Saturday, February 18, 2017

THE DESTROYER OF CULTURES

For several years, I worked as a trainer of pastors in churches all throughout Latin America and also for a few short years in the islands of the Pacific. Because of this work, I often traveled to some remote areas. As I did, I listened to and tried to understand many various perspectives from a great variety of several people. Through all of these experiences, I learned to greatly appreciate the differences we have among us as people.

During this time I was also working as a missionary of the Christian church. This fact caused me to have to consider the following question: How do I reconcile the spread of Christianity with the preservation of indigenous cultures? 

THE DESTROYER OF CULTURES

Once on a trip to Venezuela, I found myself in a conversation with a young German student at the airport in Caracas as we waited for our out-going flights to go home – he back to Germany and I to Guatemala, where I was living at the time. The country and the people of Venezuela were well known to me, since I had earlier lived there for many years. On this trip, however, I had only returned for a visit.

I had been to Venezuela to conduct a pastor’s training seminar. When I told the young German about my work and that I was doing similar work in several countries at that time, our conversation began to become centered on a theme that I had often had with travelers.

The theme has to do with the effect of Christianity on local cultures. Because of my work in different countries and because of the fact that I often worked with people from indigenous cultures, I was fair game for criticism from other travelers who pop in to a country to visit certain areas in order to get a cultural “experience” and then go back home. 

Two Types of Travelers

Actually, I usually appreciated hearing the various perspectives and opinions of these travelers and I usually learned something from what they had to tell me. Gaining such insights from people who have diverse points of view is one of the aspects of my work that I have enjoyed.

Because I generally worked with people at the local level in areas where there were relatively few tourists, the tourists that I did meet in these areas were usually people who were sensitive to cultural issues and appreciated the differences that we have among us as people. This, to me, is much preferable to a second type of traveler that I would meet.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

ABANDONED BY GOD

One of the saddest words in all of human speech is the word abandonment. It brings to mind the terror in a child’s eyes the moment that he realizes that his mother no longer wants him. Or the sense of despair that a starving refugee has after having walked and crawled a hundred miles to what he thought was a feeding station, only to find when he arrives at the place that there is nothing.

Abandonment is the worst kind of despair because not only is it a feeling of hopelessness, but it also comes with the blow of having placed one’s trust in someone, only to be forsaken by them. When we trust someone, we become vulnerable to that person. We give that person the power not only to help us, but also to hurt us to the core of our being.

These cases of abandonment can be great or they can be small. Many times, we are able to rise above and overcome this abandonment by someone whom we had trusted, but even the small cases can have a cumulative effect that might bring us eventually to a breaking point.

The sense of abandonment can also come from what seems to be a hopeless situation. We drop our bucket into a well that we have stumbled onto in the middle of a dry and barren desert, only to hear it hit a bottom as equally thirsty as our own parched throat. It would have been better if there were no well at all, rather than to have our hopes elevated and then shattered. 

Sunday, February 5, 2017

THE SOUND OF BATTLE

Now when Joshua heard the sound of the people as they shouted, he said to Moses, “There is a sound of war in the camp.”

But he said, “It is not the sound of the cry of triumph, nor is it the sound of the cry of defeat; but the sound of singing I hear.” (Exodus 32:17-18 NAS) 
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 “Go down at once,” the Lord said to Moses on Mount Sinai, “for your people, whom you brought up from the land of Egypt, have corrupted themselves” (Exodus 32:7 NAS).

It was the incident of the Golden Calf. In the days before this incident that took place at the foot of Mount Sinai, the Israelites had just been delivered by the powerful hand of God from four hundred years of slavery in Egypt. In their exodus from that land of slavery, they had witnessed God’s great power in the ten plagues that he had brought upon the Egyptian nation and on Pharaoh, so that Pharaoh would finally agree to let Moses lead the Israelites out of the country.

However, Pharaoh later had a change of mind and sent his vast army to pursue the Israelites. As God’s children fled before the armies of Egypt, they saw the Red Sea open before them so that they could pass through. When the Israelites had crossed the sea, they looked back and saw the water close up again to swallow up the Egyptian army. The army had been right on their heels in their pursuit.

But those events were behind the people of Israel now. They were entering into a new relationship with God, and Moses was the man whom had been appointed by God to be their representative. At one point not long after the people had escaped from Egypt, Moses had climbed Mount Sinai with Joshua to meet with God to learn of God’s vision and plans for this new nation. However, the people at the foot of the mountain were growing tired of waiting for the return of Moses from the heights of the mountain. It would be forty days and forty nights before Moses finally did come down (Exodus 24:18). The people had grown increasingly impatient for him to return. The Israelites had expected a lot more from Moses and apparently wanted it a lot sooner. They were restless. 

