Archives For Guatemala

10109_10200197878452575_1696261927_nWe just arrived in Guatemala this afternoon to begin the first phase of building a sanitation system in the community of Chuicutama in the Highlands of Guatemala. If you’d like to support our work, as it’s a multiyear project, you can do so by clicking here:

Guatemala Toilet Project.

As part of our week, we’re reflecting on the bible’s commandments about Jubilee. You can think of Jubilee as scripture’s economic policy. Jesus unveiled his own Gospel in terms of Jubilee.

Last spring I was walking down the sidewalk in Old Town Alexandria. Heading into a Banana Republic to buy a tie for an upcoming funeral, I came across a group of self-professed Christians standing with sandwich-board signs on the street corner. They were preaching- gleefully I might add- about the imminent end of the world on May 21, which to my relief has come and gone without any of the anticipated apocalyptic misery.

Unable to avoid them, I crossed an intersection, smeared a weak smile across my irritated face and received one of their slick tracts.

It was illustrated like a graphic novel, showing contemporary-looking Americans being consigned to perdition while other joyous, virtuous-looking people (who kind of looked like the cast from Mad Men) ascended to heaven.

At the tract’s end, a happy ending was dangled as a possibility. The caption read: ‘Avoid Eternal Damnation, Become a Christian Today.’ Sounds like a commercial doesn’t it? Eternal Life for Only Three Installments of $49.95. 

Below the caption it explained:

“Jesus Christ came into the world to save you from the guilt your sins. He shed His blood at Calvary to pay your penalty and to provide for your cleansing. Believe in Him and not only will His salvation deliver you from eternal death and hell, but because He is risen from the dead, it will give you the present possessions of eternal life.” 

Not every Christian is the sort who stands on street corners with theological picket signs; nevertheless, their version of the Gospel is how a great many mainstream Christians if asked would define the Good News. Street corner preachers distinguish themselves from other Christians in the vividness of their imagery, in the ferocity of their apocalypticism, or in the urgency of their evangelism, yet in their rendering of the Gospel into an otherworldly, spiritualized message they are hardly distinctive at all.

We assume the Christian Gospel is a message about how Jesus died on the Cross for our sin. We assume the Gospel is a message about how God raised Jesus from the dead to be the first fruit of an eternal like offered to us too if only we have faith in Jesus. We assume the Gospel is a message about our admission into the next world that Jesus’ death makes possible for us.

The Gospel, we assume, is a message about Jesus.

For me.

But isn’t the Gospel also (or first and foremost) a message from Jesus?

Or the message of Jesus?

As Richard Stearns argues in The Hole in Our Gospel, Christians are guilty of taking the Gospel preached by Jesus and narrowing it to a simple transaction between God and me. We’ve circumscribed the Gospel to a message about a far-off Kingdom, about heaven or eternal life when the Gospel preached by Jesus was a message meant to change and challenge and redeem this world.

At the beginning of Luke’s Gospel, just after he’s emerged from the wilderness having been tested for 40 days, Jesus returns to Nazareth to preach his first sermon before his hometown congregation.

The text he chooses comes from the prophet Isaiah (61):

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring Gospel to the poor. The Lord has sent me to proclaim release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

That’s the first time Jesus uses the term ‘Gospel’ himself, and he ties it Isaiah’s prophecy about the ‘year of the Lord’s favor.’

      The year of the Lord’s favor- that’s shorthand for Jubilee.

Jubilee was part of the covenant God gave to Israel after he rescued them from slavery. Within the Torah, in Leviticus and Deuteronomy, is the notion that Sabbath applies not just to individual believers but to the land and the community as well.

The Jubilee year came at the end of seven cycles of seven years- so every fifty years. God commanded that at Jubilee:

Fields would lie fallow in trust that God would provide. 

All debts incurred by the poor would be forgiven by the rich, gratuitously. 

All those enslaved (by debt usually ) would be released, gratuitously. 

 All property that had been lost through hardships or lawsuits or debts would be redistributed to its original owners, gratuitously.  

Jubilee is Sabbath spelled out in social and political and economic terms. Jubilee is exodus embodied and remembered by the whole community of the faithful.

Jubilee was a time when all the inequities accumulated through the years were crossed off and all God’s people would begin again as though there’d been a new creation.

Here’s the thing: there’s no evidence Israel ever actually followed through with Jubilee. Once the People of God moved into the Promised Land, once the majority of believers were no longer poor themselves, once they’d forgotten what it was like to be oppressed or just unlucky- Jubilee didn’t sound like good news anymore.

So Jubilee was never practiced by Israel, but it was never forgotten either. Centuries after God delivered them from slavery, the memory of Jubilee lingers among prophets like Isaiah who looked at the affluence and greed and poverty of their people and began hoping God would send a Messiah who would establish Jubilee once and for all.

And for his very first sermon, his first public words, Jesus opens the pulpit bible in his home church and of all the passages in the bible he turns to the prophet Isaiah 61 and he reads this long-abandoned promise.

And then he says: this time there really is going to be a Jubilee and it’s starting today and I’m it.

It’s tragically ironic, suspiciously convenient, and scripturally tone-deaf that well-off Christians so often reduce the Gospel to a sanitized, spiritualized, otherworldly message about Jesus when Jesus’ own Gospel was so much the opposite of our ‘Gospel’ that his first sermon was met with rage and death threats from the very people who knew him best.

Why all this talk about Jubilee?

     As we engage in mission this week, it’s critical we not mistakenly think that hands-on service is somehow a practice separate from the ‘Gospel.’

As though ‘service’ and ‘proclamation’ were two distinct Christian practices.

As though ‘spirituality’ is what happens in a sanctuary and ‘service’ is only an implication of our worship.

Jesus’ Gospel was Jubilee. His ‘spirituality’ was Jubilee. His ‘mission’ was to bring Jubilee once and for all. Jesus’ Gospel was about this world, about rich and poor, about discovering the blessings of strangers and enemies, about setting things right in anticipation of God’s new creation.

