Monday, December 31, 2018


There is a New Year’s  custom in many parts of Latin America called “blowing up the old man” that is far more sensational and eventful than watching a crystal ball slowly and agonizingly descend a pole in Time Square.

In the tradition of blowing up the old man,  a scarecrow-like person is made with old clothes and stuffing like the scarecrow you would put in your corn field, but the stuffing is not just straw.

Hidden among the stuffing and within the body of the straw man, firecrackers and even larger explosives are placed in various locations. Commonly, some of these explosives are morteros. The word means ‘mortars,’ and they usually are dangerously powerful.

The “old man” is placed seated in an old chair or propped up against a tree, hopefully not too near any buildings or cars. Then, at the stroke of midnight of the New Year, the “old man” is set on fire by some brave (or foolish) young man who thinks that he can run pretty fast.

Soon after the old man is lit, his straw and paper body is ripped apart by the explosives inside. Straw body parts and pieces of the morteros are sent flying in every direction. Windows of nearby houses rattle, car alarms in the vicinity begin to go off, and those onlookers who have not retreated far enough away from the old man begin to worry about bodily harm. All ability to hear is lost for the next half an hour or more.

This is blowing up the old man. Blowing up the old man ushers in the New Year with true enthusiasm.

The tradition of blowing up the old man has a meaning that goes beyond simply marking the hour and minute of the change of the year. It also represents blowing up the old year into obliteration. The idea is that the old year is gone forever, and now the new one may start fresh.

It is usually just done in fun (if you consider temporary deafness and the danger of true bodily harm “fun”), but there also is placed some meaning to the practice. I am going to draw two lessons from this tradition. The first lesson is in harmony with the meaning usually connected with the blowing up of the old man (and year). I will write about that lesson in this post.

The second lesson is an entirely different take on the custom, one that in my view is more significant for our lives. That one I will explore in the post of this same subject to follow next week. 

Moving On to the New

 In our family’s first year after arriving in Venezuela, one of our neighbor’s daughters went around to the homes on our street to gather old articles of clothing from each family in order to make a “community” old man that was to be blown up in our street on the New Year.

The young lady then prepared a speech, using as a basis for her talk the articles of old clothing that she had collected from the various families on our street. For each of these, she related a problem that the family had experienced during the year to the piece of clothing that they had contributed.

These were the problems, she said, that the families wanted to blow up.

I do not remember all these problems, but one of our neighbors, who had contributed a pair old of shoes, also had had many difficulties with his car in that previous year. The girl who gave the speech applied the troublesome car and the old shoes to “transportation problems” that would be done away with in the New Year.

Another one of our neighbors who had suffered a broken arm had contributed an old shirt. That connection between the shirt and putting the broken arm in the past was almost too easy to make.

I had given an old pair of pants. Since we had only been a short time in that town, the neighbor girl said that we wished to be rid of our instability of moving here and there, and to settle down comfortably in our chairs in our new home. I nodded in hearty agreement.

The old man was then put on fire, and every problem of every family on our street was obliterated in a great display of fire and explosion. The event was fun and well received, and best of all, no one was injured. 

It is not all Light-Hearted

However, if someone has passed through a particularly difficult year, the blowing up of the old man takes on some additional significance. It is not always so easy to make light of problems in a fun-filled community event. Someone who had suffered an exceptionally cruel year may truly wish that they could simply blow up the past.

We wish that it could be so easy, and it does not help to give simplistic answers. Nevertheless, it may be helpful to consider the “problem that we have with our problems.” 

Our Problem with Problems

In viewing our problems, perspective becomes all important. At times, a problem is given a larger than deserved significance because it is keeping us from our immediate goal. If our goal is simply to pay the monthly bills, then a breakdown with our car can be more than problematic. We are faced with a situation that is more significant than simply causing us to puzzle over how to get to work the next day. Our circumstances can be devastating.

This car problem tolls like a bell, mourning the death of the goal to make all of our payments. Our very day-to-day existence comes into jeopardy.

It is true, from the immediate perspective we must do something, but it sometimes helps to remember that, despite how large the problem seems at the moment, it also remains true that we are looking at only the immediate. These are the smaller battles. We must wage them and look for victory over them, but these are our smaller goals.

