Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Mayas and Christ

The Maya ruins of Ek Balam
Today Richard, Dave, Tommy, Pastor Alfredo and traveled two hours from Felipe Carillo Puerto where we have been staying to go on a cultural tour of a Maya ruin called Ek Balam. It is a Maya pyramid. Pastor Alfredo insisted that Tommy and I (Richard and Dave had already been there) see part of his proud heritage before we left for the U.S. I’m glad we did.

My first thought was it was a place of ancient child sacrifice. I know barely anything about Mayan history, but I remember that. While other pyramids were more spiritual and practice human sacrifice in their religion, this one appeared to be a royal residency. I walked the 98 steps to the top in the hot, jungle heat. I expected it to be cooler up top with a breeze. Not at all. It was oppressively hot. However, the view was spectacular. From the top, I could see for miles in every direction. Just amazing.

I did three things at the top. First, I took pictures. Second, I sat and listened to my daughter Lauren sing an opera piece called Lascia Ch’io Pianga. I have a recording of her singing it on my phone. It was a sweet moment to have her there with me, even if only a recording. Finally, and best of all, as I sat higher than any other place within sight, looking down on the canopy of jungle, I contemplated God.

At the top of the ruins, I contemplated how God is so much more than we can imagine. God is truly omnipotent, omnipresent, good, loving, merciful, generous, and forgiving. Out of his character flowed a desire to create this world which he did. Out of his character, God gave us eyes to sit on high places and drink in the majesty and glory of God in nature. Out of his character, God gives us moments when we are staggered under the radiance of his goodness and holiness.  Out of his character, he has revealed himself to us in Jesus Christ and settled the issue of guilt for sin once and for all. Out of his character, God gave us the desire to share what he has done for us in Jesus Christ. Which is exactly what happened next, but not by me.

When I came down from the top, I rejoined the others and we toured the rest of the site. It is an impressive bit of history to enjoy. While we were walking, Richard told us that while we were all visiting the ruins, Pastor Alfredo sat in the shade and talked with people who came to be in the shade with him. While they talked, Pastor Alfredo led three Maya people to Christ. All done in the Maya language. Three people became Christians at the foot of Ek Balam! He may be proud of his Maya heritage, but he is above all a Christ-follower and wants others to be also. The man amazes me.

The trip home was uneventful and this evening we took our host, Benny, to dinner in gratitude for his hospitality. It was a local place with outstanding guacamole. Truly, outstanding! Tonight, I’m getting to bed early. Up early and heading to Cancun for my flight back home tomorrow. 

Off to bed...

Me on top of Ek Balam

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Education for a Better Life

Mural on school across from church in X-Yatil
Today, we went to two villages and in both the emphasis was on discipling people into a new or deeper relationship with Jesus Christ. How we did that in each village was different. In the first, the emphasis was on leading leaders; in the second, it was on directly presenting the gospel.

We got a later start to the first village. This late start allowed me to get caught up on my morning Bible readings and check in with home. We have wifi in the house where we are staying. We went with Benny Fisher, the man who owns the house where we are staying, two of his workers, and the four of us. We drove about the same distance and roughly to the same area as we drove yesterday morning to a small church in a village called X-Yatil (pronounced sha-teal). There, a group of people were waiting for us. We were there to watch a presentation by Migel Luna about a training program for church leaders International School of Ministry (ISOM). This is a program developed in California, translated into Spanish, and presented in video format. It is an 18-month program the completion of which gives leaders a respected credibility in the village. They will be credentialed leader. It costs them about $18 and it looked like all 10 from that village signed up. I found myself thinking, “these 10 with this training will impact thousands of others for Christ.” It was awesome to be a part of the moment.

Across the street from the church was a wall with a mural, pictured above. The mural showed a Maya man in traditional appearance reaching out with one hand to plug in a computer. To the right was paper with symbols of academic studies and a painting of a young Maya girl walking into a school. The sign on the computer said “Education for a Better Life.” Across the street in the church, that idea was behind what was being presented. If leaders can be equipped for deeper discipleship and can teach that to others, the better life that Christ offers can be experienced fully.

