Monthly Archives: March 2012

Weeds among the Coffee Plants

Last Sunday, we drove to Antigua to take part in the annual “Day of the Family” worship service held by Presbyterians there. The crowd was a mixture of indigenous and Ladino families that have been drawn to the Presbyterian congregation because of its emphasis on Bible study and children’s ministries. The setting was an old coffee farm, with concrete slabs where heaps of coffee beans dried in the sun. The hill sides were covered with coffee plants, along with other types of scattered brush. I’d been invited to preach at the service, and chose the subject of how to deal with weeds that get intermixed with good plants. Here’s an abbreviated version of my sermon:

“He put before them another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well.’” (Matthew 13:24-26)

Even though Jesus wasn’t a farmer, he loved to use agriculture to teach lessons about God’s kingdom. Cultivation is so important to our faith that the word “cultivate” is derived from the same root word as “cult” (which means worship in Spanish).  When we worship God, we’re cultivating the faith—our own and the faith of others around us.

One of Jesus’ lessons had to do with wheat and weeds growing together. One of the challenges of family life and church life is that differences sometimes turn into discord. The world is full of caring people, but it also has lots of rotten relationships.

As I’ve walked around this coffee farm, I’ve seen weeds among the rows of healthy coffee plants.  As hard as workers try to eradicate the weeds, there always seems to be more of them.

A vivid memory of my mother is of her fondness for assorted weeds. She enjoyed removing branches from scraggly shrubs and strange greenery whenever she saw them. Often during family drives in the country, our car would have to come to a screeching halt because some wild plants in a ditch caught her attention. Once the car was pulled over, she’d climb out and tenderly collect her prize findings. Later, she’d carefully arrange them into dry bouquets that would adorn prominent places in our home.

My father, on the other hand, prefers to plant flowers in a garden and vegetables in the yard.  He’ll gladly spend hours tending to them, leaving them in the garden once they blossom to be admired by any passersby, but primarily by my father.

Somehow, Jesus seems to be able to find a place for both weeds and flowers in his plans. He had a higher tolerance for weeds than most of us. For example, Jesus was reluctant to have us pull up weeds, probably because of our tendencies to mislabel unfamiliar plants as weeds. “What is a weed?” wondered the poet Ralph Waldo Emerson.  “A plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered.”

Other times, we might find that the disruption of uprooting a weed can do more damage to God’s plans than simply leaving it alone. Jesus teaches us to let both the righteous and the unrighteous to grow together until the harvest.  What the world calls a weed might actually be a flower that hasn’t blossomed yet, or a fruit or a vegetable that no one’s ever seen before.  Some plants need more patience, more tender loving care.

How do we deal with people that seem like weeds that never blossom or bear fruit?  First, remember that they’re children of God.  Do our best to find virtue in them.  Don’t let them take virtue away from us.  Continue to bring them before God, even if reluctantly, whether we’ve forgiven them or not.  If we haven’t forgiven them, simply leave them at the altar with God.

Second, bear in mind that the best way to fight weeds isn’t to pull them out, but to create an environment where good seeds can thrive. In other words, have good soil. Soil, otherwise known as dirt, is basically a combination of four things—mineral fragments (like sand, silt, clay), organic matter (decaying plants, dead insects, etc.), water (mostly rain), and air (earthworms, bugs, roots help loosen the dirt). Soil that contains the right amounts of these things is good for flowers and bad for weeds.

Regarding the Christian faith, we can think of minerals as strong doctrine, a solid core of beliefs that gives structure to our understandings of God and life. Organic matter might be the traditions and customs that come and go over the years. Water is God’s flow of relationships that move continuously, and air is the openings for the Holy Spirit to inspire and bring new spiritual energy.

One spring in Nashville, before I planted a garden in our back yard, my neighbor told me that the soil in our neighborhood was too acidic. He’d performed a soil analysis, and was told that it needed lime. I went and bought a sack of lime, which I worked into the garden bed. At the store I was advised to buy some plant food with nitrogen, phosphate and potassium, so I worked that into the ground too. All this fertilizing helped to ensure that the soil was fertile that it had the right combination of minerals and nutrients.

If our lives seem to have too many weeds and not enough flowers, it’s a wise idea for us to test the soil, to check if something’s missing. I can tell you right away that it’s not for lack of good seeds. We can always count on God to provide an abundance of good seed. God’s constantly scattering good seed  all around us. If our faith, our families, our friendships don’t seem to be growing in healthy ways, we should check to find out what’s needed to bring our soil back to the right balance.

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Among Reasons Not to Store up Treasures on Earth

In mid-January, we were shocked to have $1,200 stolen from us through an ATM at a mall near our house. I’d inserted my debit card, punched in my PIN, and typed in my withdrawal amount. The screen instantly notified that my daily limit had been exceeded, although I hadn’t withdrawn anything for over a week. Somehow our bank information was seized electronically, and by the next day over $1,200 had been withdrawn from our checking account by someone in Colombia.  This seems to be the latest wave of high-tech crime in Latin America.

After over a month of wrangling with our bank, the funds finally were restored to our account.  What’s more, Eastminster Presbyterian Church—our former church in Nashville, Tennessee—heard about our loss, kindly took up a collection, and sent it to us. We’re grateful to these beloved friends, and will pass on the funds to help with badly-needed pastoral training in Guatemala.  (Thanks, Eastminster!)

