The Calf Path
by Sam Walter Foss (1858-1911)
One day, through the primeval wood,
A calf walked home, as good calves should;
But made a trail all bent askew,
A crooked trail, as all calves do.
Since then three hundred years have fled,
And, I infer, the calf is dead.
But still he left behind his trail,
And thereby hangs my moral tale.
The trail was taken up next day
By a lone dog that passed that way;
And then a wise bellwether sheep
Pursued the trail o’er vale and steep,
And drew the flock behind him, too,
As good bellwethers always do.
And from that day, o’er hill and glade,
Through those old woods a path was made,
And many men wound in and out,
And dodged and turned and bent about,
And uttered words of righteous wrath
Because ’twas such a crooked path;
But still they followed—do not laugh—
The first migrations of that calf,
And through this winding wood-way stalked
Because he wobbled when he walked.
This forest path became a lane,
That bent, and turned, and turned again.
This crooked lane became a road,
Where many a poor horse with his load
Toiled on beneath the burning sun,
And traveled some three miles in one.
And thus a century and a half
They trod the footsteps of that calf.
The years passed on in swiftness fleet.
The road became a village street,
And this, before men were aware,
A city’s crowded thoroughfare,
And soon the central street was this
Of a renowned metropolis;
And men two centuries and a half
Trod in the footsteps of that calf.
Each day a hundred thousand rout
Followed that zigzag calf about,
And o’er his crooked journey went
The traffic of a continent.
A hundred thousand men were led
By one calf near three centuries dead.
They follow still his crooked way,
And lose one hundred years a day,
For thus such reverence is lent
To well-established precedent.
A moral lesson this might teach
Were I ordained and called to preach;
For men are prone to go it blind
Along the calf-paths of the mind,
And work away from sun to sun
To do what other men have done.
They follow in the beaten track,
And out and in, and forth and back,
And still their devious course pursue,
To keep the path that others do.
They keep the path a sacred groove,
Along which all their lives they move;
But how the wise old wood-gods laugh,
Who saw the first primeval calf!
Ah, many things this tale might teach-
But I am not ordained to preach.
I was seated on a motorcycle behind the driver. No helmets. As he slowly weaved around parked pedicabs and crowds of people heading towards the market, a helmet would have been overkill. Dad was seated in the sidecar, rather calmly taking in the surrounds: a market with the accompanying crowds and the smell of fresh fish for sale, crowded jeepneys politely sounding their horns as they weaved in and out of traffic, local kids kicking a ball and chasing it down a side alley . . .
Down one narrow street, squeezing past a jeepney packed with workers on their way home. Sharp right, uphill a few metres then a sharp left, down an even narrower alley. Bumping over cracks in the road, another few unusual turns into crowded lanes. We finally stop.
We follow one of the local pastors down an alley bordered by concrete houses with rusted tin roofs, some with small dirt yards full of chickens, dogs, and clothes hanging out to dry. Not much light.
We’re walking downhill. Groves have been molded into the rough-laid walkway to help drainage in the wet season. This is the dry season, so it’s hot and the air is heavy with humidity. We continue walking, more carefully now, turning a corner as the alley narrows and we enter an area where there are no lights.
“We’re here,” Manuel says.
A tin door opens in the darkness and we enter what seems to be an entry way, down a steep concrete step and into another open door, Five more high steps down and we’re in a living room. In the middle of the floor a mother cat is nursing her three kittens, a dog barks from behind a low concrete enclosure in the corner. In the dim light we see the room contains a sofa and chairs which had seen better days, a dining table, old refrigerator and a computer.
And lots of chairs, stools and other seating arrangements.
Over the course of the next 10 minutes, 30 or more people arrive, and cram into this small room. The neighbourhood children sense this is unusual–maybe it’s the “Americanos” that spark their curiosity. They find seats on the alley side of the unscreened windows and take in what is happening below.
Everyone is here. One young man pulls out a guitar and starts strumming and a girl starts a rhythm going on a “beat box”–a unique instrument that contains strings inside to reverberate different sounds depending on where the box is struck. People start singing:
This is the night,
This is the night that The Lord has made . . .
I look around and amazed by how many are here, and how many generations. Sunny, an 84-year-old from Davao is sitting next to me (four of us squeezed into a three-seat sofa) and claps along. Across from her is beautiful little Jewel, the grand-daughter of the local pastor. There are teens, twenty-somethings, mothers and fathers. All are joyously join in the song:
This is the time,
This is the time that The Lord has made . . .
