Unity: How Pleasant It Is!

This morning I had the honor of preaching on the Unity Theme at the joint worship of the Christians from De Castro and the Christians from Pasig-Kapitolyo. This was their third time to worship together, so I was told.

The Pasig-Kapitolyo church began with brother George Esmelia of Bacolod City. This is wonderful! George and I had been at loggerheads before because we could not agree on anything in our religious discussions at the Plaza of Bacolod City in the 1970’s. But while I disagreed with George, I too prayed that he would see the light of the Gospel. And God listened to my prayers. He worked wonders: George Esmelia was taught and baptized, not by me, but by other brethren; not in Bacolod, but in Metro Manila! I rejoiced at the conversion of my former antagonist! Calling him by phone in the 1990’s, we would often laugh out loud at how we had rationalized and justified our positions!

Early this decade, George left the Kapitolyo church in the care of the younger brethren, went to the US, then to Singapore. He was a restless man, but he also was a depressed man– because of the untimely death of his dear wife Marfe. The last news we heard was that he is back in Bacolod City.

The church in Kapitolyo was indeed in good hands, thanks to the Lord and to the few leaders who kept raising the torch of the gospel, fiery and bright and strong, even in the time of raging storms that life had brought them. Twenty years of existence! The Kapitolyo church that began with George  kept on and grew without George, and God be praised for that!

They talked of merger today, the De Castro Christians and the Kapitolyo Christians, and I too was in the meeting. There were seven of us present. They ironed out the kinks that remained. Brethren went another mile, loosened up a bit, and did some sacrifice to make this union a reality.

We owe it to the Lord and to the Father for Their having inspired the leaders of De Castro church (Aldous Echegoyen and Cesar Ola) and those of Kapitolyo church (Jun Cayanan, Bitoy Tagapolot, and one other brother), giving them the light to see the wisdom of the suggestions to pool their resources, their talents and their skills and their influences to promote the growth of the body of Christ in the area. They were now eager to convince the other members of their respective groups to merge as one. The merger is one best thing that has happened to the congregations of Christ in Pasig!

Unity they called it. It is more than that. In the coming Sundays and months and years we will be seeing the effects of this unity-merger-union in the lives and in the work of the two churches that have become one.

The young leaders of the two merging congregations have asked for my help, have solicited my mentoring skills, have desired to drink from the fount of knowledge that grew (they said) from my long experience of preaching the Gospel. In the words of brother Jun Cayanan, “Please reproduce yourself in us, help us to copy the Christianity that grew in you.” Flattered? That was not my feeling. All of a sudden I felt I had become small and needed the guidance from above in order to meet these brethren’s expectations!

“Behold, how good and pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity” (Psalms 133:1).

To see the photos, please click here…

We Need Change!

Change! It should be a welcome thing for you and for me. For without it, there would have been no butterflies. All our sunsets and sunrises would have the same worn-out look all year-round. Clouds above us would be like flotsam floating and drifting toward ennui’s sea. Without change, mind you, every day for three hundred sixty-five and one-fourth days of our lives, the rains of heaven would wearisomely patter in the same old measured drops that could not initiate a reading on a rain gauge—-we like rains pounding and pouring in great gushes sometimes.

You may welcome that cherub face of a darling babe at birth, but at age thirty that cherub face of a darling babe is already a “Bondying,” a tiresome monstrosity, better retired. Oh, when will he ever grow up? you would say in much exasperation.

Because there is change, each day comes to us with a hope that the burden that in the past was too heavy would now be lighter. Since tears have already run dry on the pillow of last night’s weeping, the pain of today would be bearable, or otherwise banished. A smile now adorns that once mournful face.

