My family and I recently returned from nine days in Germany on a mission trip. We went with a group from Champion Forest Baptist Church in partnership with the Evangelical Free Church in Minden, a town about three hours north of Frankfurt. For six years, these two churches have been offering a baseball camp for kids. I know what you’re thinking: “Baseball in Germany? Really???” True, Germans love their soccer, but they are intrigued by this strange American game. In fact, there were over 100 kids who participated in the camp.
Here’s how it worked: The kids were separated into a younger (8-12) and older (teenagers) division, and placed on teams. We Americans coached the teams: My daughter Kayleigh and another young lady coached the Yankees in the younger division, while Carrie, Will and I coached the Phillies in the older group. They had T-shirts that looked like the team’s jersey, and replica caps, which was a really nice touch. Each morning, we would have baseball drills with our teams, along with “team time,” a moment for sharing a story from Scripture. After lunch, we played 45-minute games with some modified rules: No more than five runs per inning, only one base advance on an overthrow, and my personal favorite, a free base if you hit the coach with a batted ball (We pitched to our own teams). At night, we had a worship service (I got to preach on Monday night!). It was a busy twelve-hour day, but it was a ton of fun.
So you’re probably wondering about a few things: Do these kids speak English? Most of them speak at least a little, and all but a few of our Phillies were fluent. Each team was assigned at least one translator (a kid who had outgrown the camp, but still wanted to be involved…ours was Amy). They came in handy when we taught our Bible lessons, or when we tried to explain some of the finer points of baseball (“Please tell him to run through first base, not slide into it”). Are they any good? Some of them are. We had at least three kids who any select team in America would love to have, and several others who were good athletes…it seemed that was the rule on all the teams. Some kids were just there to have fun. And some had never played the game before. Was this more about baseball, or more about Jesus? We took the baseball part seriously. I saw each kid grow in their abilities, even those who were experienced players. But the team times and the worship services were very deep. The Minden church had a praise band that was excellent, and the kids really engaged with God. Germany is a nation that has a rich Christian history, but is now quite irreligious. Some of our kids were Christians, but I was very aware that for many, God just wasn’t something they thought about often. Near the end of the week, one of our players asked me, “Why do you pray in the name of Jesus?” I told him that it’s because Jesus died for our sins that I now have the right to go into God’s presence and ask Him for whatever is on my heart. Praying in Jesus’ name is a reminder to me of that important fact. I was so glad to be able to share that!
There were a few exceptions to the schedule. Our first full day in Germany was our sightseeing day. We took a train to Wittenberg, where Martin Luther launched the Reformation 501 years ago. I am a huge history buff, and I read a Luther biography recently, so walking in his footsteps was a powerful experience for me. Taking the train also allowed us to see the countryside of this beautiful nation. On Tuesday night, the church had a block party, so we got to meet some of our players’ families and other folks from the neighborhood over bratwurst. Wednesday night, we Americans put on Astro Tshirts and caps to play an exhibition game against the Minden Millers, the local club team (several of our translators are on that team). We won, 9-2, thanks mostly to Travis, who dominated on the mound, and Nick, our 18 year-old, Blinn-bound catcher, who hit a home run that is probably still airborne somewhere over Copenhagen.
I have to confess something here. I grew up playing sports of all kinds, and used to be very proud of my throwing arm. I didn’t have a cannon, but I could throw the ball with accuracy. But it’s been a while, if you know what I mean. Pitching to my team was rather humbling. They would watch me throw bad pitch after bad pitch, waiting for something they could hit. The night of the game against the Millers, I was at second base. I immediately thought of Chuck Knoblauch, the great second baseman of the 1990s, whose career ended when he suddenly was unable to throw from second to first. Fortunately, thanks to Travis’ lights-out pitching, I only made one play on defense, and our first baseman managed to dig my throw out of the dirt. At the plate, I managed a base hit into right field that brought home two runs. My daughter was good enough to record it on her phone. My swing doesn’t exactly look like Altuve (and I certainly don’t run like him), but it was an exciting moment nonetheless.
On Thursday afternoon and Friday, we played a tournament. Kayleigh’s Yankees had started slowly, but by mid-week were a well-oiled machine, so we expected them to win. In our older division, the Rockies seemed like the team to beat. Every kid on their team seemed to be able to hit the ball into the outfield, and they could field the ball on defense, as well. They had no weak spots. Our Phillies had been erratic all week, but did well in the tournament. We played a double-round-robin, and we won four games and lost two—the two we played against the Rockies, of course. Then we won our semifinal against the Marlins and went into the championship game against those powerhouse Rockies. Our kids played hard, with nothing to lose, and managed to win! We celebrated with these ten German teenagers like we’d just won the World Series, then walked to the younger division ballfield just in time to see the Yankees win their championship as well. Seeing our entire family win the championship seemed a little too good to be true, but we enjoyed it!
There were so many blessings to the week. We were hosted by Alex and Judith Haak and their children, Vivian, Sarina and Lennard. They were incredibly gracious hosts. They fed us extremely well (we all gained five pounds at least). The day is long in northern Germany (the sun sets at around 10 PM), so after baseball camp was over each night, we still had time to grill in the backyard, or visit the Kaiser Wilhem Monument looming over Minden, or drive into downtown for a look at a church first established in 805 BC and to eat some spaghetti ice (Ice cream pressed to look like spaghetti…it’s delicious). We loved getting to know this family. In just a few days, they became incredibly dear to us, and we hope to see them again soon. We were impressed with the entire church, who worked so hard all week, from manning the brat wagon and the concession stand to making us lunch each day to washing the jerseys each night. This church is smaller than ours, but very committed to reaching their community for Christ. They are starting an Alpha course soon (a class designed to teach newcomers the basics of the Christian faith). Pray for that effort, for Pastor Olaf and his entire congregation.