And where the People of God had so often failed to live up to Jubilee, Jesus called a new community of followers to practice and embody it.

 

 

This week I’m in Guatemala with a service team from my church. We’re beginning work on a multi-year sanitation system for a Maya community, Chuicutama, in the Highlands. Our reflections for the week center on the theme of Jubilee, the biblical commandment mandates forgiveness of debts and economic restoration as part of God’s New Creation.

If you’d like to support our work, as it’s a multiyear project, you can do so by clicking here:

Guatemala Toilet Project.

     To complement this theme, I’ve asked Laina Schneider, a friend and college student at Virginia Tech to post her thoughts on Jubilee. Laina studies agriculture at Tech and has served as Aldersgate’s mission intern in both Guatemala and Cambodia. Perhaps more importantly, as a college student her wrestling with questions of faith and life are just what the Church needs to hear. I’d encourage you to subscribe to Laina’s blog here.

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Being a college-aged Christian is really weird. College is often the first time people are really challenged in their faith, or confronted with they actually believe, as opposed to what they think they are supposed to believe.

You are suddenly thrust into the middle of a huge basin of conflicting ideas and beliefs, when very often, your “faith” is still based on a religion handed to you as a child.

There are dozens of organizations and churches, and it is hard to distinguish which one is right for you. This past year, I attended 4 churches, and 5 campus ministries, and found myself confused about how they were different, or sometimes, how they were similar.

     One of the main focuses of campus ministry is the Gospel.

     Everyone talked about it, but no one could get down to telling me exactly what it was.

     I learned plenty of names for it: good news, Christ’s message, the New Testament, the story of Jesus, and that there are gospels according to several people – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

But in all the Bible stories, and in all the ways we learn we are supposed to live like Christ, which one is the true gospel? You don’t have to be in college to appreciate this struggle either, Sunday school didn’t help me to deduce the true meaning, and I would venture to guess that there are plenty of churchgoers of all ages, confused about what the gospel actually is. In Jesus’ first sermon in Luke, he reveals that the gospel, the good news, is the consummation of Jubilee, as foretold in the Old Testament. Jubilee is a celebration and rest period where the fields lie fallow and all debts are forgiven. That doesn’t seem so confusing.

So why is it so hard for people to articulate it? I think people get caught up in the details. People might say you are a sinner for lying or cheating or a thousand other things that are “wrong”. But look at the over-arching theme in what Jesus is saying through the good news in Luke 4 in his first sermon at home.

He came to institute jubilee so that all people might live in love and abundance. Jubilee is the idea of perfection made abundant in Jesus, where we follow his example and forgive our neighbors, rest in honor of creation and do away with debts.

     Basically what it comes down to is love and forgiveness.

     That doesn’t seem so complicated.

      So maybe all the confusion surrounding the gospel is just reluctance to accept its simplicity.

If we are continually confused about what the good news is, and in turn, how we should live like Christ, it is a lot easier to act however we want. If we accept the simplicity of the gospel, it creates expectations around how we should be.

But no one ever said faith was easy.

And none of us are perfect, which is why we are already forgiven by Jesus, who was and is a perfect example of living the good news.

 

My church will send out two service teams over the next weeks to Guatemala, about 50 people in all. Over the past 8 years, hundreds from our congregation and community have served in Guatemala with our partners and friends, Highland Support Project.

meeeeIt will come as no surprise to the pastors and the jaded out there, but the Christian ‘mission industry’ is rife with organizations and projects that do little to remedy the causes of systemic poverty, do less to foster equitable relationships with the ‘poor’ and do very much to make North American Christians ‘feel good’ for a week before they leave for home, grateful for their ‘blessings.’

Painting churches and repairing storm damage and hugging orphans, while all good, is not mission- at least not in the New Testament use of the term.

Highland Support Project gets it right and with them we’ve gotten to be a part of it.

Penelope Norton is a recent college grad, former church youth, friend and now employee with HSP in Guatemala. This is from her blog (subscribe to it!) and she makes the above point better than me:

I was able to go home last week for the funeral of my grandfather. I am so thankful I could be with my family during this time and beyond the sadness of morning my grandfather I had a wonderful time being with family and close friends.

It was on my return flight to Guatemala, from Atlanta to Guatemala City, that I was overcome with the realization that Guatemala has too much foreign aid! There were 4 mission trips alone on my flight and I know for sure that there were at least 2 other flights coming into Guatemala that day from the United States.

The reason I can confidently say that these were mission trips was because each “team” had their own specially made t-shirt, which each person in the group was wearing. Each t-shirt bore the cross and a verse from the bible about the mercy of Christ. I am intimately familiar with the look; I myself went on several mission trips where we were all extremely coordinated in attire. I am not sure what the appeal of that is . . . I tried to ask a member of each group what they were going to be doing for their week in Guatemala although I never made it over to ask the neon, tie-die group.

Pretty much all of them had the same answer, “we will be visiting an orphanage”, “bringing medicine to a really poor community”, “painting a church”. Now that is all good and well, but what does that “poor” community have once those mission/service/volunteer teams leave? A bottle of medicine that will run out in a month? A memory of white faces that treated them like they were poor? A building that is freshly painted, but will probably never be used because it was not that “poor” community’s idea to have it there in the first place?

I am sad for both groups of people, the community that is now poorer and the group that came to “help”. Please do not get me wrong, this is in reference to any group of people whether they be from a university, a church, temple, mosque, or volunteer organization.

In reality the team of people that came from the states to help had all of the best intentions in mind! I cannot be upset with them for that I just wish they could see how their aid has left the community they worked in. What actually happens is people come for a week and everything is all smiles and it feels as though the team has made a world of difference in the lives of the people, but most mission/service/volunteer teams will end up giving away aid for free and where does that leave the community?

The community develops the mindset, “I don’t need to work, I can wait on the next hand out that comes from the next service team”. These handouts leave a community that once had developed systems of support, entrepreneurial aspirations, investment in their children’s education, and pride in themselves without any of those things. This type of aid reduces people to believe that they are incapable of doing for themselves, they are reduced to having zero self worth, and they don’t take ownership for their community any longer. It is true that communities need help!

