teen pregnancy, patriarchy, traditional culture, domestic violence and the future.  Timorese love doing drama and I have no doubt that the play will result in conversations about the social issues they face.  The point is to get youth thinking and talking about their social context and the things that impact their future and the well-being of the nation.

During the Indonesian occupation of Timor-Leste, the church (esp. the Catholic Church) was an astute observer of social issues and a prophetic voice for justice.  Sadly, that vocation has mostly disappeared.  The Catholic Church, now in a position of power, is closely linked with the government and focused mainly on liturgical routines and feast days. Meanwhile, various Protestant groups typically peddle an individualistic theology of salvation and have little interest in social issues or action.  The biblical vision of salvation, however, is more expansive, inclusive and hopeful than either of those.  Our aim is that our activities over these three days will embody a bit of that hope and vision as a central theme of Advent waiting.







Advent in Lospalos: Part II

My devotional reflection for this week.  Again, it will make more sense if you read the scripture texts first.  Blessings.

Reflection for Advent II: December 9, 2018

Philippians 1:3-11; Luke 3:1-6

Walking into the Lospalos hospital, we followed a trail of dried blood drops up the stairs, through a hall and across a dirty tile floor to the emergency room.  We don’t do x-rays or casts at Clinic Immanuel so a few of us were taking a kid with a broken arm to the government hospital.  My colleague put the child on a dingy examination bed.  I stepped over some used gauze lying on the floor to hold him while the nurses put on a temporary splint.  He had just fallen while playing on the church compound.

This boy is one of 12 siblings, all of whom are clinically malnourished.  In all likelihood a well-nourished kid wouldn’t have broken an arm with the minor fall this guy took.  As I stood holding this little boy’s arm, there was a palpable sense of defeat in the room.  I witnessed a staff doing her best with what little resources she had, but nonetheless, with an affect of resignation.  The place looked as if there weren’t a cleaner on staff.  As it is, x-rays and casts require a trip to the referral hospital in Baucau.  So after going to the child’s home to get the mom, the two of them climbed into the back of an ambulance for a 3-hour bumpy ride to Baucau, where they could get proper treatment.

I share the story above because Advent reminds us that the life and ministry of Jesus Christ unfolds within a specific socio-political context (Lk. 3:1-6).  During Advent therefore we are invited to reflect on the socio-political context in which we find ourselves and ask what the gospel means in that context.  Along those lines, my Advent devotional reading this year is the spiritual classic Jesus and the Disinheritedby Howard Thurman.  At the outset Thurman reminds us of some basic things about the world. “The masses of men live with their backs against the wall.  They are the poor, the disinherited, the dispossessed.”  The Lospalos hospital testifies that is certainly the case in Timor-Leste.  Thurman goes on with a simple question: what does the gospel of Jesus Christ mean to them?  He’s not concered with “…what it counsels them to do for others,” but rather, how it consoles and empowers them to be human.

I also appreciate Thurman’s observation that one of the spiritual perils of Christianity is the emphasis on helping others and in so doing making the dispossessed and disinherited the object of self-righteous “faith in action” at the expense of real relationships.  This is a danger when people of privilege engage in mission or justice work of any kind.  And that is why in the midst of the suffering we observe daily, I often remind myself that we’re not here to solve Timor-Leste’s problems nor those of our partner church.  We’re not out for measurable outcomes or other commodifications of a relationship. We’re called to practice koinaniaKoinaniais the Greek word Paul uses to describe his relationship to the Philippians.  It means sharing, fellowship, participation.  That is, “sharing in the gospel” (Phil. 1:5).  It’s a word that guides the kind of mission partnership we hope to embody.  But most importantly, it’s an expression of the truth that the life of Jesus Christ is God’s koinania with the masses who have their backs against the wall.













Advent in Lospalos: Part 1

I’m going to do an Advent devotional this year.  Each week I’ll post a reflection about our life and ministry based on the texts for the next Sunday.  You can read the reflections alone but they’ll make more sense if you read the texts first.  Advent Blessings!