Change is welcome. You suspect that aging is a terrible thing?  It crowns your calendar days with experiences too great and too noble. Maybe you still wanted to be the star on the football field, or the greatest marathoner the world had ever seen. But wait, do not arthritis and muscle pains too come with their own blessings?  Arthritis, that inflammation of body joints, and the pain that accompanies it are like a pair of wheels in a wheelchair to carry you and give you that much-needed respite from the labors of the day. Is not dementia a state of mind and the body needs to give it a welcome hug? It makes you forget even the pains and hurts of past struggles with men, with weather, with  worries. Think that that star you had been should now become an icon to be admired and memorialized. Know too that that greatest marathon runner  that was you should now be watching other runners pass before your eyes. You were the first and they are just making their own niche next to yours. Relax and retire now those athletic shoes and start savoring the joys of the man you had once been.

We need change to flavor our days, even to savor with renewed joys those days of our past joys. We need change to let that once bragging youth give way to the mature man, and make us better persons.

We need change badly. The man that we once were should now retire. We need to replace that anger with love. We need to throw away those words that make pain and create hurts in the hearts of other people, and substitute warmth in its stead.

Wonder why God chooses older men to be elders in the congregation? Because God wants change and older men are the change that could set the stage of a new world that He wants to create. Your gray hairs should be the crown of your wisdom. Because as you age, you undergo some mellowing and some diminishing. For one, your strength diminishes.  If you are not mellowed with age, you are disabled; you can’t fight back by still shouting at the top of your voice—-the young who will hear you do not believe that you can carry out your threats. Besides, an old man who pounds tables is all short fuses but no gunpowder. He is the last crack of lightning in the night-time sky. All pfft and no put.

The world that we are needs to grow old and die. But it has to grow old in grace and die in grace. And as we grow old, as we lay dying there, welcome the young on that stage which is the finality of our earthly struggles. We are at the center of it, they watch us leave. Like the ancients who grew old in grace, let us let that grace wrap itself around us as we leave the world of the living. Let our footsteps be for the young to trace, and our lives their examples to emulate.

Rising Above Humanness

Factor forgiveness into your system, even if you’re not a theologian, even if you’re not religious. As a believer you’ll tremendously need that in these days when brotherhood falling outs have become as common as common colds, when domestic estrangements become ordinary fares on TV, on the internet, at the breakfast table.  If you’re church-less, you’ll need forgiveness—-you too need to forgive or be forgiven—- in order to move on with life.

Forgiveness, as the song goes, is like seeing a bunch of yellow ribbons tied to the old oak tree: The people you had offended and sinned against are welcoming you back. Welcoming arms. It is a symbol too great to ignore. Not seeing that, you don’t get down from the bus of your life, you  just roll on, you go find yourself a hide-away where you can start a life, perhaps incognito.

They who have not forgiven you, you who have not been forgiven, are still entwined in that human fault that characterizes most men and women. To sin is a fault; to not forgive is also a fault.

Man is made to forgive and be forgiven. The fault of humanness is as old as Eden. When humanity left that garden, they never turned back. Their sinfulness made it next to impossible to turn back. To go back to that garden of God’s fellowship, we need the refreshing of the soul, even a little nod and a smile from heaven, telling us everything now is all right.

Some cannot forgive because they have a difficulty deleting the memories of the pains and hurts in their system; it takes a while, if not a long while, to forget them.  Maybe you have the resolve of an Elin Nordegren, and I cannot fault you. In fact I empathize.  If you had a spouse like Tiger Woods, who could in an interview still say “family comes first,” and keep on having trysts with 14 women of different stripes, I understand why you are Elin Nordegren. That pretty model turned celebrity wife, descendant of the Vikings, had in her system that iron will to not take things sitting down. Already she had consulted a lawyer about renegotiating the prenuptial agreement with Tiger Woods. Already she had arranged for one or two movers to haul their things. Already she and her billionaire golfer husband slept and ate separately. Divorce papers, to be filed in court as soon as the ink gets dry, will formalize their status: estranged  now, divorced forever.

