Through Many Dangers

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We made it back to the States! Oddly enough, I have been thinking about the title of this post for the past few months. As we waited in the Philippines for an opportunity to return to the US, a phrase from the song Amazing Grace often came to mind: “Through many dangers, toils and snares I have already come.” Although I am sure it will take a good amount of time to really “take in” all of the events of the past 3+ months, in the end, it is clear that God’s hand of protection was upon us every step of the way (even in the times when things were frustrating, uncertain, or chaotic).

Our initial travel plans were set for March 17-18. However, during the end of February, and especially in the early part of March, fears of COVID-19 began gripping the Philippines. The government shut down all domestic flights on March 16. Theoretically, we could have bumped up our tickets to fly to Manila a couple of days earlier, and then still catch our international flight, but our family had been battling with serious sickness over the prior few months. Whether this was COVID-19 related, we may never know. In early January, Sarah began experiencing a bad cold and cough accompanied by shortness of breath (before we ever knew this was a symptom of COVID-19), and pneumonia. Then, one by one, each member of our family was downed by the same illness (though most had fully recovered by the end of February). I was sick for over a month and a half with a deep cough and congestion. Kiersten had a cough for what seemed like forever. Noemi had a bad case of pneumonia, and could simply not get her lungs clear until put on an antibiotic. The rest of the children, though to a lesser degree, dealt with coughs. So, needless to say, even if we wanted to bump up our tickets, we were in no position physically to travel. So, it was time to wait. And that’s we did. We waited, and waited, and waited.

Domestic flights in our airport (Bacolod) were set to resume on April 12—a date which was later bumped to the 15, then to May 1, to May 15, then to June 1, to June 8, to June 16, and then to the end of the month. Although limited international flights were available, there was no way for us to make the short 300 mile trip from our island up to Manila. In this whole process, we purchased a total of 7 sets of international tickets, only to see each set cancelled (either by the airline or by us because there was no way for us to get to an international hub). Thankfully, our airline, Asiana had a promotion due to the COVID-19 epidemic, allowing tickets purchased within this window of time to be cancelled for a refund without any fees. This option allowed us to be flexible in our planning. I am so thankful for Asiana Airlines, and would highly recommend their customer service. I have heard (and have personally experienced) horror stories of some airlines where you could never get a hold of someone no matter how long you waited on the customer service line. Though my wait time was usually 25-40 minutes, I could always speak to a representative who was able to promptly handle my concern. And since Asiana was one of the only airlines maintaining flights between Manila and New York (via Incheon), I was really at their mercy. I am grateful for their assistance.

Although domestic flights were cancelled during these months, the local government began to periodically offer what they called “sweeper flights,” for locally stranded individuals. So, if you could prove that you had a legitimate reason to leave, the government would allow the airlines to mount these sweeper flights from Bacolod up to Manila. Sweeper flights began to run in May (though at the start they were very expensive: for instance, Philippine airlines at one point offered a sweeper flight from Bacolod to Manila [a 50-minute flight] for $340. Normally, a flight from Bacolod to Manila should cost $25-$40). In June, a few more sweeper flights were added, and thankfully the cost also went down (closer to $80 per ticket). Now, in order to get on one of these sweeper flights, you first needed travel authority from your local Police Station. The way to acquire this travel authority was to get a certification from our barangay (I am very thankful for Captain Carla’s in helping our family navigate through this whole process. She was a great blessing to us, and we could not have done it without her). After going through our barangay, we then needed a medical clearance from our local health unit. Once both were presented to the police, we were granted a travel pass. We also acquired a letter from the US Embassy granting permission to travel.

