Category Archives: Travel

A Day in the Dry Hills of Sabu

The pin shows the location of Sabu between Sumba and Timor. Australia is in the lower right-hand corner.

Our church in Launceston is privileged to support the spread of the gospel in Sabu.  I was asked to go there and represent our church at the ordination of two men to the ministry of the gospel.  Sabu is a small Indonesian island, wedged between the larger islands of Sumba and Timor.  Being in the south of the Indonesian archipelago, it’s physically not that far from the northern reaches of Australia.  Yet, culturally, it may as well be on the other side of the world.

It’s a typical, warm, dry morning as we make our way through the hilly arid landscape up to the church at Taka.  Rocks outnumber trees and the dry, brown dust says this is a tough place to earn a living off the land.  Compared to my current home in Tasmania, the bird and animal life is scarce.

We arrive at the church and already a few dozen people have gathered.  Eventually, they’ll total 150-200 people, filling the building and spilling out the back under a tent that’s been erected for the joyous occasion.  Many attendees are wearing the traditional Sabunese ikat, a woven garment with graphic designs unique to each clan.  They greet each other – and me – by rubbing noses.  As they smile, many mouths and teeth are visibly stained red.  This comes from the habit of chewing betel nuts – which gives a mild stimulant effect.

Amos and Yohanes, newly ordained Reformed ministers in Sabu.

The ordination service itself is familiar to a Reformed believer from anywhere.  It follows the standard Reformed liturgy.  Almost all the singing is from the Psalms, sung to Genevan tunes.  The Form for Ordination seems to be the form used everywhere else.  The men, Amos and Yohanes, are asked a series of questions.  They answer, “I do.”  Then follows the laying on of hands and I’m asked to participate in this, along with all the other pastors present.  Amos and Yohanes kneel on two pillows at the front of the church.  The pastors present (about 8 of us) gather around and we don’t actually place our hands on the brothers, but over them.  Then presiding pastor Pila says (in Indonesian, of course):

God, our heavenly Father, who has called you to this holy office, enlighten you with his Spirit and so govern you in your ministry that you may fulfil it obediently and that it may bear fruit to the honour of his name and the expansion of the kingdom of his Son Jesus Christ. Amen.

After the service ends, a number of people speak a few words.  I’m also given the opportunity to extend greetings on behalf of our church and its mission committee.  I present a gift to each of the newly minted pastors:  Richard Pratt’s He Gave Them Stories (in Indonesian).

We proceed to a house a short way down the dusty road for a celebratory feast.  The ladies have prepared an enormous amount of food to share for lunch.  Besides the obligatory rice, there’s also chicken, some goat, and liver, though I’m not sure from which animal.  For me, the highlight was a savoury pork heart stew with a vinegary sauce.

Joining me as I enjoy this feast are Pastor Windi and Elder Max.  They’re from another Reformed church on the island (Gurijara) and they both speak English fairly well.  Once we’re done eating, they invite me to travel with them to see some more of the island and its Reformed churches.  I hop on the back of Max’s motorbike and away we go.  With me weighing it down, the poor motorbike struggles to get much beyond 40 Km/h.

Elder Max and yours truly.

Max is a high school teacher and his English is good.  He’s quite talkative, even as we’re driving.  Because of his work, he seems to be well-known to many people in Sabu.  Almost every person he passes gets a little beep of the horn and sometimes a greeting or comment.  Before long, we’re at the church building in Gurijara.  This is the largest Reformed church on the island – I’m told it’s about 180 members.  They show me around the simple building and explain how they hope to eventually build a replacement next door.

Before we continue from Gurijara, I have to pause.  By this time the tropical sun is high and intense.  There’s hardly a cloud in sight.  Sunburn threatens and I’ve forgot to bring sunblock from home.  I went to every toko in the town of Seba but no one stocked sunblock.  The closest I could get was some hand and face lotion that included some sunscreen.  I apply that and even if I don’t get much sun protection, at least I smell flowery.

