Monthly Archives: August 2011

“Witnessing Right Here, and Way over There”

(Yesterday I preached at two services at Guatemala City’s Iglesia Presbiteriana Central—Central Presbyterian Church. The topic was the missionary work of God’s people. Below is an English translation. I know it’s kind of long but, after all, it’s a sermon.)

Today we’re celebrating both Day of the Bible and Missionary Sunday. It makes sense to combine these two themes, because the Bible is in many ways an account of God’s mission to a fallen world.  Please listen to these scripture verses from Acts 1:6-8:

6So when they met together, they asked him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” 7He said to them: “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. 8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

   The Missions Committee asked me to deliver today’s message, likely because I’m a missionary. The word “missionary” refers
to someone who’s been sent. A common image of missionaries is that they’re for people sent from an established church in a wealthy country to a distant land to show less advantaged people the Christian faith and the best ways to do ministry. Because this image has so many problems to it, the term “missionary” is rarely used by Presbyterians anymore. In Guatemala, in this era of
partnership among churches, I’m referred to as a fraternal worker (obrero fraternal), serving on behalf of the Presbyterian Church in the United States to share in the work that God does through the Presbyterian Church of Guatemala.

This isn’t to disparage missionaries of earlier generations. Like most churches around the world, this church began as a mission project. If it weren’t for missionaries that came from elsewhere, there’d be no churches in Guatemala. The history of this particular church is especially fascinating because it’s not only the first Presbyterian church, but it’s the first Protestant church in Guatemala. It’s kind of nice to know that Presbyterians from the U.S. didn’t just barge in and force themselves upon this beautiful country 130 years ago. As we know, none other than President Justo Rufino Barrios personally invited the Presbyterians to begin work on this very street corner.

I’m glad the sanctuary is filled with maps of the 22 departments of Guatemala, reminding us to keep all of them in prayer. It’s also good that the pulpit is surrounded by many flags from different nations. I notice there’s no flag of the United States. I wish my country was also represented among the others, because the Lord knows that the U.S. needs lots of prayer. It’s a very needy mission field right now. For example, there are over one million Guatemalans living in the United States. If we thought of that
population as an unofficial 23rd Guatemalan department, it would be the second in size after Guatemala City. Most of them are recent immigrants, and many of them are struggling. Some are Presbyterians or Christians of other churches. Please keep them and their situations in prayer, for they’re an important part of God’s mission.

Throughout the Bible we find that the mission we do is God’s, not ours. God began it. God provides for it and directs it. God finishes it. God sent his Son, Jesus Christ, to serve as the first missionary. Jesus traveled from heaven to the mission field of planet earth, with the purpose of saving all that God created.

In case somebody’s wondering who the second Christian missionary was, I’ll offer my viewpoint. According to my interpretation of the Gospels, the second missionary wasn’t John the Baptist, or the Samaritan woman, or Peter or Paul. It was the mother of Jesus, Mary. Why do I say that? Once Mary become aware that Jesus was growing within her, the great joy she felt compelled Mary to run over the hills to the home of her cousin Elizabeth to share the good news with her. That’s the basic missionary impulse. Whenever any of us we experience the presence of Jesus inside us, the joy in our hearts compels us to share the joy with others. As we go and share the joy of the grace of Jesus Christ, we join the long line of missionaries that stretches back to Mary, and to Jesus himself.

This helps us understand a truth about God’s mission work—none of us are excluded from it. All of are called within ourselves to be missionaries, by our very hearts that have been touched by God’s grace. At the same time, we’re called from without, by Jesus himself, to enter into God’s mission as a part of the Christian community.

As witnesses, we strive to somehow bring to the attention of others who Jesus is, and what he has done and continues doing in our lives. Our testimony isn’t about our church, or about our good ideas or noble deeds. We testify about Jesus, what he’s doing around us and in our lives. We witness about how his grace has changed our relationships, our actions, our lifestyles, and our priorities.

