Culture

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It’s hard to believe that it has been ten years since we spent our first ‘winter’ in Mérida. Although we headed into the Christmas season without the typical blustery winds or early snows of home, we could still hear the carols and melodies both in the stores and on the streets as choruses would sing the message of Christ’s birth for all to hear. There was also the smell of pine, as families purchased live trees to decorate to transform their homes for family gatherings and Christmas celebrations.(Here’s a video clip from our own Christmas tree adventure!) We learned that piñatas were popular with both kids and adults alike during this season, not just for birthdays. Reenacting the Christmas story was also a tradition. One year, our daughter even got to perform as Mary (see picture above).
 
Our first Christmas here, we were invited to share in the festivities of our pastor’s family. There, we discovered that gift giving happens at midnight after the Christmas Eve service and a late family meal. Christmas Day, then, becomes a continuation of family time and eating those all important dinner leftovers.
 
Throughout the past 10 years, we’ve seen that, although the expression may be different, the hope and expectation of the Savior is what unites us regardless of our differences. Thank you for joining with us that we may continue to proclaim this message so that this universal Body of Christ might continue to expand. 

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imageIt was a scene from a past generation. Huipiles (a traditional Mayan dress) and guayaberas (AKA Mexican wedding shirts) were on display everywhere you looked. Traditional music, played by guitars, drums, and a an accompanying conch filled the air. The language of choice? Maya. It was Mayan Night at the district missions convention and a time of celebration of the heritage of the residents of the Yucatan peninsula.

The church has come far to be able to put on such a display at a major event like this one. Although events like the 2012 prophecies have done much much to help revive an interest in all things Mayan, one does not have to move too far into the past to find negative attitudes toward the Mayan way of life, thinking of it as anachronistic, and those who felt that speaking the language as a sign of ignorance or a lack of education. This embrace of the Mayan culture, therefore, is a sign of just how much these old attitudes have changed.

Nevertheless, even though our dress and the principle language spoken called us to remember the past, the subject of the conversation: the unfinished task of the Great Commission, encouraged us to look toward the future and partner with God who is in mission, beyond the borders of the peninsula, even around the world. I was privileged to be a part of this latter effort as I gave a conference entitled, “Crossing Cultural Barriers.” In it, I encouraged the Yucatecan church to move past the divisions that separate us from making a worldwide impact through compassionate, incarnational ministry as we unashamedly point our listeners toward Christ. We do this I said, because of God’s universality, the mandate we have been given, the blessing that comes from obedience to that calling, and because of the fact that God is already there working among the various cultures, calling them to repentance and faith in Him.

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The conferences, therefore, as well as the cross-cultural missionaries present and the calls for involvement in mission on a local, national, and international level were an encouraging sign of this traditionally Mayan culture’s desire to be involved in God’s redemptive plan. The second evening showed just how strong it was. Two songs into the service, the power went out to the whole block. The service continued without missing a beat, and the people, without even fans to keep them cool, stayed to witness a missionary parade illuminated by cellphones and a sermon encouraging short term missions involvement amplified by a gas powered generator.

In all, it was a wonderful event. Upon reflection, I see it as a blend of gratitude for a culture that God has redeemed and an affirmation of the increasing role that this culture must play in God’s worldwide mission in the years to come.

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As you may know, I’ve been taking classes in the Mayan language. I’m currently in the second term. This past weekend, as we closed out our classes in 2013, we had the opportunity to celebrate Christmas, Yucatan style. Part of that celebration was a rendition of Silent Night in Maya. I was able to record a portion of it here:

What do you think? Were you able to sing along?

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As missionaries, we need to communicate. We’re away from many of our supporters for up to four years.  Without newsletters, project updates, and prayer bulletins, the majority of our sponsors would be in the dark about the advances being made and the challenges that we face.

Still our need to communicate about what we are doing can leave the wrong impression. If we’re not careful about what we do, we can paint a misleading picture of how we are desperately needed and how the work couldn’t possibly go on without us.

