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The context for the message this morning must be set in place.
During my years of service with the World Council of Churches, I
came to appreciate the Philippines and the Pinoy people. So on December
29th I set out for a holiday vacation – in the Philippines.
The Philippines are located in Southeast Asia, situated in the
western Pacific Ocean. The country consists of about 7,651 islands,
with beautiful mountains, lush agricultural land, abundant trade
winds to generate electricity, delightful beaches, the waters of
the Pacific ocean, and simple, tasty food. Friends met me at the
airport, and we quickly enjoyed a day in Manila recovering from
the 30 hours of transit by plane. Then off to the beach of Puerto
Galera, on Mindoro Island. I confes I could become accustomed to
80-85 degree days, waking to the ocean waves and white sands. Lounge
chairs to comfortably enjoy morning sun and swimming. Lunch and
a nap during the afternoon rains lead way to cooler evenings. Sound
great, right? Well it was.
From there a “fast” boat transit back to Luzon Island
through the port of Batangas, and up into the mountains at Tagaytay.
There it was cooler (70 degrees!) and dryer. A beautiful oversight
of the Taal Volcano and northward toward Manila. Can you guess where
I was on Sunday January 12, 2020? That’s right, Tagaytay,
Philippines – inside the evacuation zone for the Taal Volcano.
We hear the initial blast over a late Sunday lunch, and noticed
everyone outside of the restaurant looking skyward. Stepping outside,
the source of the commotion became obvious. The Taal Volcano had
erupted spewing at first, a cloud of steam, later volcanic ash and
molten rock. It even hailed baby fingernail sized pellets, hot to
the touch landing on us seven miles away. The road was already jammed
with cars, trucks, buses filled with people moving nowhere. EVACUATION
– and no where to go.
During the night at about 1:30 am, the condo (on the 19th floor)
began to sway and shake. Evacuation from the building occurred 3
times that night, with two earthquakes (3.2 and 2.3 on the Richter
scale) and over 24 aftershocks. By morning the ground was covered
with ash and the streets virtually empty. Tens of thousands of Residents
from every community we visited on Luzon Island were affected and
being evacuated to IDP camps sponsored by the Government. We located
a car for hire and took the 90-minute drive through brownout conditions
to Manila for the duration of the vacation.
The slide coming up provides some interesting information on about
the volcano, and you will see why I was careful to share some
information on my Facebook page, noting the danger – but followed
by assurances we were making safe decisions.
So it was a remarkable vacation, but it included adventure beyond
my wildest expectations, and was definitely more than I had paid
But here is where the event really hit home. It was the responses
from friends and acquaintances from around the world that included
prayers and blessings for immediate safety, travel, and return.
I want to be clear that I appreciated every message of hope and
I understand the sincerity of each person’s words. But I fell
into a spiritual quest to understand “blessing.” So
hear these words from the context of a white American with a good
job, a good credit rating with credit cards to accomplish anything
to save my skin, and an embassy in Manila that kept me informed
during the whole ordeal. It is quite a position of privilege that
few on the journey had.
The question is this, “what is a blessing?” Is it the
Old Testament concept that if we follow the law, we will be bathed
in abundance? Or is it rather tied up in the Sermon on the Mount?
Can I be blessed when so many others continue to live in peril?
Where is the blessing in this disparity?
Vaneetha Rendall Risner, author of “The Scars That Have Shaped
Me,” led me through the heavy burden for those remaining in
the reach of the fire and the ash and my sense of thankfulness.
In the midst of fire and ash, I experienced God’s richest
blessings. A stronger faith; a deeper love; a more intimate walk;
or even the tenuous uncontrolled nature of life itself? These shaped
faith in ways that prosperity and abundance never could.
While this experience should not be considered the blessing, it
was a channel for blessing to be realized. As Laura Story asks in
her song “Blessings,” “What if your blessings
come through rain drops? What if trials of this life — the
rain, the storms, the hardest nights — are your mercies in
The idea of blessing is well established in the New Testament.
Material prosperity or perfect circumstances are nowhere to be found.
On the contrary, blessing typically is an outcome of either poverty
and trial or being joined by faith to Jesus.
According to the Key-Word Study Bible, “The Greek word translated
blessed in these passages is makarioi, meaning fully satis?ed. It
refers to those receiving God’s favor, regardless of the circumstances.”
What is blessing, then? Scripture shows that blessing is anything
God gives that makes us fully satis?ed in GOD. Anything that draws
us closer to Jesus. Anything that helps us relinquish the temporal
and hold on more tightly to the eternal. And often it is the struggles
and trials, the aching disappointments and the unful?lled longings
that best enable us to do that.
In pain loss and fright, we long for Presence. We long to know
that God is for us and with us and in us. Great families, ?nancial
wealth, and good health are all wonderful gifts we can thank God
for, but they are not his greatest blessings. They may make us really
happy, but not in God. God’s greatest blessing always rests
in God. When we have that, we are truly blessed.
So was I blessed? Absolutely. From the fire and ash, the ground
shaking and a mass exodus, I found peace. I came to terms with the
fact that if my life were to end, it was ok. For you see, I was
with people whom I loved and they loved me. I walk and rode with
people of profound faith. Our shared journey drilled down to my
core the blessing of the God that was provided through their accompaniment,
love, and peace of mind and heart. That was the blessing, and for
coming to a deeper understanding of blessing I am thankful each
To know that my Philippine friends have life today, I am thankful.
For those in the hotels, airports and airplanes who brought me to
my home, I am thankful.
Now when I read the Beatitudes from the Message along with a perspective
of what must occur to be a beneficiary of God’s blessing,
I am compelled to more intentionally follow Jesus, and give thanks
for the events of life.