Monthly Archives: January 2012

Women’s Presbiterial

The Presbyterian Women’s Organization, called Presbiterial, of the Costa Sur Presbytery invited me to preach during their biennial convention this weekend.  Costa Sur is one of five presbyteries that broke away from the Guatemalan Presbyterian Church in the early 1990’s over theological disagreements and mismanagement within the IENPG. These presbyteries were recently re-integrated in the denomination. As one of the more conservative presbyteries, Costa Sur doesn’t accept women’s ordination. Their worship style is also quite conservative, and they sing exclusively from a 1964 hymnal that contains Spanish translations of gospel hymns that were popularized by missionaries in an earlier era.

The Presbiterial is well-run and energetic, with 20 women’s societies with names like “Conquerors for Christ,” and “Zion’s Daughters.” We met at a church in the rural village of El Arisco, down a long gravel road. Over 100 participants spanned all ages, but leaned heavily toward the older generation. Women were in charge throughout, with some input from a jovial pastor who was designated as “counselor.” I expect that numerous of the women would be capable elders and pastors if they were given the opportunity.

Accommodations were basic, with some women sleeping on church benches, and others staying in nearby houses. I was fortunate to get a bed at the home of the presbiterial moderator. Meals were simple—chicken and beef soups cooked in huge kettles over fires, plenty of rice, and tortillas prepared by hand. Through the convention, women sold baked goods and sewing items to each other, and held raffles to raise funds for the presbiterial.

Most activities took place under a big laurel tree next to the church. The mood of the event was upbeat, with constant outbursts of laughter. Sessions focused on organizational issues, with time for reports from each society. There was a time for games, making crafts, and training on leadership duties. On Saturday the moderator of the national women’s group, called Sinódica, talked about women’s issues in the denomination. At the last minute I was asked to lead a workshop on how to develop projects in collaboration with PC(USA) partners. They kidded me about having caught me asleep during a report, and threatened to get even by dozing off during my presentation.

One of the women I met was Celestina Quiñonez. She remembered when she was an illiterate mother, and people would knock on her door offering to teach her. She never opened the door to respond. Then she was unexpectedly elected president of the presbiterial. She was hesitant to accept the position, but other women assured her that Christ would strengthen her to do all things. While fulfilling her duties as president, she learned to read and write. Now she continues to be active in the presbiterial, and it’s her who’s knocking on the doors of others offering to teach them.

At Friday night’s service, each society carried forward its banners and performed a selected song. My sermon was about the woman with the hemorrhage who was healed when she touched the hem of Jesus’ robe. After elaborating on the troubling social ramifications of her uncontrollable bleeding, I preached about how she was healed by her faith, and how Jesus later on bled on the cross for her. At the end of the message, I invited worshippers to consider a difficult area of their lives where they seem to be hemorrhaging. Then they were invited to come forward in faith, to touch the fringe of several stoles in front, and to pray for healing. They responded en masse as we sang the Spanish translation of “There Is a Fountain Filled with Blood.”

Saturday night’s service featured the induction of the Presbyterial leadership. More societies came forward to perform favorite songs. My message was about Tabitha (Dorcas). As the only woman in the Bible who’s explicitly called a “disciple,” I offered her as an example of “the salt of the earth.” After I finished, the women came forward and received a pinch of salt, while the congregation sang “Living for Jesus.” They knelt together for a prayer of consecration, and the convention reached its conclusion. While driving back to Guatemala City on Sunday, I felt deeper appreciation for the vibrancy of women’s ministry in the Guatemalan Presbyterian Church, as well as concern about the challenges and limitations they face.


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Stuck on the PC(USA)

This past week a new reformed body was launched in Orlando, Florida called the Evangelical Covenant Order of Presbyterians (ECO). It’s comprised of Presbyterians whose relationship to the PC(USA) has been strained by theological shifts within the denomination, most prominently the relaxing of ordination standards about sexuality.

It’s understandable that PC(USA) leadership isn’t thrilled about the ECO, and is concerned about its supporters. At first Moderator Cynthia Bolbach wasn’t going to attend the ECO’s Covenanting Conference in Orlando. According to the current Presbyterian Outlook:

“In an interview this week, Bolbach said she had changed her mind, in part because ‘they’re expecting lots of folks who want to stay in the PC(USA) and want to figure out how to do that’ while not violating their sense of conscience. ‘If there are people there who are still engaged in the PC(USA), I want to be in dialogue with them,’ Bolbach said. ‘I want to have conversation with them to say, “We want you to stay. We don’t want you to go.” ‘ ”

Although I haven’t heard whether Cynthia Bolbach actually went to the conference or not, I’m glad she affirms the presence of evangelicals in the denomination. Theologically I’m in general agreement with the ECO, and I’ve tended to apply the category “evangelical” to myself over the years. My family and I want to stay in the PC(USA), and we want to continue to work as mission co-workers. Hopefully evangelical believers always will be valued and respected not only in local congregations, but at every level and area of the PC(USA), including mission assignments overseas.

