Serpent on a Pole, and Jesus on the Cross

In indigenous Presbyterian churches, I usually encounter a strong objection to the figure of the cross.Cross Symbol They tend to reject the cross as a graven image that’s only used by Roman Catholics. This view is so deeply held that you’ll rarely see anything resembling a cross in or on their church buildings. Occasionally U.S. partners will present some form of a cross as a gift to their Guatemalan partners, resulting in some awkwardness and confusion. There have been times when I’ve raised this issue with indigenous church leaders, inviting them to consider the difference between idolatrous images and sacred symbols. For starters, I share a message about how the Bible’s most famous verse is linked to one of its strangest verses:

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son…” —John 3:16

Most of us are so eager to focus on John 3:16 that we skip right over John 3:14-15: “And as Moses lifted up the bronze snake on a pole in the wilderness, so I, the Son of Man, must be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in me will have eternal life.”

Though this allusion to Moses is often ignored, we can’t fully understand John 3:16 without it. The conjunction “for”—as in “For God so loved the world…”—binds the two phrases, making the meaning of the second part dependent on the first.

Bronze SerpentIt was an obscure incident involving Moses. The Israelites had been wandering in the wilderness for almost forty years, and as usual they were complaining. God, fed up with their negativism, sent deadly snakes to crawl around them and bite them. As the death toll mounted, the Israelites admitted their faithlessness. They got Moses to ask God to remove the snakes. God’s response was to have Moses make a bronze snake and hold it up on a staff. If the snake-bitten Israelites looked upon it, they were told, their wounds would be healed.

Someone might wonder how this decrepit tale found its way into scripture. Doesn’t it smack of superstitious cures and magic wands? Was there no quality control in the oral tradition? Why would God want Moses to lift up a graven image, after years of forbidding it? Why would God want people to stare at a symbol of temptation and falsehood? And what does any of this have to do with John 3:16?

Actually, John 3:14-15 is an excellent, if strange, precursor to John 3:16. In one, people face their sin, that the snakes are doing to them what they’ve been doing to God and one other. In the other, people hear about the way to our redemption and healing. In one we offer confession. In the other we find mercy. In one—the reality of evil. In the other—the power of grace. In one, we perish. In the other, we live eternally.

The aftermath of this episode was that the murmuring stopped, and the end of the wandering came drew near. Even after the Israelites settled into the Promised Land, they kept lifting up Moses’ bronze serpent. They looked at it in the Jerusalem temple for 500 years, revering it with incense until King Hezekiah declared that a meaningful symbol had become a harmful idol, and he smashed it to pieces.

Anyway, a more potent symbol would be on the way—the cross on which Jesus was lifted up. When we consider the cross, we face the reality of our sin. We confront our separation from God, the consequence of our weak faith, our own murmuring, bickering, and idolatry. We also find the way towards our healing, God’s Son, sent to us as the supreme expression of God’s love and salvation. That’s where John 3:16 fits in.

Sure, the cross is abused by some people—an empty novelty, a decoration piece, a good luck charm, or even a graven image. However, we needn’t follow the example of King Hezekiah and smash the cross to pieces. Unlike the bronze serpent, the cross is a symbol for the ages for all of God’s people. It stands irrevocably for the Christ who never loses his ability to smash sin to pieces and heal the world. As Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 1:18: “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”


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Izabal and Other News

DSC02074Being in the Izabal Q’eqchi’ Presbytery this past weekend was a great pleasure. Although Izabal has few churches —4 chartered and 8 mission congregations—it’s a strong presbytery with some of the largest memberships in the whole IENPG. The host church in the village of Los Angeles Pancalá, for example has over 500 members. I’m grateful for the invitation and warm welcome from the church and its pastor, Alberto Sacul.

