Adventures in East Timor – Part 6

It’s Sunday, the 6th of January – Day 4 of our mission trip – and it was the Sabbath!

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I was looking forward to this day because Amos, a youth leader on our team, was going to deliver the Sunday message. I’m always up for hearing fresh preachers. Sometimes we are used to the same old preachers, the way they structure their sermons, the illustrations they use. You can almost predict what they are going to say. Sometimes, you’ve even heard their recycled sermons.

Some churches now do a “Young Guns” series: a couple of Sundays a year when new (usually young), upcoming preachers in the church get to preach a short 10-minute sermon on a topic of their choosing. It’s amazing what young people can do when given the chance. It’s also a great way to raise the next generation of preachers.

We had gathered at Agung’s place in readiness for our Sunday service. I was going to do the worship, Ernie would administer the communion and then, the main event – Mossy’s preaching (I don’t often say that preaching is the main event since after all, every part of the service is just as important – but just for that day, I was happy to make the concession!)

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We began our time of worship and once again, I felt a great sense of God’s presence as we moved into intercession for East Timor. As usual, Ling prayed through her tears.

After communion, Mossy took us to his text for the morning – Isaiah 6 – as a reminder for us to remain faithful to God and His call on our lives, even when we can’t quite yet see the fruit of our labours.

Isaiah 6 has always been a favourite passage for me as a worship minister, because it describes how Isaiah encountered God’s presence and how the glory of God filled the temple. For me, the passage had always been about how our encounter with God through worship empowers us to go forth into the nations – “here am I, send me”. But Mossy didn’t end there, and that’s when I received a fresh revelation of this passage.

Even though Isaiah willingly gave of himself to the cause, God’s response to Him in verse 9 was that the people he would preach to would ever be hearing, but never understanding, seeing but not perceiving. Imagine being called to such a tough gig! I think many of us might have given up or questioned whether we had heard God correctly in the first place. But Isaiah remained faithful to the call, and in the course of his ministry, penned some of the most profoundly beautiful verses of prophecy in the entire Bible, many of which prefigured the coming Messiah.

And even though Isaiah didn’t seem to be bearing immediate fruit, the fruit of his ministry ultimately lasted through the ages.

After an awesome Sunday service, it was time for lunch.

We then had quite a bit of free time before our next program, the Sunday afternoon cell meeting.

Originally, we were meant to use the time to prepare a skit, but frankly a lot of us were feeling quite spent. We managed to convince Gary that we shouldn’t do the skit. Thankfully, he agreed!

So instead, Gary got his face painted, some of the us made bead bracelets for the village girls and I started to restring Agung’s old guitar.

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The beads looked like fun, and eventually, I got to string some beads together too, but I struggled to tie the knots with my fat fingers.

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Lynn did a great job of painting the Timorese flag on Gary’s face.

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The time of rest was gratefully savoured by all. And it couldn’t have come at a better time because nothing could have prepared us for what was to come next.

When you and I think about cell group, we think, maybe 12 to 15 people sitting around in a circle, singing a few songs, sharing a testimony or two and doing some Bible study. Boy, were we in for a rude shock.

Three round trips in the Landcruiser later, a whopping 53 people had gathered – many of them children. You might call it cell group – I’m thinking it’s more like the beginnings of a full-fledged church!

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After everyone had gathered, everyone was split up into different age groups, with the adults staying in the “auditorium” for a more “traditional” cell group time, whilst the rest of us were left to herd the children into various areas – a very strategic divide-and-conquer tactic, I must say.

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Ling, Wen and me ended up in the equivalent of “creche” – kids who were around 6 years old or younger. I remember doing creche duty when I was growing up in church – you just sit there with the kids and play with the toys. Easy.

Except this time, there were no toys! There were no books either! How were we going to entertain these kids for the next hour?

We brought out our stash of balloons and quickly began making balloon animals. The $2 pump and the bag of balloons were looking like a very wise pre-trip investment.

However, our limited skills meant that there were only so many permutations of animals we could make (in fact, we could only make three variations) and before long, we realised the kids weren’t super-impressed with the animals so much as being intrigued by the pop of exploding balloons when they bit on them hard enough.

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Meanwhile, in another room, it seemed like the older kids were calmly playing organised games. How nice…

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Outside, on the porch, it looked like they played more organised games.

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And look how well behaved the parents were in their cell group setting – probably singing together in lovely harmonies.

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They probably also politely took turns to speak and pray for each other. How serene and peaceful this all was.