Some Presbyterians seem to feel stuck in the PC(USA). They’re faced with the challenge of extricating their churches from the PC(USA), which has become an unpleasant place for them. I seem to be stuck too, but instead of stuck in, I’m stuck on the PC(USA). To be stuck in something, such as a rut, means you’re struggling to get yourself out from an undesirable place. To be stuck on somebody means you have an uncontrollable attachment, an affection that won’t let go.

Yes, I’m stuck on this denomination. I’ve discovered that my attachment to it is beyond my control. Sure, there are other denominations where my theological positions are more widely held, but God didn’t put me in such a denomination. In God’s infinite wisdom, God put me in this one. I was baptized in it, received my first Bible in it, had my first mission experience in it, and people prayed for me in it when I wouldn’t pray for myself. For a number of years I moved in a different direction, and I struggled spiritually and vocationally. Then God called me back into the PC(USA). Doors opened for me to use my talents and to participate with my family in the fulfillment of God’s divine plans. I’m stuck on the PC(USA) because God’s stuck on it. How gracious God is! He doesn’t let go, even when conflict rages in our churches and many of us worry about losing our way.

The Guatemalan Presbyterian Church (IENPG), to which my wife and I are assigned, has an impressive record of stick-together-ness. The church functions within an environment of stark poverty, devastating natural disasters, and bloody social turmoil, including the lingering effects of a 36-year civil war with a death toll of 250,000. Over the years and with few resources, the IENPG has contended with unsavory personality conflicts and a few corrupt leaders, as well as divisive religious currents like Pentecostalism and liberation theology. Guatemala’s divergent social classes are reflected in the Presbyterian churches here, along with the full range of political and ideological persuasions. Half of the members are westernized Ladinos, while the rest belong to socially-marginalized indigenous groups that speak different languages. With these challenges and so much diversity, the IENPG has for the most part held together. Indeed, while the PC(USA) seems to be at risk of falling apart, the IENPG has expanded into more areas of Guatemala. In recent years they’ve achieved reconciliation with four schismatic presbyteries, reintegrating them back into their denomination. They’ve opened up two new high schools, and are forming a Presbyterian university. The IENPG has stuck to this pattern, praise God, ever since a predecessor of the PC(USA) started it over 130 years ago.

At their last Synod meeting, Guatemalan Presbyterians expressed their disagreement with the PC(USA) over changes in ordination standards. At the same time, they expressed their desire to remain in covenant partnership with the PC(USA). Here’s the reason one Guatemalan gave for wanting the partnership to continue: “When we’ve struggled and didn’t get along, they never left us. Now the PC(USA) is struggling. How can we leave them?”

It’s a blessing to work at building partnerships between Christian bodies like the PC(USA) and the IENPG, partnerships that figure out how to face differences and accept some significant disagreements. It’s also a blessing to be a part of building partnership within Christian bodies like the PC(USA), where we also face differences and even accept some significant disagreements.


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A New President, an Unrelated Anecdote

Tomorrow Guatemala’s new president, retired General Otto Perez Molina, will be inaugurated.  It’s unsure what kind of president he’ll be. While valid questions remain about his role in the civil war in the early 1980’s, he was a key signatory of the peace accords in 1996. The greatest cause of consternation in Guatemala now, from what I can tell, has been the government’s inability or unwillingness to keep organized criminals from preying on and terrorizing the rest of the population, especially the poor who are less able to defend themselves. Perez and his governing Patriot Party have promised to improve security in the county, confronting crime on all levels—extortion rings, drug trafficking, and the general mayhem that’s caused Guatemala to hold one of the region’s highest murder rates. I hope President Perez and his administration also will address corruption within government, rampant violence against women, the outrageous impunity that lets so many bad guys prey upon the weak and get off scot-free, and myriad other impediments to justice. Things are getting off to a shaky start; this morning a legislator from an opposition party was killed by shots from a passing motorcycle several blocks from the central plaza.

