Monthly Archives: April 2011

A Guatemalan, Presbyterian Easter

     Alright, I’ll admit to sometimes feeling a little envious about the many Catholic processions during Holy Week, with their colorful alfombras (sawdust and floral street “carpets”) and the purple-frocked cucuruchos (statue float bearers). Something draws me to the public witness, the solemn yet festive spirit, the Christian camaraderie, and the sense of movement that stretches for blocks, and also stretches back  over the centuries. Why don’t the Protestants do this kind of thing?

     Today, Easter Sunday, we Presbyterians had our turn. At Guatemala City’s Iglesia Presbiteriana Central, the day’s celebration began with a sunrise service and tamale breakfast, and ended with an inspiring choral cantata. Between it all was a long parade through the center of the city.  With floats, banners, firecrackers, and a booming sound system, we wound our way through the city streets, singing and chanting, “Cristo vive!” The march concluded with a rally in front of the Palacio Nacional in the city’s central square. The church’s pastors led us in prayers for Guatemala, that the Spirit of the Risen Christ would bring an end to violence and despair, that all people of this country would enjoy peace and well-being.

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The Stone that Cheered

     The stone streets in old Guatemalan towns affect me somehow. Literally down-to-earth, the cobblestones have been a modest stage for centuries of tragic, amazing life. Bloody wars and revolutions have unfolded upon them, along with havoc caused by earthquakes and floods, funeral marches and festive parades, not to mention generations of children running to school, and produce carts plodding their way to market. Oh, but if these stones could speak, or cry, or laugh!

     At Guatemala’s ancient ruins, the ornate hieroglyphics don’t affect me as much as the simple stone plazas. Hieroglyphics, inscribed for the sake  of the elite, offer a slanted view of events. It’s the stones underfoot that make me ponder the mysteries of the rise, fall, and perseverance of Mayan life. If only these stones could share what they’ve witnessed.

     It’s Holy Week here, and once again stones have aroused my imagination. This time it’s the cobblestone road that led into old Jerusalem. Jesus rode a donkey on it while crowds waved branches and sang hosannas. When some Pharisees complained about the commotion, Jesus answered, “If they kept quiet, the stones along the road would burst into cheers.” (Luke 19:40)  The stones, Jesus suggested, were reluctant to make noise, but they would if it if ever became necessary.

     The people’s cheers didn’t last, though. A few days later, when Roman soldiers seized Jesus, the praises stopped. Throughout Jesus’ trial, death, and burial, his followers kept quiet. Then a large stone was rolled over the tomb, trying to cut Jesus off from the rest of the world.

     Yet, my understanding is that somehow God’s name always gets praised. That’s why Psalm 106:48 says, “Blessed be the Lord…from everlasting to everlasting.”

     And if one group of people won’t or can’t praise God, another will. That’s why Psalm 48:10 says, “O God, you will be praised to the ends of the earth.”

     And if humans won’t praise God, animals will. That’s why Psalm 148:7-10 calls for the “creatures of the ocean depths” to give praise, as well as “wild animals and livestock, reptiles and birds.” 

     And if the living won’t praise God, then inanimate objects will. That’s why Psalm 98:7-9 declares, “Let the rivers clap their hands in glee! Let the hills sing out their songs of joy before the Lord. 

     In some cases, God uses the most unlikely of witnesses to speak truth. Habakkuk 2:11 says, “The very stones in the walls of your houses will cry out.” 

     On the third day after Jesus’ death, his disciples saw that the stone over the tomb had moved. Weighing several tons and carefully sealed, the stone would’ve been hard to budge. The guards could’ve done it, but why would they? Was it moved by angels, an earthquake, or by Jesus himself?

     Or, perhaps the stone moved on its own. Why not? I expect most of us, at some point, have been so touched by joy that we moved reflexively. Maybe we were at a loss for words, so we sprang to our feet and waved our arms in excitement. Maybe we danced and clapped, our bodies caught up in the moment.

     It’s hard to imagine that if stones would’ve shouted on Palm Sunday, a stone would stay still at Christ’s resurrection a week later. With no one else to celebrate God’s life-giving power, the stone did it. After witnessing such a glorious event, the stone couldn’t restrain itself. Somehow, somewhere, a God that’s able to raise the dead will be praised by somebody or something.

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Untying Our Donkeys

(I preached this sermon at the Iglesia Presbiteriana Bethania, in Palin, Guatemala, on April 17)

On Palm Sunday, Jesus launched the final, most critical phase in his mission to save the world. The cast of characters is familiar to us. Along with Jesus are his helpful disciples, the jubilant crowds, the disapproving Pharisees and, of course, the donkey.  Several key players in this mission, however, are usually overlooked—the donkey’s owners. Who knows what kind of debacle would’ve taken place without their cooperation.