We had lunch with Pastor Alfredo and his wife, Dami, in their home. So far, lunch has been later than lunch back home. Today, we ate at 2 pm. Yesterday, it was 4 pm. After lunch, we packed into a 12-passenger van and headed for the next village.

Home in the village of Naranjal. It was also the church. 
The village of Naranjal was remote. Like many of the villages here, the home construction was stick and thatch roof, using all natural materials readily available from the land around them. This particular home was adding a new bedroom and the expansion project, unlike the rest of the home, was made of concrete blocks. This home was also the church for the village. When I realized that we would gather for worship here, I thought about the earliest of days of the Christian church, to New Testament era Christianity. They met in homes in what we would consider primitive conditions. Just like today. That alone was awesome, but it got better. Dami and two other women led singing for a congregation of mostly women - the men we working - and children. Afterward, Pastor Alfredo spoke to them in Maya. I could tell from several glances and something he was saying he wanted one of us to speak, but we had no translator with us, so none of us did. He opened his Bible and began to speak. I have no idea the specific words he said, but I can read a room. Here was the holy man addressing people he loved. You could hear it in his voice, see it in his eyes, and see the respect of those to whom he spoke. This man was connecting with, ministering to, proclaiming Christ to people he knew and loved. As I sat on the edge of the room watching and listening, even though I could not understand his words, I felt the presence of the Holy Spirit and I knew God was speaking into the room.

After Pastor Alfredo spoke, he asked if anyone needed prayer. He wanted us to pray for the sick. One young woman came forward with her infant daughter. The mother looked like she was 12 years old. Her baby had heard and respiratory problems. That’s all we were told. So the four of us gathered around, I said to the others, “let’s all pray all at once.” We laid hands on the baby and began to pray that God would heal the girl. Again, another powerful moment that makes me want to come back and see the young mother and her baby to see how God answers that prayer.

We travelled uneventfully back to town, walked down to a restaurant, walked home and visited for a few minutes before heading for bed.

I have been sleeping well at night. The room is air conditioned with a window air conditional which does just enough to take the edge off of the heat. That is perfect for me. I don’t like it cold. Ever. The bed is comfortable and I’ve been tired at night. That combination of comfort and weariness has meant deep, dreamless sleep and feeling well-rested in the mornings.

The food here has been great. As usual, I am cautious about what I eat. I only drink bottled water or soft drinks and I only eat what has been cooked. Although, I did eat some avocado and tomato on a Maya dish the other night and even though I thought about whether the knives used to cut were washed in safe water, I ate it anyway. Richard said that the limestone base on the land around here made for some of the cleanest water around. The water filtering project from Honduras was not a needed here. Still, I am cautious. Having said all of that, the pork dish the other night and the chicken dish last night as well as the beef at lunch yesterday were all flavorful and plentiful. Tortillas and beans are a staple item here and are tasty. Even snack time in the villages has been tasty. At the village this morning, they passed out what was shaped like a pizza slice, but was bread filled with what we guessed was an apple spread layer. Slightly sweet, slightly fruity.

I have not felt unsafe since I’ve been here. We have not encountered any threatening people in the town or in villages, even after walking five blocks through town at night to go to the restaurant tonight. The drug cartel does not operate in this area, since there seems to be little it has to offer them, so gangs and violence related to gangs is not present. Traffic is the only real threat and I’ve seen worse in other parts of the world. Rural traffic is risky around sharp corners and in the fact that many roads have little or no place to pull off should someone miscalculate as they pass. Head-on collisions have happened because there was no place to get off the roads. Because of that, everyone we’ve seen on the roads is more mindful of the oncoming traffic than usual. Again, I have not felt unsafe.

I'm beginning to think about the return trip home. I've been gone eight days and looking forward to being back home.

Off to bed...

Monday, July 28, 2014

Zona Maya Ministry

Dami teaching the children in Yoactun
Yesterday, I flew a non-stop flight from San Francisco to Cancun, Mexico. Two men from our church, Richard Lehman and Dave Phillips, picked me up at the airport to drive me three hours south to the town of Felipe Carillo Puerto. Richard and Dave arrived last Thursday so I am only here for part of this mission. We return to Tampa on Thursday.

