Author Archives: ejotro


First Convert

I recently had the great honor of spending some time with this gentleman in the video (linked above) as he welcomed me into his home following a day-long conference on the sacraments. He and his wife live in a small house on a dirt road in a small village about half an hour from Kudat, a small city near the northern tip of Borneo. He was among a group of eight people baptized on Christmas Eve, 1952. These eight people were the first among the Rungus people to be baptized, forming the basis of what eventually became the Protestant Church of Sabah (PCS), an indigenous church that is a member of the Lutheran World Federation. He eventually became a pastor in the PCS. The Rungus people live in the northernmost parts of the island of Borneo. Today nearly 90% of the Rungus people are Christian, with the PCS the largest church among them. It was truly incredible to hear his stories of converting to Christianity. The video is a bit of the conversation, where he is talking about working as a gardener for the early missionaries, which eventually led to him taking on a life of ministry.

This elder told us how the missionaries drove from village to village in their small Range Rover, often following mere trails. After converting to Christianity, they had to wait one year before being baptized. By the time he was baptized, many others had converted and were baptized soon after him. During our conversation, I asked him what changes becoming Christian brought to his life. I have to be honest that I expected to hear something about rules that he had to follow. That is part of the image that many of us have of missionaries; they came giving rules for following a Western Christian morality. But that is not how he answered. In fact, he said that his father had turned down earlier missionaries that came insisting on a variety of dietary rules. Instead, what he said was that Christianity brought freedom. Before, his life had been filled with rules that must be followed so as not to make the spirits angry. Some of the rules he shared were about not bringing paper into the kitchen or limes into the house or planting coconuts in the ground. All these things were said to make the spirits angry. Christianity, he said, freed him from having to constantly worry about following all the rules. Instead of living to avoid angering the spirits, he could live in the freedom of the Holy Spirit.

For many of us, the history of being Christian goes back a long way in our families. Even if recent family members have not been Christian, often we know that somewhere in the past our families were somehow involved in the church, and Christianity has influenced the cultures that have formed us. It was in many ways a shock to hear about the Christian message from the viewpoint of a new hearer, coming from a cultural tradition that at the time was just introduced to the freeing message of Jesus Christ.


It has been a season of seminars for me (Eric) here in Malaysia.  Several of the past few weekends I have been doing daylong seminars for the Protestant Church in Sabah (PCS) on Martin Luther’s Small Catechism, and then this … Continue reading

Travel notes from Indonesia

Greetings all,
While Wendolyn and the boys are continuing to have adventures in Malaysia, I’m in the midst of my own 17 day adventure in Indonesia. If you are like I was, you can probably pick out Indonesia on a map, but not really say too much more about it. In fact, in the past couple of weeks I have read several books about Indonesia, and they all begin by saying something along the lines of, “Despite being the fourth largest country in the world and possessing a rich and vibrant culture, Indonesia remains little known to much of the world.” So if Indonesia seems a bit mysterious to you, don’t worry. You are not alone.
Here are a few interesting tidbits I have picked up about the country:
– It is made up of 17,500 islands. It includes parts of the islands of New Guinea and Borneo, the second and third largest islands in the world, respectively, and the entirety of the islands of Sumatra and Java, which are huge islands too
– Java is the world’s most populous island, with 58% of Indonesia’s population living there. In land area, it is slightly larger than the state of Mississippi.
– Jakarta itself has over 28 million people in its metropolitan area. That’s like combining the metropolitan areas of New York and Chicago (together estimated at 29 million people)
– the distance from one end of Indonesia to the other is larger than the span of the Atlantic Ocean; in fact it is close to the same as the distance between London and Baghdad.
– The country has some 235 million people from over 300 ethnic groups, speaking over 360 different languages.

I am staying on the island of Java, and yes there is more here than coffee (in fact I’ve come across a lot more jasmine tea than I have coffee so far). I’ll be in Jakarta, on the western end of the island, for a few days at the end of my trip, but mostly I am in Yogyakarta, in central Java. Jakarta is the largest city and capital, but Yogyakarta (called Jogja by everyone) is the cultural and intellectual center of Java, as well as the number two tourist destination in Indonesia, after Bali. Jogja has thousand year old Buddhist and Hindu temple, unique styles of batik, the long and continuing history of the kings of Yogyakarta and Solo, and is probably Indonesia’s biggest university town.