Being a faithful witness to Jesus Christ can be difficult and wearisome. That’s why Jesus tells his disciples, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses…” Here we find out that the prerequisite to be Christ’s witnesses is that we have power from the Holy Spirit. Without spiritual power, our witness won’t be effective. Sure, it helps to have a budget, to have training, to have a strategic plan, but we can be witnesses without those things. However, there’s no substitute for the Holy Spirit to deal with the challenges, the trials, the temptations that we’ll encounter. Prayer is central in all of this. Prayer is the primary means by which God provides us with spiritual power.

So, now we’ve established that Christ calls all of us to be his witnesses, and that the Holy Spirit is necessary for us to do it faithfully. The big question that’s left is where is the Lord sending us to be his witnesses?

It’s clear that Christ has a global mission. Christ tells us that we’re to be his witnesses “in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” It’s also clear that each of us can’t personally witness in all of these places at the same time. Sometimes our thinking tends to be that we must take them in order. We’ll start in Jerusalem, i.e., Guatemala City. Then once problems are solved in Guatemala City we’ll move on to Judea, i.e., the rest of Guatemala. Next, once the problems in the rest of Guatemala have been addressed we go on to the rest of Central America, and next to the other regions of the world.

The problem with this approach is that Jesus does call us to witness in all of these places simultaneously. Obviously each
of us can’t do it as individuals. But as a church, we can. As the body of Christ, there’s no place that’s beyond our reach.

The vast majority of us are called to be witnesses in the mission field of Jerusalem, i.e., in the place where we find ourselves.
The reason isn’t just because it’s most convenient for us to stay where we are, but because that’s where we have the most ability to connect with people. The Lord wants us to be where our witness can make the most difference. That means that for most of us, when we climb out of bed in our homes each morning, we’re entering into our mission field. That’s as far as we need to go.

What matters is where our witness can best advance God’s mission. What’s easiest or to our liking isn’t what’s most important. Some of us might prefer to witness to the ends of the earth, but God wants us to be in Jerusalem. Others of us might rather stay in Jerusalem, but God would have us go to the ends of the earth.

Let’s consider the original disciples, and what their preferences might have been. Most likely they would’ve liked to witness in Galilee, where they had their roots, their families, their homes, and their jobs on fishing boats. Nonetheless, Galilee wasn’t included on the list of options that Jesus offered them. Christ knew where their witness was most needed, even though it wasn’t convenient to them.

Let’s also consider what happened to these disciples in the gospel of John, chapter 21. Apparently there was a moment when
the disciples chose to ignore Jesus’ instructions and they went back to the comforts of Galilee. How did that work out? Their return to Galilee was a fiasco. They became frustrated, discouraged, and their fishing nets were empty. The risen Christ had to come looking for them, to rescue and redeem them once again.

9After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight. 10 They were looking intently up into the sky as he was going, when suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them. 11 “Men of Galilee,” they said, “why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same
way you have seen him go into heaven.”

   This admonition by the angels suggests that there was an inclination by early Christians to stay in a holding pattern, simply
waiting for Jesus to return and do God’s mission by himself. This stance has the advantage of seeming to be Christ-centered, while letting us avoid getting our hands dirty.

Most of us have heard of an eye disease called myopia. It’s causes near-sightedness, difficulty in focusing on things that are
far away. There’s another less-familiar eye disease called presbyopia. Presbyopia causes its victims to be far-sighted, to have problems seeing things that are nearby. The term is derived from the Greek presbuteros, meaning “elderly,” because presbyopia especially afflicts elderly people. The word “presbyterian” comes from this same Greek root.

We might wonder if the church doesn’t at times suffer from a form of presbyopia. It’s easy for us to focus on life in heaven, but it’s harder for us to see things that are closer at hand.

The focus of God’s attention is earth, not heaven. That’s why our focus needs to be earth, not heaven. After Jesus returned to heaven, the disciples kept staring upwards, wondering when Jesus would come back. It even became necessary for several angels to confront them, to bring their focus back to earth. The angels asked, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?”