For me, perhaps the greatest blessing was getting to do mission work with my family. That was a first for me. Kayleigh went on this trip last year and told us “the whole family needs to go next year.” I said that was impossible. Perhaps we could raise enough for her and one parent to go (I even offered for it to be Carrie instead of me…I know which parent is more important!). But she insisted. I prayed about it and decided even if we have to take a huge financial hit, it was something we should do. Well, thanks to so many generous friends, we didn’t take a huge financial hit. And it was an incredible joy to serve the Lord together.
We each absolutely left a piece of our hearts in Minden, Germany. God is good!
Our church has experienced several deaths in the past month. These were people I knew well, whose loss I feel deeply. But my feelings pale in comparison to those of their spouses, siblings, children and grandchildren. According to 1 Thessalonians 4:13, we don’t grieve like those who have no hope, but we do still grieve. The Gospels record two times that Jesus wept, and one was at the tomb of a friend. I have learned a lot about grief in my years in the ministry. But I truly learned about grief when I lost loved ones of my own. I can remember when my grandmother lay dying, and people from the community came to visit her. I overheard them saying to her as they left, “I sure hope you get better soon!” That infuriated me. She was laying in a hospital bed in her living room, barely able to speak. But they made it sound like she had a cold. Their words seemed like a mockery to me. Now, over a decade later, I know how unreasonable I was. They were trying to be kind in visiting her. But I also know how their “comfort” made me feel in the moment.
So, for the sake of the grieving people in my own congregation now, and for all those who have grieved, are grieving, or will someday grieve a loss, here’s a list of the worst things to say to someone who is hurting:
“God needed him more than you do.” Stop and think about how selfish that makes God sound. And it’s certainly not true. God doesn’t “need” anyone. He is perfectly content in the Godhead. When our loved ones pass away, it’s not because God requires their companionship.
“It was just God’s will.” First of all, we don’t know that to be true. If someone is murdered, was it God’s will? What about a suicide? Or a drunk-driving accident? We live in a warped, sin-stained world that God is in the process of redeeming; until then, things will happen that are NOT part of God’s original plan. It’s just a bad idea all around to try to interpret God’s will for someone else’s life. Oh, and by the way, I assume you know not to say something like, “You must have done something to cause God to do this to you.” People who say such things should be glad a gracious God is their judge, and not me. I would zap them with extreme prejudice.
She’s your guardian angel now. No, she’s not. People are people, angels are angels, and there is no biblical evidence that ever the twain shall meet.
Look on the bright side. Or some version of this, such as “You have so many other things to be thankful for,” or “You should be grateful for the time you had with him,” or worst of all, “You can still have another baby.” People in grief aren’t ready to look on the bright side. We need to respect their need to grieve instead of trying to distract them from it. Speaking of which…
Don’t cry. Okay, we probably don’t actually say that, but when in the presence of a grieving person, we often feel intensely uncomfortable. We see a side of them that we’ve never seen before. Suddenly, this once strong, dignified person loses all social decorum, turns red, trembles, weeps, moans, and generally collapses. Our gut instinct is to do whatever we can to make those tears stop. But what if those tears are exactly what is needed? Jesus said Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted, not “Blessed are those who keep a stiff upper lip and an ironic eye roll.” Psalm 56:8 says God keeps all our tears in a bottle, which I take to mean that when we cry, He pays attention to it. He remembers it. Our tears are not an embarrassment to Him. Neither should they be to us.
There is an exception to this, though. Jesus once told a grieving widow, “Don’t cry,” and then He raised her son from the dead. Let’s all agree that when you or I develop the power to reverse death, we’ll also have the right to tell someone else how to grieve.
It’s time to move on. Rick Warren is a well-known pastor and author of The Purpose Driven Life. In 2015, his son Matthew took his own life at age 27 after battling depression for years. A year later, Rick’s wife Kay wrote a blog post that went viral, entitled, “Don’t Tell Mourners to Move On.” In it, she wrote of people who seemed surprised she was still grieving, They want the old Rick and Kay back. They secretly wonder when things will get back to normal for us – when we’ll be ourselves, when the tragedy of April 5, 2013 will cease to be the grid that we pass everything across. And I have to tell you – the old Rick and Kay are gone. They’re never coming back. We will never be the same again. There is a new “normal.” April 5, 2013 has permanently marked us. It will remain the grid we pass everything across for an indeterminate amount of time….maybe forever… There is no rule book for mourning. Everyone mourns in their own way. We may be legitimately concerned about their emotional health, but unless we are close enough to them to suggest seeing a therapist, asking them when they will “get over it” is a way of saying, “Your grief is an inconvenience to me.” To put it mildly, that doesn’t help.
How are you doing? This one seems harmless, and all of us have asked it with the best of intentions. But Warren’s blog post reveals something most of us have never thought of: Do your best to avoid the meaningless, catch-all phrase “How are you doing?” This question is almost impossible to answer. If you’re a stranger, it’s none of your business. If you’re a casual acquaintance, it’s excruciating to try to answer honestly, and you leave the sufferer unsure whether to lie to you (I’m ok), to end the conversation, or try to haltingly tell you that their right arm was cut off and they don’t know how to go on without it.
Call me if you need anything. I’ve said this one many times. But no one ever called. I finally realized, people who are mourning aren’t capable of knowing what they need for you to do. They are in a fog. When we say, “call me if you need anything,” or “Let me know what I can do,” we aren’t harming them, necessarily, but our words are meaningless. If we really want to help, we’ll offer to do tangible things: “Can I bring you some food? Want to bring the kids over to my house for a few hours? Want me to go to the funeral home with you?”
He’s in a better place. This isn’t always the wrong thing to say. God’s Word tells us about the certainty of Heaven for a reason. But if you don’t know the deceased well, your words may ring hollow (“How do you know where He is? You don’t know anything about him.”). And if talking about Heaven is just a way to spin their thoughts toward happiness, it’s just another version of “Don’t cry” or “Move on.” So yes, talking about our assurance of Heaven can be the perfect thing to say, under the right circumstances. Just don’t be surprised if they’re not ready to think cheerful thoughts yet.
