Caps & Gowns in Cobán

This was a week of graduations in Cobán. Remember, the academic calendar in Guatemala runs from January to October. On Tuesday at the auditorium of the Colegio La Patria Norte, diplomas were awarded for students finishing preschool, primary and middle school. It was special for our family because Matthew was among the sixth grade graduates (see photo).DSC02138 I gave a speech about Peter’s final admonition in the Bible, that we “grow in the grace and knowledge of Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3 18).

On Thursday, graduation was held for 50 sixth graders at the La Libertad Public School, near where we live. It was an exciting accomplishment for them and their families, since many of them won’t go further in their formal education. These are the students for whom Bacilia and I had been giving weekly Bible lessons, and the teachers asked me to deliver the address. (See photo) DSC02148Since the school and neighborhood are named “freedom,” my theme was: “Live as free people, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil.” (1 Peter 2:16) Thanks to La Patria Norte, five of these graduates will receive scholarships to continue their studies there next year on the middle school level.

Our last ceremony was on Friday for high school students from Colegio La Patria Norte. In the graduating class, fifty earned degrees in health science, four in legal studies, eight in agro-forestry, and four in computer science. Again I was invited to be the speaker, and I used the text from Romans 12:2: “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” The event highlight for us was the graduation of Catalina Laynez and Cristina Pacheco, two bright Ixil teens who we’ve grown to love during the past several years. (See photo) DSC02158They received degrees in pre-medicine and pre-law, respectively. Coming from humble backgrounds, they benefited from scholarships from the school, room and board expenses from PC(USA) funds, and financial support from Williamsburg Presbyterian Church. Ciristina is enrolling in the law school at the national university, which has a campus in Coban. Catalina hopes to study medicine, but for the time being will be returning to Chajul to seek work there.

Children’s education has been a leading priority for Presbyterians in Guatemala since they first arrived 132 years ago. To somehow be involved in this tradition of preparing young minds for faithful, meaningful lives is an exciting part of our work.

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Denver Presbytery Signs Three Water Covenants

DSC02108A team from the Presbytery of Denver signed covenants for water projects at three churches in northern Guatemala. Water purification systems will be installed as part of the ministry of Living Waters for the World (LWW). Two of the churches are in the Franja Transversal del Norte Presbytery, mission partner with Denver Presbytery, and the other in Cobán. The Presbyterian Church in the village of Bethania signed the first covenant (see photo). DSC02116Although this village receives water from a nearby petroleum company, an analysis showed contaminants. Training and negotiations were headed by Duane Lyman and Pablo Perez, the new LWW coordinator for the IENPG. Once again, Bethania Pastor Mateo Coc Coc shepherded us from place to place during out time in the presbytery.

The 2nd covenant was signed with the Presbyterian Church in Tres Rios, along the banks of the Chixoy River (see photo).DSC02127 After a boat ride across the river, we were greeted by a tree full of monkeys (see photo). This village has lost its two latest crops due to heavy rains flooding their fields. Nonetheless, church leaders expressed faith in God and excitement about what the water system will mean for the community. DSC02123They agreed to dig a new well and construct a building to house the system, with Denver partners providing materials. In a meeting with the presbytery´s Executive Committee, discussions were held about support for theological training, agricultural courses, well digging projects, and legalization of church property.

The 3rd covenant was signed by a committee representing Presbyterian Complex in Cobán (see photo). DSC02133This project will be jointly operated by the La Patria Norte School and the Presbyterian new church development. The church in Coban is in its early stage. On Sunday the Denver team attended worship with the new Presbyterian congregation, and Pastor Loye Troxler delivered the sermon (see photo at top of liturgical dance by children).

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Life in La Libertad

Our neighborhood in Cobán is called La Libertad, which means “freedom.” Residents, for the most part, are working poor, with an ethnic mixture of about ⅔ Q´eqchi´ and ⅓ Ladino. Small homes are crammed along 3ra Avenida, the main thoroughfare, as well as a network of narrow side streets and footpaths that climb into the surrounding hillsides. Buses crawl back and forth on 3ra Avenida, which is usually very dusty or muddy. (See photo of street in front of our house) DSC02092-001Much of the street is unpaved, and it floods knee-deep in places when it rains hard. Most blocks feature a couple small general stores, a tortilla maker, and other assorted shops. Yes, petty delinquency is a nuisance, but fortunately organized gangs haven´t penetrated like in many other urban parts of Guatemala. Although people are quite friendly to us, long-time residents lament that the barrio’s not as tight-knit as it used to be. There are two Catholic churches, one traditional and the other charismatic. There are also three Protestant churches, and now a Presbyterian Church is under development.

La Libertad´s original name was Chib’ec B’al Cho’ch,’ Q’eqchi’ for “place where the earth sinks” because of underground caverns at one end of the community. For many years it was the site of several prosperous coffee plantations belonging to German immigrants who made the native Q’eqchi’ population work their fields. During World War II the Germans were expelled from Guatemala, and the land was gradually parceled out. Local leaders decided 45 years ago to change the barrio’s name, thinking that La Libertad was simpler and had a more positive connotation. The first highway from Cobán to the Petén ran through the barrio. During Guatemala´s civil war years, military convoys would ramble down 3rd Avenue toward distant rural areas in pursuit of insurgents. Today´s scene, however, is dominated by uniformed students and workers walking briskly to schools and jobs, delivery trucks swerving around potholes, and street venders in pursuit of customers.

Our family has been enriched by neighbors like Alberto Choc, a carpenter who´s faith is a blend of Mayan and Catholic traditions. He’s lived in La Libertad all his life and has kindly helped me understand its history. There´s Lencho Xol, a laborer at the Presbyterian Complex, which is under construction at the far end of 3rd Avenue. He and his wife, Aít, have become regulars in the Presbyterian congregation. This week they dropped off a rooster and 50 quetzals as a tithe. Then there´s Cristina Ca’al. She´s raising two small children on her own in a wooden room that she rents. We met her one week when thieves broke into her room and stole her belongings. Her son contracted pneumonia sleeping on the concrete floor, and was taken to the local hospital. BDSC02085acilia reached out to her, and Cristina accepted her invitation to Sunday worship. Soon our families bonded, and now she joins Bacilia on Saturdays to pass out flyers about the new Presbyterian congregation.

For the past month or so Bacilia and I have offered a Wednesday morning Bible study for the 6th grade at the La Libertad School. This past week we shared with the 60 students about how Jesus touched the sick, touched children, and touched lives in general. A discussion ensued about how God also calls us touch people for the better, and how we leave behind fingerprints of blessing whenever we do. We considered Psalm 23:6: “Surely goodness and mercy will follow me,” and what it means to leave goodness in our wake as we journey through life. We ended with a project in which students were invited to place an ink fingerprint on a world map, indicating their desire to make a positive impact on others wherever they are. Several students mounted the map on the classroom wall to a round of applause. (See photos of the students and their map)DSC02088

We love living in La Libertad and hope to learn much more about its history and people. Our prayer is that Christ will touch many lives here through the Presbyterian Church. May all who live in this barrio enjoy the grace that God offers so freely, and may we be free from all that might impede us from fully serving and praising God.

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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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