Finally with our travel authority in hand, I went to the only travel agency in Bacolod coordinating the sweeper flights. I waited 3 hours in a packed room, wondering if any seats would be available once my number was called. Thankfully there were, and now we had our domestic flight from Bacolod to Manila, as well as our flight from Manila to New York. However, even with our travel plans in place, so many questions lingered: Would everyone by healthy on the days of travel (we would go through over a dozen temperature checks before boarding the planes)? Did I actually have all of the required documents (sometimes expectations are unclear when dealing with the Philippine government)?  Would I be able to get our exit clearance to leave the Philippines at the airport? I probably dealt with 10-15 (mostly legitimate) pressing questions or fears that I often had to remind myself to rest in the Lord.

Thankfully, God answered each of these fears. He brought us through many dangers, trials and fears. Although the travel was long (we spent 2 nights in a hotel in Manila waiting for our international flight), and we had some concerns that Emi was starting to get sick right before our flight from Manila, God provided time and time again. The night before our international flight we discussed the possibility of sending Sarah with the rest of the children on the international flight while I waited in Manila with Emi, if indeed she was prohibited from boarding due to a high temperature. Our whole family prayed earnestly that everyone would be able to travel together. The prospect of having to divide up was fearful, but God showed us mercy. We have all arrived safely home. I was reminded of the end of the line in Amazing Grace: “‘Tis grace that brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home.” God did just that… He led us home!

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Travel Update

After over three months of waiting, we are scheduled to fly out on what is called a “sweeper flight” from Bacolod-Silay Airport to Manila tomorrow (June 21). Commercial flights are still prohibited in the airport on our island, however, they have arranged these special flights to ferry locally stranded individuals up to Manila (which is one of the only international hubs in the Philippines). After taking our sweeper flight up to Manila, we will, Lord willing, then catch an international flight to New York (JFK) via Seoul, Korea on June 23. Obviously, the logistics involved in flying a family of 7 in the middle of a pandemic is complicated to say the least. So, here are a few things you can pray for in our travels:

  1. Good health for each member of our family. If any one has a 99.5 F temperature or above at any stage of the journey they are not permitted to board the aircraft.
  2. Proper documentation. I have worked hard to make sure we have all of the necessary documents to travel in the middle of the COVID-19 crisis (i.e. travel pass / authority, medical clearance, barangay certification, and even a letter from the US Embassy). However, I have been in the Philippines long enough to know that even when I think I have everything in order… I might not.
  3. Good attitudes from the kids–and adults for that matter. We have a lot of “travel time” since our special “sweeper” flight lands on June 21, and our international flight does not depart until June 23. We will be staying in a hotel in Manila for two nights.
  4. No more disappointments. This is the 7th set of tickets we have booked to try to get back to the States over the past three months. After the 2nd set fell through, I stopped telling our children about our “possible” departure dates since the disappointments were becoming too great. So, if you could simply pray that God in His mercy would allow us to get back safely, we would appreciate it.

Thank you for your continued prayers, encouragement, and support. We are asking for God’s good hand to be upon us in our travels, and that He might prosper our journey.

We pray that we will not be stranded… like Micah was on this rock 🙂

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Two Responses to Coronavirus: Turn and Trust (Part One)

I almost feel like I should start this article out with an apology. Since there have already been countless articles, posts, discussions—not to mention arguments—on the coronavirus, adding another might just seem like more noise. However, I firmly believe that balanced, biblical reminders always have value in the midst of uncertain times. And though what one author writes may not resonate with you, something from another might really hit the mark.

As far as my writing and thinking goes, I like to keep things simple—especially when life gets complicated. To say life has become more complicated over the past couple of months, and especially over the past couple of weeks, would be an understatement. Wow! Who would have imagined, even three months ago, the situation we find ourselves in today. We have witnessed travel coming to a halt, economies contracting, and commodities flying off the shelves. Terms rarely needed in 2019 have now become commonplace in our daily conversations and media intake. I mean, think about it: How many times did you use the word “quarantine” in 2019, or could you have found Wuhan on a world map back in December? Now, these words and places, along with a host of others, assault us dozens of times each day. We cannot escape hearing terms like pandemic, mortality rates, travel bans, asymptomatic individuals, incubation periods, community transmission, and social distancing.