New Reformed church building under construction in Sabu Timor.

Our next stop is Sabu Timor.  We tour the new Reformed church under construction there – it’s going to be a large building once it’s completed.  The foundations are poured and supporting pillars are in place.  The next step is to build the walls, but progress is slow and no one is sure when it’ll be done.  There’s a store next to the construction site, owned by a church member.  We enjoy some water and Max gets some extra air pumped into his tires.  Yeah, it’s not exactly a feathery local riding with him.  But at least I smell nice.

Max and Windi offer to show me the old building in Sabu Timor.  We drive down the road a short ways and then we cut off onto a narrow track.  We drive past the veranda of a home, around the back, and then we’re there.  There are some church members waiting for us. They warmly greet us and we all rub noses.  We sit in some blue plastic chairs and take in the view out of the church and over the nearby ocean.  A refreshing breeze is blowing off the water and it’s a comfortable spot to relax.  Before long, the ladies are bringing in iced tea and a small meal of rice, cabbage, and omelette.

Max points out the most elderly member of the church.  She’s 83 years old and the matriarch of the village.  Everyone in the church is related to her, many of them are her children and grandchildren.  She’s blind in one eye, a little slow in her movement, but otherwise still seems quite alert.  Dressed in her traditional ikat, she quietly strikes a dignified poise.

One of the elders brings his guitar and serenades us with some strumming.  Max asks if I like singing and I say, “Sure, but not everyone likes my singing.”  He suggests we sing, “Silent Night” and we do, and it goes okay — in other words, no one runs away.  Then Windi says we should sing “How Great Thou Art.”  The guitarist first strums out the chorus and then we launch into the first verse.  We get to the chorus and just as we hit the high note at the end of the first line (“Then sings my soul…”), a village dog wanders in and starts howling along.  We all start laughing – all except the village matriarch.  She leaps out of her chair and goes at the poor musical dog.  She chases him out of the church and then, for good measure, takes a small plastic water bottle and hucks it at him.  You can hear the poor dog whimpering off into the shadows.  You don’t mess with the village matriarch when she’s enjoying her music!

From Sabu Timor, we head back to the main town of Seba.  I get dropped off at the homestay and Max heads back to his home in the nearby hills.  Seeing some of Sabu was interesting, enjoying some of the food was tantalizing, but the best thing of all was the reward of meeting God’s people.  It was awesome to share in their joy at the ordination of Amos and Yohanes.  And also getting a glimpse into their lives in this unique place was something that far transcends what you’d experience as an ordinary tourist.

Bizarre Foods of CDO

I went to the Philippines to preach and teach.  And I did.  But those who know me know I had other motives besides.  I enjoy travelling, and when I travel, I explore new food vistas.  I’m one of those adventurous sorts usually up to trying the “bizarre foods” of the world.

So I found myself once again in Cagayan de Oro or ‘CDO’ as the locals call it.  CDO is a city of about 600,000 in the northern part of Mindanao.  Mindanao is a Filipino island often in the news because of its large Muslim population.  Most recently, Muslim terrorists captured the city of Marawi until the Filipino army moved in.  There are certain parts of Mindanao that are no-go zones for guys like me.  But not CDO.

CDO is not in a Muslim part of Mindanao, so it’s relatively safe. This was my third time there and it’s gotten safer – I’m told the new President Rodrigo Duterte gets the credit. As a Westerner, you can certainly walk around most parts of CDO day or night without any worries.  So I did.

My teaching schedule was heavy – for a few of the days I was going for six or seven hours.  But there were breaks, especially a long one over the dinner hour.  On one of these breaks, I slipped out and scouted.  The place where I was teaching was in the heart of CDO.  It was not difficult to find the new experience I was after.

