Batad Rice Terraces
“So how was your trip?”
For someone who has just returned from a three-week choir tour in southeast Asia, no question is more welcome—and at the same time, no question is more dreaded. There are so many experiences I would love to convey, yet so few of them can bear to be put into words. No number of journal entries or photographs can even begin to encompass the sorrows, challenges, and joys of such a missionary trip.
I traveled with the Genevans, the concert choir of Geneva College, to the Philippines and Malaysia for a three-week tour this past May. Since our conductor, Dr. David Kenneth Smith, grew up as a missionary kid in southeast Asia, he was in a sense bringing the choir home with him to thank the friends and church families that had ministered to him during his childhood. And it just so “happened” that the choir’s musical theme for this concert season was “Psalms for the King,” a program composed almost entirely of a cappella psalmody. Over the course of about twenty-four singing engagements, we performed in venues ranging from cathedrals to thatch huts, for audiences ranging from orphans to other university choirs. We visited the Philippine cities of Manila, Davao, Malaybalay, Cagayan de Oro, Ifugao, and Baguio, and the Malaysian city Kota Kinabalu, singing settings of twenty-three different psalms.
While I can’t convey the full extent of our experiences singing in Christ’s service on the other side of the world, I can share a few of the many things I learned about the Lord’s goodness during our travels.
God was gracious toward us in all things, not merely in sustaining grace but sometimes simply in restraining grace. Is there any other possible explanation for the fact that forty-two people endured ten-hour bus trips, eleven-hour plane rides, and twenty-two days of experiencing a new culture in two foreign countries while coping with strange diets, cramped transportation, logistical nightmares, delayed flights, and myriad illnesses—all without killing each other? The words of Psalm 13 as we sang it come to mind:
But I will trust your mercy,
Whatever life may bring;
Your praise in prose and verse be
The anthems I will sing.
Rehearsal at Faith Academy Manila
God blessed the Genevans with food, shelter, and accommodations that provided exactly what we needed at each point in the trip. More than that, he afforded us incredible opportunities to fellowship with brothers and sisters in Christ on the other side of the globe. I was blessed to meet URCNA missionary Rev. Nollie Malabuyo in Manila and to spend three nights at the home of Mid-America Reformed Seminary graduate Rev. Vic Bernales and his family in Davao City. As a prayer before meals the Genevans would often sing the “Table Blessing” by Heinrich Schütz, from Psalm 145: “All turn their eyes unto Thee in hope, O Lord; and Thou suppliest their food in due season.” Truly he does supply all our needs!
Visiting with the Bernales family
God humbled and astounded us by working through even our severest weaknesses and failings to bless others. How many nights the choir stood on stage, singing God’s praises, while internally we grumbled at our conductor, nursed grudges against other choir members, or simply felt our sheer exhaustion. Precious few evenings was I in the proper frame of mind and spirit for a concert. Yet night after night our audiences would tell us how they had been blessed by our music, and I would find myself awestruck that even in our sin-stained state God had utilized us in carrying out his ministry. I could identify with the humbled worshipers spoken of in Psalm 22:
And in His presence all will bow
Who helpless to the dust descend;
Who, even though they vainly strive,
Can never keep their souls alive.
God abundantly revealed his glory to us through his creation; the islands of Southeast Asia are a breathtaking example of the beauty and creativity of our Maker. But he reserves the right to reveal this glory on his own terms. When we spent two days and one night climbing the 13,435-foot Mount Kinabalu in Malaysia at the end of the tour, we were expecting a multitude of stars and a breathtaking sunrise. Instead we had to cope with an impenetrable cloud of fog and some of the coldest, wettest rain I ever hope to experience. Was it sheer misery? Yes. Was it at the same time glorious and awe-inspiring? Yes. And would I trade it for anything? No. Our piece from Psalm 104 was firmly planted in my head throughout that agonizing yet amazing climb and descent:
Our Lord ever glorious, a joyful Creator,
His look makes earth tremble, His touch, mountains smoke.
To the Lord I’ll be singing while I have my being,
My God I’ll be praising as long as I live.
God promises in Psalm 121 to “keep your going out and your coming in.” He means it. None of us wanted to hear that our return flight to the States had been cancelled due to mechanical problems. I have never longed for my earthly home so badly, though I hope I will someday long for my heavenly one more. As we waited in a hotel that last Sunday, desperate for some news of when, or if, the Genevans could get a replacement flight, our stamina bottomed out. Nevertheless, we gathered for worship in a hotel room and our chaperone Dr. Byron Curtis (one of Geneva’s Bible professors) led us in singing and prayer and delivered a sermon on Psalm 107. One of our songs was John Campbell’s versification of Psalm 121:
From every evil shall He keep thy soul,
From every sin;
Jehovah shall preserve thy going out,
Thy coming in.
Above thee watching, He whom we adore
Shall keep thee henceforth, yea, for evermore.
Those poignant words were still echoing in my head a few hours later when we learned that a replacement itinerary had been issued to all the Genevans which cut two flights and eight hours off our travel time. Watching the sun rise over Pittsburgh early Monday morning, I was struck anew by how powerfully and abundantly the Lord provides.
In a multitude of ways, this choir tour revealed to me the error, indeed the folly, of a formulaic view of short-term missions. A mission trip, we think, should involve activities such as voluntary fasting, visiting orphanages, and maybe getting the chance to play soccer with impoverished third-world children. While these activities can be a blessing, such a limited view of ministry mocks our sovereign God. How ignorant, or worse, how arrogant, to imagine that we can set our terms of service to Christ on a mission field. The work is not ours to begin with. No, the real work of missions belongs entirely to God, and we have the privilege and the terrifying responsibility to be onlookers and instruments as he works out his purposes, in “health and sickness, prosperity and poverty” (Heidelberg Catechism LD 10, Q&A 27), blessing others—and us—through our presence. And that is humbling, exhilarating, awe-inspiring, heart-rending, and earth-shattering.
Sunset over Manila