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Look at the wonderful time of sharing and edification that was going on in the auditorium.

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Meanwhile, back in the creche, it was fast descending into chaos. At one point, I saw a look of sheer desperation on Wen’s face. This was the first time I’ve seen her look that way.

Whilst Wen and Ling scurried to find other things for the kids to do, I was given one instruction only – keep making those balloons! So I did, and I even got one of the kids, Abo, to learn to make one with me. I have to say though, my balloon dog was so much more well-formed than his.

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Later on, one of the mums, Anita, came into the room and the atmosphere toned down somewhat, to our relief. We taught Anita how to make balloon animals as well. She learnt it all after one demonstration. We had a future children’s church worker/minister on our hands, so the next day, Anita inherited some of our pumps and a few of the extra balloons. Good riddance that I will never have to see a pump and balloon ever again.

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After over 2 hours(!), we were told the cell had concluded and that we should go to the auditorium to pray for the various families. We had been granted our parole, and as we left the creche room, the air could not have smelled any sweeter.

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After praying for the families, it was time for dinner – for 53 people.

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It had been a chaotic night. And I was knackered. It was quite late by the time we got back to Tibar, and having a nice shower and getting into bed never felt so good.

But that evening had left a lasting impression on me. I had had a foretaste of the future church of Liquisa. What we had seen was embryonic – imagine what it would be like when the church reached full maturity. No doubt, a big part of the church would be an army of passionate, praying and worshipping children, strong in the Word, and with a penchant for balloon animals.

Adventures in East Timor – Part 5

5 January 2013 – Day 3 of our mission trip – proved to be one our busiest. It was also a pivotal day because it was when we started to really bond with the youth.

We were picked up early from Tibar to head to Agung’s house for devotion.

But first thing’s first – breakfast!

Apparently, there was this vendor of delicious bread in the village. When we pulled up at the baker’s house (there was no shop), a lady sitting on the front porch yelled something inaudible in our direction. Panic and disappointment set in. Could it be that they had sold out of this amazing bread that Agung and Gary had been feasting on for the last week – and we were going to miss out?

To our relief, and after a 30 second drive up the gravel road, we intercepted the baker’s cart. What the lady had said was that the baker had started his rounds and that he was already on the road! Phew….

Agung picked up a couple of bags of the bread, still piping hot – out of the deep fryer! And all for USD2.

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We returned to Agung’s house to feast on our delicious rounds of fried dough. Artisan bread this was not. But you can’t go wrong with “bread” and “fried” in the same sentence. I had 4 pieces.

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After breakfast, Gary and I began to jam together on the acoustic guitars. We had brought one of the guitars over from Singapore under the guise that it was my guitar, but the team had actually bought it as a gift for Agung which we would present to him at the end of the trip.

As Gary and I began to sing “Draw Me Close”, the others began to join in and before we knew it, we were deep into worship.

It was something that had been missing during our preparation in the weeks leading up to the mission trip, but now, we were really lapping up the presence of God.

Our devotion time had spontaneously combusted into worship.

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Gary had asked that we focus on the book of Ephesians for our devotions for the entire week. It was such an apt context for our mission trip and specifically for our team. That morning, we were on Ephesians 3.

The verse that stood out for me was verse 10:

His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms.

God had chosen the church, united in love, to display His wisdom – a mystery that had been concealed through the ages – that is, His grace. And it was a timely reminder for us to clothe ourselves with grace and humility as we served the village together.

We were soon off to the village where two large pieces of tarp had been spread over the ground as a seating area. We were told that there is a phenomenon known as “Timor time” – if you set a program to begin at 10 am, people might only rock up at 10.30 or 11 am.

Before long however, a pretty big group of youth and children had gathered for a time of learning some basic English.

Wen started with some games. Even though none of us were experienced children’s church workers, the strength of our team, I think, was in the fact that many of us had grown up in the church. Deep in the recesses of our memory, we still remember some of the things we were taught when we were kids and with a bit of Holy Spirit quickening, we were well on our way (or at least Wen and Ernie were) towards a great time of games and icebreakers.

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One of the more popular games we played was the atom game. Wen would call out a number and everyone had to get into groups of that number.

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Another game we played involved organising our teams according to various characteristics, for example, the size of our feet -from the smallest to the biggest. I kind of figured out that I would be somewhere towards the end.

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After a few rounds of games, our teacher, Ms (Ling) Chua took to the front of the class to teach the kids some questions and answers. The objective was to get the kids to use English conversationally.

