Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Falling up into the Clouds |

At 8,150 feet above sea level the air seems to strip your bones.  I am surrounded by tiny, beautiful people, Mayan children of the highlands of Tecpan. Their dark hair, deep and shiny brown eyes, caramel skin, and traditional woven garmets rival the beauty of Michaelangelo. If the people of God are His church, then surely I sit in the Sistine Chapel.

I've been riding shotgun with a group of travelers from the US who wind the 2 hours up CA1 into the altitudinal air overlooking the Guatemalan department of Chimaltenango. I have witnessed miracles. I have seen evidence of God.

The area we've entered is not open to English speaking white people from the U.S. We have been honored to enter it due to a fellowship between two men, Karvin Adams and Pastor Meynor. This week is an extension of fellowship from the first gathering of the Church of God Convention in Guatemala.

Rain falls in straight lines as our van sinks into the mud of the incline. The yellow country church rises from the landscape above us. The land rolls with hills and canyons atop the mountain. Corn grows here again in this soil that is scorched and painted by 60 years of gunfire, killings, and civil war. I step out of the vehicle and my boots sink into mud that still holds the persistent cold finger grip of those days.

Culvert project for drainage
Through the cool fog of the rain I see something else. I see remnants of men standing together with shovels and picks in hand. Guns and machetes have been laid down so that life can again take root. These men who would have defended this plot of land at that cost of my life a few years ago, are welcoming our small group of Gringos and Guatemaltecans as we prepare to labor together.

Over the past three days, a kitchen has risen from the earth, raised by hands of different skin tones, tongues of various languages (English, Spanish, Kaqchikel Maya), drawn together by common belief. We are all men and women seeking the face of God. 

We have found Him here in the mountain midst of our work. We see Him as we bridge culture, boundary, and history to meet eye to eye, hand to hand, shovel by shovel, and brick by brick as the kitchen rises, a stove is built, and rain falls on us all as sure as the rising son.

Three shirts and the leather jacket I bought five years ago on a clearance rack at Target, long before I thought of living in Guatemala, protect me from the damp, cool air as I sit on a wooden bench built by the men working outside. The air is filled with the sounds of one hundred children who experience Bible School from a group of dear ladies outside of their comfort zone inside of this block church.

A telling of the wise man who built his house on the rock is being taught around me with ballon and illustration and song. I am captivated by it as I think of this church that is built on the stone of this mountain. Outside the pastor, the men of his congregation, and the gathering of men from the Arkansas and Louisiana churches raise walls, a roof, and a massive stove that will feed thousands of meals. The rains come down and the floods come up as I listen to the pounding on the aluminum roof. Yes, the Church on the rock stands firm.

This region is known for livestock. We have packed in our standard lunches of PB&J sandwiches, Chiky Cookies, Tortrix corn chips, and a banana... but they will be given to children as we depart. Outside under the new awning and near the old, concrete pila stands a hand-made metal grill where strips of beef are roasted over carbon coals. Locally grown tomato, cucumber, spiny green chayote, blue corn grilled in the husk, lettuce, and a creamy pepper sauce are served with hand fired tortillas and local cheeses. We feast like warriors from centuries past.

The flavors are strong and delicious as I dig in with my hands and find a new level of brotherhood with the men while we break bread and the women serve a warm sweet corn mug as desert. Thoughts of whether or not I might be sick later have yielded to present enjoyment and total embrace of tradition, fellowship, and appreciation. I have dined in five star restaurants in New York, Chicago, Bejing, and Moscow... but never have feasted with such beauty and delight. I understand in this moment that this is the highest honor I have ever received. Gratitude overwhelms me as I can do nothing but smile, nod, and stuff my face.

My dear friend, Edgar takes me, along with Pastor Meynor of Tecpan and Pastor Karvin Adams of Louisiana, and we hike up the dirt and gravel road while rain streams off my trusty Minnetonka leather hat. We pass folks along the way, a young lady leading a cow, a man collapsed along the road after a night of drink, and children traveling home after school. We come to a place that has now forever altered how I view the world. 

