Month: May 2018

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.



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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

ov-10 bronco

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.


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.


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.