Sunday, January 29, 2017

IF JESUS CAME AS THE PRINCE OF PEACE, WHAT HAPPENED TO PEACE?

The birth of Jesus came with announcements of peace. On the night that he was born, a “multitude of the heavenly host” appeared to some humble shepherds and declared to them: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men” (Luke 2:14 KJV).

Even before this announcement, Zacharias, the father of John the Baptist, foretold of Christ’s coming that would “give light to them who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace” (Luke 1:79 KJV).

Each year at Christmas time, when we celebrate the birth of the Christ child, one of the most used words in our greetings is the word “Peace.” Christmas cards prominently display the word peace, and in our Christmas carols, we sing of peace. Every year we hear it said that our greatest desire is for “Peace on Earth.”

Christmas is, after all, the celebration of the coming of the Prince of Peace. It may even be that we have heard these words so much that it has become a cliché.

Nevertheless, despite all of our talk of peace, every year it seems that we again face a year not of peace on earth, but rather conflicts on every side. In recent years, we have seen the brutality of man against man to an extent of raw violence that we have not seen since the middle ages. We might say the same as true of our day as it was when the prophet Jeremiah of old said, “They say ‘Peace, peace,’ but there is no peace.”

We do not know what the future may hold in present day world relations. The only thing that we can say with certainty is that it all remains uncertain.

What is troubling to many is this: if it has been two thousand years since we have been visited by the Prince of Peace, why is it that we continue to face only conflict?
 

Sunday, January 22, 2017

CLIMBING THE VOLCANO SANTA MARIA

A MOUNTAINTOP EXPERIENCE 

The little country of Guatemala is spotted with numerous volcanos strewn about in many of its regions – both dormant and active volcanos. The southern part of the country is very mountainous and has about thirty in all. It was on one New Year’s Day when we were living there, that my son Levi and I thought that a nice way to begin the New Year would be to hike up volcano that we had not yet climbed. We had trekked various other ones before that time, but this one, we had not. It was the volcano named Santa Maria, located in the western part of the country.

How the volcano looked the day before we climbed it
Actually, it was on the previous Thanksgiving Day when we had decided to do this. Since we had no turkey on that day, instead of eating a banquet, we decided to climb a different volcano that was closer to our home. That particular day turned out to be such a crystal clear and wonderful day, that from the top of the peak, we could look down much of the line of volcanoes that runs along this southern mountain range of Guatemala. The range is called the Sierra Madre de Chiapas.

On that day, we could count what we thought were at least eight of these volcanos. One of the further ones that we could see was the dormant volcano, Santa Maria. This volcano, despite being one of the furthest ones that we could see, was only about a half a day drive from our house. We decided right then, on the top of that Thanksgiving mountain, that on some clear day in the near future, we would go a nearby town, get a hotel, and climb it on the following day.

The town near the volcano is called Quetzaltenango, but the original Mayan name for the town is Xelajú. The Mayan name means “Under the ten peaks.” This is because the town sits in a valley surrounded by ten mountains. The volcano Santa Maria is one of these mountains.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

DISCIPLINE AND ENDURANCE

“Do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord” (Hebrews 12:5) 

The writer of the book of Hebrews, in speaking of being disciplined by God, says this: “It is for discipline that you endure” (Hebrews 12:7 NAS). The phrase struck me as a little peculiar, since it seemed to be saying that the purpose of enduring was only so that we could be disciplined. It sounded as if our goal or our objective should be that we be reprimanded. In other words, it seemed to be saying that we should bear up under our suffering so that we can be disciplined again.

Surely not very many of us would put it in this way or think of it like that. We are certainly not seeking to be disciplined. We would probably like to change the preposition to say something in the order of “it is through discipline that you endure,” rather than "it is for discipline."

That seems much more satisfying. By using the word through in this sentence, the act of being disciplined is made not to be the goal. Instead, our goal or our objective would instead be the endurance, much like an athlete in training who learns to discipline himself in order to build up his stamina.

This is self-discipline (which we all respect) instead of a type of discipline set upon us as a punishment. Discipline as a punishment is less satisfying to us, since it shows that we have a weakness or a flaw in our character that needs to be dealt with.