A simple rectangular block structure is hewn into the side of the mountain. A steel tower rises from the back with a looped antenna on the top. This radio station was the rebel broadcast holdout during the civil war. This tower spread vital information at risk of death to the people of the villages that lived with the reality of genocide, torture, and misery. This beacon spread warnings, hope, and life. 

Today this tower transmits the message of the teachings of Jesus Christ through words and music. Like the decades past, it still broadcasts hope and life. Our group donates a lap top computer, a microphone, and a first aid kit. We stand in a hand-gripped prayer circle as the radio operator weeps in thanksgiving. We've found this place by accident... and yet it is apparent that a higher purpose is in place.

Broadcast Booth
The leader of our conference a week before hosts the Spanish version of Christian Brotherhood Hour, and we have his messages digitally linked for this station to play. We listen as we are told of the monthly expenses... and how this man raises broccoli, cauliflower, and lettuce to sell in the market to make ends meet. What is a nearly insurmountable cost to him each week can be met by a monthly donation. The connections are made and suddenly this radio station with such a depth of history, that transmits the hope of Jesus, has gone for a future of uncertainty, to a reality of new equipment, fresh programming, and solid financial support.

None of this was our planning. We simply followed the suggestion of a pastor to come and see a small church in the highlands. By faith we led a team to come with us. Its like we are falling up into the clouds as we receive blessings from God who knows are needs, our resources, and the perfect fit with others... our brothers and sisters. 

This experience surpasses our existence. We have experienced the interaction of the divine. At the end of the week we stand in a circle, no longer Gringos and Guatemaltecans... but thankful and changed sons and daughters of God. The rain falls around us and the mist of the clouds that we stand in are as chilly as they were the day we first stepped into the mud off of the van... and yet, everything has changed. 

Beauty surrounds us. Hope beats in our chest. Our bellies are as full as our souls as collectively we breath in the beauty of our creator in this heavenly place.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

San Bartolo Aguas Calientes (Totonicapon, Guatemala)

A 3:30 in the night start is not any easier than it has ever been, but I’ve learned ways to make it a little less painful. Carry a blanket and drink as little as possible and you might be able to sneak in a nap without feeling like your bladder is about to explode as you bump and jolt down gravel and dirt roads.

I set off with my frequent traveling companions Fontaine and Edgar, along with Karvin Adams from Texas, my right hand man Antony, and our new intern Donavon. As the sun searched for the horizon line our wheels rose into the highland area near Xela, Guatemala. The growing light began to reveal small cooking fires sparked alongside the highway as women prepared tortillas and coffee.

Our path took us along peaks and ridgelines as we navigated without edge line or guardrail only inches away from a decisive mistake. Despite my best efforts, I barely made it to a concrete bathroom behind a desperate gas station. After what was surely a personal best in evacuation duration, I climbed back to the comfort of a warm blanket wondering how in the world I can drink a cup and produce a bucket?

Certainly this last line has thinned out the audience a bit, so now let’s move into the story. Our trusty ministry van rattled and screeched its way around the mountain curves as Edgar kept the accelerator firmly in the down position. To my surprise, we arrived alive at San Bartolo Aguas Calientes, Totonicapon, home of Pastor Julio. 

The city’s name includes the words, “hot water” because of its proximity to a natural volcanic heated spring. Lest you think we kicked our heels up all day, I’ll tell you that the spring was a kilometer from our location that ironically had water only 2 hours per day, and not a drop of it was hot.  Even so, the beauty of the city cannot be over-embellished. Gorgeous vistas and mountainscapes surrounded us on every side with symmetrical patches of agriculture being tended at seemingly impossible inclines. Fruit stands lined the streets brighter than an oil painting, on a tapestry smoother than any watercolor. 