Some Christians promote the idea that our motivation for mission is to fulfill a requirement for the second coming of Christ. Theirs is an erroneous interpretation of Matthew 24:14, that reads, “And this good news of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the world …and then the end will come.”

We don’t provoke Jesus; Jesus provokes us! We’re not the ones that cause the Lord to move; it’s the Lord who causes us to move! We’re not the impulse that makes Christ come back to earth; Christ is the impulse that makes us go out into the earth ourselves!

Spain is a country that’s located on the western edge of Europe. Historians tell about how Spain used to claim for many centuries that it was on the earth’s border. The Spaniards even placed on their crest the motto “Ne Plus Ultra,” which means “there is no more beyond.” Then the navigator Christopher Columbus appeared on the scene. After Columbus crossed the ocean, visiting the Caribbean and Central America, the Spaniards no longer could claim they were at the end of the earth. Instead of complaining, however, they celebrated this momentous news. They even changed their official crest by removing the word “Ne.” Afterwards, instead of claiming “Ne Plus Ultra,” the crest stated, “Plus Ultra,” there is more beyond.

Sometimes the church seems to cling to a crest that says, “Ne Plus Ultra.” We might give the impression that our own congregation is all that matters to us. If so, Jesus challenges us just as he challenged the first disciples by telling us that there’s no limit to our witness. Our churches are important, our communities are important, and our countries are important. Nonetheless, the Lord continues to remind us that there’s more beyond.

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Sad News! Mexican Presbyterians Sever Ties to PCUSA

News broke on Friday that the National Presbyterian Church of Mexico (INPM) decided to end its relationship with the PCUSA because of the removal from the PCUSA Book of Order of the prohibition against the ordination of gays and lesbians. At the INPM’s General Assembly, 116 out of 138 delegates voted to sever relations. While this development is heartbreaking, it’s not unexpected. The INPM is one of the more conservative Presbyterian denominations in Latin American. At the same General Assembly, the ordination of women was prohibited by a vote of 158 to 14.

PCUSA officials made a determined effort to avoid this parting. Earlier this week a special delegation—including the Stated Clerk, Director of World Mission, Coordinator for Latin America and the Caribbean, and World Mission’s Liaison with Mexico—flew to Mexico to dialogue with INPM leaders. The hope was that a final decision would be postponed, to allow more time to discern ways that the denominations might keep working together. Apparently the INPM leaders proposed to the assembly that relations be suspended, but a counter proposal from the floor to make a complete break won out.

Ever since U.S. Presbyterians began their mission work in Mexico in 1872, the relationship has had some ups and downs. Missionaries fled the country in 1913 due to the Mexican revolution. Upon their return they carved up territories where the U.S. northern and southern branches operated separately–a lingering sore point for Mexican Presbyterians. In 1972 the INPM suspended relations with the PCUSA to more clearly establish its independent identity. There was a moratorium on mission personnel and funding. In 1980 relations resumed based on a covenant to carry out mission endeavors jointly.

Currently the INPM has almost 2 million members, close to the same size as the PCUSA. The PCUSA has 11 mission co-workers assigned to Mexico, and 25 partnerships on presbytery and synod levels. At seven sites along the U.S./Mexico border, the denominations have worked closely together in ministry. Please pray for all of these missionaries and ministries, since what will happen to them in the future remains to be seen.

Some people might be concerned that the relationship between the Presbyterian Church of Guatemala (IENPG), with whom I work, and the PCUSA might follow a similar path. At its May Synod meeting, the IENPG responded to correspondence from the PCUSA about the change in ordination standards. Delegates took vocal exception to the change in standards. The Synod’s official letter regarding the PCUSA states: “We receive this information, make note of it, and respond to them that we are not
in agreement with the decision and that we will pray that their decisions conform to the Word of God.” Despite its disagreement on this point, the IENPG Synod affirmed the partnership with the PCUSA and its desire to continue to work together. I pray that that this willingness to stay connected will continue despite the differences that exist.