Before coming, I’d made a list of the new foods I wanted to try.  There was dinuguan – a savoury stew made from pork blood.  There was sisig – a sizzling dish made from pig face, assorted spices, and an egg cracked over top right before serving.  Crispy pata – deep fried pig feet.  Except for the last one (which I’d get later), I’d knocked all these items off my list.  One of my favourites, balut (duck egg with the embryo) was something I’d already had several times.  Now I was searching for something else, but I didn’t even know what it was.

I wandered the narrow streets in the downtown.  I danced with the jeepneys, tricycles, motorbikes, cars, and people.  Somehow nobody gets hurt.  I guess Filipinos know how to figure this all out.  They also love their food and down almost every street there’s something.  Some of it is relatively tame and uninteresting, like fried chicken skins or pork rinds.  But then something colourful caught my eye and I knew I wanted to try it.

But I also didn’t want to get sick.  During my last visit to the Philippines I tried a coconut wine advertised as a “cleanser.”  There is truth in Filipino advertising.  Whoever sold me that definitely had shares in toilet paper.

So I scouted the location and then went back to the teaching venue.  The next day I asked if a couple of Filipinos would join me, just to guide me and make sure I don’t eat something I’d regret.  Jim and Samboo – two old friends of mine from Marawi – volunteered to help.  Take a right, take a left down the first street, take the second right and walk about half a block down.  They didn’t know where we were going, but I sure did.  I showed them the grill station that got my attention.

It was a small shopfront with a large grill out front where skewers of meat were being cooked over hardwood coals.  Sadly, I can’t smell much anymore – I had an undiagnosed neurological problem in 2015 that made me lose most of my smell.  But I can imagine that, if one could smell, this would be a delightful aroma.  It was certainly an amazing sight – on one side the grill, on the other all the meats you could choose from to be grilled.  About halfway through the grilling process, the meat would be slathered with a dark red sauce.  I was ready to go all in.  Jim and Samboo gave me the green safety light.

The worst job I’ve ever had was at a chicken processing plant in Edmonton.  I worked on the line eviscerating chickens – a.k.a. gutting them.  Some entrails were saved:  the gizzard, the heart, the liver.  But, as far as I know, the rest was discarded.

Here at this CDO grill station, I spotted skewers of chicken gizzard, heart, and liver.  There were other skewers with little balls of chorizo sausage and still others with the more conventional cuts of chicken.  But there were also skewers with long worm-like organs – chicken intestine.  Now that’s something new!

Jim ordered several of these skewers and then we sat inside and waited for them to cook.  Before long, we had them in front of us.  I tried them all, including the intestine.  It was okay, and I would eat it again, but I wouldn’t rank it up there with the best foods I’ve tried in the Philippines.  There’s a reason why these kinds of foods are sold on the street for just a few pesos – there are plenty of low-income Filipinos relying on these cheaper cuts for their protein.  Not everyone in the world can afford chicken breast.

I appreciate the fact that Filipinos don’t waste what they take from creation.  If a pig gets slaughtered, most of that pig will get consumed.  Same even with the chickens.  While it might be by virtue of necessity, this stewardship is commendable.

Later I was speaking with Kit, our volunteer driver.  I soon found out he was also a foodie – he loves to cook and eat.  During one of our conversations he said, “There’s this guy on TV, he says, ‘If it looks good…’”  Then I finished his sentence, “Eat it!”  Turns out we’re both big fans of Andrew Zimmern, the host of Bizarre Foods.  Zimmern has a couple of episodes about the Philippines, but I don’t think he’s ever ventured down to Mindanao.  So with my CDO grill station experience, I think I may even have one over him.  And no, I didn’t get sick.

Brazil 2012

Tomorrow I’m starting off my journey to Brazil, my second one in as many years.  Yes, I know I’m blessed to have these opportunities.  I look forward to reconnecting with my Brazilian brothers and sisters and meeting more of them.  With God’s blessing, I hope to be able to encourage and edify them.  I’m thankful that my church and family are supportive in this as well.  Here’s what’s on my agenda for the next couple of weeks:

June 27 to July 2 — I’m slated to be in Belém (at the mouth of the Amazon River) for the Reformed Conference hosted by Word of Truth Reformed Association and the Puritan Project.  I will be speaking on the doctrine of the church as found in the Belgic Confession.  More details about the conference can be found here (in Portuguese).