Pastor Julio met us in the road and jumped into the temporarily stopped, tire-smoking van. He guided us to his home where we feasted like kings on a fresh cooked, all local breakfast of scrambled eggs, plantains, refritos, tortillas that came steaming hot from the stove-top, fresh made Rosa de Jamaica tea, fresh sliced watermelon, and steaming fresh coffee for which I gave sincere thanks to God. Julio’s wife was a baker and a wonder in the kitchen. We all were family as we ate our fill and thumped our bellies like large drums. I laughed at the spectacle. We were like the dwarves that ransacked Bilbo Baggin’s house on that most unexpected of nights.

For some unexplainable reason, I enjoy the experience of an unknown day. Each moment is an adventure, and there are no disappointments. And so I was delighted when we loaded up into the van, stopping to pick up people I’ve never before met as we turned the corner from Julio’s house and headed down the incline, reaching his church. 

After parking the van we unpacked like so many multi-faced clowns… some of us smiling, some of us grimacing at the sun and uncreaking our spines. We stumbled down the sidewalk and made our way to the church that seemed perched on the edge of the cliff like a Dr. Suess house. To my delight, the doors were opened and we were greeted by the church leadership, a beautiful mix of both young and a little more experienced men and women. 

The church seemed large with it’s massive balcony that I of course had to climb. It had skinny concrete steps that rose boldly without hand-rails over the expanse below. 

The top of the stairs ended into the ceiling, and a small alcove that housed the bells was two feet away in the side-wall, with a 2 foot gap between them that was open to the concrete bleachers some 20 feet below. I considered making the climb and instantly broke out in a nervous sweat. I put it on my list of things to do next time I’m here. Not today.

With wobbly knees I made my way back down the balcony and to the main floor of the sanctuary. Edgar shifted my attention to the large banner on the wall. Fontaine, our mission director said, “Now that’s vision with teeth.” Printed in full color was the architectural plan of a 1,200 seat auditorium with a two story classroom structure, and a mass production pure water plant.

It was a massive plan. If they could actually build this church, it would be the largest church of our Reformation Movement in all of Central America. In fact, it would be among the largest Churches of God in all of North America. This could be a tremendous story of church expansion! We all stood in awe, considering if something like this could actually be realized.

It was at this moment that the pastor’s voice softly broke the silence. “Would you like to come and see it?” I turned to him slowly as again he repeated it, and then led us out to the van.  We bumped down the road and down the mountain about a quarter mile, crested the ridge, and saw the vision of the church, half-way built! Pastor Julio explained that a crew of four men were responsible for the majority of the building.

Classroom structure, photo right; Auditorium photo left.
The original plan for the lower level was to build a feeding center for the community. The land was at an elevation of 8100 feet above sea level and to the shock of everyone, while digging the foundation, a natural spring was found at a depth of 18 feet. This little village that only received water for 2 hours per day could use a fresh water supply. It seems that God provided a church some land, vision with teeth, and a natural fresh water supply.

The church decided to relocate the feeding program and to use the space at the church for water purification. The pure water project is now fully licensed by the government to filter water, fill 5 gallon jugs and water bottles, seal them, and provide them to the community. A small pump delivers the water from the well up to three large holding tanks on the roof, and then the water is gravity fed through the system for filtration. Our tour ended with a full cup of clear and refreshing pure water.

Living water. Jesus told his disciples that they would do even greater things than he did. While working here I have witnessed the blind gain sight with eyeglasses, the deaf hear with cochlear implants, the lame walk through surgery or prosthesis. I’ve witnessed the orphaned become son and daughter. Today I see a community that is receiving the both the living water of the good news of God restoring creation back to communion with Him, and pure water that will strengthen and give life to a city.

The church construction continues and Pastor Julio anticipates that the roof will be on the sanctuary in the early months of 2016. We’ve decided to partner in ministry with these giants of faith and vision. Catalyst Resources International will be bringing teams for work, including Emmaus, the 5 week summer mission for students. We also will be partnering with the Anderson University School of Theology to resource Spanish language materials and to provide formal biblical training.