The second light bulb in the room won’t work and they can’t fix it, so one of the young men runs off and returns with a more powerful light bulb, climbs up on the table and replaces its dimmer counterpart. The room erupts in bright white light.
This is the place,
This is the place that the Lord has made.
We will rejoice,
We will rejoice and be glad in it . . .
We pray together. Some in English. Some in Tagalog. Some in Cebuano.
At one point a fight breaks out in the alley. Children and adults are shouting at each other. As our host moves to put up the makeshift boards that close the windows, the woman across from me, a leader in a local church youth group, turns to me and says, “They are our mission.” I sense that she will not stop until she has been able to impact each one of these young people and all of this neighbourhood with her simple yet deep faith in Jesus.
We finish as the pastor leads us in prayer. A very loud “Amen” rises from those assembled and food is brought out. The guitarist plays and we all join in:
Give thanks with a grateful heart . . .
From out of nowhere, it seems, A feast is spread before us: rice (it is the Philippines after all), a pork and green bean soup, whole dried fish, and a case of ice cold RC Cola with the tops popped and straws in place.
We eagerly grab plates and fill them with food, being careful not to tread on the kittens which, by now, have started wandering about the room, exploring.
We are soon once again seated, eating, laughing, talking, singing. The guitarist is still strumming and a few of the young people are singing:
Glory to his name, glory to his name . . .
Sweets are served: A coconut and jelly treat which, as I find out, is easier to drink than to eat with a spoon. Homemade coconut sugar candy follows and then one final prayer before we head into the darkness.
We walk up the hill by the strange light of glowing cellphones. We pass families sitting in front of their homes in the relative coolness of the outdoors. Children are playing. Adults talking, smoking, laughing. We follow the alley back to the road and make our way to our respective homes . . .
It’s 10 o’clock. I should be tired by now. But I’m not. I feel a buzz of excitement. On my last night in the Philippines, I have experienced something I had only read about in missionary stories or heard about from those working in far-flung places. I have seen real joy, genuine community, a deeply-held faith and a love that is generous and fully without either pretense or boundaries.
I will fly out tomorrow from Manila and back across the ocean to Australia, to my normal life, my family, my work. I will leave a part of my heart in this land where I was born, with its wonderful people, on its beautiful hills and plains, and submerged in its colourful culture.
Yet I’m sure this night will stay with me and I will be hearing these heartfelt songs of praise and songs of blessing wherever I am. And every time when I hear these songs, I will hear them in a Filipino accent, accompanied by a guitar and a beatbox, truly amazing voices that expectantly and joyfully lifts towards heaven, singing with open hearts:
I love you with the love of the Lord,
Yes, I love you with the love of the Lord.
I can see in you the glory of my king
And I love you with the love of the Lord.
I have the utmost respect for Carlos and Milagros (Mila).
In 1968, I was the ring-bearer (page boy) at their wedding in Legaspi. My sister was the flower girl. My dad was the preacher.
Carlos was from the Illocos region in far northern Luzon. Mila was from Bicol (part of the large Improsso family, many of whom we encountered in our time in the Philippines). They met as they were both studying for full-time Christian ministry in Mindanao.
Fast-forward 20+ years and they moved north to Isabela province to plant a church and ended up starting a Bible School of their own. They spent many years in this area and were very successful in their work. Numerous young men and women graduated from their Bible School which later became one of the three IGBI campuses of TCM (Philippines).
While the work was growing and new churches were being planted in the Isabela region, Carlos and Mila came to the decision to leave Isabela and do what they had been teaching young men and women to do for so many years–plant new churches. Our church at the time joined with them in this venture and contributed a small amount each month towards their living expenses. It was always great to see each new endeavour and where God was opening doors for them to serve.
They chose a location on the opposite side of the island of Luzon, just about as far north as you can go in the Philippines, near the city of Laoag–a small barangay (village) called Caaoacan. Here they built a house with an adjacent small meeting space and started a church.
That wouldn’t be anything fantastic, considering how many churches are planted in the Philippines every year. But what makes this incredible is that Carlos is 80 and Mila is in her late 70s. And while Carlos was originally from the Illocos region and spoke the native language Illocano, it took his wife 8 years to learn it well enough to be reasonably fluent.
Dad and I took a short detour north and flew into “Laoag International Airport” (called so because, once in a while, a charter flight from China or Taiwan lands there) on a warm Saturday evening. We were met by Carlos on his “tricycle” (motorbike with a sidecar attached) and, together with our luggage, crammed into his and another tricycle for the half hour journey north to Caaoacan.