The building of self-discipline actually is the spin that the New International Version puts on the phrase. This translation takes out the preposition altogether. In addition; it makes the phrase sound more like a commandment: “Endure hardship as discipline.” To me, this sounds like when we endure hardships, it will build in us self-discipline. I agree that this is true, but I am not certain that this is the sense of the verse.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

PERSEVERANCE

I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith; in the future there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day; and not only to me, but also to all who have loved His appearing (2 Timothy 4:7-8 NAS). 

PERSEVERANCE 

In the woods in back of the farm where I was raised are the ruins of an old farming homestead. The house and small barn of the old place have now long since collapsed, leaving nothing but the rotting logs of the buildings.

When I was a boy however, the shell of the old log house was still standing, shaded by tall hemlock trees by its side. The roof of the house had mostly fallen in, and the floor had been torn up by some kids who had heard the boyhood tale that the family that once lived there had buried some treasure under the floor boards. There was no glass in the window sashes of course. I am sure they were the first things to be broken.

The fields around the house were grown up in poplars and alders. The fence rows of stone that once had surrounded the fields had also long ago toppled, and trees grew through the stones. The farmstead had a look of total abandonment.

As a young lad, I would often meander around this old site and wonder about this family who lived there before I was born. Did they have boys like me who liked to explore the woods and walk along the creeks? Did the small children run out to the field at noon to tell their Dad that it was time to come in for dinner? The truth actually was that the family did not live there very long. They made a beginning, but after only several years at the farm, they moved on to a different life.

I am sure that this move from their farm was not their plan from the beginning. They certainly would not have put so much effort into building a house and barn, clearing the land and digging a well, if they had not planned on staying long. The beginning that they made was one of permanency.

I do not know the particulars of what happened to this family or what circumstances occasioned their departure. Perhaps they had to endure death or some other tragedy that had caused their plans to change. I mean no criticism of the abandonment of their plans, but it has taught me a lesson of permanency.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

IN HIS FOOTSTEPS

The meaning or the significance of a title can change over the years. For instance, during the Revolutionary War, to be an “American” was synonymous with one who held strongly unto the values of our emerging nation. Today, the term American does not necessarily carry this same inherent meaning. Many who are called American in these days do not believe in the form of government that was initially drafted in the founders of our country. Today, to be an American means nothing more than someone who is from America, regardless of their beliefs concerning the system of government and the guiding values of the country.

It is much the same for the term Christian. To be called a Christian today does not nearly have the meaning that it did originally. Much as the term American has ceased to be synonymous with the principles of the founders, to be called a Christian today also does not necessarily mean that one agrees with what Christ and the early apostles taught. It is in fact, even more difficult to give a realistic contemporary definition to the term Christian than it does to the term American.

However, at its core and true to its origins, what it means to be a Christian must be one who follows Christ. This in fact, is exactly the sentiment of the first Christians. They actually did not even at first call themselves Christians, but instead described themselves as followers of “the Way,” probably having some reference to the words of Jesus when he said “I am the way, the truth and the life, no one comes to the Father but through me” (John 14:6). The Way was actually quite a descriptive term for them, since the teaching of the early church centered on the way of God (Acts 18:26). 

I’m a Christian Cheesehead

When the term Christian began to be used, it seems not to be one that the early believers chose for themselves. It was one that apparently was given to them by the people in the city of Antioch (Acts 11:26). I read in a couple of different sources that the people of Antioch were especially fond of giving nicknames to people. They gave nicknames to their kings. The term Christian may have at first even had somewhat of a derogatory connotation, but the early Christians of that day instead took it for themselves and even took pride in it.

In this regard, it is much like our Wisconsin affection for of calling ourselves “cheeseheads.”

Friday, December 30, 2016

IN DEFENSE OF TRADITION

If there ever is a time when we are reminded of traditions, it is at Christmas. Every family has them. At this time of year, it sometimes seems as if every move is governed by tradition. There are Christmas-time customs that tell us where, how, and when we should decorate the tree; where, how, and when we are to have the Christmas meal; and where, how and when we are to open the gifts.

There is the traditional Christmas program that we all must attend. We sit in the darkened church, watching the little children recite the lines that they so laboriously memorized with the help of their moms. Sympathetically, everyone in the crowd silently prompts these shy performers as they try to remember the next word. Throughout the hushed audience, unspeaking lips move, hoping that their silent utterances will somehow help this tender little one through his or her piece.

Of course, not all the children are so inhibited. Some kids grab the microphone as if they grew up under the tutelage of Sir Winston Churchill himself, and bellow out their lines as if they had just learned that everyone in the church had discovered that their hearing aid batteries had gone dead. Then, as a final flourish, these little performers finish with a grand bow.