So what should we say to grieving people? “I’m so sorry” is always welcome. “I’m praying for you,” works as well (especially if you actually are). But mostly, it’s not about what you say. It’s being there that matters. Spend time with them. If you feel like crying, don’t hold back. Weeping alongside them can be incredibly comforting. Checking in with them weeks (or even months) after the funeral, when everyone else seemingly has forgotten their grief, is powerful as well. Listen to them. Don’t be shocked if they express confusion, even anger toward God. Don’t feel you have to defend the Lord; Job’s friends made that mistake. Sometimes, the less you say, the better. Your presence is what matters. They will remember, years later, that you were there.
Earlier, I reference 1 Thessalonians 4:13, which indicates that although we are not exempt from grief, there is a distinctively Christian way to mourn. We have hope that the world does not. Perhaps part of that is the way we grieve alongside others. Someday, this world will be renewed. Someday, the Savior who died for us will be the King who rules over us. Someday, sickness, pain and death will be no more, and our Father will wipe every tear from our eyes. Until that day, let’s make sure we know how to weep with those who weep…in a way that actually comforts them.
I don’t often cry at movies. I bawled as a kid watching Old Yeller (and I’ve never watched it since, as a result). I get a little misty when Bubba dies by that river in Vietnam in Forrest Gump, or when Red finds Andy on the beach at the end of The Shawshank Redemption, or when Harry Bailey says at the end of It’s a Wonderful Life, “To my brother George, the richest man in town!” But now, I must add Paul: Apostle of Christ to the list. I found the ending of this movie one of the most emotionally powerful things I’ve ever seen.
I must admit, I don’t like most movies made for the “faith-based audience.” They tend to fall into one of two categories: Cheaply made films that are more like extended sermons than art, or big-budget biblical epics with A-list stars and great production values that play fast and loose with the stories of Scripture (Noah and Exodus: Gods and Kings are a couple recent examples). I feel a little guilty, but I rarely go see any of these, especially the ones in the former category. Even if I agree with the message, I want to be entertained for my $10 (minus the cost of popcorn). I made an exception for Paul, and I’m glad I did.
The story is set in 67 AD, during the reign of mad Emperor Nero, as Christians in Rome are being thrown to the lions or burned as torches to light the city streets. Paul is in a dungeon awaiting his execution at Nero’s hands; the cruel Caesar has scapegoated Christians for the recent fire in the city, and since Paul is the most famous Christian of all, he must die. The small Christian community in Rome is struggling to survive this time of desperate persecution. Priscilla and Aquila, now leading the church in Paul’s absence, must decide whether to leave the city for safer environs, or weather the storm, while also trying to pacify the faction of young men who would very much like to take up arms against their oppressors. Paul’s old traveling partner Luke arrives in Rome to visit the prison, hoping to write down the apostle’s life story while there is still time. Meanwhile, the prefect of the prison has a daughter dying of a mysterious illness. He wonders if perhaps killing a few more Christians (including this Greek physician Luke) would persuade the gods to heal her.
The performances are excellent. I was not familiar with James Faulkner, who plays Paul (If I had watched Downton Abbey with my wife, I would have seen him before), but I am now a fan. He plays Paul as a weary man, old before his time from years of deprivation, hard travel, and physical abuse, but whose worst torments are the dreams in which he sees the faces of Christians he once persecuted. The movie speculates that it is these dreams which were Paul’s true “thorn in the flesh” (1 Corinthians 12:7-9), a theory I had never heard before. Faulkner’s Paul may be one step from death, but he has lost none of his devotion to Christ. Much of his dialogue is lifted directly from his biblical letters; the movie assumes Paul lived out these words and repeated them often, instead of simply writing them once on a page. Jim Caviezel plays Luke. I smiled when I first saw his short, decidedly non-biblical-epic hairstyle; I assume they made that choice so we wouldn’t think he was playing Jesus again. But it didn’t take long for me to get lost in his performance, accepting him as a man who has already written a Gospel, a man who deeply admires Paul, but who struggles with the idea of possibly dying for Jesus. The relationship between these two men is the heart of the movie, while the other two subplots–the prefect and his daughter, and the struggling Roman Christians–lend some suspense to the film.
There are some slow moments, and a few clunky lines of dialogue (“With all this persecution, what will you do?”). I had a minor quibble with the flashback that shows Paul’s encounter with Ananias (why didn’t they show scales falling from his eyes?). But it was so rewarding to watch a movie that took Scripture seriously AND was a well made, well-acted film. And then that ending came, and hit me like a ton of bricks…
When this day began, I was in Lima, Peru. Now I am sitting in my den in Conroe. That’s rather remarkable, I think.
For the past nine days, I have been part of a small team (along with Sara Hassenger and Kaylee Martinez) from FBC who participated in a mission trip among the Quechua people of Peru. We were there to assist Russ and Sherry Fleetwood, IMB Missionaries from Conroe, in hosting a youth retreat. I wanted to get some thoughts down in print while they are still fresh on my mind, because this has been quite a trip.
When we think of Peru, we tend to imagine Llama-covered mountains. But there are some very distinct areas of the country. Lima, the capital, is a huge (roughly twice the population of Greater Houston), modern city. Much of the coast of Peru is a desert. There is also a substantial region that is jungle. And then there is the mountainous region, including Pomabamba, a small town in the Ancash region in the center of the country, where we spent most of our time.
