What could fifteen or so farmers have in common with a fisherman, a builder, a game hunter, a barber, a couple of motorbike fruit-sellers, a man who milks rubber trees, two woodcutters, a factory hand, a motorbike-taxi driver, a former orchardist and a former watchmaker? They are Pastors or preparing Pastors of the fledgling Evangelical Lutheran Church of Vietnam (ELCV). Throw in a couple of other fulltime pastors, an English language translator, a specialist in collecting and reselling junk, a wedding caterer, a beautician, and a couple of other occupations and you have this amazing mix of 36 participants at the 3 day Vietnam Australia Lutheran Bible Institute course (VALBI) held in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) from March 14-16. I was privileged to have been the teacher on this occasion
You can gather that the vast majority of these pastors work at other jobs to stay alive. That is why Asia Focus commits to completely cover the cost of travel and food and accommodation. During the time they attend the course some must forgo their regular income. Simple as that. Last month many of you contributed almost $4500 toward the running cost of the March VALBI. Brilliance which honours our gracious Father.
The Bible Institute meets every second month, and brings together Pastors and trainee Pastors from all over Vietnam for intensive teaching. The teaching is provided through Australian Pastors, and the course is organised by the leaders of ELCV in conjunction with Asia Focus Australia, headed by Pastor August Fricke from Gympie in Queensland.
On this visit the bulk of my teaching was about Jesus Christ in Isaiah. My driving passion is to enable people to know how to read all scripture, especially the Old Testament, through the lens of what has been established through the coming, life, suffering, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus the Christ. I don’t have the words to describe the moment when the eyes and face of a pastor reveal that a ‘truth connection’ has been made. Teaching about the gracious righteousness of our Lord, knowledge of Him, faith and trust in Him, and of the Spirit, was pure joy in this scenario.
Also included in the teaching time was a segment on being a Pastor, and another on the first 15 Articles of the Augsburg Confession. There is a real challenge in sharing with a group whose background is cultural Buddhism, and who know practically nothing about Popes and Europe, let alone Germany and Wittenberg. But, for heaven’s sake, did they ever cotton on to, ‘Justified by grace, for Christ’s sake, through faith.’ My hearers had no trouble ‘getting’ that the God who reveals himself as Father has provided something that no other faith can or has provided, that is, a Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! No other faith system has such a grace mechanism which allows forgiveness to be extended and righteousness bestowed.
We also had a great time thinking about Luther’s catechism material on daily bread. This was so good because many of these Pastors live close to subsistence level and know perfectly well what it means to trust our Father for essential needs. We had a great laugh too when we ended that session with an acknowledgment that a good clean toilet is part of daily bread too! (One soon discovers that you can’t be precious about toilets over there, especially in outlying areas.)
Before we commenced teaching for this VALBI class I had offered to oversee a prayer time on Wednesday evening for course participants. Every single person attended. More than 30 came forward for prayer. Their needs are not so different from ours, but I had a far stronger sense of their ‘receiving’ than I usually get at home. Next morning they began to share what had happened to them. Unashamedly they stood up and spoke of physical healing, of fears stilled, of encouragement received, of the Lord’s speaking to them in the night, of worry overcome, and being able to trust the Lord for a way forward, of an infilling of the Holy Spirit. I’d lead such prayer times again at the drop of a hat.
My Vietnam friends do life and ‘church’ in the raw. I spent my last full day in Vietnam in the Mekong Delta going to the locations of small, village churches. In each case it was the Pastor’s own house. No airs and graces, no smugness or bragging. The church building is usually the nearest room to the front door. (Can you even imagine up to 30-40 people meeting in your lounge room with part of it open to the elements, with the dogs and chooks coming in and out?) Food hospitality was amazing. Cooking was done over open fires inside the kitchen, and in some places most floors were bare earth. But the joy! I know it’s just my comment, but I could sense, even almost touch, the glory of God in these humble and lowly circumstances. (Yes, I know. I should expect that given that our Lord specializes in shining in situations like this.) In each place there came spontaneous requests and prayers for blessing and healing.
It was a joy to return to the orphanage at Phu Ly and see the rooms your support built. Our support was sufficient so that money was available to begin a second building and an inspired donor from Italy (I think) enabled them to finish that and do some more, Just as well because there are now more than 80 children in residence.
Your support enabled so much to happen. There is now a dedicated fund to help resource strapped pastors and churches to access Study Bibles. The orphanage has been blessed. There are funds available for translation work. And more than $4000 was contributed to underwrite the course.
First, I have been asked to teach another week in November this year and I will be going. Humanly speaking, I know in my heart before the Lord that I have done some good stuff in my ministry over the years. These teaching stints in Vietnam are way up there in my experience. It is an open-door, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be part of setting in the hearts and minds and spirits of pastors, in a new, young, uncluttered church, a way of reading, knowing and interpreting the whole of scripture through that remarkable grace-filled lens of the person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ. (I’ve been thinking about why Vietnam tugs so strongly on me. I think it’s because I have known so many men of my age who spent a good part of their early 20’s in that country!)
Second, your support for the VALBI course, not just for the weeks I teach, but for all of them, is welcome. Other teachers going over this year are Chris Reardon from Cairns (May) Pastor Peter Steicke (July) and Pastor David Christian (September). Any help is appreciated. If you feel a call to make this a priority of it then get in touch with me
Well, the Lord Jesus bless you, the Father embrace you in hard-won grace, and the Spirit reveal more of the Glory of the Kingdom to you.