Since I don’t really have any further in-depth analysis or deep thoughts about the incoming President, here’s a unrelated anecdote:

In June 1993, my wife, son Daniel, and I drove through Guatemala on our way from Nashville to Honduras. Our Plymouth Voyager was filled to the brim with boxes of clothes, books, dishes, and toys for us to use in our mission assignment in La Ceiba. It took two full days to carefully squeeze it all in there. Daniel’s bicycle was strapped on top.

I had a spooky sensation as we sped along the Pacific Coast highway, not knowing anyone in Guatemala and remembering horror stories about past government atrocities. Suddenly we were stopped by a lone soldier in uniform, holding a combat rifle. After I pulled over, his unfriendly face appeared at the window and his stern voice demanded to see my documents.  He stared at them for a moment, and then wanted to know where we were going. I explained we were going to Honduras to serve the church there. He made me get out, pointing his rifle toward the rear gate and following me there. I opened it for him, and he pointed his rifle at the shoulder of the road, telling me to put everything there. At first I wasn’t sure that I heard correctly, so I asked if he meant every single box. He assured me that he wasn’t kidding, that he needed to check the contents of every box.

Here’s how the exchange went after that:

“Like I said, the boxes just have our clothes, books, dishes, toys, and things like that. Do you really want to see all that?”

“Yes, everything!”

“You know it’s going to take a long time to unload so many boxes.”

“It doesn’t matter. I have to see all of them because who knows what you might be smuggling.”

“We already went through customs. Isn’t that where these kinds of inspections are supposed to happen?”

“We do inspections wherever we think they might be necessary.”

At this point, I started to suspect he was bluffing. I thought he wanted a bribe, and I didn’t want to give him one. I’d given a bribe earlier in Mexico, and my conscience had been killing me ever since.  So I prayed, “Please, God, help us through this one.” Then I said to the soldier, “Okay, if you say so, but you’re going to get bored looking at a bunch of books and dishes, and we’re probably going to get into Guatemala City late.”

(No response)

“Like I said, I’m a Methodist pastor, and my family and I are moving to Central America to try to help as many people as we can here.”

(No response)

“I’ll do what you say if you insist, because I know you’re trying to do your job and the last thing we want to do is break the law. And you know, some people might try to help you out in some other way so that you’ll go easier on them, but I couldn’t do that because it would go against my beliefs.”

I slowly lifted out a box, put it on the ground, and removed the packing tape. After he peeked at the kids’ books inside, he snapped, “Now put the box back where it was.” I did, and the soldier waved his hand, saying, “Now you can go.”

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Advent/Christmas/New Year 2011-2012

WARNING: This post is laden with reports on family activities, with lots of photos, and a sermon at the end. Proceed with caution!

The holidays in Guatemala have been meaningful and joyful for us. We’ve enjoyed having Bacilia’s sister, Liony, and her niece, Emily, visit with us from Honduras. They’ve been busy making tamales, coconut bread, and a Garifuna soup called machuca that’s made with fish, coconut milk, and mashed plantains. (See photo) We decorated the house and bought fireworks. We squeezed in a celebration of Manny’s 7th birthday. (See photo of pinata party at church) We’ve attended numerous Advent services, including a children’s Christmas cantata. (See photo of Stefi) We held our own simple supper on Christmas Eve. Once again, Santa managed to arrive on the same night as Jesus, and we celebrated by opening stockings, exchanging presents, worshipping at church, and then eating turkey at home. Matthew, who’s been learning to play the drums at church, received a drum set for Christmas. (See photo) One day we drove to a place called Auto Safari Chapin, that features a drive-through wild-life park, as well as a nice swimming pool. (See photos) Now we look forward to school starting again and the resumption of the rest of our mission work.

I was invited to preach at the New Year’s Day worship service at Central Presbyterian Church. Here’s the essence of the message:

“A Vision of the Messiah” Luke 2:22-40

I enjoy learning about New Year’s traditions. For example, it’s interesting that here in Guatemala many people keep a New Year’s tradition of dressing a doll-like figure of Jesus in fancy clothes so he’ll be ready when the Wise Men arrive. In many parts of the world people are used to the tradition of Old Man Time, with his long beard, white robe, and hourglass. The old man appears stooped over and worn out, symbolizing the past year. On his heels comes the peppy New Year Baby, sporting his diapers and sash proclaiming the New Year.