In the organization that I work for we measure poverty not by the amount of money you make, but by the opportunities available to you. Instead of giving material things we give experiences and opportunities. Instead of giving food to a family we teach the woman of the house a skill that she can support her family on. Instead of giving medicine to a whole community we organize support systems so that relationships can be formed in which they are comfortable to ask their neighbor for help. Instead of painting a building that was our idea to erect in the first place, we work with community leaders to identify what communal problems they want addressed with some support from our organization. This puts the power back in the hands of the “poor” and they are “poor” no longer.

They have their pride and they are invested in their families and communities. This might take more investment and it won’t provide instant gratification, but it is the right way of doing things.

As ashamed as I am about the horrid t-shirts I had to wear on the high school mission trips I am proud that my church chose to participate in mission that truly benefited the community instead of leaving it a poorer place.


If you treat this woman like she is poor she will believe it and become so.

301813_10200197879612604_314563817_nIn December, a team from Aldersgate began work on a Health Center in the Maya village of Chuicutama in the Highlands of Guatemala. The center will also serve as a hostel for volunteer service teams.

With a little luck with the weather, our mission team this July will begin work on a multi-year project, a sanitation system in Chuicutama, while lodging in the center we began in December. The roof is going up now.

I’ve been involved with Guatemala as long as I’ve been a pastor and, thus far, almost 1/3 of our average worship attendance have served on hands-on mission teams.

No matter how cynical you might think me, it’s work like this, done in partnership with friends in far places of the world and made possible by the prayers and generosity of Jesus followers in the pews, that again and again points out the possibilities of a People called Church.

Not only is this center the fruit of this community having been empowered- for they chose the project themselves- it will enable transformation to come to other mountainous Maya communities otherwise too remote for service teams to engage.

This is transformative, life-changing, important, Jesusy work that you can be a part of for the cost of a couple of Frappawhatavahs.

I encourage you- dare you- to be a part of it by pitching in for our next project, the Guatemala Toilet Project.

You can give to it by clicking HERE.

Unless you’re Mother Teresa or Pope Benedict, this could be the most needful thing you do for the poor this week.

Here’s some photos (courtesy of my bro-in-law, Mike) showing the Health Center’s construction, including the architect’s rendering of how the final building will look:

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Nick DIAntonio shot this last summer as Aldersgate began the first of its 2012 projects in Chuicutama, first a school kitchen and second a health center. A team leaves in a couple of weeks to begin work on a multiyear sanitation project in the same community. Thanks to all of you who helped us raise the nearly $40K to go towards this project.

155886_10200197896013014_1959751173_nApologies to my mother-in-law. Titles like that get people to click over- I’ve studied the analytics. 

My church’s work in Guatemala is changing lives. There and here.

Don’t believe it?

Exhibit A:

The bearded guy here is Mike Keller, my brother- in-law.

I knew him back when he was 8 years old- back when he had a squeaky voice and thought it was funny to grab my gonads in the pool and swim away while I writhed in an agony that I accepted because I was vying for his older sister’s affections.

Today, Mike looks like a younger.

Taller.

Stronger.

Handier.

Healthier.

Hardier.

Handsomer (let’s not get too generous)

Calmer version of me.

Now I’m depressed, but at least I have more hair than him.

Mike’s almost 29 years old. Mike had a good job in Cincinnati, making more money- ahem- than I do. He had a nice home, a truck, a BMW and all the toys and money he needed to be happy.

379379_10200197902893186_1440659671_nIn December, Mike went with me to Guatemala with the mission team from my church to help build a Health Center in Chuicutama, Guatemala.

It was a transformational experience for him. How so?

Mike has spent January and February transitioning out of his job.

He’s sold his BMW, his 4-Wheeler and most of his other possessions.

He moved out of his house.

Everything he owns now fits into a couple of bags.

He’s taking those bags and his little bit of high school Spanish and this Saturday he leaves for Guatemala.

‘Sell everything you own and follow me…’ Jesus said to the young man.

While most of us try to unpack, deconstruct and wriggle our way out of thinking Jesus was commanding anything other than ‘sell everything and follow,’ he’s acting it out.

Mikey isn’t the type to toot his own horn. But that doesn’t mean I can’t shamelessly exploit him for good Jesus purposes.

He plans to stay indefinitely, volunteering for Highland Support Project. 

That squeaky 8 year old has grown up to be a genuinely good man, one that I envy and one for whom I’m grateful that our lives are now intersecting across a common endeavor.

Among other things, Mike will oversee the construction of the Sanitation Project in Chuicutama.

This multi-year project will bring an entire sewage system: gray water treatment, water drainage, water retention, and toilets to each home in the remote village.

Our goal for the first phase of this project is $20,000. We’re halfway there.

Mike’s sacrifice poses a challenge to each of us.

Moses told us to give 10% to God.

Jesus challenges us to give up EVERYTHING. 

I challenge you to give up at least more than what you spend on Netflix, iTunes or Sam Adams for something transformational.

As Dennis Perry, my assistant, likes to point out:

Giving Nothing Isn’t a Gospel Option.

If you’ve already given, I challenge to give a little more. If you gave in church on Sunday, too bad, you can give here. 

To give click here: Guatemala Toilet Project

It’s quick. It’s easy. It’s tax deductible and you can invite your friends to give too.

We’re talking toilets: do your doodie. 

This week for our sermon series, Razing Hell, we’ve been deconstructing the popular misconception of our souls going off to heaven when we die and reclaiming the biblical hope of eternal life being marked by resurrection and new creation.

In response, someone asked me:

Rev19CLambWhat difference does it really make in this world and life whether I believe in one or the other? Does it make any difference what I believe will happen after I die? Isn’t really just about what brings someone comfort?

Here are my thoughts in response:

I spent the week before Christmas in a small mountain village in Guatemala with twenty other adults and students from my church. It was our fourth time in that region. We were building a ‘center,’ a building that can be used to teach health clinics and other workshops and also to lodge future service teams like ours.