Getting there wasn’t very easy. I rode on a series of busses, vans and pick-ups that meandered through fields of corn, cane, rice, palm, rubber, and more corn. We just drove through most rivers, but one crossing was on an interesting metal raft that moved with a manual-cranked and steel cables. (See photo)DSC02063 DSC02068 DSC02067

The occasion was the 8th anniversary of the presbytery’s radio ministry—Amanecer 87.9. One of the few radio station’s in the IENPG, it’s gained a wide listening audience across Izabal and the Vera Paces. (See photos) The pastors of the Izabal Presbytery take turns doing the announcing, and it’s funded mostly by donations. This was especially interesting to me, since there are hopes to found a radio ministry as part of the Presbyterian Complex in Cobán. The Izabal pastors have offered to help get it organized.

I preached at the two anniversary services, plus more messages by radio. Attendance was estimated at 2,000 each night. The big draw wasn’t my sermons (needless to say), but a popular Christian singer from the Quiché region named Martina Osorio. Her wailing voice and Pentecostal rhythms drove worshippers into a frenzy of excitement. (See photo at top) DSC02054

Some other news:

  • I also appreciated the opportunity to preach at the plenary of the Central Presbytery, and to present a Power-Point about the Presbyterian Complex. Invitations like this are invaluable, since an important part of my work now is on facilitating partnerships within, as well as outside of, the IENPG.
  • Sunday worship has been held for three weeks now in Cobán. Even though we don’t have musicians or a formal meeting space, we’re thankful the services are underway. (See photo) For now we’re meeting in our garage, and singing accapella or using sound tracks. Please help us pray for musicians that will liven up the music.DSC02080-1
  • Matthew, Manny and Stefi are happy in their school, La Patria Norte. (See photo with their uniforms) Matthew and Manny are thrilled to be taking karate at a nearby sports center, and Stefi’s learning ping pong. Meanwhile, Bacilia has taken up piano classes again, and is registering at the local campus of Universidad Rafael Landívar for a nursing program that begins in January.
  • Progress is coming along quickly on the Presbyterian Complex manse, which will be our future home. The contractor, Donaldo Urizar, expects it will be finished in two months. (See photo)DSC02077


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Latest News from Chajul

Our family traveled with a small delegation from Central Presbyterian Church to Chajul, Quiché over the weekend. The drive from Cobán to Chajul is long and windy—14 hours and about 250 speed bumps each way. It was worthwhile in every way, if only to get fresh glimpses of Christ’s mission in this wonderful place. We couldn’t wait to see the façade of the new temple (see photo). There are still finishing touches DSC02003to do here and there, such as interior painting and a wall along the front ramp. As for the church’s ministry, all signs look positive. Sunday worship attendance has risen to 300. Also, a congregation from a nearby Ixil village called Juil became Presbyterian on Saturday. With 160 adults and children, they’d previously belonged to the Full Gospel Church of God, but found the Presbyterian connection to be more appealing. Pastor Jenner Miranda and Elder Moisés López from Central Pres led a dialogue on transitioning to Presbyterianism. I taught about Presbyterian government. Then the Juil men and women raised their right hands to take formal membership vows (see photo).DSC01989-1

As usual with such visits, we were caught up in a flurry of activities. We met with the Chajul session to discuss the status of construction projects, leadership training, the formation of a vocational cooperative, expansion of educational programs, and the possibility of building a school. On Sunday morning, I gathered together Chajul students and parents to discuss post-primary educational project that are under development in partnership with the Williamsburg Presbyterian Church. Seventeen students have requested scholarships for the basic (7th-9th grades) and career (10th-12th grades). Hopefully there will be much more to report about this in months ahead. (See photo of four teenagers hoping to study on the career level at La Patria Norte in Cobán.) DSC02027During worship, Jenner preached and I presided at Holy Communion. At the end of the service, the congregation presented me with a crimson, embroidered jacket that’s traditionally worn by Ixil elders (see photo). DSC02019Through the weekend, Bacilia enjoyed learning more about traditional Ixil cooking and weaving, and Matthew, Manny and Stefi played with new friends. We’re all so thankful for opportunities like this to witness God’s grace in action.