With the expense of owning a car is beyond the reach of most Filipinos, the motorbike and tricycle are widely used forms of transport. Wherever you go, these vehicles crowd the roads and are even used as taxis. And, apart from the suspension on bumpy roads, they do amazingly well for the little amount of fuel they use.
We spent only a couple of days with this wonderful couple. We participated in their church services on Sunday and dad went with them to their Sunday afternoon meetings (I was in bed, sadly, not feeling too well).
Their enthusiasm for their work was contagious. Though clearly showing signs of their age (Carlos had a heart bypass operation last year and Mila has problems with her feet and hip), they not only ran a full schedule in Caaoacan, but held services Sunday afternoon in another barangay an hour’s drive away (once again via tricycle).
They are isolated. Though they are not far from a decent-sized city (Laoag has a population of 104,000) with most of the mod-cons (McDonalds being foremost), the area in which they live has no running water, sewers, telephone lines, internet, and undependable electricity supply.
They have a young pastor staying with them who also works with the youth in the village and helps them by fishing in the nearby river (a great source of little shrimp), drawing all the water from the well (via a pump in their kitchen–no running water) to water their plants, clean and drink, running errands for them in his tricycle and helping out around the church property. He is also a brilliant guitar player (a gift many Filipinos seem to possess!).
In all their work, Carlos and Mila remain selfless, generous, and dedicated to their calling. It was a privilege to stay with them for even this short visit. It also helps that Mila is a fantastic cook!
Too soon it was time to say our farewells. There were tears. Mila bemoaned the fact that “Mum Jan” (my mum) and “Mum Vicki” (my wife) couldn’t have come with us. Having just seen the beautiful local beach that morning, I wished we could have stayed longer and done some more exploring . . .
As we flew out of Laoag, I felt a sense of sadness that we had to cut our visit short (due to flight changes out of our control). Also for the fact that we, with so much at our disposal, complain so much and do so little in comparison to what these excited and dedicated senior citizens are accomplishing. Theirs is not my calling, yet, in some respects, what they do is what we all as followers of God are called to do: to serve unselfishly, to speak the good news into every part of our lives, and to be faithful in everything.
Thank you, Carlos and Milagros, for sharing with us your adventure in ministry and showing us, with such a vibrant and gracious spirit, the joy that can be found in being faithful to your calling.
My dad and I recently traveled to the Philippines to attend a conference where several of his students from Bible College were now serving as pastors and denominational leaders. Everywhere we went, they told stories of “Pastor John” and his radio quartet, choir, music practice.
Dad didn’t go to the Philippines to teach music and direct choirs. He went to teach the Bible and direct a College.
In frustration one night he asked the question that I could tell had been causing him a lot of anguish: “Why don’t they remember my Bible teaching?” (The reverse was implied: “Why is it that all I hear is ‘We remember the music’?”)
What is remembered says a lot about two things:
1. The effectiveness of what was presented, and
2. The response of the person to what was presented.
Perhaps what dad taught in Theology 101 wasn’t as memorable. This could be the boredom factor of having to go through a systematic study that would, at times, seem tedious and sleep-inducing (Been there; done that.) It could also be a comparative thing: compared to the joy and excitement of singing, traveling around to visit churches and performing on the radio, sitting on a hard wooden seat listening to the 26 reasons why we aren’t Arminian just doesn’t cut it.
Or it could be that the students who were enrolled in the College at the time were far more passionate about and felt connected in singing together than they were about studying Soteriology and proof-texting John Calvin’s 5 Points?
We could look at this example and draw the conclusion that his students should have been more serious about their Bible study and ministerial training and that this should have driven them to enjoy learning and applying themselves to their studies.
But that would be about as fair as expecting the congregation on any given Sunday to leave reciting the main points of the pastor’s sermon rather than singing the memorable chorus of that final song. We are naturally wired to remember things that appeal to all our senses; our minds naturally prioritise that in which we are actively engaged above that which just goes into our ears.
Dad shouldn’t be so hard on himself. He did a great job of teaching, I’m sure. Otherwise the vast majority of his students would not be in the ministry today. I’m sure the essence of their vocation has “Pastor John” written all over it; the music is simply the spoonful of sugar that helped the medicine go down.
(And, in keeping with this theme, the ending pointed question of this post is, “And who doesn’t like sugar?” not “And how bad was that medicine!”)