That is why I can never be a spiritual advisor to an Elin Nordegren. There’s this family, four of whom I had the joy of seeing being admitted into the kingdom of Jesus years ago: The husband and his wife, his mother-in-law, and his sister-in-law. Five years into their spiritual journey they found themselves in a storm. Some winds blew with a great blast into their lives bringing with it problems that tried their strength and mettle: Husband’s joblessness, his vices, his fornication. The wife alone was the bread-winner. One night fresh from tutoring a Chinese lad, hungry and tired, she caught her husband and her sister doing their thing on their bed. Rage flew, plates and kettles found their targets. To escape the furor that arose over the scandal, the husband left home that night with his sister-in-law in tow, his partner in the crime so called.

Months, perhaps years later the husband came back. The wife could not forgive. No amount of scripture could turn her mind around. I was told the husband did not deserve any forgiveness because he never changed, he did not turn a new leaf.

I can’t blame you if you admire Elin Nordegren and seek to imitate her resolve to teach a lesson to a husband unyielding in his resolve to keep on sinning.

Not many seem to understand that forgiveness benefits more the one doing the act of forgiving than the one being forgiven: “If you will not forgive other people their trespasses, neither will your Father in heaven forgive you your trespasses.” For that reason, to be forgiving is to be spiritual.  It is to rise above our humanness.

You may forgive or you may not. It is your choice. Heaven, this you must know, shall be filled by people who made the right choices in this life.

When Moving On Means Moving Out

Last Sunday, December the 13th, I preached to a congregation of teary-eyed Christians. I spoke slowly, weighing every word.

My topic was about Paul’s farewell to Ephesian elders, Acts 20:17-38. Not a difficult passage to “exegete” (this word is a noun but I am using it here as a verb for want of a word that properly conveys what I have in mind!). The difficulty lies in the emotions. In the heart.

It is not because after nine years of laboring with them, we now have seen the end of our days as a missionary; it is because the times have called us to move on, and the only recourse open to us is to move out. Out of the place of labors we have come to appreciate for its serendipity and excitement. Out of the sight of brethren we love so dearly.

As they read the passage, as they listened to me, brethren could not help but be touched, even as they recalled the hardships of my labors among them, which they all knew too well. They recalled how I walked the long distance from Cebu Trans-Central Highway to the mountains of Babag, with its unpaved road slippery and muddy even after a slight rain, on days when I had no motorcycle. They saw the dangers I had gone through preaching to their violent neighbors who would not listen, but who would even threaten me; they heard of one who almost chopped me with a machete, not because of religious disagreements but because I caught him in his sin (in his sin against me) and I confronted him. They saw my patience, as I read to them the Will of the Lord in His Word, motivating them to obey their King, which resulted to their becoming children of God. They recalled seeing me soaking wet and shivering after being caught under a storm when my motorcycle wouldn’t run. But they saw that I was happy doing what I had been doing.

Ahh… What a great fulfillment that was.

My sermon took an hour, punctuated by pauses. I even had a hard time finding the right words to say.

This afternoon, everyone looked at me as I spoke. The sun was about to say goodbye, and teardrops began to fall. I told them it would be a long time before they would see my face again.

They knew and understood. But if they have accepted what the fates offer them, what logic and practicality give them as an option, I’d say I am not sure.

At the conclusion I hugged each of them, both the ladies and the men; and they all wept profusely on my shoulder.

They asked me for prayers, and that’s what I did. After we’re done, the men left hurriedly—they could not contain their emotions.

The women? They lingered a little longer at the door of the meeting place. For one more time, I hugged them and left.

Today I preached to a congregation of teary-eyed Christians.

I spoke slowly, weighing every word.

My topic was about Paul’s farewell to Ephesian elders, Acts 20:17-38. As they read the passage, as they listened to me, brethren could not help but be touched, even as they recalled the hardships of my labors among them, which they all knew too well. They recalled how I walked the long distance from Cebu Trans-Central Highway to the mountains of Babag, with its unpaved road slippery and muddy even after a slight rain, on days when I had no motorcycle. They saw the dangers I had gone through preaching to their violent neighbors who would not listen, but who would even threaten me. They saw my patience, as I read to them the Will of the Lord in His Word, motivating them to obey their King, which resulted to their becoming children of God. They recalled seeing me wet after being caught under a storm when my motorcycle wouldn’t run. But they saw that I was happy doing what I have been doing.