We sing the traditional hymns. We snack on traditional munchies. We find great comfort in tradition.

Not everyone who likes tradition, however. They find it boring and unimaginative. Some secretly delight in upsetting tradition. Some find excitement in the new and unique.

Each has his own perspective. I, myself grew up with many traditions at Christmas time. Our Christmas Eve Day was the very definition of predictability. It included the Christmas Eve program at the little church down the road that we always attended after the evening chores. After the program, we would always stop in at my Grandpa’s and Grandma’s house for a few moments. I am sure it was only a few moments, but for me, it always seemed like hours. This was because, according the traditions of our family, it was only after the program and the visit to the grandparents that we were able to go home and finally open our presents.

But my adult years have been quite different. For many of these years my own family and I lived overseas and often found it more difficult to have one Christmas even remotely like the previous one. (to continue, please press the READ MORE button below)

Saturday, December 24, 2016

SURPRISED BY CHRISTMAS

The little village in a South American country through which I was driving one December day was swelteringly hot and dirty. The houses were mostly of adobe, and the people of the village were poor goat-herders, whose daily task was to wrestle out a living from the dry and desolate soil of the desert plain.

Everything around me spoke of struggle. Even the basic necessity of water could only be obtained by going to the village well, dropping a bucket into the deep round shaft dug into the ground, and then pulling it up using a rope and a pulley. The reward for this labor was a half a pail of water that both smelled and tasted strongly alkaline.

Even the air in that place refused to be too charitable with its refreshment. The air that we breathe ought to be equally abundant and vitalizing to all, but in that desert village, every breath only brought into my lungs air that felt too hot. Added to that disappointment, the scorching breeze that blew that day, instead of making the air more refreshing, only filled it with a fine dust. The dust in the air caused dirt to form on my face as the sweat rolled down from my forehead, and especially around my nostrils. My nose needed to work doubly hard to strain out any dirt before allowing the air to enter my lungs.

I was short of breath. I felt that I could not breathe. I was not getting adequate oxygen by breathing through my nose only, but because the air was so dirty, I was very hesitant to part my lips even just a little in order to draw in a deeper breath. I did not want to breathe in all of that dust.
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Monday, December 19, 2016

WORSHIPING THE BABY CHRIST CHILD


Whether or not the date is an accurate one, or despite the way in which the church arrived at the date, Christmas has long been the time of the year when we celebrate the birthday of Jesus Christ. It is true that in our churches, we celebrate Christ often throughout the year. As a church family, we gather to celebrate Jesus at least once a week. In many of our homes, we celebrate him every day. However, for very many people, the only time that Jesus is actually celebrated is twice a year – at Christmas and at Easter. For most of the year, people are so busy with their lives that they have very little time to think about Jesus. Because of this, it is good to have a celebration like Christmas to remind us of the Messiah. However, the celebration of Christmas is not without some dangers. 

The Dangers of Christmas

Christmas, along with Easter, are the big religious holidays of the year. As I mentioned, for many people, these holidays are really the only times of the year when they think about Jesus. Because of this, these people have come to have a distorted view of who Jesus is. If you think about it, you can see why.  At Christmas, we see Jesus as a little baby lying in a manger in the crèche. He is a helpless infant and totally in need of his mother’s protection and care.

Likewise, at Easter, we again see a Jesus that appears helpless. This time we see him beaten and bloodied and hanging on a cross. This is especially true in many church traditions where the emphasis is placed strongly on the suffering of Jesus, yet the fact of the resurrection sometimes almost goes uncelebrated. This becomes a danger when so much is made of the crucifixion and less is made of the coming back to life of Jesus.
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Friday, December 16, 2016

"COME"

Finally we have arrived at the very last words of the book of Revelation and, in fact, of the entire Bible. These last words can actually be summed up in a single word. “Come.” 

First, a Few Words of Caution

There is also a caveat in this final portion of the book. John writes, “I testify to everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues which are written in this book; and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away his part from the tree of life and from the holy city, which are written in this book” (Revelation 22:18-19 NAS).

These are cautionary words and should be heeded. It may seem a rather obvious warning to those who follow the Scripture, but because so much of what is written throughout the book of Revelation is not completely understandable to us, it sometimes becomes very tempting for those who study it to substitute that which is beyond our ability to comprehend with their own ideas about what must happen. It is a short step between theorizing what a particular passage may mean, and assuming that we have a particularly accurate insight that others do not have. 

An Invitation

But that warning aside, the concluding remark of our revealed Scripture is one of invitation. The message is: “Come.”
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