Ling was really in her element, even though she swears that she can’t stand children. The anointing must have overtaken her at that moment.

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We really connected with some of the youth who could speak some basic English and were bold enough to converse with us – such as Miki. She was incredibly bright and could hold a conversation.

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After the session finished, I was feeling pretty tired. It was getting rainy and I had caught a cold. Thank God that one of our team members had brought a stash of cold tablets (by the end of the trip, I had depleted his stock). I was well and truly drugged up by then but running on adrenalin.

We returned to Agung’s house for lunch, and after eating, I duly fell asleep. I sporadically awoke to some singing and realised that the team was preparing for a song item because the youths were coming back to Agung’s place for dinner after the afternoon program. I had to decide: should I wake up and help, or lie in bed, enjoying the airconditioned room. The latter option was a no-brainer.

It’s amazing what a short nap can do.

Before long, we were back in the Land Cruiser, heading into the village again, this time to train the youth to conduct children’s programs.

This was an important plank in our ministry. As I mentioned earlier, many of us had grown up in church and we knew that the seeds of truth that were sown in our lives at an early age had remained with us, even if they were taught through simple children’s songs. If the ultimate goal was to plant a self-sustaining, indigenous church in the village, then teaching the children in the ways of the Lord would play a critical role in achieving that vision.

We taught the youth some icebreakers they could play with the children, three songs they could teach the children (“With Christ in the Vessel”, “He’s Able” and a third song which escapes me for the moment) and also how to communicate truths through short skits.

In the process, I also put on an Oscar-winning performance in An Example of Kindness. The audience were thrilled and moved at the same time.

We got back to Agung’s house to set up for dinner before a car load of youths arrived.

We really had a good time eating with them and playing more games with them, including musical chairs. At the end of the night, two of them even performed a mock-conversation in English for us. I was impressed.

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By the end of the day, we had formed some strong bonds with some of the youth. I couldn’t help thinking that some of them might well be the leaders of the Timorese church in time to come.

Adventures in East Timor – Part 4

It was 4 January 2013, Day 2 of our mission trip. It had rained during the night and the morning air was cool and crisp at Tibar.

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We convened at the Tibar Resort restaurant for what would become our staple breakfast: two pieces of toast, one fried egg and fruit of some description. One person in our team (whom we won’t name) was especially keen on the fruit because s/he was suffering from constipation! Morning after morning, we would wait for news as to whether this person finally “went”. The “breakthrough” finally came on the third day (timing of Biblical proportions!)

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After breakfast, we hit the road towards the village, which wound along the coast along the hillside. What was a fairly short distance took about 45 minutes to navigate due to the poor condition of the road. It was littered with potholes, cracks, stray animals and the occasional squashed frog. On our drives back at night, Agung would make a sport of aiming for unsuspecting amphibians.

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We got to Agung’s house in Liquisa for a time of devotion. There we met a couple of our translators, Luis and Anselmos.

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Anselmos (pictured below) is 18 years old. He is studying geology in the university in Dili, and he will be the first in East Timor to graduate with such a degree.

Ansel actually hails from a village on the other side of the island – the commute took him 8 hours by “public transport”, which is the equivalent of riding in the back of a packed utility vehicle alongside cargo and animals.

We got to know Ansel a bit better over the next few days. To me, he represents a new generation that God is raising in East Timor. A relatively young Christian, God was already using him to lead worship and teach in children’s church. He had met the Liquisa missionaries in December and he gladly volunteered his time to work with our team as a translator before his university term started.

In his words, he was happy to serve God in any ministry that he could. You could sense that he truly considered serving God a privilege and an adventure and it didn’t matter in what form the service would take. In the Western Church, we have become so “professional” and specialised, to the extent that we have almost boxed ourselves into a specific ministry to the exclusion of others because that is the particular gifting God has given us. Maybe things would be different if all of us decided to “do whatever it takes”…

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(The only difficult-to-surmount problem for Ansel was getting a wife. In his village, the dowry costs 77 cows!)

After our group devotion, we trekked up the gravel road to the district chief’s house. It’s what Luke 10 calls looking for the “man of peace”. (On the short walk, we befriended a couple of stray dogs as well).

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We spent about 20 minutes at the home of the district chief who expressed both his people’s need for groups like us to teach skills, but also his appreciation that we would take the time to introduce ourselves to him. He told us that there had been foreign groups who had previously come into the village and created problems. In a place where relationship is key, you realise just how important accountability is!