July 2 to July 6 — I plan to go south to Maragogi (just south of Recife).  There the Puritan Project is hosting another edition of the same conference.  I will be speaking on the same topics there as in Belém.  At this conference, there will be quite a few members of the Reformed Churches of Brazil.  I should also mention that at both conferences I will be speaking with Dr. Nick Willborn.

July 7 — I’ll be in Recife at the Aldeia Training Center.  They’ll be hosting a Training Day and I’ll be speaking on Mormonism.

July 9-11 — I’m scheduled to be teaching an evangelism course at the John Calvin Institute, the seminary of the Reformed Churches of Brazil.

July 9 — in the evening I’ll be giving a public lecture at the Reformed Reading Room in Recife.  The topic will be “Saints and Sinners:  At the Same Time?”

Besides the above, I’ll also be preaching at various churches and probably some other stuff that will pop up along the way.  I’m not sure what my Internet access will be like while I’m down there, but as circumstances allow I’ll try to post some updates here.  Tomorrow it begins with a flight to Miami.  I’ll meet Dr. Willborn there and then together we travel to Belém (via Manaus) on Wednesday.  Should be exciting!

The Reformed Church is (Still) Alive in Ukraine

“The Reformed Church is Alive in Ukraine,” was the title of an article by J. Van Rietschoten in the July 9, 1999 issue of Clarion.  In that article from long ago, we learned of the mission work being doing in Ukraine by our Dutch sister churches.  Van Rietschoten told of how the Reformed church at Hattem had sent out two missionaries, Rev. Marten Nap and Rev. Jan Werkman.  They were working to assist the fledgling Evangelical Reformed Church of Ukraine.

Now flash ahead to today.  I recently had an opportunity to visit Ukraine and see some of the mission work first hand.  Rev. Nap and Rev. Werkman have repatriated, but others are carrying on the work.  How is the Reformed faith progressing in the largest country in Europe?  What kind of fruit has come from over a decade of work by the Dutch missionaries?

I was greeted at the Boryspil airport in Kiev by Rev. Jos Colijn.  He was mentioned in Van Rietschoten’s earlier article, but at that time was working in Hungary.  Since then he has moved to Kiev where he teaches church history and dogmatics at the Evangelical Reformed Seminary.  This institution provides theological training via a modular program.  The staff comes primarily from our Dutch sister churches as well as from the Presbyterian Church in America (who also have a number of missionaries working in Ukraine).  The students come from the Evangelical Reformed churches, as well as from the Presbyterian churches.

On the Lord’s Day, I worshipped with the Evangelical Reformed congregation in Kiev.  There were about 40-50 people in attendance, mostly made up of young people and families.  This church has its own modest building and pastor.  Interestingly, the service was conducted in a mixture of Ukrainian and Russian – not uncommon in Kiev.  After the service, the brothers and sisters spent time fellowshipping, just as they do in other parts of the world.

Evangelical Reformed Church building in Kiev, Ukraine

Later that afternoon, I joined my Dutch colleague as he taught a catechism lesson at a house church in another part of the city.  This church had been Pentecostal and was in the process of learning how to be Reformed.  The pastor and elder of the church had invited Rev. Colijn to teach them the Heidelberg Catechism.  In a room in a small apartment in a huge complex, there we sat with some ten people and Rev. Colijn taught the Reformed doctrine of the Lord’s Supper.  There were some questions and discussion afterwards, but from all appearances his teaching was well-received.