Ahh… What a great fulfillment that was.

My sermon took an hour, punctuated by pauses. I even had a hard time finding the right words to use.

This afternoon, everyone looked at me. The sun was about to say goodbye, and teardrops began to fall.

At the conclusion I hugged each of them, both the ladies and the men; and they all wept profusely on my shoulder.

I told them it would be a long time before they would see my face again.

It is my first time to deliver a sermon that made the congregation cry.

Renato Austria

Renato AustriaI only knew Renato Austria as a face and a name on Facebook when brother Sonny Catalan introduced him to us. That was more than a week ago. Chito Cusi wrote about him. Gigie Carranza wrote about him. But I never knew him much. These last few days, however, tidbits and short notes kept adding to the scarce and limited information that I have of him, giving me in a way an almost complete profile of the man.

Atong (as he was fondly called by close friends and fellow disciples) was an active member of Midtown church in Baguio, a teammate in the church action group called MARCH for Christ, and had for many years been involved in the work of the Lord in many lands of Asia. At one time I and some brethren in Cebu did some follow-up of the mission MARCH had begun in Kalibo City, Aklan, but our paths –Atong’s and mine—never crossed.

But Atong, like the rest of those MARCH people, had done a great job in places perhaps too many to mention. If the church had wings to fly and feet to walk, Atong and the rest of them were those wings and those feet, flying to the heartlands of the heathens, walking on paths rough and muddy, on raging rivers, under heavy rains, from daybreak to daybreak, in a bid to turn these heathen hearts into heartlands of God. If the church had hands and lips, Atong was one of those, reaching out their hands to these men without God, with offers of food for the body, and proclaiming with their lips the food that could nourish the soul.

While Atong and the rest had been waging a war to win the hearts of men and women for Christ, he had also been waging a silent war in his own body. It is a terrible war. For the war in the cancer wards is a war we could lose, since science has not yet found a potent cure for it, like it did for TB. Cancer is our modern blight and our only way out of it is an early prognosis that can be done in labs by doctors skilled in the job. For brother Atong, it was too late to know he had caught it.

Death and cancer however must be understood in the light of God’s plan for man in general. For man, the creature whom God had molded from the dust of the ground and breathed into with the breath of life, is not meant to dwell in this domain of dusts forever, in this habitation corrupted and defiled by so much sins, by so many wrongs man did against his fellow man. Atong knew so well the face of unbrotherliness because he too had gone to Myanmar and China. This world has gone a long way since the day God created an Eden in the heart of it. We have forgotten that we all came from one womb, and that every man is in fact a brother to everyone. Eden, the former home of the first human family is too close to the Arab and Jewish lands where the hateful war of brother against brother has been waged since time immemorial.  Atong with the rest of our brethren had tried to change what outlook everyone had had with others of their kind, by taking to them just that message of brotherliness that God has wanted them to see.

The only cure for death and the blight of death is hope in Jesus. In His great mercy, God allows us to weep and view the death of a loved one as a loss for us. But God also wants us to understand that death is a gain. Death is the closing of one door and the opening of another–the door to glory. Atong had served God well and enough already. God wanted him to come to his glorious home, with a life there that is a lot better than the life here.

Our prayers are for those whom this dear brother has left behind—his dear wife and two kids. God always loves His own. And so while we remain in this land of tears and sorrows, we still feel secure and well. Why? Hear God speak:

“Let brotherly love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained strangers unawares. Remember those who are in prison, as though in prison with them; and those who are ill-treated since you also are in the body. Let marriage be held in honor among all, and let the marriage bed be undefiled; for God will judge the immoral and adulterous. Keep your life free from love of money, and be content with what you have; for he has said, ‘I will never fail you nor forsake you.’ Hence we can confidently say, ‘The Lord is my helper, I will not be afraid; what can man do to me?”’ (Hebrews 13:1-6).

Reformers, Restorers, or Renewers?

