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A letter from Bob Butterfield in Portugal

June 2014 

Dear Friends in Mission,

Keiko and I greet you from Portugal and thank you for your ongoing support of our work here.  Today I want to share with you something that happened to us on the Friday before Palm Sunday. 

When we returned from itineration in October 2013 we met a friendly, middle-aged couple who had started worshiping in the church we serve in Alhadas.  The husband, José, was especially outgoing and sang with a magnificent bass voice.  In fact, he had used that amazing voice for 30 years as leading actor in the local theater company.  So everyone in town knew him and loved him. 

"The courtyard was crammed with people elbow to elbow."

In early November we began rehearsals for the Christmas cantata, and to my delight José and his wife wanted to be in it.  They were experienced singers, but many of the other singers, drawn from every Presbyterian and Methodist congregation in central Portugal, had never sung in parts.  So we needed lots of rehearsal.  That meant standing on stage for two or three hours at a stretch and endlessly correcting before the music finally started to sound right.  We rehearsed twice a week for a month and a half, and José and his wife never missed a rehearsal.  In fact they smiled throughout, obviously had a great time, and sang their guts out. 

As opening night drew near, the rehearsals got even tougher.  It was a real test of our patience and endurance, especially mine.  I even had a few moments of exhausted grumpiness.  But José, who stood next to me in the bass section, never sat down and never stopped smiling and encouraging the other singers.

We gave eight performances of the cantata, with accompaniment.  The audiences loved it, and the “cast party” after each performance was invariably delightful.  We all said we wanted to do it again.

"The entrance hall of the church was packed, and the sanctuary itself was so crowded that every square inch of the floor was covered with people."

My thoughts about the cantata would probably have stopped there if, in the week before Palm Sunday, José had not gone in for an operation intended to relieve pain in his left leg.  According to him, it was no big deal.  But when I visited him in the hospital, I found out that actually it was a big deal.  His wife explained that six months earlier he had been diagnosed with prostate cancer, already metastasized, with cancer in his bones and multiple brain tumors.  One had just been removed.  When I saw him in recovery, he smiled bravely, professed his faith in Christ, and died.

Driving home, I reflected on José and the Christmas cantata and realized that during those tiring rehearsals and performances, he had smiled and encouraged others while enduring serious pain himself.  Knowing that about him gave me even more reason to admire and respect him.

The memorial service, a celebration of José’s life and of our hope in Christ, was held in the Presbyterian Church of Alhadas.  I arrived 45 minutes early and found cars parked solid around the church in every direction.  Already there was a crowd of at least 500 people in the courtyard of the church, a few hundred more on the sidewalks, and hundreds packed inside.  We began the service immediately.

In previous memorial services I hadn’t known the deceased at all, and despite my best attempts to personalize those services, I knew they’d been pretty generic.  But with José it could be totally different.  Not only did I know him and admire him, but he was the best-loved person in town, so this was a wonderful opportunity for me to really speak to the hearts of the people, almost all non-members.

"The street was filled with cars parked on both sides of the street reducing it to one lane as far as the eye could see in either direction.

I looked out on the nervous, overflow crowd and at the multitude outside, but instead of feeling intimidated, I felt energized and filled with unusual calm and concentration.  Ignoring my sermon notes, I just let my feelings flow.  I said that it was perfectly appropriate for everyone in Alhadas, especially José’s wife and son, to cry our eyes out because we had lost a really good friend, but that we shouldn’t despair because while other people might look at José and see only a lifeless body, we with the eyes of faith could recognize the God of Life hidden in José’s death in the same way we can see God hidden in Christ on the cross.  So even in our tears and grief we sing joyful songs of praise to God.  Even at the grave we shout hallelujahs.

This message (the gospel) brought us strangely together, and we experienced genuine communion.  We tearfully sang songs of faith, and these were tears not just of grief but also of hope and brotherhood in Christ.  We looked at the lifeless body of José, and behind it we saw his resurrection and our own too.

After the service Maria Luisa, the lay leader of the congregation and a retired teacher of Portuguese, told me that everyone had been deeply touched by the wonderful words that had come out of my mouth and by their tone, which she said struck exactly the right chord. 

The entire crowd of mourners walked behind the hearse more than a mile up the steep hill to the cemetery, and the (startled) look of love I saw on people’s faces was unlike anything I’ve experienced in Portugal.  When people there look at me now, it’s not the same as before.  I’ve become part of their lives.

Clearly it was the Holy Spirit that made my sermon come out just right.  It was the Holy Spirit that touched people’s hearts.  It was the Holy Spirit that turned their smiles from polite to radiant.  It was the Holy Spirit that moved total strangers to tug on my sleeve and thank me.  It was the Holy Spirit.

Keiko and I give thanks to you, to the Presbyterian Mission Agency, and to God for supporting our work.  We’re all doing this together, and Keiko and I continue to need all your help in all its forms.

Yours in Christ’s service,
Bob

The 2014 Presbyterian Mission Yearbook for Prayer & Study, p. 306
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