We are staying with a man named Benny who is from Monroe, North Carolina originally. He now runs a mission home here called Sandra's Place. It is named for his late wife and has many bedrooms for mission teams or conference attendees. An upstairs room was added as a meeting space for conferences, often pastor conferences. I'm in an air-conditioned bunk room with four bunks and a separate bathroom compete with a hot shower. I'm the only one in this room.

I slept in this morning until 7 am.  Two hours in an airport, five hours on an airplane, three hours in a car, and a midnight arrival here made yesterday a long day. After a perfect breakfast of a granola bar (I was not hungry after a day of airplane food), we headed out to the day.

Richard and Dave wanted me to see the city first. We went to a downtown shopping area where I was able to change my dollars into pesos. We then walked through the shops. It reminds me of walking through San Estaban in Olancho, Honduras. Only this city seems more tranquil. Busy, yet not the same cowboy feel as San Estaban.

Our mission today was to visit two villages, Laguna Kana and Yoactun, as well as to visit with a family that had experienced a crisis and pray with them. We went with Pastor Alfredo Perera Pech, a pastor whose daughters live in Clearwater and Tampa and who has visited us at St. Andrews several times. He and his wife, Dami, have spent years developing relationships with people in villages throughout this region. At one point, Pastor Alfredo was pastoring 17 churches. Now he has seven.

Children coloring Good Shepherd pages in Laguna Kana
In both villages, Dami led singing, all a cappella. Pastor Alfredo gave opening remarks, introduced us, and asked us to say a few words. I brought them greetings from the elders, deacons, members, and pastors of St. Andrews. Afterward, Pastor Alfredo split off with the adults and Dami went with the children to teach a lesson on Jesus as the Good Shepherd. At one point, I sat next to Jennifer, Pastor Alfredo's granddaughter studying French and English at university and our translator. "What is he telling them," I asked. "He's talking about how alcoholism damages families and lives." Addiction and all of the problems related to it, is a serious problem in the villages. Pastor Alfredo explained that to me with his broken English and my pathetic Spanish. It was enough for me to know that drug and alcohol addictions here, like everywhere, devastate lives. The women were especially interested in what he was saying. I could tell from the nodding heads and attentive eyes.

After the villages, we drove to a man named Lauro's house. Lauro and his wife are grieving the death of two of their sons who were killed recently in an automobile accident. We gathered in the living room, Pastor Alfredo said a few words, then we recited the words of Psalm 23 from memory ("The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want...") and prayed together for God to comfort and guide this family in their grief. I can't imagine losing even one child, but to think of losing two at once is hard.

From Lauro's house, we drove back to Felipe Carillo Puerto and had dinner. We dined at a local restaurant and had a great meal. I had a local Mayan pork dish recommended by Jennifer, Pastor Alfredo's granddaughter. We all tried the habenero hot sauce. All was outstanding.

Tonight, I did laundry, rested, then we gathered to talk about missions and Zona Maya missions in particular. The need here is great and the place where we are staying is well-suited for receiving mission teams. More than that, strengthening the faith of individuals in the villages while at the same time strengthening the faith of team members is central to being here. We talked about all of that and spent time together in the living room. It was a good night.

This trip plus the others has given me space to ponder mission motivation and practices. I spent a long time on the airplane here pondering what this summer has taught me and I will be posting that at the end of this trip to add reflections from this trip. For now, I will say that this is what we do. We serve and give and go. We do it because there is need, we are capable of meeting some of the needs, and the Holy Spirit has led the particular missions to us as a church. This church called me, a pastor who at the time had sent a dozen or so teams to Honduras. God brought mission leaders to us. Teams went out and our church has, over the years, been shaped by the mission team members who have gone and returned. While they were away, they got what I call the "mission itch." That itch needs more than a once a year scratch to be satisfied. These away trips have stimulated increased involvement locally. It is a beautiful thing to see the fulfillment of Jesus' command to tell others what we know of him locally, in our area, and "to the ends of the earth" (Acts 1:8-9).

By the way, it's hot here. But after cold San Francisco, it's a welcome heat.

Off to bed...

Saturday, July 26, 2014

A Day of Play

At the Pacific Ocean on Ocean Beach, California
You may have heard the expression, "when in Rome do as the Romans do." Our variation on that expression today was, "When in San Francisco, do as the tourists do." So we did.