In Pomabamba (which means “Cougar Plain”) and the Ancash region, nearly all of the population are Quechua. There are at least 3.5 million Quechua in Peru, along with millions more in Ecuador and Bolivia. They speak various forms of the language that was once used in the Inca Empire, although the Quechua were around before the Incas. The Quechua who we met were mostly farmers, living hard lives off of the land. They tend to be small relative to Americans; I only saw one or two men who were as tall as me. But as Russ told us, they are tough, resilient people. Several times, I saw tiny, elderly Quechua women carrying on their backs loads that were larger than themselves. Small towns like Pomabamba are built around a main plaza that sits in front of the Catholic church building. They have a few restaurants and businesses, along with locals who sell fruits, vegetables and other stuff in the street (one guy tried to sell Russ and me a bag of Guinea pigs). But they don’t have the conveniences you and I take for granted. There are no fast food spots. A grocery store is smaller than most of our living rooms, with items crammed onto the shelves, and a few barrels of rice, grains and vegetables. Pomabamba has a hospital, but it’s not well-resourced. Serious medical issues require a seven-hour long trip to Huaraz. Most of the residents don’t have cars; fortunately, there are now buses that take people to Huaraz and beyond, but the roads are not paved, and the trip is a hard one (more on that later).
Life in Pomabamba is different from life in the US in so many other ways:
–The Quechua love their potatoes. They should; after all, the potato originated in Peru, and they have thousands of varieties. The typical Quechua diet is full of starch; most meals are served with potatoes AND rice. The Atkins diet would have a tough time catching on in Pomabamba (of course, the Quechua would have a hard time understanding a culture so affluent, we lose weight on purpose).
–We ate twice at Mesa Rumi Restaurant in Pomabamba. The first time, I had Loma Saltado, a traditional Peruvian dish (Roasted beef and onions over fried potatoes, with rice on the side). Quechua get most of their liquids in soup, so when you go to a restaurant there, they won’t bring you a drink unless you ask for it. They also don’t like cold drinks, so your beverage will be lukewarm unless you ask for it “helado.” (One member of our team told us that she has served Coke to Quechua friends in her home, who then asked to heat it up in the microwave).
–Many Quechua women, especially those in the country (called Campesinos) dress in a traditional way: Brightly colored, layered clothing (a T-shirt and sweater on top, pants covered by a skirt on bottom), and hats.
–Animals are allowed to roam free in much of rural Peru. If you take a trip, you will have to pause several times for cows, pigs, sheep, horses, donkeys, and more dogs than you can count. Sometimes, these animals are being herded by a Quechua man or woman; but often, they are simply roaming.
–Traffic laws are more like guidelines in Peru. I’ve lived most of my life in the Houston area. I have learned to drive offensively, if you will. But Peruvians make the most aggressive Houston driver look like an old lady out for a Sunday drive in her Town Car. I lost count of the number of near-wrecks we had, all the fault of drivers who ran stop signs or red lights, were in the wrong lane in a blind curve, or cut in front of us without warning. In Lima, a city of over 10 million, it was even worse. So if you drive in Peru, keep your eyes on the road and be ready to use your horn.
–Truthfully, not many laws are strictly enforced in Peru. People put speed bumps in front of their homes without permission. Businesses in town often set up signs that block the public sidewalk. Quechua men routinely relieve themselves by the roadside, in full view of passers-by. On the other hand, the people are incredibly polite and friendly. The drivers may be aggressive, but I saw no signs of the road rage so prevalent here.
–Even though it is technically summer in Peru, the temperature in Pomabamba never got higher than the high sixties when we were there. There was virtually no humidity (even though it’s the rainy season), and I never broke a sweat, even when playing soccer. There are no poisonous snakes, and no cockroaches. The natural beauty of the place is stunning. This paragraph alone will make some of you want to pack your bags and move here immediately.
Oh, one more thing: I didn’t see a single Llama. Not one.
Russ and Sherri Fleetwood
Russ grew up at First Baptist. He met Sherry at the Baptist Student Union at the University of Houston (which is where I met my wife, as well!). The Fleetwoods have been Pomabamba for 14 years, recruiting and equipping Quechua men and women to lead home Bible studies to spread the Gospel. Although most Quechua, like most Peruvians, are nominally Catholic, church attendance is very low, and knowledge of the Gospel is almost non-existent. Evangelical Christianity has grown substantially in the time the Fleetwoods have been in Pomabamba, but they have found that many of these professing believers have very little Scriptural knowledge. Many pastors don’t preach the Bible, instead “preaching” about the latest dream they had. Their religion tends to be very works-based. So along with helping new people come to saving faith, the Fleetwoods also see their role as teaching professing believers how to study Scripture.
Kaylee, Sara and I took an early flight to Lima from Bush Airport (we left my house at 5:30 AM–huge thanks to Jim Hassenger for driving us). With a stopover, we landed in Lima at 8 that night…but our trip was far from over. We were met at the airport by Daniel, a Peruvian friend of the Fleetwoods who would help us get to the bus station. Daniel teaches English at a school in Lima, so he was the perfect guide for us. He helped negotiate a cab ride for us (actually two cabbies had a pretty heated disagreement over who would get the fare), and made sure we had our bus tickets in hand and luggage stowed.
Our bus for Huaraz departed at 11:30 PM. It was surprisingly comfortable, with fully reclining seats and plug-ins for us to charge our phones (I was picturing something out of the movie Romancing the Stone). But the road was rough and curvy, and I didn’t get much sleep. We arrived in Huaraz in the morning, where Russ was waiting for us with his pickup. He took us to a hotel in town, where we had breakfast and met Lisa and Amy, missionaries based in Lima who would help us lead the retreat. We then made the long drive from Huaraz to Pomabamba, picking up the final member of our team, Jose Marco, along the way. That drive winds around mountain roads through a pass that exceeds 15,000 feet elevation. The last three hours of the drive are on an unpaved, single-lane road that hangs precariously over the cliffside. Perhaps due to my lack of sleep, I wasn’t ready for the altitude, and I felt pretty miserable. We arrived at the Fleetwoods’ house on Tuesday night in time for supper. Fortunately, my altitude sickness had passed.