It’s easy sometimes spending the week before Christmas in an impoverished place to be struck by a sense of hopelessness. It can be difficult to see how a voiceless people, a people whose own government has a long history of trying to ‘pacify’ and assimilate, have any real hope of freeing themselves from victimhood. Seen in such a light, it also can seem a weak and ultimately meaningless gesture to be doing a building project for such people. Why bother if it doesn’t remedy their pressing and urgent situation?

That’s just an isolated example of a despair that could creep over any Christian for any act of mercy we do in the world.

Understood only in terms of cold realism, all the soup kitchens, malarial nets, wood stoves and rice banks in the world won’t undo poverty. 

Individual congregations praying for peace on Sunday mornings won’t eliminate violence and war. Christians witnessing to racial reconciliation won’t erase the stain of racism in our country, and to think otherwise is to fall victim to naive utopianism

But neither cold realism nor naive utopianism is Christian hope in Resurrection and New Creation.

What I realized once again in Guatemala this December: we weren’t there working with block and mortar because we thought we were going to permanently solve a social ill. We were not building for poor, persecuted Mayans because we had foolish illusions about what the immediate future might hold for the indigenous villages. The stakes are high for those people and, seen only from a finite point of view, our acts of service might prove meaningless gestures.

But we weren’t there to be realistic.

And we weren’t there to be idealistic.

We were there doing what we were doing because what we were doing was in harmony with what God will do in the End. 

Christian service isn’t an idealistic stab at trying to make the world come out right.

Rather, Christian service is anchored in the faith that God alone makes the world come out right. No matter how things look on the ground in the ‘real’ world, one day God will get the world God wants and that world is one where the hungry are filled, the mourning stop their crying and the poor are lifted up.

Far too many Christians, by adopting a spiritualized notion of our souls going off to heaven when we die, take a laissez faire attitude to this world. Overly spiritualized notions of eternal life too often underwrite a politics that couldn’t have less to do with the God of scripture. 

But if the End isn’t our souls going off one day to a disembodied heaven and casting this world into the rubbish bin, if the End, as it’s seen in Revelation 21-22, is this creation renewed then everything we do today in this world as Christians we do, as Paul says, in anticipation of that End. We work, as Paul says, as ambassadors of the Christ who will come again when Heaven comes down. This is truly what it means for us to have our citizenship in heaven: to live in this world in such a way that things on earth are as they are in heaven and will one day be finally in the New Earth.

Christian service isn’t a solution to the present problems of the world. Christian service is a sign, a gesture, of what we believe God will do.

If the future is one where God comforts and lifts up indigenous Mayans then we anticipate that future with our actions in the present- no matter how ineffective or meaningless other might judge them.

Christian service isn’t our attempt to fashion a world we think God wants from us nor does it idealistically put band-aids over top systemic issues. And it certainly isn’t deeds we do in the vain hope they’ll earn us gold stars from God so one day we’ll be able to walk the streets of gold in heaven.

 No, Christian service, by being rooted in our hope of the End, is done with the confidence that it’s action done with the grain of the universe. 

 

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‘All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers. They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.’ – Acts 1, 2

I was surprised the first time I realized that Mary, after only Peter and Paul, receives the most mention in the New Testament- 217 mentions in the New Testament. I was shocked the first time I read the beginning of Acts and noticed Mary’s name dropped in there among the list of those who comprised the first church.

A Christian legend holds that, following the crucifixion, the Beloved Disciple took Mary with him to Ephesus where they lived quietly and while he cared for her. It’s a legend that, perhaps unwittingly, portrays Mary as rendered helpless by her grief.

The legend abides and you’re likely to hear it repeated upon a visit to Ephesus today.

Luke, in Acts, gives us a much different take on Mary. There Mary is quietly mentioned as a leader in the Acts church, devoting herself along with everyone else to Jesus’ teaching, to the fellowship of the community, to the Eucharist and to prayer.

How is it we never think of Mary as one of the believers gathered in Jerusalem for Pentecost in Acts? How is it we never think of Mary as one of the disciples who receive the gift of tongues at Pentecost? Yet surely, since she’s mentioned here along with the others, she also participated with them in the Pentecost miracle.

If Pentecost is a story of God unwinding the effects of Babel and creating a new community, a new family of God, then Mary is there at this new family’s birth, as one of its leaders.

I like to think that in the birth of this new community Mary finally sees the promise of Messiah coming true, that in the life of this new community the Jubilee she’d sang about in her magnificat was finally being fulfilled. After all, here was a community ruled by love rather than thrones, a community where the lowly are indeed lifted up and the hungry filled because ‘everyone held everything in common.’ Just as she’d sang about before his birth, all of this is made possible by her Son.

What Mary must realize in Acts, little more than month after her Son’s death, is what she must have started to guess at the Annunciation: that God was bringing together a new People, a people distinguished not by the usual lines of blood or family but a people called together by the particular life which claimed them, a people brought forth not through simple biology but through practicing the life of Jesus.

We return today from the Highlands having discovered that we’re a part of a community which transcends all the world’s definitions of family.

Because of what God does in a manger at Christmas, you have family in parts of the world you hadn’t even looked until now.

 

 

Musing on Mary in Guatemala:6

Jason Micheli —  December 21, 2012 — 1 Comment

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An angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you…‘ – Matthew 2

Though it’s not the stuff of Christmas cards, Jesus is born with monsters at his manger. Because the story of the Holy Family’s flight to Egypt and Herod’s bloody reprisals typically gets read the Sunday after Christmas, few Christians are even aware of the story.

Biblical scholars will tell you how Matthew depicts the flight to Egypt in order to buttress the similarities between Moses and Jesus. Just as Moses leads his people from Egypt to deliverance so too does Jesus go down to Egypt and later deliver his people. Just as Moses threatened and incurred the wrath of Pharaoh, Jesus also ignites the fears of Herod the Great.

The parallel with Israel is instructive.