Third Floor with the water tanks
and room for future expansion.
A view of the 1,200 seat auditorium
with balcony space to the left.
A fabulous panoramic view from a corner classroom.
Once again my heart has been overwhelmed with emotion as I realize even deeper the width, the depth, the breadth that is the love of God. I am learning to more fully see that Jesus is the Subject.

And still… the day was not ended. Pastor Julio then invited us to travel further up into the mountain to a Mayan Church of God that they helped found and support. Again we loaded into the van and our ascent began. We came to the end of the road and kept going. I can announce to Shel Silverstein that I know where the sidewalk ends. The dirt and stone path wound up the mountain pass, crumbling mountain walls on the left and a sheer drop on the right, we navigated around holes and rocks, passing canyons, waterfalls, and many beautiful smiling faces. 

The church was fully built by hand with no electricity or running water. No blocks or bricks were purchased. Rectangular bricks of adobe were formed with clay cut from the adjacent hillside, mixed with water carried a mile and a half away in five gallon buckets, up a steep path. The stones in the foundation were also carried from the river below. The men strapped them to their backs and made the strenuous climb.

We stood on that ridge, nearly 9000 feet in elevation in total awe of the work done by hands in honor of God, for a place to worship Him. We breathed in the cool, fresh air and slowly turned in wonder as we contemplated the vast landscape that stretched out on every side. This is the work of my God. I am filled with wonder.

The inside of the church was beautiful tile on the floor, curtains hung with reverence from the ceiling that was hand cut and sanded strips of pine that had been inlaid with skill. The language of the mountain wasn’t Spanish. It was a Mayan church, and they spoke their native tongue, Kaqchikel. The pastor’s family was beautiful, and they shared cans of juice and small packets of cookies with our group. I nearly wept as they served us. I am overcome even now as I reflect on the moment.

There were just too many emotions hitting me at once. The expanse of the open blue sky, the height of the ridge that held the church, the beauty of the children, the tenacity that it took to form that church in this ancient place, the ridiculous effort that was required for simple survival here, and these hands that had accomplished it all, despite the odds… serving us with the best of what they had.

Oh… I wanted to fall on my knees and thank God. I wanted to bury my face in the clay and ask forgiveness for the way I live my life. My life is not this hard, my hands haven’t known this level of strain, my back hasn’t carried boulders to honor my God. Again, God teaches me what I thought I have always known, but He causes me to know it deeper. 

I walk away with a refreshed soul. I step with more hope than I realized possible just a few hours earlier. Purpose just seems to have been distilled for me today. Our passions fuel our days. They drive us: to do more, to give more, to live more. There is no greater passion than what God pressed into our souls at our moment of creation… His image. He seeks us out. There is evidence of that in the farthest corners of the world. There is evidence of this right where you are.

Take a moment to be in awe.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Every Blood Washed One

He began with a mysterious tale of dread turned belief. How can anyone be expected to understand the justice of the universe when faced with a child that has cancer? But this story quickly turned with a fairy tale twist as the boy was taken to a wise old woman who was known as The Faith Healer. Gnarled knuckled hands trembled as they descended on his head and his chest. A smile slowly straightened the lines of her face as words rose deep from her chest, "Take the boy home. He will be fine." The days passed until he was returned to the hospital for a final examination before a desperate surgical measure. The doctor hastily called in a more experienced surgeon who then saw the boy before they spoke words that would change the course of multitudes, "His cancer is gone." The boy grew in strength and faith until his fame spread throughout the land. He became an evangelist. His name was Clifford Hutchinson.

These are the stories that define us. We hear them and they feel familiar because they are at the heart of us all. The fear of dread and the hope of salvation hide in tandem just beneath the surface of our skin. We are not so different, you and I. We want the same things in the end.