I’m not actually seeing much of these sights, though. I am spending pretty much all day, six days a week, in language classes. The Indonesian language is very similar to the Malaysian language, so this turned out to be the best place to come for me to do an intensive language class. It is important, worthwhile work, but honestly not much to blog about. Knowing the right time to use “bukan” instead of “tidak” feels like quite the victory to me, but I am not so sure I can convince anyone else to get passionate about it.

Still, hanging out in this little suburban neighborhood twenty minutes out from the town center by motorbike has its own charms and adventures. For instance, there are thousands of motorbikes here, streaming all over the place. I had never ridden on one before, but I’ve needed to a few times here to get out of the neighborhood, andi it is a bit hair-raising weaving in and out of traffic and all of the other bikes. What really made things interesting, though, was that this past Saturday was graduation day – for everybody from junior high through university. It seems that it is a tradition that for junior high graduation all of the kids get to ride a motorbike for the day, even though they are not old enough to have a license. Usually an adult leads the way, carrying a big colorful stick and the whole class forms a procession riding around town, and then afterwards the youth drive off in packs with their friends. The roads seem nerve-wracking enough for me with experienced drivers out there!

Oh, and of course I must mention that this is my first trip south of the equator. Yes, water in the toilet does flush the opposite direction. Don’t spend too much time watching, though, because you have to fill up the toilet again yourself – you get a big tub of water beside the toilet and a scoop. Makes you appreciate how much goes down the drain each time you flush.

Calling this area a suburb might be a bit misleading, although it is a well-to-do neighborhood a ways out from the city center. There are plenty of big busy roads around so that you know you are in an urban area, but then turn off to the side and you find yourself in a maze of alleys and trails. There are plenty of big nice homes along the alleys, but it also has chickens everywhere (the rooster across the street from my bedroom sounds just like a police bullhorn – I woke up the first morning thinking that I was being evacuated!). Turn any given corner, and you might just find yourself in a rice paddy. I was even walking down the street the other day and a runaway cow still attached to its plough came running at me. Everyone along the street came out to watch and laugh about that one, so I don’t think it is a normal occurrence, though.

I am staying at a homestay just down the street from the language school. I don’t actually see the family that much – life is busy enough for a family with three kids; they don’t need to be looking out for a clueless foreigner. They do put home cooked food out on a table for me three times a day, and the kids frequently go running by me. I don’t think people normally stay this long with them, because the first few days the meals were quite elaborate, but the last few have been quite simple – a soup of leftover vegetables, a bit of fried meat. It actually makes me feel a bit better to have the simple food – a busy family of five shouldn’t have time to make such elaborate meals every night. The mix is much more real. Anyway, I went to worship with them on Sunday. They go to a Catholic church up the road a ways. It turned out to be First Communion Sunday. I don’t really have much sense of what the church was like or too many details of the service, because we got there right before the service was scheduled to start, and on First Communion Sunday, that means we were sitting with about 150 other people outside the church building, listening over loudspeakers. Really, beside the change in language, a Catholic mass has a pretty recognizable form anywhere in the world, and after not being to a liturgical service in several months it was comfortably familiar.

I’ve got another week to go here in Indonesia, so if I have other adventures I will pass them along – as web access allows – before I return to Malaysia.

Strategic Retreat

We just recently finished break week here (there’s not too much in the way of seasons, so you can’t really call it Spring Break).  It was a bit of a new experience for me, though, because the first three days of the break were a seminary-wide retreat.  Faculty, staff, and students all headed an hour down the road to the town of Papar, where there is a Franciscan convent that runs a retreat center.  I’ve taken classes at four seminaries, so this is the fifth one I have been a part of, but the first one that has had a community-wide retreat.  It was really a fantastic experience.

The theme this year was “What are We Doing Here,” and there was a keynote speaker who talked about how seminary classes engage the head, but we need to remember that head work is only one dimension of the preparation for ministry.  Classes also need to help guide spiritual formation.  In the vein of moving beyond just the intellectual side of the seminary experience, there were also plenty of fun moments in the retreat.  We have what we call “family groups,” which is one faculty member, one staff member, and several students (my group has six), who meet together each week for bible study, prayer, and frequently meals together.  During the retreat, the family groups also competed with each other in a series of games. 