When God delivered Israel from Egypt and instituted the covenant with them, God included the stipulation that Israel was to care for the stranger and the alien among them for they too once were strangers and aliens in another land. In other words, because of their saving story they were called to identify with others. Whatever else Matthew may want us to know about the flight to Egypt, I think he also wants us to identify with refugees for Jesus himself was once a refugee in anther land. It’s not enough to say, tritely, that Jesus is born ‘into poverty.’ It’s better to say that Jesus was born into the sort of family we see so much of in our community- poor families who’ve fled their homeland and live, legally or not, among us. Of course, these are the same ‘refugees’ who are missed by many of the families in Guatemala you serve this week. Too often Christians treat such strangers as a political problem or a social cause but fail to, firstly, see them as Jesus.

 

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‘On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.‘
– Matthew 2

When my wife and I brought our first son home, we received more gifts than we could have possibly used: three baby swing sets, bottles of every kind and color, clothes and enough toys for a classroom.

But frankincense, gold and myrrh?
What kind of gifts are those for a baby?
Frankincense was something you used in worship, in the temple. Myrrh was what you used to anoint a dead body for burial.

I wonder what Mary made of the strangers who came to greet her new baby? I wonder what she thought when they bowed down before someone wearing diapers? I wonder where her mind went when they presented him with those auspicious gifts?

And every year I wonder how the scene must have looked through the magi’s eyes. Their gifts, their audience with the King in Jerusalem, their ability to take a long journey to Israel all suggest they were men of wealth, power and sophistication.

Surely Bethlehem was not the sort of royal birthplace they would have expected.

Mary and Joseph and whatever humble home they’d made wouldn’t have looked anything like a throne.

The holy day when the magi meet Jesus is known as Epiphany and it usually centers on how Christ’s coming opens salvation to the gentile world as well as the Jewish world.

Read more simply and less theologically, I think the magi remind us how, in scripture, strangers almost always represent an unexpected blessing from God.

Indeed, at times strangers can be angels in disguise and, always, strangers are those who cause us to reorient our self-images, our assumptions about the other and the things we value.

 

 

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And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host…saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”
– Luke 2

In Roman Catholic tradition, Mary is most often depicted as beautific. In our Christmas crèches, she’s gentle and passive. She’s sweet and fresh-faced on Hallmark cards, and in Christian art for two thousand years she has been somber, sober, soft and white-faced. But what Luke knows is that Jesus is born with monsters at his manger and that Mary delivers him into the world at a cost to herself that we have difficulty imagining.

When the Holy Spirit overshadows her, the Spirit also, for all practical purposes, hangs a bulls-eye on Mary’s back. By the time her belly begins to show, Caesar Augustus had already been emperor for longer than she’d been alive. Caesar ruled the known world, and he was revered for bringing “peace” to it- peace, by any means necessary. While God was beginning to work a different plan in the shadows of Mary’s life, Caesar ruled a kingdom of absolute power, a kingdom that brought “glory” to the man on top and “peace to those on whom his favor rested.”

By her second trimester, 1500 miles away in Rome, Caesar will lift his little finger and
a young Jewish couple will find themselves submitting to a census, to be taxed, to pay for Caesar’s brand of peace. And by the end of her third trimester, in Israel, Caesar’s puppet, Herod, will hear news of a promise rising with a star and this young Jewish couple will find themselves hunted.

Before Jesus grows and preaches one himself, Rome already had a gospel of its own. About their emperor, Roman citizens- ordinary men and women- would proclaim with thankful hearts: ‘Caesar Augustus, son of god, our savior, has brought peace to the whole world.’ To a first century world grown numb to the headlines of war, the advent of Caesar was considered “good news.”

It can’t be accidental that when the angel Gabriel surprises Mary with an unexpected future, he tells her that the child she’s to bear will be called ‘son of God.’ It can’t be accidental that when the angels break open the sky directly above the shepherds, they make a threateningly familiar proclamation: “…GOOD NEWS of great joya SAVIOR has been born.” And then the angels all sing: ‘Glory to God in the highest…and on earth, PEACE TO THOSE ON WHOM GOD’S FAVOR RESTS.’

No doubt the shepherds then tell the news to Mary. When the wise men show up at the scene, Mary just as surely would’ve known that Herod’s interest in stars and babies was far from innocent. For Mary, it could all add up to only one thing. If her son was Savior, then Caesar- even if he could compel a census- was not. If her boy was King, then Herod- even if he could hunt them- was not.

The annunciation makes Mary not just a mother. It makes her a refugee because Mary was delivering not only a baby but a new Gospel story. And this new Gospel made Mary’s life dangerous. Gabriel didn’t have to spell it out, Mary knew that by saying ‘Let it be with me according to your Word’ Mary was agreeing to have God place her in the dangerous middle of two competing Kingdoms. You see, Mary didn’t just have a baby entrusted to her. She had a different, dangerous story to steward safely. It’s not just the fact of this new baby that sends Mary running into Egypt; it’s this new Gospel that makes her a target.

It’s this news that God was about to bring down the mighty and fill the poor with good things, that those who sit on thrones and in the halls of power don’t have the last word, that the limits and circumstances of our lives are never final. Christians around the world and throughout history have venerated Mary for being sinless, chaste, and pure- for being the ideal woman and for having such faith that she was ready to say ‘Yes’ when God called her. Yet Mary gets no credit for being someone who safeguards and shares the Gospel story at risk to herself. We owe Mary more than we think- we owe her the story we gather around this time every year.

I mean, we never stop to think: who was the first person to tell the Gospel story?

After Jesus is born, Gabriel is not heard from again. The shepherds go back to their flocks. The wise men return home. The Story stays with Mary. Rome called Caesar SAVIOR and SON OF GOD. His rule was GOOD NEWS because he brought PEACE TO THOSE ON WHOM HIS FAVOR RESTED. Not so subtly, the angels use those very same expressions to announce the birth of Christ. And not so safely it’s Mary who begins to tell the Story, no matter what it might cost her.

The Story of the Son’s birth and what it means and what it contradicts comes to us by word of the Mother. When Mary runs for her boy’s life to Egypt, you can bet she holds this Story as closely to her as she holds her baby.