IMG_0570There is a question that sometimes may jolt you from your senses, urging you to investigate and satisfy your need to give a better “answer to the one who asks you a reason for the hope that is in you.”   Questions that demand you be consistent with what you stand for. Questions like, What are we? Restorers, reformers, or renewers? (This last word I have to invent; it’s not in the dictionary).

The churches of Christ are not the only religious group who claims to be the restored church; the Mormons and the INC-1914 do too.

Alexander Campbell, as far as my studies are concerned, called himself and his fellow disciples “reformers,” not restorers. Their movement began at the close of the 17th century. In fact, brother Bill Humble goes on record as saying that the “Restoration Movement began in America in 1800” (The Story of the Restoration, p. 1). It was a “Restoration Movement” fathered by one who never called himself a “restorer.”

Greville Ewing, the Haldane brothers, Robert Sandeman and his father in law John Glass never thought of themselves as “restorers,” but “reformers,” like Campbell. Their “Reformation movement” had antedated the “Restoration Movement” in America by some 200 years. So a “Reformation Movement” in the British soil had fathered a “Reformation movement” in America that later called itself “Restoration Movement.”

But the Anabaptist Movement in Europe had preceded the British movement by another 200 years also. They never called themselves “restorers” but reformers.

As far as I know, it was J. W. Shepherd who made the distinction between “restoration” and “reformation.” Why this distinction? We owe it to the progress of our cause, which called for the crystallization of the things we taught. We owe it to our leaders who decided we should also make a name.

If one looks for the pattern of things, then, you have the Anabaptists, the British, then the Americans. We Filipinos are just the daughters of the movement sired by the Campbells, Barton W. Stone, Elias Smith, and Abner Jones in the soil of America.

If we call ourselves “restorers,” what are we restoring? You cannot call yourself by something that you are not. Are we restoring the church?

Come closer and lend me your ears, please. If we claim to be “restorers” then we are admitting to the world that the INC had been right all along– the church of Christ had been lost, and from the time of its departure, there had been no saved people until Felix Manalo came on the scene! Are you ready to believe that?

That is your first predicament–to be identified with the group that calls itself too as the “restored church,” which actually was a church that started from us (Gentlemen, hear ye, hear ye, Felix Manalo, the founder of the INC-1914 actually came from our Movement. He was introduced to the church of Christ by an American named Frederick Kershner, a missionary of the instrumental wing of the Church of Christ).

Your other predicament is that you have to skew these passages in Matthew 16:18, Daniel 2:44 and Hebrews 12:28 that speak about the eternal nature of the church in order to fit your doctrine– “the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it”; “in the days of these kings shall the God of heaven set up a kingdom that shall never be destroyed”; “therefore we receiving a kingdom that cannot be moved.”

I may be a son of the restorationists who came to these islands of 7,100 after Spain had ravaged it for 500 years and sold me into Magellan’s religion. And it’s one of those many events that God in His wondrous mercy had allowed to happen. I am thankful for Admiral George Dewey who came to my shores with his fleet of warships in preparation for a showdown with the Castillians and pointed his big guns toward Intramuros, giving his gunner this signal: “Be ready to fire when I tell you, Ridley.” He ended Spain’s rule over my islands. Then we welcomed the Thomasites, then the Protestants, then the “restorers” from America. The rest is history.

If you call me a “restorationist,” I have a problem wearing that scapular for the rest of my life. I am always thankful to my American mentors (Kenneth J. Wilkey, Bob Buchanan, Douglas LeCroy, Dale Chilton, and Douglas Gunselman) for teaching me Bible, and to Jeff Shelton for making me learn Greek. I have had Filipino teachers too–Brothers Seb Tanicala, Adrian Limbawan (deceased), Teofilo Alcayde, Felix Bravo, Cesar Lobino (deceased), Daniel Oliva, Roman Cariaga, Felipe Cariaga, Conrado Mapalo, Cesar Tajores, and the late Flor Tanicala. Thankful too for the late Eduardo Montoyo Sr. and for his son Eduardo Jr for guiding me into the right group, and for Charlie Garner for preaching that message one night in Baliwasan church hall, the message whose thunders echoed in my ears and made me tremble at the thought of not finding myself with the redeemed someday. God bless them.  Perhaps I differ from some of my teachers on the idea of the “restoration.” I am not a restorer of a church, because I wouldn’t be true to the purpose, intent and nature of that blessed institution for which my Lord died. I cannot restore a church that never vanished from the face of the earth in the first place! There was no general departure of the church and I trust the Holy Spirit who said to Paul that only “some shall depart from the faith” (1 Timothy 4:1).