At the quadrennial meeting earlier this month in Guatemala of AIPRAL (Alliance of Presbyterian and Reformed Church in Latin America), I participated in an informal discussion about the PCUSA’s decision. The responses from participants from across the region didn’t seem to indicate neither support nor rejection of the PCUSA. While not regarding the controversy over homosexuality and ordination as a priority in their cultural contexts, they acknowledged that their churches will need to address it at some point. AIPRAL didn’t include any discussion of this issue on its agenda.

As soon as the Mexican church’s decision was reported by The Presbyterian Outlook, its comment thread was filled with opinions about it. Here’s a selection of diverse comments:

“If only we could live as the Body of Christ in disagreement–not only with our international partners, but with each other. I grieve.”

Yet another relationship ruined by American arrogance.”

“What could be more arrogant than denying women and homosexuals full participation in our community of faith?”

“How about ignoring 2,000 years of church history, the vast majority of Christians around the world, and the Bible itself?”

“I am saddened, and hope that this doesn’t spread to other Latin American presbyterian bodies… I also pray this isn’t used as fuel for the fire within the PCUSA.

“I question why the PCUSA had remained in a partnership in mission with a body that refuses to ordain women.”

“They have the right to make their own decision, but I believe they placed ideology above ministry and fellowship. Here in the US many PCUSA members literally risk their lives to support undocumented Mexican immigrants, many of them Presbyterian…”

“Their loss!!!”

“Far larger our loss than theirs.”

“Oh no! Mexico is a very special place to me after going on a mission partnership trip this summer. So sad that this couldn’t work out.”

Welcome to the new inclusive PCUSA where we are excluded from communion with the global church and our brothers and sisters in the Southern Hemisphere.” 

“Sad indeed.”

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When I First Fell for Guatemala

Our family just finished a year in Guatemala, and it’s still surprising for us to find ourselves in this place. How did we end up here? That’s the question that often pops into my mind while dodging cars on crowded city streets, or squirming on cramped busses in the countryside, or sitting through a lengthy church service.  As I ponder this question, my thoughts drift back to life’s important crossroads.

About three decades ago, while a student at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota, I was experimenting with different religious practices. For a year or so I was drawn to the Society of Friends. Their Sunday services took place in an old Victorian mansion, following the traditional Quaker format. We’d assemble in rows of seats, and then settle into quiet group
contemplation. Sporadically some mystical energy would prompt someone to calmly rise and share an insight with the rest of us.

At the start of one meeting a small-statured visitor stood up and, with an unusual accent, addressed the gathering.  He was Julio Quan, an exiled Guatemalan professor who wasn’t willing to wait for the customary, obscure prompting. He
launched into a dramatic description of intense violence in his homeland, with graphic accounts of death squad assassinations, peasant massacres, razed villages, and churches under attack by government troops. His conclusion was a stirring plea
that U.S. support for the Guatemalan government be halted.

Julio’s passion for Guatemala was contagious, for me at least. I approached him afterwards, and soon I was active on the local Guatemala Solidarity Committee. For the next year I joined with Julio and others in the committee’s advocacy work, raising awareness about injustices in Guatemala and the harmfulness of U.S. policies in Central America. I continued to attend the
Friends Meeting, and made arrangements to study abroad with Friends World College, which at the time had a branch in Guatemala City.

As it turned out, repression in Guatemala became so intense that Friends World College relocated its Latin American branch to Costa Rica. My disappointment was mollified by word about who the college had appointed as director of its new
site. It was none other than Julio Quan. I arrived there in 1981, and for a year, with Julio’s guidance, learned Spanish while learning about culture, politics and religion in Costa Rica, Nicaragua and Colombia. I hoped to make it to Guatemala, but never
did.

After my studies at Friends World College, I lost track of Julio Quan. Fortunately, I encountered other gifted people that challenged me in my faith and my understanding of the world.

As time elapsed, my interest in the Quakers waned. I became involved with Baptists, Methodists, and eventually the Presbyterians.

Over the years, the armed conflict subsided in Guatemala, and my attention moved elsewhere.  I was blessed
with ministry opportunities in places like Nicaragua, Honduras, and with Hispanic immigrants in Tennessee.