While it’s certain that we serve to fill a need, the truth of the matter is that God has been working in the Yucatan far before the Godzwas came, and we believe He’ll still be at work long after we’re nothing more than a memory. What’s more, in the time that he has been at work, He’s raised up some amazing individuals with whom we not only have the chance to work but also from whom we have the privilege to learn.

A case in point was this week during our continuing education workshop for Bible school professors. During our sessions, I was constantly remind of the competence, concern, and spirituality of those who taught and those who participated. I was glad to be among them.

Over the past few days I’ve been working through the book, The Meeting of the Waters, by Fritz Kling. It speaks about the trends that  shape the future of the church on a global scale. One of the 7 that he investigates is the trend of mutuality. Mutuality is basically empowering those traditionally marginalized because of ethnic or economic biases. It gives everyone a seat at the table and both voice and vote in the moment of decision. Certainly, it can be threatening to those of us in the Western World who have become accustomed to having the final say, but mutuality offers us a multicultural richness from which to borrow as we seek to guide the church, and it offers us creative solutions to difficult problems that we encounter along the way.

I’d hate to portray myself as having a handle on this concept. Even as I write these words I am reminded of the times that I have failed to offer my partners their due share in our decision making processes and times when I have been absent when I have had the ability to affirm the value and validity of their efforts. Still, this week, I feel as though I’m making progress.

My prayer then is that, as we operate more and more on the basis of mutuality, God will be able to more fully declare his manifold wisdom, the joining of many cultures into one functioning body, the church, through the church in Yucatan.

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We believe in the power of the Word of God, that’s why a large part of our ministry is dedicated to preaching and teaching the Bible. Still preaching and teaching, at best, serve only as a gateway for personal exploration and application of the biblical text. It is a jumping off point for believers, encouraging them to dig deeper into what God would want to speak into their lives on any given subject. That is why personal study of the scripture is so important, and why access to the biblical text is such a fundamental necessity for any culture.

Here in the Yucatán, where almost 60% of the population speaks the Maya language, we’re glad to know that the New Testament has been in print for several years and is widely available. However, when the majority of those who speak Maya cannot read the language, the benefit of this printed biblical text is severely limited, and a large portion of the population remains cut off from access to the Word of God in their native language.

That is why we’re happy to be forming a partnership with Faith Comes by Hearing (FCBH), distributors of the Proclaimer Audio Bible. The Proclaimer is a device, approximately the size of a large radio, that is able to reproduce the biblical text for a group as large as 300 people. That means that even the illiterate will be able to hear and understand the message of the Bible in their native language. Furthermore, the fact that the device a single unit, and that it is solar or manually powered, opens up opportunities to transport the Word of God to places that lack even basic services.

But this partnership is about much more than just the distribution of devices. Just this week, I was able to speak with Gil Moreno, one of the FCBH ministry staff, who took me through their philosophy of setting up listening groups in order to facilitate Bible literacy and discipleship. Through a commitment of as little as 30 minutes a week, a group of believers can listen to the entire New Testament in less than a year. But they’re not only listening; in these groups, they’re interacting with the Word of God, recalling the stories, expressing their feelings, and applying the truths. That’s where the change occurs!

It’s our goal to implement these listening groups in conjunction with the churches that we are forming through our Jesus Film outreach. This way, even if a pastor is unable to visit a village for an extended period of time, discipleship is still taking place as new believers gather to hear and discuss the Bible. We hope to have our first batch of seven Proclaimers in use by the end of summer, with another two shipments to arrive soon after. It’s our prayer that this device and this new partnership will yield much fruit in our effort to disciple indigenous believers here in the Yucatán and beyond.

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Angel y Berenice, following after the call

“Hermano, ¿podemos hablar un ratito?” were Bernice’s words. Something was clearly bothering her. Berenice was one of my students in my Missions class. She was troubled because the theme had confirmed an idea that God was revealing to her and her husband, Angel.

“Are we crazy?” she asked. She wanted to know if it was right for them to feel led to go to another place. She wanted to know if it was OK to leave her home, her extended family, and her church. She asked if I could give them advice. I prayed with her and encouraged her to be attentive to the voice of God. He did not fail to speak.

