Family

It was a Sunday like any other Sunday. We all got up, rushed through breakfast, and drove to church. While I’ve been in church services of all kinds in many different cultures, I still didn’t quite know what to expect for this one. When we first arrived at Aviva (Revive), I was a little surprised that this tiny warehouse could hold a church, but I quickly felt at home.

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We planted ourselves in plastic chairs spread out in a room the size of a school classroom. There we were, all 30 of us, Americans mixed with Guatemalans, young mixed with old, formal mixed with informal, but all one family. Since the entire city was without power and water that day, nobody really worried much about how they looked. As the music tracks played on battery-operated equipment, we began to sing, all with one voice – including the roosters in the yard behind us.

There, in that place where nothing looked or sounded or felt as many in my home country would think it should, we touched the hem of His robe with humble hands and open hearts. We weren’t on a time schedule, and we weren’t worried about appearances or sounding just right. There, despite (or because of) the differences from home, I felt more of Jesus’ presence than I have in the US in a long time. Because it’s not about how it looks or how it sounds. People don’t need a fancy service or a good show. People are desperate for Jesus.

The pastor spoke from Philippians 2Therefore if there is any encouragement in Christ, if there is any consolation of love, if there is any fellowship of the Spirit, if any affection and compassion, make my joy complete by being of the same mind, maintaining the same love, united in spirit, intent on one purpose. Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others.

Because when we gather, we don’t gather for a service. We gather as family – as one mind and one Body – for service to each other, the highest made low and everyone equal in the sight of God. And out of that service to each other comes the hope of the Gospel for others.

The pastor told a story of a time when he went to a fancy, world-renowned restaurant. He ordered a meal with a fancy name that cost nearly $50 and only got three shrimp that had no flavor. Everyone at the table was disappointed and left hungry. As they walked out the door, they saw a lady on the street selling pupusas (kind of like a stuffed taco made with cornmeal dough) for less than $1, and they all said those pupusas were the best meal they’d ever had.

We can make a show and a reputation for ourselves. We can bring in people from all over and from all walks of life and reputations. We can build a brand and marketing strategy that appeals to everyone. But without love – without the salt and light Jesus told us about – all we’re serving is a tasteless plate with no flavor that will send consumers to the streets looking for anything else they can eat. Without love, without the leaders becoming servants and following in Christ’s footsteps, without forsaking all our preferences and preconceptions, we are nothing.

Especially in light of the state of our world, the Church must learn to be a family and not an institution. If the Church cannot operate in love toward its own family, it cannot love the world. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another. (John 13:35) And if that genuine love and heart of service flow through and out of us, they will reach the lost in ways our words cannot. Hatred cannot conquer hatred. Darkness cannot fight darkness. Only love and light can conquer hatred and darkness. Our response should always be love. 

I write this sitting on a balcony after the day’s rain, overlooking mountains all around, birds chirping and a street preacher calling out and singing about the Church into his megaphone (I couldn’t make that up if I tried). I wish you could hear his song to the Lord; it sounds…horrible, but the purity of heart from which it comes could match Hillsong or Bethel any day. And I know that saying all these things while here can be easy, but implementing them at home can be another story entirely. Still, I believe it is possible. I believe we can really learn to be the hands and feet of Jesus. I believe we can learn to respond in love – hand in hand with truth – and reach the lost. I believe the Church can really become a family. But only if we learn to become ONE. Only if we learn that it’s not about how things look or sound or how long our “services” are or aren’t or how cool the speaker is or isn’t. It’s about Jesus. It’s about the Family of God. And it’s about loving the world with the Love who made Himself a servant and washed our feet of their sinful filth and grime…so that we could do the same in love to those in our midst.

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The Shepherd

A two-hour drive through the mountainous countryside brought us to Huehuetenango so John Batchelor could preach at the surprise 50th birthday service for Pastor Isai Martinez at Palabra de Vida (Word of Life). We passed through swarms of buses, motos, tuk-tuks, and pedestrians, each going their own way – right through everyone else’s own way.

 Dump sites on the sides of the road became gold mines for people searching for anything they could sell. To my left, flocks of sheep wandered about in front of terra cotta cottages; to my right, three men filing up the mountain path, shovels over their shoulders, glad to be finished with the day’s farming. And all around, loads of laundry hanging next to tiendas painted with Partido Lider election propaganda, villagers waiting on the bus to go into town, men carrying heavy loads of firewood or whatever else would fit on their backs to sell in the market.

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11667289_10100781900332688_4936303971849705035_nIt was dusk when we left the Hotel California for the church. All around us twinkled fireflies of lights on the Sierras de los Chucumatanes, the highest mountain range in all of Central America. They reminded me of El Paso, Texas at night, these formidable majesties lording over the Maya people below, sentinels of the valley who have guarded its secrets and echoed its shouts for thousands of years.

                                                                             The Chucumatanes in daylight

Just past these mountains? Chiapas, Mexico, land of rainforests…and war. But in this place, a city on a hill, a beacon of hope.

Isai’s birthday service was a Polaroid glimpse into the life of a healthy church. The way he and his wife, Bris, loved on everyone there and the way that love was reciprocated was just how I imagine the early Church would have been. Afterwards, we sat and ate tamales and cake while Isai told us his story.

Pastor Isai, left
            Pastor Isai, left, and John Batchelor, right

Isai was a math teacher for 20 years before becoming a pastor. He became a teacher because he had had a terrible math teacher in school, and he wanted to do things differently. He wanted to be the teacher who captivated his students, showed them new ways to learn complex concepts, and directed them toward Christ. After 20 years of teaching, he became the youngest to retire from his school, and he entered pastoral ministry full-time. Now, he translates skills he mastered from teaching to sharing God’s Word in ways the people can understand. A part of his legacy now is that a number of his former students are active members in his church and ardent lovers of Jesus.

That night, deep in the heart of the Chucumatanes, firefly beacons and the heart of the Maya still beating all around us, we saw a lamb with a lion’s heart whose life’s desire to see others meet Jesus has left a line of many other sheep who now follow their true Pastor, or Shepherd. All because one man heard His voice and said, “Yes”.