Earlier in the week, I invited our YWAM leader, Daniel Clift, to go with us on our free day. He is from Concord, just across San Francisco Bay and spent the summer in the Tenderloin where we were staying. He agreed and after sleeping in, getting a shower, we headed off to the mass transit station.

Daniel told us at the end of this very long day he's never heard of anyone doing all we did in a single day. The following is a list of all we did. Keep in mind we were riding busses and trains to get to these places which were often far apart. Our last leg of the trip was a long walk just to get to a bus stop. We were tired, but had a great day.
  • Played at Ocean Beach. We out our feet or whole body (Trevor) into the Pacific Ocean.
  • Saw a street riot over the Middle East fighting.  
  • Had lunch at Super Duper, a gourmet burger place
  • Rode a cable car. A San Francisco must.  
  • Walked down Lombard Street, the curviest road in the world
  • Viewed Alcatraz, "the Rock," a former prison on an island
  • Walked Fisherman's Wharf and Pier 39
  • Met an 2012 London gold medal Olympic runner Demetrius Pinder and his family. 
  • Had dinner at California's famous In & Out burgers (that's where we met the Pinder family)
  • Went to Ghiradelli Square. "Show of hands...who wants ice cream?" Two hands went up. The rest were too cold for ice cream. 
  • Saw the Golden Gate Bridge at night. 
This was a great way to end the trip. All of us, especially the youth, had a trip whose memories will last a lifetime.
On the famous curvy Lombard Street

Friday, July 25, 2014

Prayer in the Square

Standing outside of YWAM base camp before outreach
It's been a good day. After breakfast, we had an orientation to a new ministry to the homeless for this trip. The ministry was to worship with, meet with, pray with, and provide for some clothing needs for the homeless in an open plaza. We went to the United Nations Plaza, a 2 ½ acre pedestrian mall in walking distance from our base camp. The plaza is a major portal for all modes of San Francisco’s transportation system. Vendors show up with tents and goods for sale along the walkway of the mall. This is also a gathering place for the homeless.

We sat on a curb outside of a federal building on the plaza, pulled out the guitars and percussion instruments and began singing. This singing began to attract a small crowd and soon the team began interacting with the people at the worship space. Not long after that, team members went off in groups to interact with the homeless gathered throughout the plaza.  Charlene, Becca, Hannah, and I met with "Tio Javier" (Uncle Javier), a 50 year-old alcoholic who said he wanted to stop drinking, but it was hard for him. We asked about his life, his family, and his needs. He asked us to pray for his drinking, for him to be able "to keep living," and for pain he was experiencing after being hit by a car a few years ago. We met two people in that park who had injuries from being hit by cars. The other guy still had a cast on his arm. After a while, I caught the eye of a man sitting off a distance, smiled, and did that guy thing of tilting the head as if saying, "what's up?" It was enough of a cue to feel okay going up to him. The man's name was AJ, which were the letters of his two first names that "are difficult for Americans to pronounce." AJ was from Afghanistan. He was smoking marijuana as we spoke, hoping, as he said, it would mellow him out. I thought it a strange comment because he seemed perfectly relaxed. AJ talked to me about life in Afghanistan, in Pakistan where he family moved, and his years in America. He spoke of a failed arranged marriage. He spoke of his hopes to be able to earn money to move back to Afghanistan. "It may not be much to look at, but when you live there, you realize how enjoyable the place can be."He also spoke of faith. His home countries were predominantly Muslim, but he rejected that faith because he felt like it was forced on him. He felt suffocated by the rules of Islam and without openly rejecting it, he just wandered away from it. I told him I was a Christian and hoped that the conversation would drift toward spiritual truth and decisions. It didn't. I couldn't help but agree that just accepting a body of doctrine was not what God wanted. I didn't get to have the discussion that faith, and especially Christianity, is not about religion; it is about a relationship with God through Jesus Christ. Unfortunately, our group had to leave and our conversation was cut short. If I lived here, I would go back tomorrow and as many days as possible to continue the conversation. I only hope our conversation was one small piece of opening his heart to meet Christ in a real and personal way. 