The first day the game was a tug-of-war tournament.  I cannot recall ever being in a tug-of-war tournament before, but as my group gathered at the rope I was told, “Oh, you have to be our anchor.”  We lined up in the best-of-three first round and almost immediately the other team pulled us across the line.  Well, this will be nice and quick, I thought to myself.  I was wrong.  The second pull was truly epic.  It may well have lasted for five minutes, an eternity in tug of war.  We pulled and pulled and so did they.  Our hands got red and sore, and nobody would give.  In the deadlock, I figured out what it meant to be an anchor.  The job of the anchor on a ship is to keep the ship from moving, keeping it from floating into danger.  In the tug-of-war tournament, many of the anchors on the other teams were trying to be the star who won the match for their side.  I realized that the anchor, though, needs to be the solid rock, the one who will not be moved.  Doing that buys allows the rest of the team to have a chance to win it.  As anchor I must stand my ground and give the others a chance to be the heroes.  I’m pretty sure there’s a sermon there on the nature of ministry.  At any rate, we ended up reeling off six straight victories to take the crown, and even did well enough at the other games to take the overall crown. 

There was also a fun night skit night the second evening, with skits somehow addressing the theme.  The faculty skit was a parody of chapel time, showing all the wrong reasons for being in chapel.  I got to be the preacher, and put to use my many years of watching Rowan Atkinson “sermons,” giving the best dry humor I could muster giving my less than complete grasp of the Malay language.  It must have been decent, as the skit won first place.  The result of the double victory?  Being given so much junk food no one group could possibly eat it all, so everyone shared with everyone else and it was like being a twelve-year-old at a lock-in.    It really was a great way to break out of the normal roles and routines of the semester, to forge new forms of relationships and think about deep issues and frivolously fun ones too.  It is really a blessing for the seminary community to be able to have a few days like this, and I think that it enhances spiritual formation in a way that helps improve the students’ ability to minster effectively after they graduate.


As we have now finished our second full week in KK, I have been pondering the idea of convenience.  On the one hand, we have been blessed with many conveniences that cannot at all be taken for granted: we have a furnished apartment with a microwave oven and a washer.  We are truly blessed by the ways those items make life easier.  We are in a city where we can get most anything we need.  Not only do there seem to be 24 hour 7-11s on every corner, but I was surprised to find a GNC store so that I don’t even have to worry about where to find vitamins in their familiar packaging. 

At the same time, there are some inconveniences we are discovering, as well.   Living on top of a steep hill with no car, you have to think ahead about what you might want.  It is not easy to run out and grab some groceries on a whim.  I did make a quick run down the hill to get the rest of the family some ice cream the other night because they all seemed in need of a treat, but that was really the exception demonstrating the rule.  It takes much effort to act on impulse.  We also need to boil our water before drinking.  The water seems to be safe, but better safe than sorry, right?  That means you can’t just go over to the sink and get a drink.  You need to plan ahead and manage the water supply.  These things are not problems because they are easily manageable, but they are inconvenient.  We have had various other things in getting our apartment together, setting up TV and computer and so on, that simply take longer than we are used to.  The pace is just slower, and while it’s probably much healthier it does feel a bit inconvenient at times.  It depends on the moment whether this feels serene or irritating.

Probably the biggest thing that has me thinking about convenience is laundry.  As I mentioned, we do have a washer, which certainly beats washing clothes by hand.  We do not have a dryer, though.  We need to hang up the clothes to air dry.  This means rushing them inside when a sudden rain comes up and it means ironing them once they are dry.  While ecologically it’s a much better approach, it’s also several extra steps per load of laundry.  One person mentioned that they thought we had moved to paradise until hearing about the ironing.  It certainly is inconvenient, though so far we honestly haven’t minded (though you’ll probably get a better answer on that a few months from now after the novelty has worn off).  It does bring up the question for me, though, of whether paradise is a place of convenience.

 What is it that we imagine when we think of paradise?  Daydreams of lounging around with no responsibility, most likely.  A place of ultimate convenience.  Yet I wonder if, theologically speaking, paradise and convenience are at all compatible.  If the Kingdom of God is the call towards true righteousness – that is, right relationships, encompassing justice, ecological vitality, voices for the voiceless – then there is little convenience to it.  The hospitality towards the other called forth by the Kingdom cannot be convenient, because convenience is about making things quicker and easier while the relationships essential to hospitality can never be quick and easy.  I think of the hospitality shown to us by so many members of this community in helping us to get our bearings, and I know that it was never convenient for them to help us.  Yet they did it gladly, as part of a relationship. 