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Pig Project for Petén Women

Yesterday we had an all-day training and planning workshop in Sayaxché for a pig project that womenDSC01970 from seven churches of the Petén Q’eqchi’ Presbytery are launching with help from Presbyterian women of Middle Tennessee. The workshop included many tips about buying and caring for pigs, and selling them in the marketplace. Bety Cifuentes, a leader with the IENPG Synod women’s organization, came from Quetzaltenango to lead the training. (See photos)

After lunch we developed an agreement about the objectives, participants, resources from the U.S. and the Petén, the carry-out of the project, and the use of profits. After lengthy discussion in Spanish and Q’eqchi’ , the Petén women praised God for His grace and mercy, and voiced gratitude for the generosity of sisters and brothers of Middle Tennessee. They committed to providing the spaces and labor for the project, to utilize funds carefully, to prepare regular reports and participate in ongoing training. They also agreed that, once pigs are sold, the proceeds will first be used to replace the initial investment—Q 1,500 per society provided by Presbyterian women in Middle DSC01976Tennessee. Profits then will be divided equally between the women’s organizations of their presbytery and local churches, as well as their presbytery and churches general budgets. Each woman came and sealed the agreement with a fingerprint.

I led a devotional on John 10 about Jesus being the door to the sheepfold. There are right doors and wrong doors. Jesus opens doors for us that lead to safety and rest, as well as doors out that lead to sustenance and growth. He differs from wolves and hired-hands because he comes in a spirit of love to give, not take from, the sheep.

With help from Middle Tennessee Presbyterians, God has opened a door for the women of the Petén for building up their ministries and fellowship. By working together in the right ways and in the right spirit, they’ll find growing abundance in their lives and new ways to glorify God.


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Inland Northwest & Polochíc: Partners and Neighbors

When a 5-member team from the Inland Northwest (INW) Presbytery travelled to see their partners in the Polochíc Presbytery, a top goal was to enter into the world of the Q’eqchi. Also joining us were PC(USA) mission co-workers, Richard and Debbie Welch. The journey included things like getting haircuts in Senahú, sleeping a night at the Presbyterian manse in Telemán, visiting the sick and elderly at their homes in Panzós, and hiking to share with congregations in several mountain communities. (See photo of kids skillfully playing the marimba during worship) DSC01907Other activities included exciting conversations with leaders of the Polochíc women, meeting with the Executive Committee, and a trilingual cornerstone ceremony for new Presbytery offices in La Tinta. (See photo)DSC01924

Half way through the group’s trip, Pastor Julian Icó reported that heavy rains had caused flooding and landslides in communities around his hometown of Monte Blanco, destroying over 45 homes, damaging at least 350 others, forcing them to seek refuge at the local school. The access road crumbled, and half of their corn, cardamom and coffee crops were wiped out. The INW team answered by altering their itinerary and devoting a day to gathering supplies with their Guatemalan partners for 175 sacks of food staples. (See photo) DSC01927Each sack was labeled “Help from the Presbyterian Church.” Supporters back in Washington State pledged several thousand dollars, and a convoy of four 4-wheel-drive trucks became the first (and only so far) outside support to reach the devastated area. In the meantime, Polochíc Presbyterians started their own relief drive. Plans are underway to raise more funds are already being raised for roofing, seeds and other materials so that the people can get back on their feet.

Before departing the valley, a team member, John McCallum, led us in a devotional about the parable of the Good Samaritan. Together we reflected on how the Samaritan no doubt encountered many needs during his journeys, but felt led to aid that particular fellow-traveler. After bandaging the victim and carrying him to an inn, the Samaritan could have easily felt that he’d done enough. However, he felt led to ensure that the healing process reached its conclusion, promising to pay the innkeeper any additional costs.

In similar fashion, the Holy Spirit led the INW team to respond to the plight of the needy in Monte Blanco, not only by providing immediate relief but by also committing to longer-term recovery. By not turning away, they offered a witness of good partnership and good neighbor-ship.