Reflection for Advent 1, December 2, 2018

Psalm 25:1-10; Luke 21:25-36

It’s a Sunday afternoon and I’m walking up a rocky trail to the house of a family of Immanuel Church.  As I get closer, I see a huge blackened pot sitting atop a cooking fire.  Smoke from the fire wafts in the breeze and drifts off over the top of a barren hill. The mom comes out to tend the fire. She is likely boiling cassava or taro, both staple foods of Timorese.  Meanwhile, about a half dozen scantily clad kids run around playing.  Dad is down the hill digging up rocks.  The soil here is full of them and before you can plant anything you have to extract them.  And that only happens one way: with a crowbar and bare hands.

The family’s house is a one-room shack made of corrugated sheet metal.  It’s dark inside with a dirt floor, two small beds and a pile of clothes in the corner.  It sits next to the sturdy foundation of a more permanent house they will one day finish building.  Inside the shack is a one-month old baby, the family’s fifth child.  She is sleeping peacefully on the bed.  Before I leave, the mom asks me to pray for the child. She calls in the dad, a small, muscular yet gentle-looking man wearing only a pair of shorts. The kids come in and we share a few minutes of prayer together.  It feels like an act of rebellion against an absurd world.

This family is living with hard realities.  Behind those realities stands the history of Timor-Leste: colonialism, occupation, a violent independence struggle and grinding poverty – a history filled with trauma.  And yet, in this place on this day, with this family, there stands in our midst the foundation of their future home and a new baby.  I see both as veiled signs of hope amidst a life of suffering.


Advent begins with blooming flowers in Lospalos


Advent starts with veiled signs of hope as well.  Luke talks of signs in the heavens, distress among nations and fear and foreboding.  But then a paradox: these are signs that redemption is near.  They will precede the coming of the ‘son of man,’ an angelic figure that will usher in a reign of peace.  A parable about learning to see follows and imperatives to “be alert” goad our attention toward adopting a posture of discernment in daily life.

Most of us live life largely asleep.  We go through the motions, do the tasks and tow the lines.  Mostly, we miss the deep meaning of daily life amidst a barrage of anxieties and preoccupation with past or future. Faith however, invites us to adopt a style of discernment and engagement focused on the present.

One of my favorite theologians, William Stringfellow, says this about discernment:

“The gift of discernment is basic to the genius of the biblical lifestyle.  Discerning         signs has to do with comprehending the remarkable in common happenings…it has to do with the ability to interpret ordinary events…to see portents of death where   others find progress or success but, simultaneously, to behold tokens of the reality of the Resurrection or hope where others are consigned to confusion or despair…discerning signs means sensitivity to the Word of God indwelling in all Creation and transfiguring common history, while remaining radically realistic about death’s vitality in all that happens.”

Psalm 25 is a prayer that fosters this kind of discernment.  If we internalize its petition “Make me to know your ways, O Lord;…lead me in your truth…” we may, gradually, begin to discern the world’s realities and the people we encounter differently.  One of Jesus’ common refrains has to do with leaning to “see” because faith is a different way of seeing and indeed of knowing. It’s neither naïve optimism, cynical pessimism nor dry empiricism.  Faith looks boldly at reality but through the lens of hope.  It’s a kind of knowing that sees truth in paradox, passion and pathos.  Advent, it seems, is a good time to ponder this.






Toilets in Sorolua

We had a great morning in the village of Sorolua, a small village about 45 minutes from Lospalos.  Two years ago Clinic Immanuel started a partnership with this village to do health education and some consultation visiting the village monthly for a year and then decreasing frequency.  Part of the program included a “healthy home” project and building some toilets.  Clinic staff worked with the village chief to figure out how to make the village “open defecation free.”  Families that were committed to doing the work (which was all of them!) were provided basic materials: sand, cement, rebar, pipe, toilet seat.  The families were responsible to do the work and come up with their own walls and roof.  Uniting World of Australia provided the funding and Clinic Immanuel worked with the community and facilitated getting the materials there — not always easy during the rainy season!


Two sided bathroom.  Right is a toilet, left side for washing clothes.  Notice bamboo pipe coming in on the left.  This catches rain water for use in the bathroom. Bamboo walls.