How much more so, then, ought we, when we think of paradise, think of it not as a place of rampant convenience but rather as a space of turning toward others?  Other humans, in service and hospitality, the more-than-human world, in care and respect, in compassion towards all we encounter.  All in the name of the Kingdom of God.  If we were able to fully do this, we might fully experience paradise in experiencing the fullness of God’s vision for the world.  Of course we can’t, leaving us with only whiffs and glimpses (because God doesn’t work in only one of our senses!)  But what grace those glimpses are!  

I Must Have Changed Several Times Since Then…

Strange caterpillar in a new (to us) land

Strange caterpillar in a new (to us) land

The Caterpillar and Alice looked at each other for some time in silence: at last the Caterpillar took the hookah out of its mouth, and addressed her in a languid, sleepy voice.

`Who are you?’ said the Caterpillar.

This was not an encouraging opening for a conversation. Alice replied, rather shyly, `I–I hardly know, sir, just at present– at least I know who I was when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then.’

`What do you mean by that?’ said the Caterpillar sternly. `Explain yourself!’

`I can’t explain myself, I’m afraid, sir’ said Alice, `because I’m not myself, you see.’

`I don’t see,’ said the Caterpillar.

`I’m afraid I can’t put it more clearly,’ Alice replied very politely, `for I can’t understand it myself to begin with; and being so many different sizes in a day is very confusing.’

`It isn’t,’ said the Caterpillar.

`Well, perhaps you haven’t found it so yet,’ said Alice; `but when you have to turn into a chrysalis–you will some day, you know–and then after that into a butterfly, I should think you’ll feel it a little queer, won’t you?’

`Not a bit,’ said the Caterpillar.

`Well, perhaps your feelings may be different,’ said Alice; `all I know is, it would feel very queer to me.’

`You!’ said the Caterpillar contemptuously. `Who are you?’

Which brought them back again to the beginning of the conversation.

–          From Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, chapter 5, “Advice from a Caterpillar.”

I seem to always come back to this passage from Alice whenever I am in a time of transition.  I had the interesting experience this week of visiting three of my four alma maters.  Sunday evening I was in Cumberland, MD and took a walk around Fort Hill High School the night before the start of the school year.  Then on Tuesday I was in Madison, NJ visiting Drew University.  I was a bit surreal to be there to say goodbyes on the first day of classes.  Finally, last night I went to Baltimore to see a college friend who still lives near the Loyola University campus, and so I drove past my old dorms on my way home.  I have always enjoyed my occasional trips back to these sites.  Being there allows me to remember who I was in that space and draw on the ideals and energies that were core to me in those times and places with those communities.  After all, who we are shifts and changes as we become part of different groups of people and enter different stages of life.  New experiences and expectations continually shape us anew.  For me, the opportunity to return to physical spaces often served as a reminder not only of the gift of my varied experiences but also as a guard against complacency.  I could look at the person I was at any given moment and the choices and activities I was making each day, and compare that to who I was at other times and see what was different.  Sometimes the changes were for the better, sometimes not.  No matter what, though, the visits gave me a boost of reflective energy to help shape what I was doing.

That boost didn’t happen this time, though; at least not in the same way.  To be sure, I enjoyed visiting with the people I saw, but my reaction to the places was a feeling of distance and disconnect.  I don’t belong there anymore.  Obviously I am not a high school or college student anymore, nor am I a grad student any longer.  More than that, though, my feeling was that as much as those places are gifts to who I am now, what is essential to my new transition is not looking to my past for inspiration but rather to what I do not yet know.  I told Wendolyn earlier this week that now that we are near the end of list of details that have to be taken care of before we can fly out on Monday I am beginning to have moments of feeling a bit nervous.  It is not doubt about what we are doing, though.  I have been called, well prepared, and given the necessary gifts to take on the role that is before me.  Rather than doubt, the nerves comes from a realization that in order to be who God is calling me to be as a professor at Sabah Theological Seminary and do what God is calling me to do, I need to grow beyond who I currently am.  One level of this is simply being able to see myself in the role of seminary professor.  I’ve known so many wonderful seminary professors; to see myself as one is a bit of a challenge.  Even more, though, is the need to grow through getting to know the people of Malaysia and particularly the church communities that I will be a part of there.  Who are these brothers and sisters in Christ, and who will I be in their midst?  I am sure answering those questions will be a slow and ongoing process of living together, and that there will be times of confusion and not quite knowing who I am, just like Alice going through her many sizes.  I look forward to it, but at the same time realize it won’t be easy.  I trust, though, that through the experience I will be in a way I have not been before.  A new me will be brought forth.

“Who are you?” the caterpillar asks.  I can’t wait to find out anew!