Behind our proclivities to picture her in gentle pinks and blues, Mary is a figure of boldness and strength. Perhaps Mary herself can caution us against making assumptions about the women we serve this week. As much as we might tend to see them as simple or passive or powerless, Mary should remind us to look for the boldness that can face down empires.

 

 

Our-Lady-of-Guadalupe

‘He has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.’ – Luke 1

It’s remarkable how easily we disguise the Christmas story with sentimentality. We even hear much talk about how Jesus ‘is the reason for the season,’ yet the reason for his coming is never precisely explained. When we allow ourselves to be vague and even sentimental about Jesus’ coming, we inadvertently allow Christmas to get abstracted away from Jesus’ life, teaching and death. What does Christmas then have to do with the rest of the Gospel? Or is it, as it seems to many, just an origins story designed to satisfy our curiosity or prove the fulfillment of prophecy?

How odd that we should be so uncertain about the reasons for his coming when his mother Mary immediately speaks quite explicitly about what Gabriel’s news means.

Actually she sings.

In the Torah God had mandated that every seventh year would be a sabbath year in the life of Israel. Fields would lie fallow, witnessing to Israel’s faith that God would provide their sustenance. Every 50 years would be a Jubilee year. Not only would fields lie fallow, debts would be forgiven. Land seized or transferred by creditors would be returned. Captives (to debt, indentured servants) would be freed. Wealth and resources would be redistributed so that everyone would be filled and fed. Though Jubilee is given by God to Moses as part of the covenant there is little evidence Israel ever observed the law. Too much stood to be lost by the wealthy, the elite, the comfortable, the powerful for Jubilee to be taken seriously.

Towards the first century Israel’s longing for a Messiah eventually became joined to the longing for someone who would institute the Jubilee.

Mary’s song is a song of Jubilee.

As confused as we can sound about the purpose behind Jesus’ coming Mary knows in an instant how to interpret Gabriel’s news. The one she will bear will be the one to bring Jubilee to her people. Even though we often reduce Jesus to being an object of our personal piety, Mary, who perhaps has more cause than anyone to reduce Jesus to personal terms, understands that her boy’s birth will have much larger implications.

A few lessons we can draw from Mary’s song of Jubilee:

That Mary magnificates- literally ‘bursts forth’- with these particular words should tell us something about Mary’s faith and the hope to which she clinged. No passive, pastel or one-dimensional character, Mary is someone who obviously longed for God to set things right in a broken world. Her faith was active and strong so that, when the moment presented itself, she already had the words within her to respond.

That Mary sings this song while Herod and Caesar are still very much on the throne tells us something of her courage. In the face of the world’s power, she boldly casts her lot with the newness God was about to wreak. We’re so accustomed to seeing Mary painted with stoic, beatific hues we forget how really she was a woman ready to shake her fist at the powers of the world and call upon God’s power.

That Mary sings this Jubilee song not in the future tense (God will cast down the mighty…) but in the past tense (God has cast down…) should tell us something even deeper about Mary’s faith. Despite the unlikelihood of a Messiah being born to a poor, unknown, teenage girl, despite the long odds that Jubilee would ever be accepted by the people- in spite of everything common sense might suggest, Mary is confident in God’s promises enough to sing as though God already accomplished them. Mary knows that any promise of God is as good as done.

That Jesus’ very first sermon in the synagogue is also from a Jubilee text is suggestive. Mary’s boy grows up to express the reason for his coming in exactly the same terms Mary sings about here. Not only is she a woman of obvious faith, which we seldom acknowledge, she also has a hand in forming the faith of Jesus, which we never acknowledge.

Interestingly, in the 1980‘s, the dictatorial regime of Rios Mott banned any public reading of Mary’s song in Guatemala. Mary was deemed politically subversive.

Maybe more than anything, this week I hope we will hear Mary’s song with Guatemala in mind and, in particular, I hope we will hear her words mindful of the people we serve this week. I hope this week will give us faces, names and places to picture the next time we hear Mary singing about God using her son to turn the tables on injustice and poverty.

 

 

Our-Lady-of-Guadalupe“Let it be with me according to your word.”

Protestants have tended either to ignore Mary outright or to treat her exclusively as a Christmas character. While she gives birth to the object of our faith, Christians don’t often consider Mary herself as a woman of faith. Both Luke and Matthew agree in their nativity accounts that Mary became pregnant prior to her marriage with Joseph.

Both Gospels agree as well that Joseph knew he was not the father of Mary’s child. The darker side to the annunciation is that when Mary receives news she will become pregnant by the Holy Spirit, she is almost certainly hearing news which no one else will believe. Wagging tongues and whispering gossip will almost certainly follow Mary from here on out, speculating as to the ‘true’ cause of Mary’s premature pregnancy.

According to custom, Mary would have been no older than sixteen when she became engaged. According to tradition, Joseph most likely was an older man, marrying for the second time. According to Torah, because Mary and Joseph were betrothed, any sexual activity prior to her wedding day would have been understood as adultery not fornication (Deut 22.23).

What if a woman in Mary’s position claimed she had been raped? What if her husband had brought false charges against her? What if she flatly denied any wrongdoing? For such murky, disputed circumstances, Numbers 5 prescribes the ‘law of bitter waters’ wherein a suspected adulteress would be brought before a priest, required to let down her hair, and under oath drink a mixture of ash, holy water and the ink from the priest’s written indictment.

The woman’s oath: ‘May the Lord make you to become a curse among your people when he causes your womb to miscarry and swell.’ If guilty, according to Numbers 5, the woman would become sick. If she did not become sick (an unlikely happening) she was acquitted.

Whatever we may think today of such customs, this was the reality which governed Mary’s world. It was the reality in which she nonetheless, hearing Gabriel’s news, replies: ‘May it be…’

Mary would’ve known the likelihood she’d be accused of adultery. Just as surely she would have known the proscribed punishment she might receive. Mary would’ve known how Torah insisted Joseph divorce her, and she certainly would’ve known that whatever child she gave birth to before marriage, regardless of the angel’s promises, forever would be regarded as an illegitimate child and banned from the cultural and religious life of Israel.