At worship time in the plaza
After lunch, we went to do group processing of the trip then went to worship and large group processing. That was a great time to spend in worship and prayer before God. Students got to journal, draw, nail burdens written on slips of paper onto a cross, pray together, and doodle on the sidewalk with chalk. It was a time to express what God had done in them or said to them in this week's work. Nicky and I used this as a time to take a few of the students aside and affirm them in their faith. When Nicky, MacKenzie and I were talking on a small porch behind the building, the wind blew the door back into the building shut. What we didn't know was that everyone had left inside and we were locked out. We thought we were going to have to jump the fence then found a gate that led us into a construction zone that took us about 15 minutes to find our way out. When we got back, the team had eaten, all of the food was gone, and the three of us went to Subway down the street. It was a little mini-adventure. 

Tonight, the game plan was perfect. Relaxing. Some slept, a group of us gathered on a couch and looked at photos and videos on the computer, and enjoyed hanging out. We also planned our day ahead with our leader, Daniel, who will join us in showing some of the sights of San Francisco. 

For now, it's bed time...

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Going After Hunger

Our team plus 100 others working in the food bank. 
We went after part of the problem faced by the homeless or near homeless in a different way this morning. After a 20 minute rapid transit train ride, we went to a huge food bank and helped breakdown about 50 pallet loads of food. There were 110 volunteers mostly from the bay area. The GAP clothing store corporate staff had a big work day to end hunger. I spoke with a human resources manager who explained that helping people with much more than clothing has been a core value of the company and this, serving in a food bank, is an expression of that value.

We traveled back to base camp, had lunch, and went to worship time. The teaching today was a continuation of the story of Joseph in the book of Genesis. Once again, the YWAM actors - us - acted out each of the story. Once again, the YWAM actors brought out nuances we would never have noticed had these actors not brought them out. For example, Joseph's brothers had a Texan accent. Also, the relatively insignificant part of the pack animals carrying the bags for Joseph's brothers played a comic part of the story. Even our own part of the story, when Israel told his sons to load the best of the land's honey, myrrh, pistachio nuts and almonds, in our version these items popped up out of the ground and had sound effects. Still, the story of God came through. Issues of forgiveness, faithfulness, and worthy living were seen and noted in the story.

After worship, we went into the kitchen and taped printed Scripture verses to water bottles and bread packages. The Scriptures were about Jesus as the Living Water and the Bread of Life. Once completed, we hit the streets again. Our team divided into two groups and offered water and bread to the homeless along the way. Two guys named Tony and "Curly" stood out on this outreach for us. They were standing together and accepted what we offered. Before we could even ask, Tony said, "We need to pray together. Let's pray like Jesus taught us." And then we circled up and prayed the Lord's Prayer. We were told to and did keep our eyes open during prayer. Afterward Tony had a big smile on his face and wanted to know all about us. It was great to see the younger team members talking to him. Curly told us, "I write gospel songs." I asked him to show us by singing for us, which he happily did. He sang one of his songs about how "the church prayed for me today." We all started clapping and trying to sing along. Those two guys were beaming and our students felt connected.  When we debriefed afterward, we heard the other team tell of how they met with familiar faces and a few new ones. One woman was a Jehovah's Witness and didn't want to be prayed for or pray for others because "the end is coming." While we too have a theology that acknowledges a second coming and transformed heaven and earth, what thought most about was how many people on the streets really do have mental issues. We've seen a number of people having conversations with themselves, including one guy boxing the air and yelling at some opponent. Even the homeless around him watched him with anything from wariness to laughter.

Worshipping in Union Square
After dinner, it was free time. We went to a local well-loved coffee place, Philz Coffee, and then went to Union Square, an upscale shopping area. It was such a contrast between the homeless in front of the buildings in the Tenderloin district and the limousines in front of Macy's at Union Square. Hard to process. We went up to the Hyatt Hotel's 36th floor observation room. We had a spectacular view of the bay and the city. Afterward, we headed back to the base, but ran into another team from California (the other Presbyterians) who were singing worship songs in the Union Square. We joined them in leading public worship and passing out flyers about YWAM. On the way home from that, we ran into the Texas team on the way back from their evening out. Texas, California, and Florida all walked back to the base camp.

Energy is high tonight, the students are opening up more and more to God and each other, and the ministry gets stronger each day. Even though it was not as personal today with the food bank work and the limited contact with the homeless with the Living Water/Bread of Life outreach, we did interact with, pray for, pray with, and minister to the homeless today with more comfort than yesterday. It has been a good day.