I did have an anxious moment when the chief pointed at my name on his list and then locked his gaze on me for what seemed like an eternity. I was thinking maybe I had sat on his special chair and somehow offended him, but to my relief, it was because my name was one letter off the name of the island, Timor Leste. I smiled nervously.

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After we handed a bag of Australian nougat to the chief as a gift, we proceeded back to Agung’s house, with two stray dogs in train. The brown one we called Sally, and the white one we named Michael, after Michael Jackson.

We had a bit of free time before lunch, so we decided to practise our balloon-animal-making. Ling and I had brought 200 balloons and some pumps in case we could use it as part of the children’s program.

Ten years ago, I had gone on a mission trip to Hong Kong with Youth for Christ and had learnt to make a few objects out of balloons for the kids. That skill came in handy again in 2013!

Stef proceeded to put us all to shame by making some complex animals, like the swan. I stuck with the tried-and-true: the tortoise and the dog.

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Gary decided to stick eyes onto the animals, but I think he struggled to find the correct placement. Those are ears, Gary. We didn’t distribute any of Gary’s animals in case they conjured images of Pan’s Labyrinth and scared the children.

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Wen had better luck sticking eyes on the tortoises!

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After lunch, we drove to Kamalalera, which was the main harvest field. We met with the chief of the village and gave him a pair of sunglasses. He was very supportive of Agung’s work in the village and promised that he would come the next day to be with us during the youth program.

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We then split up into teams to do house visitation amongst the various cell members.

What struck me at first blush was how rural the village was. Stray animals (chickens, goats, pigs and dogs) walked around freely. The chickens were my greatest nightmare (due to my inordinate and inexplicable fear of live poultry) but the team was really great and everyone helped me look out for surprise rooster attacks and formed a human shield around me where required.

The team of which I was a part visited three houses, with Ansel in tow as interpreter.

What we learnt was eye-opening.

One lady had come to Christ because she had an illness and after prayer, was miraculously healed. Not only did her healing cause her to believe on Christ, but her sisters also became Christians as a result.

This is what Ed Silvoso calls “prayer evangelism”.

In John 14, Jesus tells his disciples that He is the way, the truth and the life and that if they knew Him, they would also know the Father. Philip then said “Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us”. And Jesus, in astonishment, replies “Don’t you believe that I am in the Father and that the Father is in me? Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me, or at least believe on the evidence of the miracles themselves.”

In effect, Jesus was telling his disciples that when theology fails to convince, let the miracles speak for themselves and point to the reality of God. And in this context, Jesus tells His disciples that they will do even greater works that Jesus (Jn 14:12).

Something else we noticed when we spoke to the families was firstly how big their families were (having 5 children was not unusual) but moreso how much hope the parents placed on the generation that would succeed them. They all wanted their children to be educated, to learn English and to have success in life.

This is understandable to parents generally, but it takes on special significance in the context of East Timor’s history. The parents were part of that generation that had struggled for many years to gain freedom. War, conflict and loss remain a very fresh part of their psyche. Ten years after the nations’ independence, there was almost a sense of starting anew with the next generation.

And I could see how important the work of the Gospel was in East Timor. Save a household and you have a spiritual army of young people whom God may well use to transform their nation in time to come!

After we finished the house visitations, we convened at the village convenience store to wait for the other teams to return.

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It had been a long and tiring day.

We went back to Tibar for dinner before getting together again to plan the materials for the English class we were facilitating the next day. Thankfully, Stef had some Koko Black chocolates with her. Days later, her supply of chocolate would continue unabated and we wondered if the Lord had done a miracle similar to that of the widow’s oil, but this time with a modern and unnecessarily luxurious twist (Shi-En pointed out that Jesus’ first miracle of water turning into wine was a miracle of luxury – not of necessity. How true!)

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After writing out 40 odd worksheets by hand, we were deliriously tired.

What an amazing day it had been. I had learnt so much already.

Adventures in East Timor – Part 2

We arrived in Bali at around noon on Wednesday, 2 January 2013 from Singapore. This was our first time in Bali.

The airport was crowded and stinking hot.

After surviving a long queue to buy an entry visa, we were faced with another queue to clear immigration. We were extremely hot and bothered by then. Ling was already frantically fanning herself. I told her that the trick to keeping cool is to conserve energy by remaining extremely still. She proceeded to ignore my sage advice and fanned herself even more forcefully.

Eventually, we were out of the airport. Shi-En was already waiting for us at the Starbucks. It was good to see him again after all this time (he had been travelling the world for the last few weeks).