Then, Guatemala reappeared out of nowhere for me. About ten years ago, my presbytery in Tennessee invited me to join a mission team that was travelling here.  I helped form a long-term partnership with a Guatemalan presbytery, and a passion for this country returned. Then suddenly a mission assignment in Guatemala became available, and Bacilia and I applied
for it.

And now, it’s amazing, and surprising, to find myself living here with my family, three decades since I heard Julio Quan interrupt the silence around us. Yes, God’s plan unfolds in its own ways and according to its own schedule.

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Latin American Presbyterians Meet in Guatemala

This past week about 100 Christians from across Latin America gathered in Guatemala City for the quadrennial assembly of AIPRAL (Alianza de Iglesias Presbiterianas y Reformadas de America Latina). Also in attendance was Rev. Dr. Setri Nyomi, Secretary General of the World Communion of Reformed Churches, based in Geneva. I enjoyed participating as an observer and translator.  The theme of the assembly was “The Fruit of Justice is Sown in Peace and Communion (James 3:18)”. It was the first time that AIPRAL has ever held its general assembly in Central America.

On Wednesday, women and youth held forums while a group of us met ecumenical leaders in the city, as well as the Archbishop of Guatemala City, Monsignor Oscar Julio Vián. In a press conference, AIPRAL leaders expressed their concern about violence and insecurity in Guatemala during the upcoming elections, and called for respect for democratic process.

On Thursday, AIPRAL held a Consultation on Water, recognizing that water is a gift of God, and lamenting that it is too often misused, polluted, and privatized. Our conclusion was that we must show personal responsibility as well as protect the right of everyone to have access to clean water.

On Friday and Saturday, business sessions were held and new officers were chosen. Rev. Dario Barolin from Uruguay was elected as the new General Secretary, and Gabriela Mulder from Argentina was elected as the new President. Rev. Jenner Miranda, from Guatemala, was elected onto the executive committee as head of the department of mission and theology. The Hispanic Caucus of the PCUSA was received as a new member of AIPRAL. Today, Sunday, was the closing service at the Central
Presbyterian Church. I was grateful for the opportunity to learn from and share with the women and men of this ecumenical body.

(Photos: AIPRAL press conference, musicians in worship, celebrating communion)

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Tourism Guatemalan Style, with Pictures (Part Two)

Our family spent the last five days with my 80-year-old father, Don Beisswenger, and my brother, Tom Beisswenger, visiting sights in the Guatemala City area. Please bear with me as I post this travelogue of our get-together, but I really like showing off the great things that Guatemala offers to visitors.

On Thursday, the day they arrived, we toured Matthew and Manny’s school, the Colegio Americano, and then played at a park near our house that offers a petting zoo and zip-lines. (Photo: Matthew, Manny and Stefi with Tom and bunnies)

On Friday we admired spectacular scenery while driving out of the city to Lago Amatitlán (not to be confused with the more famous Lago Atitlán). We planned to ride tram cars up to United Nations Park, but they were closed due to mechanical problems. Instead we hiked up nearby Volcán Pacaya. The climb was grueling for us, and we wound up hiring horses for my dad and our kids. Close to the crater we roasted marshmallows over lava vents, and then hiked back down to eat quesadillas in a little town named San Vicente. (Photos: overlook of Lake Amatitlán; Matthew and Dad on horseback at Pacaya)

On Saturday we visited Guatemala City’s zoo. Our favorite animals were the monkeys, hippopotamus, and jaguar, plus amusement rides and local food. Next we explored the National Museum of Archeology and Ethnology, looking at giant Mayan stelae and altars. (Photo: Matthew and Manny next to potbellied statue at museum)

On Sunday we worshipped at the Iglesia Presbiteriana Central. At the end of the service my father, who had attended this church over 50 years ago, was asked to give the benediction. Afterwards we ate a popular chicken soup called pepian while listening to marimba music at a nearby restaurant. For several hours we strolled around the lively central park, the central market, and the pedestrian street called Paseo Sexta. (Photo: in front of Palacio Nacional across from central park)