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Yoked in Mission, Spiritually Revived

Northminster Presbyterian Church, in Cincinnati, Ohio, sent a team to Cobán during the last part of July. The team’s five members began their visit with a covenant signing ceremony at the Synod headquarters in Guatemala CDSC01896-1ity, formalizing the yoking process that has taken two years. Representatives of the national church and Cobán’s new church development (NCD) commission were on hand for this milestone. In the covenant, Northminster and the NCD commission commit to partner in establishing a Presbyterian church that will faithful to God’s mission, organizationally sustainable, and inclusive of Cobán’s diverse population. More signatures were added in Coban and by presbytery officers in Chisec. (See photo)

The team had an early setback when a health problem required one of them to return to Cincinnati accompanied by the pastor, Jeff Hosmer. The remaining three carried on, praying for the departed team members while proceeding with their project, the 1st phase of building a new manse. After a groundbreaking ceremony, work began. Ten youth from the Chiséc Presbytery joined them for four days, laying a concrete foundation and clearing rock from the surrounding lot. (See photo) DSC01906The manse is part of Cobán’s Presbyterian Complex which will include facilities for a church, school, theological center, and guest house.

On the first work day, a neighbor became perturbed about Chiséc youth wandering onto his property. He shouted at them and fired his pistol into the air a number of times. Subsequent efforts to dialogue with him were successful, and he even invited some of us to visit his home.

Bacilia and I enjoyed hosting the team for evening meals and reflections. During the week they visited a nearby waterfall park and checked-out the folklore dances at an annual festival. (See photo) DSC01904They also toured the local public school in the poor La Libertad community, where the complex is located, raising their awareness of educational needs and partnership opportunities there. (See photo)

I was invited to preach at the farewell service, at a Presbyterian Church in Chiséc. The message was on Matthew 11:28-29: “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” Yokes don’t relieve us from work. On the contrary, yokes are designed specifically for moving heavy loads. They connect oxen to each other, forming them into teams that share the load and motivate one another. Yokes also link the reigns to the driver who directs the team.DSC01894

As Christ’s servants, our souls find their rest by participating in his mission. Christ’s yoke is a tool for mission. It keeps us on the right path, and it unites us to one another. Yoked together, we can best fulfill our calling, and our souls are revived in the process. The experiences of the group from Northminster Presbyterian Church, yoked to the Presbyterian mission in Cobán, offer a great case in point.

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Update on Changes in Our Assignment

Greetings in Christ from Guatemala!

I send this letter to update you about our work here. As most of you know, Bacilia and I end our assignment with Presbyterian World Mission of the PC(USA) at the end of July. We are grateful to PWM for opening this door four years ago and for all of their support.

The Presbyterian Church of Guatemala (IENPG) has invited us to continue serving with them, and we have agreed to do so. As Partnership Coordinator for PRESGOV, much of my work will remain the same. Additionally, I will direct the emerging Presbyterian Complex in Cobán, and will work with the Presbyterian Seminary to coordinate the indigenous theological training program there. Our family already has moved to Cobán to be closer to this work.

I continue as a PC(USA) teaching elder, and my position with the IENPG has been validated by my home presbytery, the Presbytery of Middle Tennessee.

The focus of Bacilia’s mission service will be our family, help in hosting groups, and assisting with the new Presbyterian Church that is under development in Cobán.

The IENPG has offered to provide a salary that is in keeping with that of other IENPG pastors. We are so thankful for this! However, this will not cover all necessities, such as insurance, pension, education, social security, travel to the U.S., etc.

Some people expressed their interest, or the interest of their churches, in supporting our ongoing work with prayers and support in meeting uncovered expenses. The Outreach Foundation, a highly-respected Presbyterian mission organization with partners around the world, will administer support for our work in Guatemala. Any gifts should be designated “Beisswenger,” and sent to 381 Riverside Drive, Suite 110, Franklin, TN 37064.

Please contact me with any questions you might have about these developments.

For regular news about our mission assignment, subscribe to our blog:

This is an exciting time for Christ’s mission in Guatemala. We solicit your prayers that all things work together for good according to God’s call, and look forward to more opportunities to serve in partnership with you in the future.


Philip & Bacilia Beisswenger

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