Wednesday, May 6, 2015

American Sniper

I have yet to see the movie, but recently finished reading Navy Seal Chris Kyle’s account of his work of being a sniper in Iraq. He is credited with the highest number of confirmed kills in American history. The book was made into an award-winning box-office hit as a movie. The story also troubled many people. You may have seen the controversies surrounding this book, from film maker Michael Moore’s comments about snipers to many saying the story downplays the controversies that led to Chris Kyle being in Iraq in the first place to Muslim students petitioning to not have the movie shown on college campuses because of “misleading and negative stereotypes” about Muslims. 

Huff Post Books said of the book, "At times politically incorrect or even crude, Kyle's writing seems relentlessly honest. Kyle is not an intellectual, although the book will make readers think - about the enormous costs of war and what Iraq has meant for American soldiers and their families.” Patricia Cornwell of the New York Times Book Review said, "[My] favorite book of the year. Chris Kyle’s American Sniper is an amazingly detailed account of fighting in Iraq - a humanizing, brave story that’s extremely readable.” There are also negative reviews as well, such as one person who posted, "There's an awful lot of ego and chest thumping, a lot of times it's overt, and sometimes you can only see it between the lines. This of course is understandable as well. It's the nature of the beast, but one can only stand so many pages of it before it detracts from the rest of the story."

The book is an autobiography. When he prioritizes God-Country-Family in that order, even though most, including his wife, would choose a different ordering, it is his story. When he so energetically gives himself to his job that he pulls the trigger to end at least 150 lives, even though many are disturbed by this, it is his story. When he speaks on what he wished his senior military and political leaders should decide when it came to “rules of engagement” (ROE), even though most are glad the limitations in the ROE are in place, it is his story. This is an autobiography that tells a specific soldier's perspective on the human side of war and conflict. 

Kyle speaks honestly about his struggles. He speaks of the pain of losing friends in battle to injury or death, about his feeling responsible for some of those deaths, but most importantly and transparently, he speaks of his struggles as a husband and father. He was away from his family on so many deployments, it nearly cost him his marriage. His wife, Taya, even has sections she writes in the book to give readers her perspective. 

All will be challenged to think through the implications of any act of war. If we go to war, people will die and those deaths will be violent and bloody. Christians, in particular, are challenged to think through what levels of aggression and violence we are willing to support and under what circumstances if we think it will save lives or stop a bully. 

In the end, this book reminds me of the personal cost of patriotism, the harshness of war and the continued divisions between people groups. As someone raised in the military, I thought the book was true to the character of most soldiers and a story worth reading. No matter how you feel in general about the subject the book raises, read the book in order to speak for or against it from an informed perspective. 

Monday, April 20, 2015

Through Gates of Splendor

One of the highly influential books in my early Christian life was the story of five American missionaries seeking in the 1950s to reach the Auca, now Waorani, tribe of eastern Ecuador in South America. The book is called Through Gates of Splendor and was written by Elizabeth Elliot, the wife of one of the missionaries. All five of the men were killed by the tribe with whom they were hoping to share the love of God in Jesus Christ. When the news of their story went public, their deaths changed lives around the world forever. Yesterday, I finished reading that book again for the first time in years and I’m just as inspired as I was when I first read it. 

Those five missionaries were all high achievers and would have excelled in any venture in life. They chose a life dedicated to sharing Christ with unreached people groups like the Aucas, a tribe with the worst reputation for violence. In excerpts from their diaries we get a glimpse of their driving passion. They were ready to live or die for Christ. No matter the outcome, whether they lived or died, Christ would get the honor and God’s will and God’s purposes would be accomplished. Elizabeth Elliot said, "I have one desire now - to live a life of reckless abandon for the Lord, putting all my energy and strength into it.” She and her husband, Jim, lived that way. Jim Elliot once said, "When the time comes to die, make sure that all you have to do is die!” That wisdom, the faith, that spiritual maturity inspires me. 

The title of the book is derived from the fourth stanza of the hymn “We Rest on Thee." This hymn was sung by the missionaries before the men left for “Operation Auca,” the trip to go face-to-face with the Waorani tribe that would kill them with lances. The lines read:
We rest on Thee, our Shield and our Defender.
Thine is the battle, Thine shall be the praise;
When passing through the gates of pearly splendor,
Victors, we rest with Thee, through endless days.
At its heart, this book raises questions every believe must answer:
Will I give my life for the sake of Christ Jesus? 
Am I willing to go where he sends me even if it is "unsafe” in the eyes of the world? 
Am I willing to give the Lord full control of my life? 
Am I willing to put God first in all things? 