Wednesday, we drove to Jatun Era, site of one of the house churches the Fleetwoods work with. From the road, we walked up a steep, narrow trail (the sun had already set, so we had our cell-phone flashlights out, and stepped carefully). The church met in a small, tin-roofed structure with pews made of planks balanced on logs. There was a table up front and a tractor-supply calendar on the wall. A kitten roamed the room as we sang songs in Spanish and in Quechua. We split into two groups; the men went outside with Russ and me, while the women stayed inside with Sara, Kaylee, Amy, Lisa and Jose Marco (the older women are less likely to know Spanish, so we left Marco there to translate everything into Quechua). In our time with the men, I spoke (with Russ translating into Spanish) about God’s purpose for our lives. We shared about grace; Marco had told us there is no Quechua word for grace. Fortunately, we both felt they understood that grace is a gift of God, and our salvation cannot be earned. One of the young men asked me for my advice to them on building a church. It was a fruitful meeting, although I must confess (based on the laughter I heard coming from inside the building) I think the women had more fun.
Thursday we spent preparing for the youth retreat. We also helped the Fleetwoods with a yard sale, which gave us a chance to interact with local people. Friday morning, the retreat began. We ended up having fourteen teenagers (we would have had fifteen, but one young girl got sick). We found these kids to be extremely polite and easy to please. Russ told us that Quechua churches don’t have youth or children’s ministries, so any focused attention on them is welcome. Our goal for the retreat was to practice Bible storying–a technique in which a Bible story is shared several times, with a game or activity to reinforce it, and questions to make sure the students got the main point. The theme was Para mi, vivir es Cristo, y morir es una ganacia (“For me, to live is Christ and to die is gain,” Philippians 1:21). I was first to share my story: The story of Saul’s conversion on the road to Damascus. I had memorized the story in Spanish, which is WAY out of my comfort zone. But the kids listened well, and answered all my questions correctly. We sang Spanish-language worship songs, played games and did crafts. We went to bed that night good and tired.
Here are some pictures of the kids:
By the way, one story from that first day that stands out: At the start of the retreat, Kaylee asked the kids a series of questions to “break the ice.” One of her questions was “What is your favorite holiday?” One young girl answered, “Father’s Day.” Russ later told me that this was particularly moving. The girl’s father suffers from crippling arthritis and has a tough time providing for their family. He feels judged by the other men in the area, because he can’t do all that he would like to. Yet to this girl, Father’s Day is her favorite day of the year. Even as I type this, I’m getting a little teary-eyed thinking about it.
Saturday, we rented Teatro Obregon, a small theater in town, so we could play volleyball and soccer in between Bible lessons. Speaking of Bible lessons, I need to share a word about Jose Marco, who was there to translate our lessons into Quechua. The kids are all fluent in Spanish, thanks to the education system, but Quechua is the first language they learned. It’s what is still spoken in their homes. When Marco spoke, you could see the kids engage with him in a way they didn’t with the rest of us. He was speaking their language, yes, but it was more than that. He is a well-read, highly knowledgeable preacher of the Gospel who has a deep passion for the discipleship of his people. I enjoyed him tremendously. Actually, I am very grateful for every member of the team. Kaylee, who is only nineteen and is an intern in our student ministry, really shined. She organized games, hung out with the girls during break times (not surprisingly, the girls were drawn to her), and went the extra mile in so many ways. Sara had done the complicated logistical work to get us to Peru, and she led in the crafts as well as teaching a Bible story. I was glad to have someone with her international experience and fluency in Spanish, as well as her wisdom and maturity. Lisa and Amy were both incredible, too. They brought so many good ideas and knowledge about the Quechua. Combined with Russ and Sherry, they gave us the encouragement and confidence to do what we would have otherwise felt ill-equipped for.
Sunday, we wrapped up the retreat by 4:30. Most of the kids had walked to the retreat (trips that took several hours), but it was raining, so members of our team took them home. Kaylee was able to meet some of the parents of the kids, and exchange tearful goodbyes.
Monday, we started the long journey home. We took our time driving to Huaraz, stopping for a picnic lunch at 15,000 feet, later for a hike near what seemed like the top of the world, and still later for ice cream (although I must say…Peruvians need to import some Blue Bell). We took the same overnight bus back to Lima that night. Tuesday, we had all day to see Lima. Our experience there was quite different than in Pomabamba. Lima has all of the conveniences of home, including American restaurants. The people dress in modern styles and tend to look more European than the Quechua. Many times in the nicer sections of town, it struck me that if I didn’t know better, I would have thought I was in Houston. We went downtown, saw the Presidential palace and other government buildings, ate some great food by the seacoast, and briefly toured the ruins of the wall that surrounded Lima in the 17th century.
Our flight back to Houston departed Lima at 12:50 AM and landed here at 6:20. I had slept well the entire week, thanks to the Fleetwoods’ hospitality (and in spite of their neighbors’ rooster, who got cranked up every morning at 5), but the last two days of travel were so hectic, I was grateful for my nice, quiet bed when I got home.
What Will Stick With Me
The kids we met will stick with me most of all. Although they were very shy, they also impressed us with their intelligence and kindness. This generation of Quechua has great potential. Even though they still live in what we would consider primitive conditions (some don’t even have electricity), they are much more likely to finish secondary school and go on to advanced studies than their parents or previous generations. Pray that as they interact with the world in a way Quechua have never done previously, they are drawn closer to God, not pulled away from him. Pray that they will become leaders in their communities, who start house churches that spread God’s love, and lead their people to a better standard of living to God’s glory.
