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Called to Be Friends

A Letter from John McCall, serving in Taiwan

September 2018

 to John McCall

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Dear Friends,
I got off the train after a four-hour ride along the Pacific Ocean and headed to the exit to be met by a pastor from the Bunun Presbytery, an aboriginal presbytery on Taiwan’s east coast. I was on my way to lead the fourth pastors’ retreat in three weeks. We arranged these retreats a year ago, and it has been my joy since returning to Taiwan to meet so many of my former students and other pastors who are serving churches throughout Taiwan.

The Bunun tribal pastor (Bunun means “person” and is the name of one of the sixteen tribes among Taiwan’s indigenous people) greeted me and drove us to a nearby noodle restaurant, where we met four other pastors for lunch. We then left the small town of Yu Li and headed up steep mountain roads to the farming hut of one of the church elders. Other pastors were waiting for us there in the middle of a mango grove. The view from the hut was spectacular, a deep blue sky with white clouds hanging over high mountains. Fresh fruit was on the table, and we enjoyed pineapple, papaya, and oranges from nearby fields.

Many of the church gatherings here tend to have a main speaker lecturing and the participants passively listening. I try to craft a retreat that gives plenty of time for small-group sharing and a good amount of time to pray, sing, and worship together. I do give a few talks, but I encourage them to respond to the talks in small-group discussion.

Aboriginals love to sing, so we began our time together with one pastor leading us in song. We sang in both the Bunun tongue and in Mandarin. These pastors serve churches in villages sprinkled throughout these east coast mountains. Many of their members are farmers, but a good number are also teachers or police officers, or are working at other jobs. It is easy for me to tell the different aboriginal people apart both by their looks and their customs. The Bunun tribe tends to be a communal tribe that enjoys doing things together.

After we sang, I shared with them Jesus’ striking words from John 15:15: “I no longer call you servants … but now call you friends.” We spent the rest of the retreat thinking about what it means to be a friend of Jesus and not just a servant. In the hierarchical society in Asia, it is much easier to think of Jesus as the teacher or master, and to see ourselves as the students. While this is certainly true, it is not the whole story. So for us to be considered Jesus’ friend is a rather radical thought. The second day of the retreat, we talked about how Jesus also calls us to be friends one to another. Again, this is not easy in a context where confidentiality is often not honored, and there is not always deep trust between pastors or other co-workers in the church. So in all these retreats, it has been a joy to see the relationships deepen between Christ and his Taiwanese friends and between the pastors themselves.

After dinner the male pastors sang in the unique eight-part harmony of the Bunun tribe. It is almost an otherworldly sound as they put their arms around the backs of the people on either side and join in combining the eight parts. One person has described their music as unity in diversity, for you can still clearly hear each voice.

Then a group of the pastors decided to go hunting together in the high mountains above the farming hut where we were meeting. They went to hunt for wild boar, which is a staple for this tribe and many other mountain tribes in Taiwan. They invited me to join them, and while I was tempted, I am not a hunter and thought I might be more of a hindrance than a help. Unfortunately, the wild boar was hiding well that night, and they returned at midnight without any boar. But they told me that hunting is an important way for them to share life together.

During these retreats, I always arrange time for these pastors to find a prayer partner and share their prayer concerns together. It is encouraging to me to hear them share with such honesty and see them praying in pairs and in groups. We know that ministry is too important to do alone, and so we ask the Holy Spirit to guide, encourage, and empower us in our ministries. Many of these pastors have children of various ages, so they also ask for prayers for their families.

They asked the oldest pastor in the presbytery to come and lead the morning devotions the second morning of the retreat. I had not met Pastor Ma before, but as he began to preach, I could tell that, at age 86, he is a man of great faith, hope, and love. He has served in these mountains for fifty years, and he has a dynamism that is infectious. He said that the church has enough critical people, and that instead we need to be people of one heart and mind, people of deep and faithful prayer, and people who recognize the power of the gospel to change lives and communities. As I listened to him preach and looked around at the younger pastors, I gave thanks for such a wonderful leadership model. When he began his service, there were no paved roads in the mountains, and it could take a day or more to hike to the next village to share the Good News. Pastor Ma was an encouragement to all of us, as he is still running the race of God’s call on Taiwan’s east coast.

As I boarded the train back to Taipei, my body was tired, but my spirit was thankful for the opportunity to be with so many of Taiwan’s pastors in the past three weeks. Their roads are not easy in this non-Christian land, and they need encouragement and someone to speak hope, but they get up every day and seek to live out the love of Christ in their families, churches, and communities. I am grateful to walk with them.

I was reminded of their need for encouragement and care when recently I was in a town south of Taipei and the local pastor, who is in one of the pastor groups that meets regularly at my home, happened to ride by with his wife on a motor scooter. They stopped and invited me and my friends from the US to join them for lunch. But first we went with them to buy vegetables at a local vegetable market. The pastor’s wife introduced me to the woman selling the vegetables saying, “This is my husband’s pastor.” The vegetable seller, who is not a Christian, said, “a pastor needs a pastor?” The pastor’s wife responded, “Yes, my husband needs a pastor.” I was humbled by her comment, but I am conscious that this is one of my important roles here.

Thank you for your care that allows me to walk with these church leaders in their daily lives.

John McCall

Please read this important message from José Luis Casal, Director, Presbyterian World Mission

Dear partners in God’s mission,

We near the close of 2018 inspired by the hope of Christ. God is transforming the world, and you are helping to make it happen.

Thank you very much for your support of our mission co-workers. The prayers and financial gifts of people like you enable them to work alongside global partners to address poverty, hopelessness, violence and other pressing problems in the name of Jesus Christ.

Every day, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) mission co-workers are blessed to be able to walk alongside their brothers and sisters across the globe. Listening to each other in faith and in friendship, they learn from each other how to work towards a world in which everyone flourishes. Acting upon what they discover together, PC(USA) mission co-workers and our global partners strengthen the body of Christ.

Because you are an integral part of God’s mission, I invite you to become more deeply committed to Presbyterian World Mission. First, would you make a year-end gift for the sending and support of our mission co-workers? The needs in the world are great, and World Mission is poised to answer God’s call to serve others.

I also invite you to ask your session to add our mission co-workers to your congregation’s prayer list and mission budget for 2019 and beyond. Your multi-year commitment will make a great difference in our involvement with our partners. The majority of our mission co-workers’ funding comes from the special gifts of individuals and congregations like yours, for God’s mission is a responsibility of the whole church, not a particular area of the church. Now more than ever, we need your financial support!

In faith, our mission co-workers accept a call to mission service. In faith, World Mission, representing the whole church and you, sends them to work with our global partners. In faith, will you also commit to support this work with your prayers and financial gifts? With hope and faith, I await your positive response!

At God’s service and at your service!

José Luis Casal

P.S. Your gift will help meet critical needs of our global partners. Thank you!

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