A fresh, young “colt” had been reserved for the Messiah’s arrival. Jesus, telling two disciples where to find it, said, “Untie it and bring it here. If anyone asks what you are doing, just say, ‘The Lord needs it.’”

The scripture then says, “And sure enough, as they were untying it, the owners asked them, ‘Why are you untying our colt?’

“And the disciples simply replied, “The Lord needs it.”

God entrusts to all of us certain things that we keep until God needs them. When that moment comes, we’re called to “untie” them and to place them at God’s disposal. When we learn that “the Lord needs it,” we gladly turn it loose.

At least that’s what’s supposed to happen. The reality is that we often hesitate to “untie our donkeys,” having grown attached to them. Instead of unfastening the ropes, we might tighten the knots. Our negative response is a stumbling block to mission, often causing mission failure.

Much of what God needs from us, by the way, isn’t tangible. For example, the Lord calls us to untie the time that we have. When it comes to involving ourselves in Christ’s mission, our stance is often, “My life’s too hectic, and my schedule’s already full.”

Or else, the Lord calls us to untie our energy. We might hesitate, saying, “I’m worn out, and my life’s overburdened right now.”

Or else, the Lord calls us to untie our minds. We might hesitate, saying, “My life’s too stressed out right now, and I’ve got too many other problems to worry about.”

And, as well, the Lord calls us to untie our material resources. We might hesitate, saying, “Things are tight right now, and I’ve got bills to pay,” or “This is too precious to me.”

What helps us overcome our hesitation is the knowledge that God’s grace is sufficient for our needs. The phrase “The Lord needs it” makes sense only after we’ve trust that “Your Father knows exactly what you need.” (Matthew 6:8)

The Bible doesn’t say what happened to the donkey. Most likely Jesus sent it back to its owners once the procession was over. No doubt the donkey’s value increased manifold in the owners’ eyes, for it, with its owners, had served as instruments of God purpose, bringing honor to Christ on a remarkable day.

(Biblical Text: Luke 19:28-40)

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The Turtle: A Tale of Liberation

     A headline in today’s paper reads, “Tortugas: Liberadas por Ti” (Turtles: Liberated by You). The article tells about sea turtles that are found along Guatemala’s Pacific coast, the dangers they face, and efforts to save them. The biggest threat, along with pollution, is that turtle eggs and turtle soup are popular delicacies here. This dining tradition is now discouraged, and conservationists patrol the beaches to protect turtles. They place eggs in artificial nests so that turtles can hatch safely and race freely into the surf. Even after these efforts, however, only about one out of a hundred of these tiny creatures survive to adulthood. 

      While preaching in churches in Guatemala, I sometimes share a story about a turtle that wasn’t liberated, but instead liberated others. It’s an Okanagan (in western Canada) legend about a time when all animals lived in View Imageharmony and peace. Then one day Eagle challenged the other animals to a race. The stakes were high, for the loser would become the slave of the winner. One by one the animals foolishly accepted Eagle’s challenge—first Hawk, then Fox, Bear, Raven, and so on. Each animal lost and was enslaved. Eventually, only Turtle and Muskrat remained free. 

     One night, the Great Spirit appeared to Turtle in a dream. The Great Spirit told Turtle to race Eagle on behalf of all the animals. When Turtle told Muskrat about the dream, Muskrat opposed the idea. “You will lose,” said Muskrat. “Eagle is too fast.” 

     “I know Eagle is fast,” replied Turtle, “but the Great Spirit said I will win this race.” So they went to Eagle, and Turtle said, “I will race you tomorrow on one condition–that if I win, all of the animals will go free.  If I lose, I too will be your slave.” 

     Eagle laughed, and agreed to Turtle’s condition. “When the Sun comes up,” Eagle announced, “we will race.” As Turtle crawled away, the animals laughed too, even though they were sad that they were not free.

     As the race began the next morning, Eagle said, “Choose the starting place, Turtle, and I will race you any distance that you say.” 

     Following the Great Spirit’s guidance, Turtle explained to Eagle, “You must take hold of me in your talons, and lift me as far as your wings will carry us. When we are high over the cloud tops, I will tell you to let me go. Whoever reaches the ground first will be the winner.” 

     Surprised by these rules, Eagle picked up Turtle and began to flap his wings. Higher and higher they went, until at last turtle yelled, “Let me go!” Eagle released Turtle, and Turtle fell like a rock. Eagle’s efforts to catch up were in vain. As the animals watched in amazement, Turtle hit the ground moments before Eagle landed. Shouts of jubilation filled the air, and the animals cheered and danced.

     The mood changed, however, when the animals noticed that Turtle had not moved. Muskrat tapped gingerly on Turtle’s shell. “Turtle, Turtle, you won!  Please speak to us.”