Still, in the face of all those likelihoods, Mary summons the courage to say ‘May it be with me according to your word.’

The obvious conclusion we can draw from this scene is that Mary had a faith sufficient to say yes to the vocation God had for her. We can assume Mary had faith that the God of Israel is merciful and would protect her. We can assume Mary knew from her scripture stories of women- suspect women- who nonetheless played a part in God’s plan and were safeguarded and ultimately rewarded by God. Mary must have known, we can imagine, that God’s call is very often a summons to serve and to suffer for love’s sake.

When Mary assents to the annunciation, she does so knowing her life will never be the same. Her Nazareth, she had to have known, would never look at her the same way again. It’s in Mary’s ‘Yes’ to God here in Luke 1 that we can spot for the first time the shadow of her Son’s cross. If we allow Christmas to be merely about sentimentality, we miss how Mary suffers for the Messiah before the Messiah himself suffers. Indeed one could speculate that Jesus learns suffering love and the demands of faithfulness on his mother’s knee.

Many of the women we meet here in Guatemala are no older than Mary would have been before the first Christmas Eve.

Though their circumstances are different, many will know what it is to love amidst suffering and what it’s like to bear a burden for another’s sake. No doubt many of them, like Mary, rely on the faith that God protects those who have no else to protect them.

Perhaps this season when you see Mary in a Christmas creche back home you will think of some of the women here with brightly woven dresses and boldness in their eyes.

 

Our-Lady-of-Guadalupe‘All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.”

– Matthew 1

Seldom during Advent do Christians take the time to bother themselves with the lengthy genealogy of Jesus which Matthew provides at the beginning of the Gospels. The matter-of-fact list of names strikes the average reader as needless prologomena to the Gospel story proper. Readers anxious to get on with the meat of the story miss what Matthew might want us to know by telling us Jesus’ lineage in groups of fourteen.

Fourteen, in the Old Testament, is a perfect number- a number which represents completion. Readers in a hurry during the Christmas season risk failing to notice how in all of Matthew’s begats there are some names which shouldn’t be there if a traditional, legitimate genealogy is what Matthew has in mind: women’s names, for instance, and women of disreputable character and even Gentile women. So what is Matthew getting at by beginning things with Jesus’ family tree?

The question can’t be answered in isolation from what immediately precedes and proceeds the genealogy. Before the family tree, Matthew introduces the begats with the word ‘genesis’ which we translate as: ‘in the beginning.’ Sound familiar? It’s how the Hebrew Bible begins the creation story.

And then after the family tree, Matthew tells us how ‘Yeshua’ will be born of from a virgin; in other words, God will bring forth the Messiah ‘out of nothing’ (ex nihilo) from a virgin’s womb. God doesn’t require procreation in order to create.

We affirm the virgin birth every time we recite the Apostles’ Creed, yet often I wonder if its really more like lip service with which we treat the ancient doctrine. Regrettably, for many Christians the virgin birth is little more than a museum piece of Christian belief- an artifact that belonged to those who came before us.

The doctrine today strikes many as curious and weighted with superstitious suppositions, others as a ‘miracle story’ with little immediate relevance to the incarnation and still others as an embarrassing fragment of the faith that should be hidden away to make the faith more palatable to enlightened, modern minds.

For those who have no trouble affirming the virgin birth, the doctrine instead becomes a sort of litmus test upon which all of Christian belief rests. Regrettably, few ever give attention to what Matthew may have intended by linking the word ‘genesis’ to a list of begats and then following it with news of a most unusual birth.

The bible is the story of salvation but it starts with the story of creation which we call Genesis. The gospel is the story of salvation but it begins with a story of creation which Matthew calls “genesis.”

What that word “genesis” means is that the conception of Jesus is the beginning of all things. Not chronologically, maybe, but the conception of Jesus names God’s decision never to be except to be for us in Christ – and that decision is the beginning of all creation, of all life, of all salvation, of everything that matters.

And so we see that creation itself is a kind of virgin birth, because it was creation from nothing, and it was brought about by the Holy Spirit. And the virgin birth is a new creation, or perhaps even the original creation, because it too is brought about in some ways out of nothing, by the action of the Holy Spirit, although this time, gloriously, with a woman at the center of God’s action.

We have been brought out of nothing to be made for relationship with God, and God has made a home among us to unite our hearts with his.

Creation is a virgin birth. A virgin birth is creation.

All of this is Matthew’s way of telling us that Christmas, incarnation, is the beginning of God re-making creation, that what will unfold in Jesus’ life and be revealed by his teaching is God’s work to unwind Sin.

As you begin our week here, serving and welcoming strangers in to our hearts, I think holding on to what Christians profess about Jesus in the Virgin Birth couldn’t be more important. That Jesus comes to die for us isn’t Gospel here. Well, it’s not as Gospel as the news that Jesus is the beginning of God remaking his creation. That new creation is what we’re participating in here. Both in what we do for them and what they do in us.

 

552680_4344155444981_1433493502_nThere’s a great crescendo at the end of a famous ancient sermon in which Leo the Great riffs on the words ‘pro nobis.’

For us.

When it comes to Christmas (and Christianity in general for that matter), we tend to think the operative word of the season is ‘for.’

Christmas is a time we feel drawn to doing things ‘for’ others.

We search out the right presents ‘for’ our loved ones.

We stress out about cooking up the perfect feast ‘for’ our family.

More so than any other time of year, we think this is the season when we should do something charitable ‘for’ those who are less fortunate than ourselves.

‘For’ is our Christmas word. But that’s a problem.

Because ‘for’ for all its good intentions, can’t repair that broken relationships, ease alienation or keep the poor from remaining strangers.

Our fixation with ‘for’ at Christmastime is problematic because ‘for’ isn’t the way God celebrates Christmas.

Remember, the angel says to Joseph, “‘Behold, the virgin shall bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,’ which means, ‘God is with us.’”