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Slavery By Another Name

I recently finished reading New York Times best seller and 2009 Pulitzer Prize winning Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II by Arkansas-born Wall Street Journal writer Douglas A. Blackmon. I've clicked links to a film version of the book as well as several summaries and reviews below.

The story is the story of blacks in the American south after the Civil War. Blackmon argues that slavery - involuntary servitude and the harsh life it entailed - did not end until World War II. It simply took another form. That form was in a system he outlines in great detail called "convict leasing."

What struck me at the end of the book was several things. First, how there are people I know who were alive in the 1940s and experienced or remember what Blackmon calls "neo-slavery." I know families - parents, sons and daughters - of those who experienced neo-slavery. It is not that slavery was something that went back to 1865 and no living person can remember it; slavery goes back to 1942 and many remember and lived it. Second, I came away understanding an underlying suspicion by many in the black community regarding the laws of the land. The laws are supposed to protect the people. All of the people. Yet, this books reminds us, often in brutal narratives hard to get through, how the laws of the land failed a whole group of people in our land again and again. Since we are dealing with something that ended only 70 years ago, the lingering distrust will take more intentional work and time to dissipate. And finally, the book left me longing for a vision of God to take root in the hearts of all people. I hope to see humans when I look at anyone - real people with hopes and fears, loves and struggles, and families and friends. Anything less than that puts up walls between people and, in its worst forms, makes others somehow less than in our eyes. God calls for something greater of us. God calls us to see humans who somehow in all of our brokenness and tarnished ways, bear his image in us.

Watch the film adaptation of the book

YouTube interview with Blackmon

Blackmon's own website

Wikipedia information on the book

Sermon by Pastor Norm Hatter on being like Christ with others

Friday, August 8, 2014

Top 6 From Summer Missions

Three mission trips in three countries. Honduras, the U.S. and Mexico. That was my July. It wasn't planned that way, it just worked out that I could and did go on all three trips. Our church has also just welcomed Pastor Laurent back from Madagascar. We've been busy this summer.

I've had some time to think back on the month and I want to share some thoughts. These thoughts go beyond the food and lodging and itinerary. They are reflections on God after serving this summer. For every mission team that goes out, whether to do local mission around the church or mission on the other side of the world, I ponder what God is doing through the mission. I am more interested in what God is up to on the team, in the ministry, and in our church than the details of work done. The work matters. It matters to the the people served and the team serving. Through it God is up to something. That's what I think about for months and years after trips.

In light of recent critiques of mission work by Donald Trump and Ann Coulter - both reacted to the American missionaries who contracted ebola in Africa - this is a timely look at what such missions teach. Implicit (Trump) or explicit (Coulter) in critics' views is the opinion that Americans shouldn't go on such trips. However, they are not my teachers for Christian mission. God is. Christians are on God's mission and God calls us to take that mission to "Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth" (Acts 1:8), which is a way of saying our mission is in our home communities, in the region around where we live and throughout the planet. We take that seriously.

The church I serve has robust ministries in our home community and the following are six reflections - big thoughts - of what I saw God doing and saying in our mission beyond our local community.

#1 - The Poor Are Always with Us.
Jesus said that. He was making a point to those around him to enjoy his presence, work and life among them while he was bodily on earth. But he did remind them and us that the poor in this life are always with us.

This summer I have been to rural villages in a part of Honduras that even Hondurans talk about the way we might talk about the harshest of inner city living. "Olancho is rough." I have been to the streets of San Francisco and lived for a week among the homeless in the Tenderloin district of the city. I have been to poor, rural villages of  Zona Maya, a region of the Yucatan peninsula of Mexico. This is in addition to previous travel all over the world, the United States, and the Tampa Bay Area. Villages and cities may try to mask the poor and homeless and needy, sequester them, hide them, or push them away, but still poverty and desperate needs are pervasive. There is need in our own town. I serve on the Social Services Committee of the city of Dunedin. Mayor Dave Eggers and the city Commission established tho committee for a reason.

Over and over, I have thought about why this is so. That part of me that seeks the well-being of all people and reacts so violently to injustice done to and oppression experienced by one person or group against another wants resolution to the problem of suffering. I want people to be fed, clothed, sheltered, safe, healthy, and loved. Yet everywhere people are hungry, poorly clothed, homeless or nearly so, unsafe, and unloved. Are one's circumstances to blame? So if you are born poor are you destined to poverty? Or if you happened to be born with basic needs met up to affluence, you just count yourself lucky and live your comfortable life you were born into?

In this life, as we await a future God has revealed will one day arrive, we live with all kinds of realities that are not pleasing to God and hard on people. Jesus said, "The poor you will always have with you, and you can help them any time you want. But you will not always have me" (‭Mark‬ ‭14‬:‭7‬ NIV). We are also told this about the poor of the Israelites during Moses' day, "There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your fellow Israelites who are poor and needy in your land" (Deuteronomy 15:11).  So we have the poor and needy with us and we are to help them. When the awaited future arrives, all will be made well and right. Until then...