Happy to report that after a relatively short time and a small budget, everyone in the community has a sanitary place to do their business!  We were really happy to see the simple but very effective models the families used for their toilets.  After touring about 6 toilet sites we had a nice closing meeting with the village chief.  It was a great exercise in grassroots community development with the Clinic, community and international partners working together to improve health and reduce suffering.  Below are a few pictures of the toilets.  Folks came up with some really great bathrooms using local materials for walls and other creative solutions!


note water pipe going in the back.  This one has a toilet on one side and clothes washing area on the other.


This bathroom has a hand washing station on the outside!


hand washing station


Basic design with tin walls and local wood


Bamboo walls on this one with tin roof and door


toilet is good to go but still needs walls.  

Nature’s Call

The end of the dry season in Timor-Leste feels a little bit like being in a pressure cooker.  From about September through November it gets hotter and more humid until usually sometime in mid November the clouds finally burst, the rainy season starts and people get busy planting corn.

Last week I paid a visit to some church members’ farms as vegetable season wound down and people were busy prepping the land for corn.  From one of the main roads in Lospalos three of us headed off on foot down a dusty trail, climbed over a home-made fence, crossed a stream and entered one family’s “toos.”  A toos is a large garden; it’s the place most members of Immanuel Church, like most Timorese, spend their days as subsistence farmers.  In this toos, papaya and coconut trees scattered amongst vegetable beds are surrounded by scrubby forest with cassava growing on rocky hillsides.  Most folks also have a small shack with a bamboo platform that serves as a shady napping place in the heat of the day.  Small fire pits are used to cook the mid-day meal and clotheslines show that the chore of washing never stops.


This gentleman has an impressive goat manure system that he uses for his vegetables


Mana (sister) Rita, the owner of one toos and an elder of Immanuel Church, walks across a single log bridge over a stream to join us.  She is a small woman with high cheekbones and bears a broad smile, evidently delighted that we’re interested to see what her daily life entails.  A couple kids follow, running barefoot behind her, obviously more than at home in this land that feels like a mix of wilderness and farm. Before we leave, Rita insists on giving us a bunch of cassava leaves and roots, both of which are traditional staple foods here.


Hannah, Leyla and Mana Rita standing on the edge of freshly tilled ground in Rita’s toos.  

Also last week, Monica spent 3 full days in the village of Nacroman.  As part of its community health program, Clinic Immanuel staff went door to door with surveys on tuberculosis, sanitation and nutrition.  They’ve identified a dozen or so households in need of a toilet.  As part of its outreach Clinic Immanuel will provide the materials for a few toilets, while the families will do the actual construction.  In the past, the clinic has spent about $125 per toilet, so this year, we will be able to support building four toilets in Nacroman.  Hopefully we will be able to do more in the next budget year.


Clinic Immanuel staff Akito (right) and the village chief of Sorolua

Did you know that November 19this World Toilet Day?  Yep, it’s true.  Nature calls to every one of us, but billions of people in the world still don’t have a toilet.  Keep that in mind next time you get grumpy about a slow internet connection!  If you’d like to find out more about World Toilet Day you can go to  The past two years Clinic Immanuel focused its community health efforts in the village of Sorolua, a remote place 45 minutes away from Lospalos.  After assisting with 8 toilets in that community, almost everyone in Sorolua has a sanitary place to answer nature’s call.




Sunday morning meal

But Peter said, “I have no silver and gold, but what I have I give you; In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth stand up and walk.”  Acts 3:6

In Timor-Leste over 40% of kids under 5 are malnourished.  Clinic Immanuel and Immanuel Church can’t solve that.  This is a community of the poor serving the poor.  But poverty does not preclude serving in ways that give life.  The Clinic together with the church has a simple feeding program for Sunday school kids.  The meal not only provides much needed healthy food, it also teaches youth that Christian faith leads to action on behalf of others.

Here are a few pics from todays meal.


In Timor-Leste over 40% of kids under 5 are malnourished.  Protein is the main thing lacking.


Members of the youth group serve the meal and learn what it means to be “doers of the word.” (James 1:22)


Kids enjoying a hearty porridge of mung beans, milk and bananas.


Kids get weighed before eating so clinic staff can keep track of their weight.