On Monday, the day before my father and brother returned to the U.S., we visited the colonial city of Antigua. Among the sites we visited were the Iglesia San Francisco, a domed church where we observed many pilgrims crawling on their knees in search of healing miracles. We also toured the ruins of a Capuchin Convent where nuns were once forbidden from having any outside human contact until death, and the ruins of the old cathedral, with underground crypts and abandoned altars. (Photo: View from Antigua’s central park, withVolcán Agua in background)

As a side note, part of the experience of this visit was intense political campaigning. National elections will be held on September 11, and wherever we went there were supporters of different candidates parading in streets, riding in caravans, and holding rallies. Among the interesting election news was a declaration by the nation’s Constitutional Court that Sandra Torres, who’s been running for president, was ineligible because she fraudulently divorced her husband, the nation’s current president, in a attempt to circumvent a constitutional prohibition against a president being succeeded by a family member.

As for our family members, Bacilia and I are grateful for the opportunity we had to host them this past week, sharing some of the culture and history of this beautiful country. We give thanks to God that it was such a safe, enjoyable time together.

PS. I promise not to post any more narratives about family visits, at least not for a while.

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Tourism Guatemalan Style, with Pictures (Part One)

The tourist trade is Guatemala’s 2nd most important source of foreign exchange, behind remittances. After growing steadily since the early 1990’s, the number of tourists travelling to Guatemala has decreased since 2009. The global economic recession, news about natural disasters, and fears about violence and crime are often blamed for this downturn.  It’s too bad, because I don’t think Guatemala can be beat as a place to spend a vacation.  

This past week my brother Drew, his wife Nancy, and children Helen and Paul visited us in Guatemala. To give a sample of the rich experiences that Guatemala offers to visitors, here’s a summary of what our two families did together:

 On Thursday, the day after their plane landed, we traveled to the town of Retalhuleu for several days of fun at a big water park named Xocomil and an amusement park called Xetulul. En route we ran into a messy traffic jam caused by a roadblock of protesting teachers. Their grievance was that the government hadn’t followed through on promised funding. After weaving the van through a long line of vehicles, I got out and spoke with the protesters, who to our pleasant surprise showed mercy upon us and let us pass. Although we arrived at the parks a few hours later than planned, we loved the outstanding waterslides, roller coasters, and other attractions.  We could hardly believe the low prices and no lines. By the way, new talks got underway between the teachers and government officials, and the road blocks ended. (See photos)

On Saturday, while driving back to Guatemala City, we stopped by the town of Palin, which was celebrating its annual St. Christopher festival. The streets were packed with food vendors, carnival games, and rickety mechanical rides. In the central park, a brass and marimba band played merengue music under a huge, sprawling ceiba tree while costumed dancers performed. (See photo)

On Sunday we worshipped at the Presbyterian Church near Guatemala City’s central plaza, and then headed to Lake Atitlan, about 3 hours away. The lake is surrounded by volcanoes and Mayan villages. We rode a lancha across to a village named San Juan La Laguna, where we visited a textile cooperative. Several women demonstrated their method of spinning cotton, using local plants to dye the thread, and artfully weaving patterns on traditional looms. We then visited a nature reserve to ride on a network of breathtaking zip-lines overlooking the lake and mountains. (See photos)

On Monday, the day before their departure, we drove to a town on the Pacific coast called Monterrico, about 2 ½ hours from the city. The sand is black due to volcanic ash. After swimming, we ate seafood soup and the kids rode horses up and down the beach. On the way back we rode an old, wooden ferry across a vast mangrove inlet filled with wild birds and thatched buildings. (See Photos)

There’s so much more that we didn’t have time to do, but our time ran out. While bidding our family good-bye, we invited them to come back. Visiting Guatemala is really an extraordinary experience, whether it’s to participate in mission work, or simply to enjoy an amazing country.

P.S. “Tourism Guatemalan Style, with Pictures (Part Two)” will be appearing soon. My father and my brother Tom are arriving for a visit tomorrow.

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