And then in John’s gospel, we get a same-but-different summary of what Christmas means: “The Word became flesh and lived with us.”

‘With.’

It’s a tiny little word but it gets to the heart of Christmas.

This morning a service team from Aldersgate left for Guatemala.

This week we will be building two projects: a community center and a school kitchen in the village of Chuicutama.

Chuicutama is where our team this summer stayed while building the kitchen in Chikisis. It’s at 11K feet off the Pan-American Highway in the Mayan Highlands. It’s remote, poor and beautiful.

While the tangible bricks and mortar projects we do ‘for’ Chuicutama this week are important. They’re not the most vital part of our week.

We’re here at Christmastime to experience firsthand the difference between ‘for’ and ‘with.’ I believe by being with each other for 8 long days and being with the poor, living right there in their homes with them, we will get close the mystery of Christmas.

And one of the things we’ll discover is how “with” is harder than “for.” Probably for God too.

“For” doesn’t require a conversation, a real relationship, or any change in your own life to incorporate the other.

What makes many gestures of Christmas charity seem hollow is not that they’re not well-intentioned, but that what isolated and impoverished people usually need is not gifts or money but the faithful presence of a people who will be “with” them.

In Guatemala mission, the word we use for that ‘withness’ is accompaniment.

But “with” can be scary because the “with” seems to ask more of us than we can give. We’d all prefer to keep charity on the level of “for,” say the Salvation Army ringer, where it can’t hurt us.

And that’s why it’s gospel, good news, that God didn’t settle on “for.”

At Christmas God said unambiguously, “I am ‘with’.” My name is Emmanuel, God “with” us.

That’s the good news of Christmas.
And how do we celebrate this good news? By doing exactly what we’re doing this week.

By being “with” people in poverty and distress even when there’s only so much we can do “for” them. By being “with” one another as an end in itself. By being “with” God in prayer and worship rather than rushing in our anxiety to do yet more things “for” God or others.

 

The school kitchen Aldersgate built in Chiksis this summer was only possibly because of the gifts people in the congregation and community made to the effort. Here’s a video thanking you all for your generosity.

 

Props to Nick DiAntonio for producing the video.

 

As many of you know already, Laina Schneider was Aldersgate’s mission intern this summer, serving in Guatemala with the Association of Highland Women (AMA). Here is her final reflection of and thank you for her experience.

The women giggled as I knelt, plunged my arm down into the hole and grabbed at the black clayey loam. I rolled the soil into a ball in my hand, recording notes about the color, moisture and texture. The breeze knocked my hair into my eues, stronger on the face of this hill in Chiquisis than down in the valley. The young ladies standing over me were wrapped in sweaters, and smiled as Kirsten made jokes about how much I loved dirt. Even after my somewhat silly display of enthusiasm, they showed me patience as I bumbled through the rest of the interview in Spanish, trying to pin their words to my clipboard as I wiped soil off on my jean leg. 

   This episode repeated itself many times in the first few weeks of my summer, as I conducted site assessments and interviews with women’s circles in Quetzaltenango and Santa Catarina as a part of my internship with AMA and HSP. The hope was to lay the foundation for agricultural programming and collect initial information about potential sites for greenhouse projects. 

   Directly engaging with each circle allowed me to connect with the women and learn the distinct qualities of each community. Just like the unique patterns and colors of their huipiles, each community has different hopes and dreams for the future, for their children and even for a greenhouse project. Being able to hear those aspirations provided me with inspiration for my own project and future in agriculture. 

   As an agriculture student at Virginia Tech, this process lent me fieldwork experience as well as the opportunity to connect the importance of soil quality to the livelihood of those it supports. I even discovered a new field, ethnopedology, which allowed me to align Western soil classification nomenclature with the traditional folk classification of Mayan farmers. 

 Click here to read the rest. 

   

 

 

As many of you know already, Laina Schneider was Aldersgate’s mission intern this summer, serving in Guatemala with the Association of Highland Women (AMA). Here is her final reflection of and thank you for her experience.

The women giggled as I knelt, plunged my arm down into the hole and grabbed at the black clayey loam. I rolled the soil into a ball in my hand, recording notes about the color, moisture and texture. The breeze knocked my hair into my eues, stronger on the face of this hill in Chiquisis than down in the valley. The young ladies standing over me were wrapped in sweaters, and smiled as Kirsten made jokes about how much I loved dirt. Even after my somewhat silly display of enthusiasm, they showed me patience as I bumbled through the rest of the interview in Spanish, trying to pin their words to my clipboard as I wiped soil off on my jean leg. 

   This episode repeated itself many times in the first few weeks of my summer, as I conducted site assessments and interviews with women’s circles in Quetzaltenango and Santa Catarina as a part of my internship with AMA and HSP. The hope was to lay the foundation for agricultural programming and collect initial information about potential sites for greenhouse projects. 

   Directly engaging with each circle allowed me to connect with the women and learn the distinct qualities of each community. Just like the unique patterns and colors of their huipiles, each community has different hopes and dreams for the future, for their children and even for a greenhouse project. Being able to hear those aspirations provided me with inspiration for my own project and future in agriculture. 

   As an agriculture student at Virginia Tech, this process lent me fieldwork experience as well as the opportunity to connect the importance of soil quality to the livelihood of those it supports. I even discovered a new field, ethnopedology, which allowed me to align Western soil classification nomenclature with the traditional folk classification of Mayan farmers. 

 Click here to read the rest. 

   

 

Last week our 30-person mission team built a kitchen for the primary school in the village of Chikisis, 11K feet up in the Mayan Highlands. Previously, women of the community cooked indoors over large open-pit fires to prep lunch for 300+ kids, many of whom might not eat any other (healthy) meal in the day. The fires were both inefficient and, because of the abundant smoke, harmful to the health of the women and the kids.

Our team managed to build the walls and put in the forms to pour the concrete. Our local mason, Don Pauli, finished the kitchen after our departure.

Thanks to the many at Aldersgate and in the Ft Hunt community who helped raise the funds for the project.

Next up for our volunteer teams- a health clinic/community center in Chikisis.