During the trip, I kept thinking about how hard it was to get to Pomabamba. And yet I was glad I had come, because if not, I never would have met these people. We tend to live in such a small, self-contained world, only interacting with the people we want; it is good to see that other people live in places we never consider, and they matter to God just as much as we do. Russ and Sherry have lived in this isolated spot for fourteen years, forgoing conveniences that we take for granted, simply because God loves the Quechua. It occurred to me that Jesus traveled a much longer and more treacherous road than I had: Leaving Heaven behind, emptying Himself of all divine privilege and prerogative (Philippians 2:5-8), becoming poor like us (poorer than any of us Americans, in fact), facing the rejection of His people, and dying for us on a cross. Why? Because we matter to God. We were worth it to Him. We still are. Quechua or Americans, rich or poor, Republicans or Democrats, rule-followers and rebels…God loves us all, and He’ll go to the very depths of Hell to save us, if we’ll let Him.
So if we call ourselves His followers, people need to matter that much to us, too.
Billy Graham died today at the age of 99. The great evangelist’s last big crusade was over a decade ago; he hasn’t been in the public eye since then. That means the generation now coming into adulthood has no idea what a massively influential public figure he was, if they know his name at all. To them, it may defy belief that a Christian preacher once wrote a syndicated newspaper column read by hundreds of thousands, produced regular television specials that drew high ratings, had a personal relationship with every president from Truman to Obama, and often polled among the most admired men in the world. In his lifetime, Billy Graham preached to more people than anyone else in history. God Himself only knows how many souls are in Heaven today because of his ministry. Today, and for the next few days, you’ll be able to read numerous glowing tributes to this great man, from sources both sacred and secular. So it may be folly for me to add my words. What I wish to do is point out a few ways I wish we (ie, American Christians) would emulate the most famous representative of our movement in the last 100 years. Here’s how I wish we were more like Billy Graham:
He was kind to outsiders. In 1969, CBS television gave Woody Allen a primetime TV special. Along with the expected comedic bits, Allen included a live interview with Billy Graham. The agnostic comedian and the famous preacher, whose social and religious views and personal lives couldn’t have been more different, debated subjects like God and sex on national television without anger, name-calling or accusation. You can watch the interview here. It’s hard to imagine such an interview today; it’s just as hard to imagine a Christian preacher being so gracious to an interviewer with whom he disagreed. But that was Graham’s style. He brought different denominations together through his crusades. He refused to publicly tear down non-Christian faiths. He treated people the way he would want to be treated. Sounds pretty biblical to me.
He was wise in his personal life. The “Billy Graham rule” about how men should relate to women in order to avoid scandal is back in the news today, thanks to the #MeToo movement. He understood that he represented Christ in all of his life. As Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 5:20, We are Christ’s ambassadors, as though Christ were making His appeal through us. He scandal-proofed his life not only in his relationships with women, but also in his financial dealings, refusing to handle the money for his ministry organization. His relationship with his wife, Ruth, was a huge, often unseen part of this. She was intellectually brilliant, deeply spiritual, and unimpressed by her husband’s celebrity. She loved him deeply, but was not afraid to tell him the truth. She once was asked if she had ever considered divorcing her husband. “Divorce, no. Murder, yes,” was her answer. My favorite story about Ruth concerns the time, early in Billy’s preaching career, when the offering plate was passed. Billy had a one dollar bill and a twenty in his wallet. He gave what he thought was the one, only to learn a few beats later that he had dropped the twenty in the plate. To a struggling young couple, twenty bucks was a lot of money in the early 40s. He bemoaned this to Ruth, whose answer was, “The really sad thing is that in God’s eyes, you only got credit for the one.” Billy listened to the wisdom of others, including Ruth, and it helped him avoid the disgrace we too often bring to the Gospel.
He handled critics graciously. Billy Graham may have been the most admired man in America for much of his life, but he was also the subject of constant criticism. Fundamentalists called him a heretic for working alongside Catholics and more liberal Protestants, while Christians to the theological left constantly lampooned him as an unenlightened rube for his straightforward, biblical preaching. Many of his fellow Southerners were angered when he insisted on integrating his crusades in the South, but civil rights leaders often criticized him for not doing more to advance their cause. Each time, Graham responded with humility (see the next point). These days, we Christians are easily offended, quick to join an internet flame-war or a shouting match over the harsh words of others. I wish we were more like Billy.
He admitted his flaws and learned from his mistakes.Here’s a great article about all the mistakes Graham learned from over the years. The picture on the webpage is the infamous photo of Graham and his ministry partners praying on the lawn of the Truman White House, a public misstep that cost him dearly. His greatest mistakes came later, when he put too much trust in the Nixon White House, not realizing how he was being used for political purposes. His comments on the Nixon tapes in which he appeared to agree with Nixon and his aides’ disparaging comments about Jews haunted him when they were released on 2002. Graham could not remember saying such vile things, but he owned them. It was a powerful lesson to all of us that “every careless word” we speak can make an impact beyond what we expect. Other mistakes things he wished he could redo: He wished he would’ve have been home more when his children were young. He regretted not studying more. And this nugget, which American Christians would do well to learn from: “I came very close to identifying the American way of life with the Kingdom of God. Then I realized that God had called me to a higher Kingdom than America.”
He was about Jesus, full stop. Sadly, most non-Christians identify us for what we’re against, not what we’re for. With Billy Graham, there was never a question. I heard him preach in person twice; once in 1981, when my little country church chartered a bus to go see him at the Astrodome. The second time was in 1997, when as pastor of that same church I took a group to San Antonio in a rented van. That second time, someone in our group remarked that there didn’t seem to be anything special or outstanding about his preaching. It sounded like blasphemy when she said it, but I think I knew what she meant. His sermons won’t be studied in future years for their eloquence in the way a CH Spurgeon’s sermons are today. Although he was often asked his opinion about social issues, he never took up any of them as his personal cause. Although he was friends with politicians of both parties, he never endorsed a candidate. Graham preached a simple message about a Savior who died for our sins, and a grace that could change anyone. That simple message brought salvation to millions. I wonder what would happen if we, his spiritual descendants, would become known for that message again?