     After a long pause, Turtle’s head emerged, and Turtle whispered, “The Great Spirit told me that I would win, but the Great Spirit did not say I would survive. Now, you are slaves no more! Go, all of you, for you are free!” The liberated animals spread out in every direction. Wherever they went they talked about the race, and how Turtle set them all free.

     As Holy Week approaches, we grieve that people in Guatemala, as in other parts of the world, suffer from brokenness and strife. We turn our attention to the way that God’s grace intervened in our world. We remember the passion, the surprising way that Jesus raced against the powers that enslave us. In amazement, we discover that Jesus died on the cross to set us free. With thankful hearts, we celebrate that God won, that Christ rose from the dead that we may live in harmony and peace. Cristo vive! Viva Cristo!

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Roadblocks and Processions

     “Most of the crowd spread their coats on the road ahead of Jesus, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. He was in the center of the procession, and the crowds all around him were shouting.” (Matthew 21:8-9, New Living Translation)

     In recent days, Guatemala City’s streets have been the scene of two kinds of vibrant spectacle. One is the tradition of day-long roadblocks, a popular way for citizens to complain to government authorities. Protesters shut-down major roadways, waving signs and shouting slogans to get attention for their causes. This week has seen roadblocks by students demanding new school buildings, and by retirees demanding their pensions. Roads are blocked today by teachers demanding better salaries. Most Guatemalans take these disruptions in stride, perhaps because many have at some point had occasion themselves to join a roadblock to get their own voices heard.

     The religious processions of Lent provide a different street spectacle. Popular here as in Antigua, they consist of floats with statues of Christ or other saintly figures. Weighing several tons, they’re carried by lines of purple-robed male penitents, or white-robed women. They’re accompanied by billowing incense, brass bands, and Roman centurions, with a sanitation corps for cleanup at the end. Although these day-long processions are disruptive, like roadblocks, people look forward to them, either as participants or spectators.    

     The original Palm Sunday was a combination of religious procession and political roadblock. The event happened on a normal business day on the highway into Jerusalem, and traffic was clogged by crowds waving palm branches and shouting, “Hosanna!” (Save us now). There were spiritual as well as political overtones, since Jesus was hailed as the Messiah who was riding in to restore the kingdom of Israel. No doubt both heavenly and worldly authorities took notice. According to scripture, Jesus “was in the center” of it all.

     Life itself is filled with processions and roadblocks. There’s a time and place for both, and sometimes they’re closely connected. There are moments when we need to come together around our heart-felt needs. There are times when it’s important for us to raise our voices and be noticed. There are some situations when it’s good for us to proceed forward, and others when it’s good to stop and dig in.  Above all, whatever the situation might be, it’s always best that Jesus be in the center of it.

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Why a Blog about Roosters in Guatemala?

     “The Rooster Crows” might seem like a peculiar name for a missionary’s blog, and I suppose it is.  Nonetheless, the rooster (gallo in Spanish) is a misunderstood symbol that’s particularly fitting for God’s work in Guatemala.  Let me explain:

     In the Bible, the most famous rooster is the one that Peter heard after denying Jesus for a third time. The rooster’s cry jolted Peter into a painful awareness of his faithlessness.  We might even wonder if the cock wasn’t meant to rub it in, squawking, “I knew you’d mess up!  I told you so! I told you so!” But Jesus didn’t want to do that. He had a more redeeming purpose.  

     Why a rooster? Why not the screech of an eagle, or the bark of a dog?  Jesus chose the rooster’s crow because of its ancient meaning–the advent of a the dawn. A cock’s crowing hailed the sun’s victory over night, and the beginning of another day. Foreseeing Peter’s failure, Jesus saw to it that good news of grace could be heard during Peter’s darkest hour.  Knowing he’d be headed for crucifixion when Peter needed him most, Jesus pre-arranged for Peter a sign of resurrection.

     Signs of a new day are needed in Guatemala, where darkness persists.  Fifteen years ago, a civil war ended here, along with military atrocities against the poor and thei advocates.  Yet, spirals of violence didn’t stop; they just began to spin in a different deadly direction.  Today, killing is rampant in Guatemala, with gang warfare, lynchings, kidnappings, and senseless slaughter.  Once again the defenseless poor bear the brunt of it.

     Under these circumstances, despair could easily prevail.  That’s why the rooster’s crow is such a fitting symbol for Guatemala. And, as anyone who lives here can attest, roosters are heard all over the place. Perhaps it’s God plan, that they be dispersed into every neighborhood, repeating the same heartening refrain: “Christ lives! The dawn is coming! The dawn is coming!” (or something to that effect).

    I came to Guatemala well aware, like Peter, of my imperfect faith. I also believe that God is announcing to this country that a new day is at hand, and that Jesus Christ is providing the grace and power for it to come. With that in mind, I add this blog’s voice to those of so many other roosters that are crowing about the exciting possibilities of this new day.

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