Even though we’re very careful people, crime’s a part of life in Latin America that’s hard to avoid. Over Christmas, Bacilia’s gold hoop earrings were snatched right out from her ears as she shopped at an open-air market in Guatemala City.

Looking back, here are some losses in Latin America that have stayed in my memory:

In 1981, my money and hiking boots were swiped from the rectory of some priests in Estelí, Nicaragua.

In 1982, a mugger pulled a knife on me in Bogota, Colombia in broad daylight. I acted confused, handing him a dollar’s worth of pesos and saying, “Thank you.” That threw him off, and I quickly walked away.

In 1982, my suitcase and typewriter disappeared from a school I attended in San José, Costa Rica.

In 1991, while with a work team in Dominica, a crook slipped into the large room where we were sleeping on cots, and quietly removed the cash from everyone’s wallets. Police recovered the loot by the next day.

In 1993, I was mysteriously liberated of my camera while visiting some archeological ruins in Mexico.

In 1995, our family’s clothes vanished from our clothes line in La Ceiba, Honduras, along with a hammock that was cut down from the porch.

In 1996, someone sneaked through the balcony door on the third floor of a convent where I stayed in Kingston, Jamaica. The thief searched my wallet and luggage while I slept. He took most of my valuables, kindly leaving behind $4 and 25 Honduran Lempiras (enough to make a phone call).

In 1997, I was held up at gunpoint one evening in Belize City. In a foolish panic, I grabbed my wallet and threw it over a wall before the guy could get it. After I started yelling, he ran off.

It seems I’ve gotten off fairly easy over the years—no injuries, and just enough to help me remember Jesus’ teaching: “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal.” (Matthew 6:19)

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Short-term Mission Trips, Long-term Relationships

Since my work involves short-term mission teams, I’ve gotten used to questions like: Wouldn’t it be better to just send the money, instead of spending it on plane tickets? Do these teams really contribute to God’s mission, or are they religious tourism? Do these teams build support for Presbyterian mission, or siphon resources away from it? It’s right to raise such concerns about short-term mission efforts, and to be evenhanded in assessing the good they do.

It’s important to appreciate that relationships are at the heart of Christian mission. Consider what happened to Saul during his mission to hunt Christians in Damascus (Acts 9). With his excellent education, zealous convictions, and backing from the temple establishment, Saul felt sure he had Christians figured out. Then Saul had an unexpected, face-to-face encounter with Christ. A voice from heaven asked, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” When Saul asked who was speaking, the reply was, “I am Jesus.” Once Saul truly met Jesus, he became the Apostle Paul, one of the greatest missionaries in history.

As for people in places like Guatemala, it’s easy to imagine that we can figure them out. Based on what we read in newspapers, see on TV, and hear from others, we might imagine that we know what Guatemalans need, and how to meet those needs. If that’s the case, we’ll likely be disappointed by the results. Sure, establishing close ties to people consumes lots of time and energy. Nevertheless, the value of a mission effort is diminished if relationships are lacking. Mission work that matters the most focuses first on strong relationships, not on projects and programs.

This past week a team from Williamsburg Presbyterian Church, Virginia, visited several towns in the indigenous Ixil region with hopes of forming a partnership. Among the team members were a college student, a college professor, a NASA scientist, a national park manager, a pastor, a retired diplomat, and several retired professionals. The Ixil people are mostly subsistence farmers that suffered greatly at the hands of the Guatemalan military during the 1980’s. The Williamsburg team shared with them through singing, preaching, prayer, painting, lots of children’s activities, and the ongoing laughter that springs from cross-cultural interactions.

The Williamsburg team got to know Francisco, the lay worker for the Presbyterian congregation in the town of Cotzal. Francisco told them about how he’d been a philandering drunkard years ago. One night in a state of inebriation, he passed out on a street in Guatemala City, and his legs were run over. While in the hospital, Christians visited him and prayed for the restoration of his crushed legs. Now he uses his legs to trek up and down the mountains that surround Cotzal, offering the gospel in remote villages and homesteads.

They got to know Rosa, who lives in the rural village of Chichel. She graciously served coffee and sweet rolls to the team, and shared the story of how her abusive husband abandoned her. Although she struggles to provide for her six children, Rose converted her living room into a Presbyterian worship center where six families now worship regularly.

They got to know Miguel, the Presbyterian pastor in the town of Chajul. When Presbyterians needed a place to worship five years ago, he and his family moved into the back room of their house, giving up the rest for the church’s ministries. Five years later, they still live in the back room while the search for a permanent church site continues.

They got to know Catalina, a talented 18-year-old Sunday school teacher who worries about dropping out of high school because her family can’t afford the tuition. They got to know Felipe, a Presbyterian bank teller whose passion about preserving Ixil history and culture led him to create a museum. They painted beside faithful church men. They sang and shared puppet shows with crowds of laughing children. They taught crafts along with dedicated school teacher in dirt-floor, adobe classrooms, and they enjoyed Ixil food carefully prepared by women over an open fire. Now, having invested in relationships like these during their first get together, Williamsburg and Ixil Presbyterians are eager to build an ongoing mission partnership.

We all need relationships, with Jesus and with many others, to develop a way of life that fits with God’s purposes.  When the body of Christ from places like Williamsburg joins with the body of Christ in places like Chajul, we come much closer to knowing who Jesus really is and how we can best serve him.

(Photos from Williamsburg PC visit to the Ixil congregations: Games in Chajul; Francisco and Rosa in her home; children enjoying puppet show)

(Note: Since posting, I edited the fourth paragraph to say a little more about the team.)

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