In 1865, the tall young rector of Philadelphia’s Holy Trinity Episcopal Church was in Jerusalem for the Christmas season. On Christmas Eve, he rode to Bethlehem on horseback, where he attended a worship service at The Church of the Nativity that lasted five hours (from 10 PM to 3 AM). Three Christmases later, that same preacher was inspired to write a special carol for the children in his church’s Sunday School. Thinking back to that Christmas Eve in Israel, he composed the words we know so well:
O little town of Bethlehem,
how still we see thee lie.
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep
the silent stars go by.
Phillips Brooks would later move to a church in Boston, where he became known as America’s preeminent preacher. But he is still primarily known today for his carol. That Christmas of 1868, Brooks had given the words to his church’s organist, asking him to produce a tune to match. The organist struggled at first, but later claimed he heard the perfect tune in a dream. He scribbled it down as soon as he woke, and managed to teach it to the children in time for Christmas services that year. The song, written for children, was first published in a hymnal three years later, and quickly became a classic.
In 2014, I visited Bethlehem. Even though it was March, I couldn’t help but think about Brooks’ song. Bethlehem is still a small town, and not very prosperous. It’s in Palestinian territory on the West Bank of Jerusalem, and most of the signs were in Arabic. It’s also a tourist town. When we got off our bus, a man in his forties approached us on the street, holding up a beautiful carved nativity scene that was a little larger than his hand. “Small size Nativity sets, ten dollars” he said. For one teenaged girl in our group, this seemed like a deal that was too good to pass up. She asked her grandfather, who had brought her on the trip, for ten bucks, and paid for her prize. The man took the money, then reached into his pocket and pulled out something the size of his thumb. If you looked closely, you could see the Holy Family carved crudely into the tiny piece of wood. The girl said, “What about the one in your hand?” The man answered, “I said ‘small size Nativity set.’ This is large size Nativity set, and it’s twenty five.” The girl’s grandfather smiled grimly and said, “Okay, you got us. Now move along.”
Yet in thy dark streets shineth The everlasting Light; The hopes and fears of all the years Are met in thee to-night.
After our lesson in street capitalism and a lunch of schwarma at the most American-looking restaurant we saw in Israel, we walked to the Church of the Nativity. In 327 AD, Roman Emperor Constantine and his devout mother Helena commissioned the basilica to be built over a small grotto where many believed Mary had given birth to Jesus. It’s a dark, cavernous place, filled with ancient icons and the smell of burning incense, and a striking 14-pointed star with a Latin inscription over the site of the sacred grotto.
For an American evangelical like me, the trappings of Eastern Orthodoxy seem alien. But as I walked through a door into the adjoining building, I found myself in the Catholic Church of St Catherine. It’s brightly lit and, although ornate, seems much more like a church we would see in America. Every Christmas Eve, their Midnight Mass is broadcast around the world. That day, it was nearly deserted and very quiet. One of the members of our group accidentally knocked one of the kneeling benches down, and the sound of the wooden kneeler hitting the marble floor seemed as loud as a rifle shot.
How silently, how silently, The wondrous gift is given; So God imparts to human hearts The blessings of His Heaven.
But the most significant moment for me happened after we left the two churches and took a bus to the top of a hill outside the city. There we toured the ruins of Herod’s palace at Herodium, which once loomed over Bethlehem. It was not his primary residence, but it was a magnificent place in its day, with extravagant living quarters in its four seven-story towers, a Roman-style bathhouse and a large theater. It’s where Herod was buried, in an elaborately decorated stone tomb. I could picture Herod and his well-heeled guests watching the latest Greek play (with Herod and his favorite wife sitting in the luxury box—yes the theater had one), dining, drinking, and laughing, oblivious to the humble citizens of Bethlehem just down the hill from them.
No ear may hear His coming, But in this world of sin, Where meek souls will receive Him still, The dear Christ enters in.
We could see an Israeli settlement from Herod’s Palace. It was a beautiful suburban neighborhood, with red-roofed homes, well-paved streets, and a gate manned by armed guards. It looked much nicer than anything else we saw in Bethlehem. Our guide, an American Christian, told us that these settlements are subsidized by the Israeli government…essentially, they want to make it as tempting as possible for their citizens to live in Palestinian territory. Of course, the Palestinians resent this intrusion. I took a picture of the view with my phone; the Israeli settlement is in the foreground, with the rest of Bethlehem further down the hill.
I thought back to our trip from Jerusalem that morning. We had to cross through a security checkpoint to get there. We walked through it on foot before re-boarding our bus. As we did, we walked past hundreds of Palestinian men lined up, waiting to be cleared by security so that buses could take them to their jobs in Jerusalem. The barrier was first built in 2000, during the Second Intifada, a time of suicide bombings and riots by Palestinians and retaliatory strikes by the Israeli military (an estimated 4000 people were killed between the two sides). To Israelis, this wall is vital to their security; to Palestinians, it is a version of racial apartheid. The men in that long line didn’t look like they were thinking about politics, however. The expressions on their faces reminded me of the way Houstonians look when stuck in traffic; only their commute involves a stop of an hour or more each day before riding the short trip to work in Jerusalem, the only place in the region with employment opportunities. The world hasn’t changed all that much in two thousand years. I never felt unsafe in Israel, but at moments like this, I saw that (as Longellow once wrote in another famous carol) “there is no peace on earth…for hate is strong and mocks the song of peace on earth, good will to men.”
O holy Child of Bethlehem, Descend to us, we pray! Cast out our sin and enter in, Be born in us to-day.