Just a week ago, Kelly and I met with Berenice and Angel. At the meeting, they shared their story. They related to us how they had been called to minister in Guerrero, in a village whose name they had never heard. They told us how they had taken steps to dismiss their impression only to have it confirmed time and again, but never more intensely than after our previous conversation.

We shared our own experience with them, prayed with them and encouraged them, but it was obvious that no convincing was needed. God is doing his work. They’re now preparing to take the next step in fulfilling the vision.

During this Thanksgiving holiday, I have a reason to be grateful. I’m grateful that He calls men and women to follow Him although their culture would have them stay at home. I’m thankful He still confirms His word, even in the most unlikely circumstances, and I’m glad that He’s allowed us to be a witness of it here in Yucatán.

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Since we arrived for our second term here in the Yucatán in November of 2010, one of our emphases has been to see the gospel spread through the indigenous Maya culture. In the course of our work, we’ve taken several trips, met and worked with lots of individuals, and undertaken projects ranging from public events to church building. Through it all, we’ve realized it’s anything but “business as usual.” Here’s what we’ve learned so far:

1. We all have “boxes.”

Boxes are great tools, and as missionaries, we’ve come to have a special appreciation of them. They not only help us in our moves, but they retain their usefulness throughout our stay. Cultures, as well, are known to have their own “boxes”–ways of thinking and acting that are particular to a people or society, and, while there are certain conveniences that come from working out of these boxes, we rapidly see the liabilities of these beloved tools in a cross-cultural setting:

  • While they give us a place to store our “stuff,” they limit the amount of knowledge that we are open to receiving.
  • While they help us with categorization of our our experiences and perceptions, they also restrict us, causing problems when what we experience doesn’t fit with one of our preconceived categories.
  • While they aid us with the ability to recall past information in order to deal with a present situation, they also may lead us to stereotyping, especially when we have only a cursory knowledge of foreign customs or attitudes.

They scarier reality is that, although we have been trained to recognize the danger of utilizing our American-style boxes when engaging with Mexican culture, many Mexican nationals who desire to partner with us lack the training to realize that they too must recognize and overcome the temptation to operate exclusively from within their particular set of cultural norms.

While we had made certain assumptions in our partnership fellow ministers, we have found that the reality can often be quite different. For example, we had assumed that one’s proximity to the Maya culture would produce vision for ministry to that culture, However, we found that, at least with one worker who spoke the language and pastored among the people, this was not the case. His participation floundered soon after our first ministry trip. We had also thought that shared identity would equal experience, but found that even fellow “Yucatecos” can be at a loss when reaching out to the Maya culture of which they are descendants.

What we have experienced quite often are more in line with the idea that familiarity breeds contempt. In other words, that which is near at hand is seldom appreciated. Here in the Yucatán, many consider the Maya culture to be backward, outmoded. The language is not being passed on from one generation to the next as children have more interest in consuming what is produced in the global market than conserving their own heritage. With this in mind, there is an expectation for the indigenous to “move along” with the rest of society, limiting the number of those who would “reach back” in order to minister to these groups.

Also, we have found that the ministry that is being done often has a view to realize activities while it tends to sacrifice analysis. Many are quick to hold a campaign, but few succeed at the process of discipleship that is required before, during, and after the event. Events are planned out in minute detail, but rarely is the question asked, “Is this event appropriate for this community?”

So how do we do ministry among the indigenous, while encouraging our national brethren to join with us in the effort? That question leads us the the second lesson learned:

2. Our focus must be on understanding before we seek results.

The obstacles that we face are large. At times we aren’t understood, either by our ministry partners or the people to whom we are trying to minister. Conflicts come with partners over ministry approach, style, and content, while language barriers and culture disconnects often thwart our attempts to reach out to the indigenous in relevant, meaningful ways.

Nevertheless, we must believe that we can overcome these obstacles and work hard to do so. Among our partners, this must be done through vision-casting and mission-building. We must help them to see the big picture and get on board. Our goal is not that they become like us, but that they receive Christ into their own culture that He might transform them from the inside out.