#2 - Help is Needed.
I once heard a board member of a successful homeless ministry say his goal was to end homelessness in his area. That is too hard a goal around which to wrap my mind. Ending world hunger or world poverty or even Dunedin poverty is more than I want to say. Part of me is embarrassed to admit that. Part of me knows good and well that it is within the human capability right now to end world hunger. I know that if relief of suffering people made it to the same priority level as launching a new piece of technology or funding our global entertainment activities, we would find a different world than the one in which we now live.

Perhaps my goal is too modest, not faithful enough, and not representative of a man who proclaims and lives faith in an omnipotent, omniscient God. Perhaps my hope is not ambitious enough, but if embraced my hope will result in a better life for those in need. My goal is that everyone do more.

As a pastor of a large church, I am challenging the entire church to have a more activist attitude toward ministry to those Jesus loved - the poor and needy and those on the edges of society. I realize some have physical limitations that prevent high level of activism, but in addition to financial giving and speaking to God in prayer about the needs, I challenge people to put their bodies in the middle of the need. Like in rural villages in Honduras or Zona Maya. Like on the streets of San Francisco. Like at the Homeless Emergency Project (HEP) in Clearwater or Bridging a Freedom ministry addressing one part of the horror of human trafficking. Like the strip club outreach in which some women of our church are active. Or maybe it is the new community care agency in the works that will be located in Dunedin and likely to begin in the next year. We are not lacking for places to plug into mission to those with great needs.

No one can do everything, but everyone can do something. When it comes to the needy some say or think, "Too bad. They're messed up. It's their fault. Let them live with their decisions." I've heard that attitude and those words. Jesus did not have that attitude.  Jesus once said, "It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick" (Matthew 9:12). He came for those who were spiritually and physically sick and in need. My challenge is to acknowledge the need, the call to help those in need, and then to step out and help. The poor and needy are around and within and well beyond our church. They are everywhere. That fact alone demands a response of action by anyone who claims faith.

In language we are adopting around our church, join in the fight to push back the darkness in which people live around us and throughout the world. Do something! For Gods sake. For humanity's sake. Do something.

#3 - The Streets Are Bad.
Living in San Francisco for a week in the Tenderloin district was the first time in my life that I slept and lived among the homeless. We were in a building under lock and key, but one step outside the front door and we met person after person who lived on the streets. We walked up to them to talk with them. We walked around and by them to get to other locations in the city. While a certain community among the homeless was present, albeit very different than community as we know it, you can't see what we have seen, hear what we have heard, smell what we have smelled and conclude anything less than living on the streets is bad.

We saw how rough it was. A group of us asked if we could pray for a man. Of all of the things I imagined we would pray for, I was not expecting him to asked for prayers for his personal, physical safety. We walked to Walgreens one night to get some decongestant for a few on the team (a luxury I was aware many we passed on the street could not and did not enjoy) and on the way on the opposite side of the street a homeless man was yelling, "Where is my money?!" He was yelling at a man sitting next to him that he had in a headlock. He was punching him in the head. The man being beaten was pathetically crying out "I'll have it on Thursday." The streets reeked of urine and vomit in places. People made make shift pallets for beds with bags or baskets of their life's possessions next to them. They seemed mostly to sleep by day, often sleeping off a hard night of drinking or drugs.

Few choose the streets. Many end up there. Most we talked with longed for friendly faces. They long to have others see them as humans who matter to others. The repressed sense of shame was palpable. One homeless woman, who seemed to be a mothering moral compass to others, yelled at others for behaving poorly. "Pull your pants up," she yelled at one intoxicated man whose pants were exposing way too much, "there are young people around." The man did. Some talked of wanting something more than they were living. Most seemed resigned to it. If they were clear-headed, reflective and honest, all would say it was bad living on the streets.

#4 - Mentally Ill People Need Love.
Mentally ill people need a lot of help. They need therapeutic help. They need pharmacological help. They often need physical medical help. But they also need to know of Gods love and experience human love.

In San Francisco, we passed a man several times who moved like a bird, mumbled as he spoke, stared at you through wide and creepy eyes. Clearly, he was troubled and it was more than intoxication. He was mentally ill. There were others like him. They need help, but they need more.