To some, these figures come across as adversaries. The old man might seem resentful about how difficult his year was, and bitter that his time’s up. The baby might seem to flaunt his fresh energy and cocky goals. Of course, the truth is they’re not enemies at all. Old age and youthfulness are parts of the order of the universe that God created. They complement each other, and they need each other. How lovely and sweet it is to see an elderly man or woman holding a grandchild. There’s no competition there! They combine the wisdom of age with the excitement of new ideas and possibilities of youth.  That’s why healthy churches include a balance of children, with their new ideas and possibilities, and older adults, with their knowledge and experience.

In the reading from the Gospel of Luke, we’re blessed with an image of age and youth together. Shortly after Jesus’ birth, Mary and Joseph went to the Temple in Jerusalem to perform the ceremonies that came after a son is born. Tone of those ceremonies was a purification ritual that involved the sacrifice of two doves by a priest. Following this ritual, something significant happened; they met an old man named Simeon. The Bible describes Simeon as righteous, pious, and filled with the Holy Spirit. The most interesting thing about him was that a promise from God that he wouldn’t die until his eyes had beheld the Messiah. Ever since God had made this promise, Simeon had been coming to the Temple, waiting and watching for the Messiah’s arrival. When Simeon saw the Christ Child, he took him into his arms and lifted him before God, praising God and proclaiming, “Lord, now let your servant die in peace, for my eyes have seen the Savior you’ve given to all people.” Presumably it was Simeon’s final visit to the Temple. God fulfilled his promise, and Simeon was able to shut his eyes for the last time and die in peace.

Imagine that day in Jerusalem, with crowds of people coming to the Temple to recite prayers and make offerings. The Messiah showed up among all these religious people, and hardly anybody noticed. It’s incredible that weak-eyed Simeon was one of the few that detected who he was. The others went home not knowing what they’d missed.

It’s a good thing to come to God’s house, and to wait and watch. The waiting and watching are just as important as the coming. I wonder how often that happens in Presbyterian churches, people coming to church and participating in worship without encountering Jesus. How many go home disappointed that they didn’t see Christ, even though he was right there?  How often are we blind to Jesus presence, which might take unexpected forms such as a baby, or a teenage, or a stranger, or an elderly woman? Perhaps Jesus was standing at the church door, or sitting outside on the sidewalk. Remember Jesus words that whenever two or three gather in his name, he’ll be there in their midst. That means that whenever God’s people meet, Jesus is present too. The problem seems to be that many people don’t notice him because they’re not waiting and watching.

How sad it is that many people, unlike Simeon, never truly praise God while they’re living, and never see God’s salvation before they die. God didn’t promise to everybody that we wouldn’t die before we saw our Savior. Instead, God promises that the Savior will be available for all who come in faith, and wait and watch. God grants to all of us the grace that draws us to Christ, but not everybody finally beholds Jesus.

Some people wait for the Messiah, while others are too distracted. Some wait, while others put off. There’s a big difference between a wait and a postponement. Waiting is more active, and postponing is more passive. Waiting means that there’s more abundant life to come. Postponing means that abundant life hasn’t really started. People who wait have placed their lives in God’s hands. People who postpone remain in the clutches of the world. People who wait are confident about God’s grace. People who postpone are confused about the things of God. People who postpone miss blessing after blessing. People who wait go from victory unto victory.

Because the crowds in the Temple weren’t waiting and watching, their eyes were blind to the coming of the Lord. Because Simeon waited and watched, the moment came when he could declare, Lord, my eyes have seen your salvation.”

There was someone else who also spotted Jesus. Her name was Anna. She was elderly like Simeon, spending day and night in the Temple, praying, fasting, and watching for the Messiah. As soon as she spotted Jesus, who knew who he was. She welcomed him and, according to the scriptures, talked about him to everyone else who was waiting for Israel’s Redeemer.

Redemption is a key to the Jesus story. Redemption concerns value that’s been lost, and then recovered. Redemption speaks of useless things that become great instruments for good. Redemption isn’t just wishing for a new life, it’s the power to have a new life by means of a Redeemer.

Today is the first day of the year 2012. It’s an opportunity to consider the future, not only goals that we want to reach and hopes that we’d like to realize. Today is a moment to reflect on the meaning of redemption, and who our Redeemer is. It’s a moment to give thanks to God who has sent a Redeemer to us. It’s a moment for renewed faith in a new future that’s more than a dream. It’s an opportunity to look in new ways for the presence of our Savior. Today is an occasion for seeing once again that Christ is in our midst, that the Word has become flesh, and that God has fulfilled his promise in favor of the people that God loves.


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