I too have a problem calling myself a “reformer.” What do I reform? the doctrines of the church? The church itself? The true teachings of the Bible do not need any reforming at all. I am in the Lord’s church. In a sense I can be a reformer in the Lord’s church. But those other churches which are not Christ’s do not need any reforming; they need to be taught about the basics of truth.

So what am I? I am just a Christian preacher, calling the people who have departed from God to go back to Him again. I am calling for a renewal of relationships.

These thoughts are just for you to consider. This is not to fault anyone of you for teaching something different from mine. Tell you what, I have arrived at these thoughts after many prayerful studies of the Word, and after many debates with the sects. You may say that my ideas have undergone some kind of crystallization also. Consider it. It is not a dogma of a pope. It is not the kind of teaching that demands I split the church because some of you guys don’t agree with me. I am not going to die for that opinion, never.

What then are you saying, brother Ed? you may ask. Tell you what: One of those things that I like about the Campbells and other “restorers” is their motto that became the “restoration” movement’s guiding light: “In matters of faith, unity; in matters of opinion, liberty; in all things, charity.” Difference of opinion is what it is. I don’t chop other people for teaching that they cannot address the Father as Lord in their prayers because they believe that Jesus is the only Lord. I still love my brothers even though some of them may be up in arms because I disagree with them on the matter of the Spirit’s indwelling. I just love to learn, and I also love knowing they learn their own truths some other way. Differences such as ours is not a heaven-or-hell issue. I believe that we can still go to heaven even if we differ in our opinions– opinions that are not intended to fractionalize the body, but to become the springboard for discussions in order to for us to come up with a message that is consistent with the Word.

If this is the attitude we have, then we should not have divided over the issues of orphan homes, Bible schools, plural cups, located preacher, benevolence for the non-Christians. If Daniel Sommer and Roy Cogdill had not been too pushy of their principles, then the movement that my beloved American brothers had brought to many shores would not have been too fractious. As it is I am a loss to explain why we plead for unity of all believers and then divide the churches over minor issues. God help these fractious men! is all I can say in moments of frustrations.

Gentlemen, I love this church. There is nothing like it in the whole world, in spite of what our detractors say. Whether we agree or disagree on minor points, let us rather push for the evangelization of the whole world. That is the most important. If a brother lacks the sense that others have, the church, consisting of different talents and mental resources could amply supply that lack. But the church must also be tolerant over small matters. I am of the opinion that no one goes to hell just because he believes that when the Lord comes again, he shall restore the kingdom to Israel (cf. Acts 1:6). If even Christ had been tolerant of this small fault in the apostolic band, why couldn’t us? Why couldn’t you?

Oh, you can keep calling yourselves “restorers,” or “reformers,” and I don’t really mind. Some messages sometimes don’t sink that deep; sometimes they bounce back.

Now, it’s your turn to bounce to me your opinions. I will listen.

The Preacher and His Preaching

IMG_0570Is preaching a tired old business? On the contrary it is a business that concerns itself with the most important thing one could ever think of: That of making ourselves right with the God whom we have displeased.

Displeased, you say? Yes. We displease Him when we  get out of line or misbehave. We displease Him when we’re out of step with His will and purposes for us. We displease Him when we refuse to heed His pleadings. We displease Him when we wallow in the mire of sin. We displease Him in every which way we turn when that turn turns out to be bad. And we can never make ourselves right with Him, not even with ourselves, unless He supplies us with the formula to make us attuned to Him again.

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