I know I'm over my pay grade to start taking on the problems and needs of the mentally ill. But somewhere behind those vacant stares and that incoherent babbling, beyond the tainted humanity, is the image of God - the Imago Dei - as theologians call it. Even though we live in a world after the Fall of Adam (see Genesis 3), and even though something of that image of God was lost after the Fall for all humanity, still a fragment remains in all people. For that reason alone, love in the form of seeking good for the person is called for by others. This needs to be done in safe and controlled settings with some people, but it needs to be done. They deserve love.

I realize the line I am edging up to here. The mentally ill are sometimes criminally mentally ill. Victims of those mentally ill may hear this as pardoning their behavior or removing the consequences of they actions. Nothing of the sort is suggested. Criminals need to be handled in ways that prevent further harm to others at a minimum. School shooters, spouse abusers, child molesters, need to have the full extent of the laws pressed upon them if that is what it takes to get them away from further harm to others.

My question is who will tell them - yes, even them - of a God who came to this earth in order to bear upon himself the guilt of the horrible sins they committed? Can we find relief or even joy at seeing such a person respond with deep sorrow and genuine repentance? Or do we find relief and joy in hoping the person "rots in hell?"

For many, this is an emotionally-charged question. Were Christ counseling us how to think and behave, his example and teaching has been clear - love the unlovable and forgive the unforgivable. Mentally ill people are often those people. Unlovable and unforgivable.

#5 - Poverty Is Hard on People
Much has and should be said about how the simple life of the world's poor has much to teach the rest of the world about unhealthy attachment to material possessions, relationship-crippling overpacked schedules, how keeping up with and comparing ourselves to others who always seem to have a better life robs us of joy, and how the life of faith in God is indeed a rich life. My overall experience of the poor is they are happier, more communal, more content in life and more faith-filled. But that does not mean that poverty is easy on people.

Poor people are more unhealthy physically. In remote Honduras, going to the doctor or even clinics is not always possible. As a result, people live with pain far more than we do. On one trip years ago, we travelled with a dentist who was there for the first time. He was running a week-long dental clinic. After the first night in the village, he wept openly in group time. He was overwhelmed by the need. "All I can do is try to manage pain." Poor people there live with intestinal issues including worms. They live with chronic asthma and other pulmonary issues often stemming from wood burning stoves with no chimneys. Women have female problems that often go untreated. One elderly woman was eager to see a medical doctor on our team. It turned out her uterus had descended outside her body. Obesity and issues like heart troubles or diabetes related to obesity is surprisingly high. You would think poor wouldn't have much to eat and the opposite would be the problem. But when you are poor and live on rice or beans or tortillas and maybe chicken or beef along with it, that is a high starch, high carbohydrate, often high calorie diet. All of these health problems diminish quality of life and increase mortality rates.

This is where mission teams can help the locals help their communities improve. When a team goes in after working with local leaders to help an entire village improve its water quality, sanitary conditions, medical needs, and basic needs like shelter, the overall health of the village improves. We have noticed that over the years. The health of an entire village rises. Healthier people are more capable of improving their lives. When mission teams join alongside of pastors and church leaders to call people to a life of faith in Jesus Christ we offer gain for the whole person - physical, emotional, and spiritual.

#6 - God Is at Work.
I was so encouraged to see mission teams everywhere I travelled this summer. I was happy to be on the mission teams. When we were in the airport in Tegucigalpa, the capital city of Honduras, team after team flowed in and out of the airport. On the streets of San Francisco mission teams and mission agencies were everywhere seeking to provide relief to those in need. In Mexico, we stayed at a place that was hosting mission teams and had its own teaching mission to the Maya people.

A common theme throughout these and other trips was the present, evident movement of the Holy Spirit in this world, in the missions, with the teams, and especially with those served.

In the village of El Mico in Honduras, a group of us went through the village praying for those in need. Our first stop was an elderly woman who had no feeling in her legs and couldn't walk. She was dejected. Youth and adults prayed over her simultaneously and fervently in Spanish and English. It was a powerful experience. The presence of God was felt by all. The best part was afterward. The woman had relaxed, felt uplifted and encouraged, and the team was energized.

On the streets of San Francisco with a cup of hot chocolate in hand, a woman for whom life was a series of hardships felt encouragement from God through the young faces of the students like MacKenzie, Justin, Lyric, and Charlene praying for her.

In the village of Naranjal in Zona Maya, a young girl came forward and had a group of us pray for her infant daughter similar to how the Honduras group prayed for the elderly woman. In Naranjal, the prayer was for heart and lung issues. The presence of the Holy Spirit was felt by all.

There is a recent movie I have yet to see titled "God's not Dead." Those who travelled as well as the home team who supported them are witnesses to the truth that title speaks. God is alive and on the move. God is transforming villages in remote locations into spiritual communities of love and support. God is encouraging and helping desperate people in inner cities. God is doing that in this world and in individual lives. Like mine. Like yours.

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...