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A letter from Bob Butterfield in Portugal

February 2014

Dear Friends,

Keiko and I hope you are well and are surviving the crazy winter CNN says you’re having.  We send you our heartfelt thanks for your support and encouragement.  Though serving in Portugal, like serving almost anywhere, has its frustrations and disappointments, we find our work here amazingly gratifying in many ways.  And we thank you for supporting us and keeping us here.

Much of the gratification I mentioned comes to us through our ecumenical work, and this year’s Week of Prayer for Christian Unity was so special and so moving that I’m eager to tell you about it.  What made this year’s celebrations special from the outset was that at the national celebration to be held at the end of the week, Saturday, January 25, at St. Paul’s Anglican Cathedral in Lisbon leaders of the Roman Catholic Church, the Anglican Church, the Evangelical Presbyterian Church of Portugal, the Evangelical Methodist Church of Portugal, and the Ukrainian Orthodox Church were set to sign the Document of Mutual Recognition of Baptism.  This signing marked a real improvement in relations among the churches and gave added incentive to our annual unity celebrations.

In any event, because there are more and more Ukrainian Orthodox immigrants in the central region of Portugal, we invited the Ukrainian Orthodox Church to be part of our areawide celebrations, and the Ukrainians did much to make these worship services memorable, especially by exquisitely singing the Epistle or the Gospel text.  In some cases they also did some absolutely wonderful—and completely spontaneous—choral singing in Ukrainian.  And at the end of the week, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church presented four of us organizers with gorgeous, large-format icons.  

We held a worship service at 9 pm every night from Sunday, January 19, to Friday, January 24, in widely separated churches, and, in spite of the rain, the remote locations, and the bad roads, the churches were packed.  After seeing many of the same people at these services, I realized that there are a lot of Catholic laypeople who are deeply committed to ecumenism.  Whole groups of them attended every single service and participated with enormous enthusiasm, and after each service they said the same thing to me: that we can’t limit our ecumenism to this one week, that we have to do more together.  So right now our committee is developing ecumenical teams to visit hospitals, orphanages, nursing homes, etc., and I know that there are many laypeople who want to do this.

All these worship services featured lively, inspiring music; preaching by Protestants, Catholics and Orthodox; blessing and being blessed by the people sitting near you; the whole congregation dancing; and the liturgical presentation of something especially important in each branch of the Christian family—from us Protestants, the Bible; from Catholics, the bread of the Eucharist; from the Ukrainian Orthodox, icons.  Overall these services were so inspiring that I myself was evangelized.  A group of Roman Catholic sisters from the Focolares Movement, dedicated to helping poor families, told me how strongly they had felt the presence of the Holy Spirit in my sermon.  That comment touched me deeply, humbled me, and made me appreciate what a privilege it is to serve in the Lord’s name.

The other recent activity I want to tell you about is the Christmas Cantata done by all of the Presbyterian and Methodist churches in this central region.  For the first time in the history of this event we sang in four-part harmony, which called for a whole lot of rehearsal.  I mean five or six sessions of four hours each.  As usual we benefited from the marvelous participation of seven horn players from the Philharmonic Orchestra in Alhadas, which is where one of my congregations is located.  José Titosse, husband of Pastor Nini Titosse, is our music leader.  He does everything, including writing the orchestration.  Anyway, we wanted to encourage attendance by Roman Catholics.  So this year we performed the cantata in recital halls wherever possible, rather than in churches, and this change in strategy really worked.  We had big audiences.  I’m sure that our good relations with local priests really helped.  Having to work as hard as we did to make this cantata come off well really brought people together.  In fact, the cantata does as much for building solidarity among us Protestants as it does for evangelizing the six different towns where we performed it.

On the national level of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church of Portugal (IEPP), the next item of business is the status of our ongoing discussions with the Evangelical Methodist Church of Portugal (IEMP).  For years and years these two church bodies have been talking about some kind of merger, but so far nothing has happened.  Knowing about the administrative difficulties of the IEPP, I pray for merger, but I’m probably in the minority. 

In our two congregations the people are somehow surviving this prolonged economic austerity.  They are accustomed to hard times, to living on nothing, and if they weren’t I don’t think they could make it.

Please pray for them, for all the people of Portugal, for the Church in all its embodiments here, and if there is any space on your Sunday bulletin, please pray for Keiko and me too.  It helps to know you care.

Yours in Christ’s service,
Bob   

The 2013 Presbyterian Mission Yearbook for Prayer & Study, p. 276
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