As I pondered these things, a member of my group nudged me and pointed to the hillside between the palace and Bethlehem. There were shepherds out there, Bedouins in dark, hooded garments tending what looked from our lofty perch like little white balls of cotton. I wondered if that was where the shepherds in Luke 2 had been when the angel appeared to them that night, igniting the sky in a terrifying holocaust of holy light. I thought about Mary and Joseph, somewhere further down the hill in that little village. I wondered if they had glanced nervously at Herod’s palace on top of that hill; That same King who lived in Romanesque luxury would soon unleash horrific violence on the small town of Bethlehem, killing infants in a sociopathic attempt to eliminate the Messiah. Human politics and ambition will always seem to be more powerful and relevant than grace; but two millennia later, Herod’s tomb is a ruin, and Jesus’ tomb is empty. The child in the manger grew up to change the world like no other human who has ever lived; whereas the King in the Palace is only remembered because of his part in that child’s story. Grace is intrepid. Tyranny and violence of all kinds are no match for God’s saving power.
We hear the Christmas angels, The great glad tidings tell; O come to us, abide with us, Our Lord Emmanuel!
What are your fondest Christmas memories? I think of Christmas pageants when I was a kid; walking with my family one Christmas Eve, while my Grandpa whistled Christmas carols; the year my Dad convinced a friend of his to dress as Santa Claus and surprise us at my Grandparents’ house; watching the delight and excitement in my children’s eyes each year when they saw the bounty under the tree on Christmas morning; walking out of Christmas Eve service in 2004 to find it snowing, followed by our one and only Houston White Christmas the next day. For me, Christmas is music, lights, family, watching old movies, eating good food, and candlelight worship.
It’s easy to believe these are universal traditions, as ancient and widespread as the Christian faith itself. But that is hardly the case. I’m reading Christmas in the Crosshairs: Two Thousand Years of Denouncing and Defending the World’s Most Celebrated Holiday, by Gerry Bowler, and it’s teaching me some new things about my favorite Christmas traditions.
There’s no indication the earliest Christians celebrated Christmas at all. Christ’s birth is only mentioned in two of the four Gospels, and not at all in the writings of Paul. They were much more focused on His atoning death, resurrection, and His Second Coming. But by the year 200, Christians began to speculate on the exact date their Lord had been born. Contrary to what most people today believe, December 25 doesn’t seem to have been chosen to take the place of a pagan celebration on that date (Saturnalia). At least, that’s not what any Christian writers of that time thought. Instead, they used criteria that might seem strange to us: For instance, some assumed that Jesus would have been conceived in the Spring, the time of new life, and therefore was born between December 25 and January 6. At any rate, by the mid-fourth century, December 25 was the accepted date for the feast of Christ’s nativity.
In those early days of Christmas, the emphasis was on charity for the poor and self-examination. As time wore on, Christmas became more of a party. By the Middle Ages, yuletide was a time for wild social inversion: During the Twelve Days of Christmas (between Christmas Day and Epiphany on January 6) slaves would rule over their masters, priests would elect boy bishops to run things in their churches, and poor people could ask their lords for anything they wanted. In an agricultural world, there’s not much to do at that time of year, so singing, drinking and feasting made sense. Church leaders of those days used to preach against the drunkenness of the poor, and against rich folks who fled their estates and spent Christmastime in the cities so they wouldn’t have to give alms to their poorer neighbors.
These days, we often talk about a War on Christmas, but the first real War on Christmas came from within the church, not from secular culture. The Puritans especially hated the holiday, for two main reasons: First, because it wasn’t commanded in Scripture. Second, because it smacked of Roman Catholicism. The drunken revelries and anarchy just proved their point: Christmas was a “Popish invention” that disgraced the name of Christ, and His true followers would not observe it. For fifteen years in England, Christmas was outlawed. Here in America, Christmas Day was an ordinary workday in many cities until the mid-1800s.
How did our ideas about Christmas change? Bowler credits Santa Claus, especially after “A Visit From Saint Nicholas” (better known today as “The Night Before Christmas”) was published in 1823. The real St Nicholas was a Turkish bishop, born in 270, and had been celebrated by Christians for centuries on December 6 with gift-giving. Over the years, many legendary gift-givers had joined St Nick in the minds of children at Christmas. But Moore’s poem brought us a jolly, fat, bearded man in a white-fur-trimmed coat and hat, who rode in a reindeer-driven sleigh and entered our homes through chimneys. The image of Santa Claus did two things in popular culture: First, it made Christmas a family holiday, not a time for rowdiness. Santa gave parents an opportunity to indulge their children, while at the same time blackmailing them into good behavior. For the kids themselves, Santa was a great improvement over more terrifying Christmas visitors such as Perchta the Disembowler, who children in the Austrian Alps believed would cut a hole in the stomachs of disobedient children, removing their guts and replacing them with straw.
Second, Santa made Christmas a much more commercially-driven holiday. There had been Christmas markets in European villages dating back to the Middle Ages, but now parents felt compelled to make sure their children had a good Christmas. Merchants jumped on the bandwagon quickly, and Santa Claus became the spokesman for department stores, toy shops and candy emporiums. In the mid-1800s, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol reaffirmed Christmas as a time to spend with family and to think about those less fortunate.
Bowler’s book has lots of great little nuggets:
–During World War II, American Christmas cards sometimes featured Santa Claus waving the red, white, and blue, or kicking a cartoon Hitler in the keister; while Nazi publications encouraged parents to buy military toys for their kids (One toy catalog said, “What joy! What fun! A lovely Gatling gun!”) and described Christmas as a time when dead German soldiers came home.
–Many Europeans resent Santa Claus as an American intruder, and there are movements in these countries to teach children about their native gift-bringers. The book shows a print by a Polish artist of a policeman with Santa in handcuffs, waving a cheery hello to Saint Nicholas.
–While plenty of people have opposed Christmas, no one stands out for me quite like Katsuhiro Furasawa, a Japanese man who was dumped by his girlfriend and founded The Revolutionary Alliance of Men Who Women Find Unattractive. One of the organization’s goals is to “crush Christmas,” since in Japan, it is considered a time to get away with one’s sweetheart.
None of this takes away from my enjoyment of Christmas. But it helps remind me that the traditions I love so much aren’t the point. If you took it all away, we’d still have the Incarnation of the Son of God, an event worth celebrating. Merry Christmas to you.