Grace and peace...

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

On the Streets of San Francisco

My morning team out in front of the YWAM base camp
This morning they let us sleep in. Mercifully. We all slept like rocks. The other teams went to go on a "homeless plunge" where after a night of sleeping on the floor at base camp, they go wander the streets for half a day and have their meals at homeless feeding places like San Francisco's version of Clearwater's Homeless Emergency Project (HEP). The leader's said that our trip here was not far off from the homeless experience so we would do something else.

We went on a scavenger hunt. The point was to be on the streets interacting with and praying for people while making our way to some sights of the city using clues given to us. Our team stopped at a Japanese Peace Plaza and prayed for peace in the middle east, in the places with active wars, in families, and in the Tenderloin neighborhood where we are staying. Justin said of his prayer, "I don't know where those words came from." His prayer was a fervent appeal to God to intervene in places with conflict. So cool. We also went to the Fillmore Heritage Center where we prayed for St. Andrews church member John Corl who we heard while there was in that very moment undergoing open-heart surgery. It was great to share with them later the news that he came through the four-hour surgery well. While we prayed a woman whose store we prayed in front of came out and said, "I hope you were praying for me." We told her we would love to pray for her, gathered around her, and prayed for her and her family. The scavenger hunt ended with us going to the location of the home in which a TV family - the Tanners from the show Full House - was filmed, including the Alamo Park across the street.

When we came back, we had an orientation to the community luncheon we were about to have. Unlike other food programs which concentrate on feeding the homeless guests and "get them in and out as quickly as possible," this lunch was much more relational and spiritual. Two people on the teams sat at each table. Two waiters waited on the guests.  Other teams poured water or tea, worked in the kitchen, welcomed them into the luncheon, and cleaned up after. Almost everyone here went out for about 35 minutes ahead of time to invite the homeless in the neighborhood. About 100 showed up.  I was a waiter at a table at which we had 3-4 guests, each of which we got to know a little. One man, Patrick, was bright, articulate, personable, knowledgable, and had a great sense of humor. We don't know how or why he is homeless, but we did learn about this life and his family. Nicky Clark prayed for him before lunch was over. It was great.

After lunch, we cleaned up, went to small group time to process our lunch outreach, then began a time of worship. During worship, we were given the Old Testament story of Joseph, divided into groups, and told to act out the stories. Let's just say that when you get a group of youth to act out a biblical story with 15 minutes preparation, entertainment is sure to follow. Our part of the story was when Rueben defended Joseph. Rueben was played by a guy named Dan from San Jose who played Rueben with an Asian accent. None of us will look at the role of Potiphar's wife the same again after one of the youth guys from Texas played the part convincingly. In the end, however, the story of God's care and control in the story of Joseph and the story of God using difficult circumstances to work out good came through loud and clear. It was an important teaching moment.

Dinner tonight was out. We went to an Indian cuisine restaurant called Chutney near where we are staying. We had naan bread, curried rice with lamb, a chicken dish with a cream sauce, an eggplant dish, and another potato dish. It was all delicious and for many students it was their first time with Indian food. This area is a melting pot of international persons and restaurants.

The final part of today was a hot chocolate outreach. This base camp here in this Tenderloin district has been doing hot chocolate outreach each week since the 1980s. The homeless know that a good, warm cup of hot chocolate and a friendly face is available once a week here. It was another of an increasing number of times to get to meet and interact with people who happen to be homeless.  Whether they accepted the hot chocolate or not, the homeless welcomed and were grateful for the act of kindness shown to them.  Many opened up to us about their lives and their needs. We prayed with many of the people. Seeing 12 year-olds MacKenzie and Lyric alongside of 17 year-old Charlene and 19 year-old Justin smiling and encouraging and praying for the people on the streets was powerful. These students are learning to look past the labels and see and seek to bless people. Fellow humans. Children of God. It is beautiful.

The leaders talked tonight and we are beginning to see spiritual movement on our team. Some more than others, but God is opening eyes and hearts. That is a fire within that we pray the Holy Spirit will turn into a blazing fire.

Time to rest...