Our true goal should be much larger. None of us would desire to have our lives reduced to living month to month with our victories rising or falling by how well we have done financially in that month, or whether or not we had additional and unexpected expenses.

Our larger goal should be for a more fulfilling life. 

Looking at the Big Picture

How are we to view our problems from this larger perspective? This is sometimes quite easily done and other times very difficult, but the best advice I have ever encountered was spoken by Jesus Christ: 

Do not be anxious for your life, as to what you shall eat, or what you shall drink; nor for your body, as to what you shall put on. Is not life more than food, and the body than clothing? (Matthew 6:25, NAS) 

Jesus then talks about how the heavenly Father provides for the birds of the air and clothes the lilies of the field. 

I say to you that even Solomon in all his glory did not clothe himself like one of these. But if God so arrays the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the furnace, will He not much more do so for you? 

Then Jesus says something that has affected me as much as anything that has ever been said or written. “But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness; and all these things shall be added to you” (Matthew 6:29-30, 33 NAS). 

This is a very difficult and bold statement. When we look at a present troublesome circumstance, we might be inclined to say it is too bold. I think that most people know the reality (whether in the past or the present) of having more month left than money. 

How Does This Translate Into Reality?

To me, the statement of Jesus seems particularly bold when I speak with believers who live in extreme poverty. My family and I have lived among them in other countries and even now are working with many in this circumstance. Some of these people have no idea even if they will be able to eat tomorrow.

What am I to say to them about these words of Jesus? Do the words of Jesus saying “not to worry” also apply to them? Will he supply all of their needs?

I have actually struggled quite significantly with these words of Jesus. His words must not to be used lightly, and they should not be used to relieve oneself of any responsibility to give aid to our brothers and sisters in need. Indeed, Jesus has used these words to show me that I am one of the ways that he means to supply the needs of these people. I am his hands to minister to this suffering world.

But the problem is greater than I am. I can help some, but I cannot help them all.

And yet, I cannot help but to testify of the absolute reliability of these words of Jesus even in extreme situations. I have seen His faithfulness too often in my own life to pretend otherwise. 

Perspective and Power

The difference is in perspective. We must grow beyond the perspective of those of the earth who only seek things of the earth. We must learn to seek the perspective of the kingdom and the righteousness of God. It is this kingdom of God’s and his righteousness that is to be the object of our quest—not the luxuries of this life.

With this change of perspective, we will then find that there is also a change of power. Our difficulties become tribulations when we do not have the power to overcome them. However, with our new perspective, we come to realize that our difficulties are not really even ours to solve.

I remember one of our boys when he was small sitting one day down in the valley that lies in front of our house in Wisconsin. He had gone down the hill on his wagon and was trying to pull it back up. But the hill was steep and the grass rather long, and his little legs and arms were tired.

I heard him sobbing, and as I peered over the crest of the hill, I saw him just sitting there, only a short way up from the bottom, with his little head resting on his knees.

Seeing the problem, I walked down the hill, picked him up and gave him a hug, and placed him in the wagon. Then, with him riding in the wagon, I pulled him up to the top of the hill. His sobs turned into laughter as he rode up the same hill against which he earlier had struggled.

It is the job of a father to take the burdens of his son, and it is not a bothersome responsibility. On the contrary, it gives a father great joy when he is able to use his strength to bring delight where there was once grief. I know I was very much pleased when my small son marveled at the great strength that I possessed.

As Job, of old, said of his Redeemer, “If it is a matter of power, behold, He is the strong one!” (Job 9:19, NAS).

And the great king David… “For who is God, besides the Lord? And who is a rock, besides our God? God is my strong fortress.” Like a father who pulls his son up the worrisome hill, David says this of his God: “He makes my feet like hinds' feet, and sets me on my high places” (2 Samuel 22:32-34, NAS). 

Not Blowing Up our Problems, but Giving Them to our Father

We do not put our problems into a package and blow them up. There is no real benefit in blowing up the old man to begin a New Year fresh.

But we do have a way that we can find relief from our problems.

Our Redeemer is strong. The Lord of hosts is His name. 

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