With Rev. Henk Drost (r) and Rev. Cor Harryvan (l), GKV missionaries in Ukraine

That weekend the other two Dutch missionaries (yes, there are now three!) were much further south in Ukraine.  Rev. Henk Drost and Rev. Cor Harryvan were assisting two of the Evangelical Reformed congregations near the Black Sea.  They returned to Kiev on Monday along with a group of men who were going to attend the conference scheduled for Tuesday and Wednesday of that week.  Rev. Henk Drost lives in the city of Rivne, about 350 km west of Kiev.  From there he provides mentoring throughout Ukraine for the Evangelical Reformed Churches.  Rev. Cor Harryvan has the same task, but he is based in Kiev.

The reason I was in Ukraine was to speak at the All Reformed Conference.  This was held on Tuesday November 8 and Wednesday November 9.  I spoke on the subject of my doctoral dissertation, the missionary significance of the Belgic Confession.  The Conference was held at a Baptist retreat in a beautiful outlying area of Kiev.  Attending the conference were Reformed and Presbyterian elders, pastors, and missionaries from all over Ukraine.  There was also one brother who came from the neighbouring country to the north, Belarus.  In terms of the time travelled to reach the Conference, some of these men had given up far more than I had.  They spent many hours by train and bus to attend this time of learning and fellowship.  They appeared to be quite interested in the subject and we had some excellent discussions.  Of course, since I don’t know Russian or Ukrainian, all of that had to take place through a translator.  Sergey Nakul was always at my side (or slightly behind me) giving me the gift either of tongues or of understanding – he did excellent work!

All Reformed Conference. Pastors, elders, and missionaries attended from all over Ukraine and Belarus.

From the conference it became apparent that the Reformed faith is holding its own in Ukraine.  There is some modest growth, but there are also many challenges.  Some of those are cultural and have to do with the fact that Ukraine is a post-communist nation.  Communism fostered suspicion and a lack of trust that is still embedded in the psyche of Ukraine.  Some of the challenges are spiritual and have to do either with the atheism birthed by communism or false teachings masquerading as Christianity.  Other challenges are personal.  Slavic peoples admire strong men who dominate even to the point of tyranny.  In Reformed church leadership that approach rarely, if ever, ends well or really serves God’s people.  Despite these challenges, the Reformed churches in Ukraine are committed to the truth of God’s Word and to the life-changing power of the gospel of Jesus Christ.  They continue to reach out to this dark world and, in small measures, God is blessing their efforts.

In the earlier article in Clarion, mention was made of the St. James Bible College.  Some United Reformed pastors had been involved with teaching the Heidelberg Catechism at this institution in Kiev.  Even though St. James was not Reformed, they had been invited and were welcomed to bring Reformed teaching.  Before I left for Ukraine, and after I returned, several people asked me about this.  I inquired about it while in Kiev.  This institution apparently changed direction in the last decade and is now hostile to the Reformed faith.  This is a sad turn of events, but the upside is that the Lord did bless the efforts of URC pastors such as Rev. Ray Sikkema.  Some of the current students at the Evangelical Reformed Seminary first heard and embraced the gospel of grace via this means.

These days there’s a lot of negative press about our Dutch sister churches.  To be sure, there are some reasons for concern.  But there in Ukraine I encountered some Dutch brothers who were deeply passionate about being confessionally Reformed and missional.  My time there was delightful, not only because of the cross-cultural experience (mmm…borscht!), but especially because I felt a real bond of fellowship with my Dutch colleagues.  I could enjoy their fantastic hospitality and some thought-provoking discussions on theological and missionary matters.  We can be thankful for the good work being doing by these men on behalf of our Dutch sister churches.  May God continue to richly bless their efforts for the gospel of our Saviour.

More information about the Dutch mission work in Ukraine can be found at the website of the Ukraine Committee (includes English content).

Ukrainian Visit

This evening I leave for Kiev, Ukraine.  I’ll be there for about a week.  The purpose of the visit is to speak at a conference next week.  The details of the conference are here in Russian and with a rough Google translation into English here.  The theme has to do with the missionary significance of the Belgic Confession, a topic I’ve written a book about.  I’ll try to make some blog posts while I’m there.

When I get back, I’ll conclude the series on liturgical change in the CRC.