So, now that we are all in the same boat trying to navigate through this sea of uncertainty how do we chart our course? Where do we go from here? Biblically, the answer is simple. You either need to turn to God or to trust Him. In this article and the next, we will work through these 2 points.

  1. Turn to God

Why does God allow disease? Why would God ever bring plagues upon the earth? Why do people suffer? Obviously there are a lot of ways we could try to answer these questions. But to start, take instruction from God’s words to Pharaoh in Exodus: “For at this time I will send all My plagues to your very heart, and on your servants and on your people, that you may know that there is none like Me in all the earth” (Exodus 9:14). Two verses later God says to Pharaoh, “But indeed for this purpose I have raised you up, that I may show My power in you, and that My name may be declared in all the earth.” Probably, the closest biblical parallel to today’s coronavirus epidemic would be that of “plagues.” What is a plague? Well, a plague is a calamity resulting from Adam’s Fall, and the subsequent curse God placed on His creation (Genesis 3:17). We live in world under a curse. So, it really should not surprise us to see disease, earthquakes, tornadoes, tsunamis, etc.

But, the thing I want to point out from Exodus is the reason God said He sent the plagues upon Egypt. His motives are not concealed. Check out His purpose statement: “So that you (Pharaoh) may know that there is none like Me in all the earth.” Once Pharaoh saw the signs and destruction of the plagues, there were no questions lingering in his mind regarding God’s existence, or even Who the true God was. The only question that remained was whether he would submit to this Almighty God, or in stubbornness refuse Him. Sadly, he never turned to God. Many today follow Pharaoh’s example and harden their hearts. Rather than giving God glory by humbly submitting to Him, they reject Him.

Another example of turning away from God comes from a period that will be known as the Great Tribulation (as described in the book of Revelation). Scripture records: “But the rest of mankind, who were not killed by these plagues, did not repent of the works of their hands, that they should not worship demons, and idols of gold, silver, brass, stone, and wood, which can neither see nor hear nor walk. And they did not repent of their murders or their sorceries or their sexual immorality or their thefts” (Revelation 9:20-21). A similar scene is depicted a few chapters later in the same book: “And men were scorched with great heat, and they blasphemed the name of God who has power over these plagues; and they did not repent and give Him glory… They blasphemed the God of heaven because of their pains and their sores, and did not repent of their deeds” Revelation (16:9, 11). From how this is described, these individuals are fully aware that God is the “source” of these plagues, and yet instead of repenting and giving Him glory, they blaspheme Him. They curse Him. This is the exact opposite of turning to God. This is the opposite of humbly acknowledging Him.

So, you are left with the question, How am I supposed to respond to something like the coronavirus? Well, if you don’t have a relationship with God, allow your uncertainty and fears to drive you toward Him. If you are like most people, you often feel more self-sufficient that you ought to. At times you might even feel indestructible. Then something—like the coronavirus—comes along and shakes your confidence. And it is not even just about the virus itself. There may be individuals who really aren’t afraid of catching the coronavirus (maybe they are young and in good health). However, this pandemic has had a far greater impact than on people’s physical health alone. We are now dealing with global insecurities affecting economics, jobs, travel, shortages, etc. Those concerns are enough to produce anxiety in even the most courageous heart—even if you are not worried about getting physically sick.

So, when fears arise, it is time to take inventory of your life. Do you know God? Not just the casual, “Sure, I believe in God. I know God.” I mean do you have a real relationship with God? Do you know that you belong to God? You are His child? He is your Master? This relationship begins once the light of the Gospel shines into your life. You see your sin, and at the same time you see the beauty of the Savior, Jesus Christ, Who died for your sins, and rose again. The Bible pictures it so many different ways. It is being rescued, reconciled, redeemed, born-again, and cleansed (to name a few). Jesus is the Good Shepherd, and He is willing to receive you into His fold. In fact, He laid down his life to make you a part of his flock (John 10:1-11). But the only way to enter this fold is through the door… and by the way, Jesus is the door too!