After about an hour and a couple of cold espresso frappes, Wen emerged from the airport and declared that she was starving.

Shi-En promptly found us a taxi so that we could get to the hotel, check ourselves in and then get some food.

What followed seemed like an attempted kidnapping.

Our taxi strayed off the main road and onto some back alleys that wound themselves around little Balinese houses and shops. Suddenly, it looked like we had entered into a parallel world of shack houses, rubbish dumps, giant drains and free-range cows. It would have been quaint and interesting enough, but for the fact that our taxi driver drove up to a guy sitting on a plastic stool by the side of the track and handed him a wad of cash.

At first, a glimpse of fear gripped my heart. We¬†were being kidnapped. And we were in a foreign land. I didn’t even know what three digits to dial to get police attention!

But logic kicked in – if we were being kidnapped, the money was flowing the wrong way. The taxi driver, I concluded, was paying some entrepreneurial villager for the right to use the back alleys. What a great source of passive income!

After about 30 minutes of the “scenic route”, we made it back onto the main road and we finally arrived at our hotel – the All Seasons Denpasar.

After checking in, we hit the road in search for some food.

Then we had a massage.

Then it was dinner time and we proceeded to gorge ourselves again, possibly our last normal meal for the week. “Ernie would have enjoyed this,” Wen said. Yes, the lontong (rice cake dish) was very good.

Bali food

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The others in our team from Perth were due to arrive at about 1 am.

We thought it would be a good idea to stay up to wait for them, so the four of us crammed into my and Ling’s room and watched American Masterchef on TV. Alas, it had been a tiring day, and Shi-En, who often boasts that he doesn’t sleep (or at most only needs 2 hours of sleep a night), was beginning to doze off. (We have since discovered, from all the times we have been on holidays with Shi-En, that in fact he has the sleeping habits of a 70 year old granny – early to bed, and early to rise!)

Ling and I decided to call it a night.

The next day, our team would be reunited and we would be heading to East Timor together.

Adventures in East Timor – Part 1

I have had an amazing start to 2013, beginning with the privilege of serving with an awesome team of people from Faith Community Church on a short-term mission trip to East Timor, followed by a relaxing holiday with some friends in Bali. What I saw in East Timor was eye-opening and confronting. In my next few posts, I will chronicle some of what took place over the time our team was in East Timor.

Flight to East Timor

I have to admit that I didn’t really grasp the extent of what I was getting myself into when I expressed an interest last August to join a short-term team to East Timor. Our missionary on the ground, Agung, had come to Perth to spend some time with his sending church and we had the privilege of having Agung visit our cell group.

It was probably on impulse that our cell leader Ernie and one of our cell members Shi-En (who was on the East Timor missions committee) thought it’d be a great idea if we went on a short-term trip as a cell group. I didn’t have any objections at the time.

Shi-En is one of those people who gets things done. He often moves so quickly that you don’t really have time to process exactly what he is doing. Before it had registered in my head, I found myself committed to a mission trip in January.

I don’t think I fully realised what I was in for.

Whilst Ling and I had always aimed to go on one short-term mission a year, we fell desperately short of our lofty aspirations. Our last trip was to Sapporo, Japan in 2007. Of the three short-term missions I’ve been on, all of them have been in urban settings. It never occurred to me that East Timor could be anything less than urban (which really betrays how little I knew about the country). I would be in for a rude shock when I actually got there.

The road to East Timor was not always a smooth one.

With less than 6 weeks to go, due to unexpected developments beyond our control, there was a real possibility that the trip was going to be cancelled. Two weeks later the trip was back on again.

As a team, we had three meetings in total, most of which had to do with logistics of getting there. To say the least, I felt grossly unprepared.

I like preparation. My ministry philosophy has always been that we should prepare well. The more prepared we are, the more spontaneous we can be. It holds in worship ministry, and it holds in just about any other ministry context.

But I was reminded of what John Wimber used to say: “blessed are the flexible”. On this trip, with very little prior preparation, flexibility was key and I was glad to work with such a team of versatile and proactive leaders who could think on their feet (or sometimes off their feet!). I also realised how much more it made us depend on the Holy Spirit!

After our third team meeting, at least we had planned what equipment and gifts for the villagers we had to buy. As for the program, this would rest on our creativity, resourcefulness and the Holy Spirit’s orchestration.

So on Christmas Day, 25 December 2012, Ling and I flew off to Singapore for a short holiday before meeting the rest of the team in Bali a week later.

The adventure begins…