I was repeatedly taken back to memories of my great-grandmother as I sat on a wooden bench in a surreal sort of haze that was partially due to language but really was a deep spiritually longing for something lost. And yet... there were moments when all divides were crossed as the singular voice of the speaker began to sing a heritage hymn of the Reformation movement in English, just as my great-grandmother sang, and then some fifty voices answered by singing that same song in Spanish. Oh no, we are not so different. 

I listened with trembling as pastors here in Guatemala spoke first hand of torture during the civil war that ravaged this nation for forty-six years. I will never forget the tension in the room as the one who told the story of Clifford stood among the four small statured, Guatemalan giants of faith who spoke from deep within their souls of those they knew who had been martyred for the cause of Jesus Christ, and many others who had simply disappeared without explanation.

Tears streamed down my face as these pastors expressed a desire to team up with our movement: to worship, to embrace, to walk together in holiness and unity, and to learn from one another. I remember feeling awe as I realized that our stories converged in this moment due to a little boy named Clifford.

The speaker at this convention was my friend Gary. Like me, Gary came from the area of Middletown, Ohio. Gary's mom and dad gave their hearts to Jesus Christ under the preaching of Clifford. This same Clifford was the man who led my great-grandmother to Christ. Gary and I are both being used by God here in Guatemala, and both of our lives and ministries are a testament to that little boy whose tale went from dread to belief because of faith.

Gary is now the historian of the Church of God, Anderson, Indiana, the pastor of Beechwood Church of God, just a few miles from where I grew up, my professor at Anderson University School of Theology, and I have no doubt he was sent here by God for this time.

Gary spoke to the women and men pastors about all of us being part of the blood washed ones, a reference to Naylor's Church of Jubilee, and Ezekiel 34:12. He knocked the breath out of me when he began to describe the setting of the United States of America at the dawn of the Reformation Movement: civil war had just ended, the nation was trying desperately to rebuilt, men were in short supply because many had died in combat, great divides separated the people based on wealth, poverty, and social status... these attributes describe the state of Guatemala today. Today! These similarities were not lost on the pastors. Shouts of "Amen!" filled the expanse as they stood to their feet in support with applause.

He began with a tale of mysterious dread turned belief. This was his story. It was the story of a little boy named Clifford. It was the story of the United States of America as it limped away from the decimation of a civil war. It was the story of men and women in Guatemala who survived their own nation's civil war. This was my story. This is the story that runs through us all, every blood washed one whose heart pulses with the story of God.

The Church's Jubilee | Charles W. Naylor

The light of eventide now shines the darkness to dispel,
The glories of fair Zion’s state ten thousand voices tell;
For out of Babel God doth call His scattered saints in one,
Together all one church compose, the body of His Son.

O church of God, the day of jubilee
Has dawned so bright and glorious for thee;
Rejoice, be glad! Thy Shepherd has begun
His long-divided flock again to gather into one.

The Bible is our rule of faith, and Christ alone is Lord,
All we are equal in His sight when we obey His word;
No earthly master do we know, to man-rule will not bow,
But to each other and to God eternal trueness vow.

The day of sects and creeds for us forevermore is past,
Our brotherhood are all the saints upon the world so vast;
We reach our hands in fellowship to every blood-washed one,
While love entwines about each heart in which God’s will is done.

Oh, blessed truth that broke our bands! In it we now rejoice,
While in the holy church of God we hear our Savior’s voice;
And gladly to His blessed will submissive we shall be,
And from the yokes of Babel’s lords from henceforth we are free.

Ezekiel 34:12 NIV

As a shepherd looks after his scattered flock when he is with them, 
so will I look after my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places 
where they were scattered on a day of clouds and darkness.

Edgar Ramos: Catalyst Resources International
Host and Pastor Link

Photo bottom left: Fontaine Greene,
Founder and Director of Catalyst Resources International
listens to Brother Gil

Rev. Dr. Gary Agee touches the heart of all present.
The Historian makes history as a new era of
holinessand unity is born.