Just a final thought. One time a group of men came to Jesus telling him about some of the current tragedies of their day. They spoke of Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed in with their sacrifices—obviously killing them. Maybe if this were today, it would be a group of people telling Jesus about those who have died from the coronavirus. After Jesus hears of the current events, He then offers an example of his own: there were 18 men building a tower in Jerusalem who were killed when it collapsed. What Jesus said about these tragedies is sobering: “Do you think that they were worse sinners than all other men who dwelt in Jerusalem? I tell you, no; but unless you repent you will all likewise perish (Luke 13:4-5). Both events were legitimate tragedies—tragedies that had a lasting impact on the hearts and minds of the people. Make no mistake about it: the coronavirus is a tragedy. However, what was the point Jesus was making? He was encouraging them to allow those tragedies to instruct their hearts. He was making sure they didn’t miss how God wanted to open their eyes to more vital spiritual truths. We become fixated on physical calamities. They trouble our minds and strike fear into our hearts. But the point Jesus made is that there should be something of far greater concern that consumes our lives: Eternal judgment. Physical death is one thing. Eternal death is on a completely different level. Should we be concerned about the physical? Sure. Should we take necessary precautions to stay safe? Absolutely. However, we should be infinitely more concerned about the spiritual. Unless you repent, you will perish. So, take this time, if you have not already, to turn to Jesus Christ, and by faith confess Him as your Lord. In the second part of this article, we work through a Christian’s response to the coronavirus: Trust the Lord.

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Man Plans… God Ordains

I wanted to give a brief update on our family’s travel plans. We initially purchased tickets to fly out from Bacolod to Manila on Tuesday, March 17 with a flight from Manila to New York (via Seoul, Korea) on Wednesday, March 18. However, with the spread of the coronavirus, the president of the Philippines announced that flights to and from Manila would be suspended through the middle of April. So, we are in the process of finalizing the cancellation of our scheduled flights, and are looking into other flight options. Our hope would be to fly out within the next couple of weeks (most likely out of Cebu, rather than Manila).

An additional factor in all of this is that we are dealing with is sickness. Though we do not believe it is related to the novel coronavirus, the children (and I) have been dealing with coughs which would have obviously made it very difficult (if not impossible) to travel this week. On Friday, I was able to take two of our girls to the doctor to be checked out. The doctor was somewhat concerned with the congestion in Emi’s lungs. So, as the Lord brings us to mind, you can pray for her. Other than being congested, she is doing fine (active, happy, and sleeping and eating well).

In the middle of all of this uncertainty, I was reminded of a verse from Proverbs 16:9 that often comes to my mind: “The heart of man plans his way, but the Lord directs his steps.” This verse is a comforting reminder knowing that even though we seem to make countless “plans” in life, it is the Lord Who guides and directs our paths. So, even when our plans vanish before our very eyes, we can find rest in the Sovereign God Who orders our steps. Now, I will be the first to admit that I get frustrated when my plans are thwarted. It annoys me. And on those occasions I need to remind myself of some basic truths. God is in control. God does not need my approval, nor does He seek my counsel for what He does. God is pleased with faith. He is pleased when His children submit to Him and trust Him. So, we are going to do our best to do just that.

In the meantime, there are a few things you can pray about for us:

  1. Peace and grace to accept lots of things we cannot change.
  2. Health for our family, especially Emi at this time.
  3. Wisdom with airline tickets (ability to cancel our original flights, and find reasonable replacement tickets through another hub).

Once more, we are grateful for your prayers and support for our family. By the way, over the next couple of days, I plan to write our March Update. Hard to believe, but we finished our first year of classes at Haven of Grace Seminary. To God be the glory! Stay tuned for the more information.

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