In Romans 3:29, Paul asks the question, “Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles too? Yes, of Gentiles too,” Our goal is that the Maya understand that God is their God as well, not just the God of the Spanish-speaker. Once this vision is accepted, we must make take steps to plan how this can be achieved, intentionally working together to bring about the desired result. Only with this plan in hand can we overcome our own cultural barriers and work together to extend the Kingdom of God among the indigenous.

Among the Maya, we must seek to gain entry into the culture, finding access through language-learning and key individuals who can serve to interpret the signals that so often come through our filters as just so much noise. We must also be willing to take a step back from our rush to stereotype behaviors and our hasty conclusions. We must understand that we need to learn to ask the right questions before we can ever be able obtain the answers that we’re so eager to receive.

Box photo used under Creative Commons by z287marc.

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Team Members

If you’re a regular reader of disciplemexico.org you’ll have see my comments on the team play of missionaries. We’re blessed to be a part of an international group of ministers committed to seeing God’s purposes advance throughout the world. My recent trip to Florida to meet with ACLAME members was a reminder of how vital this network realizing this goal.

Still, regardless of how effective our missionary network is, if our team doesn’t extend to include national believers in the work, our goal of incarnational ministry, of making the work truly part of the fabric of the culture to which we are called, will fall short. That’s why I’m glad to be a part of the team of faculty members assembled to teach at the Bible Institute this fall.

Yesterday, we assembled at the church, “Cordero de Dios” to celebrate the opening of another year of ministerial formation in the Yucatan at Instituto Bíblico Bethel. In all, 28 different professors will collaborate across 3 separate programs. As you can see, it’s an undertaking that requires more that an individualistic effort.

So I’m blessed to link arms with fellow national believers to take part in providing an education that will raise up disciples will will strive to do all that Jesus commanded us to do.

What’s your take?
Is team ministry simply a missionary enterprise, or is it essential in your context as well?
Have you seen a good model of team ministry in action? Share about it.

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Life in San José is expensive, and nothing seems as acutely expensive as the food. Going grocery shopping for the first time gave us an extreme case of sticker shock, and the problem naturally compounds itself because, eventually, we would have to eat again. Thankfully, we found out about the Feria in Guadalupe.

The feria is a Saturday morning ritual in San José. “Ticos” are keenly aware of the high supermarket prices. Because of it, they routinely skip the produce aisle and bring their shopping lists and the carts to the feria. The lot, vacant during the week, is teeming with life from early in the morning to late in the afternoon. There are vendors by the dozens selling fruits and vegetables, cheeses and baked goods, all at prices below grocery store “ofertas.”

Our trip began at 7:30 with the 10 minute taxi trip from our house in San Pedro north to the feria site. We sat down to a traditional Costa Rican breakfast, complete with “gallo pinto” and coffee before heading to the stalls.  Green peppers at 40 cents a piece, strawberries at a $1.00 a pound and granadas at 20 cents a piece were some of the bargains we found. Even better, we were through with our shopping by 9:30, early enough to enjoy the Saturday at home.

Life continues to be expensive in Costa Rica, but fortunately, when it comes to produce, we’ve found a repreive and a possible Saturday morning tradition for the few weeks that remain in our stay in Costa Rica.

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At least we can say we have quiet neighbors...

By now, you´ve probably read our most recent newletter recording the next steps that we will be taking having departed from the States. Knowing our current location, in here in San José, you may have asked, “Why Costa Rica? Why travel thousands of miles past your destination when your calling would seem to take you elsewhere, especially after already having served for three years in Mexico?” As we were deciding whether or not to take this six-week refresher course, I found myself asking the same questions, and here are some of the answers that I arrived at:

  1. Because Costa Rica is the where CINCEL is located.

    Quite simply, if as A/G missionaries, we desire to study the Spanish language, CINCEL, the Spanish language institute of Assemblies of God World Missions in Costa Rica is the place to do it. It is the only A/G facility of its kind in all of Latin America. But more than that, the staff faculty and facilities are designed so that we can successfully immerse ourselves into the study and practice of the Spanish language. We are corrected and challenged in ways that we would be unable to attain in another setting, especially in Mexico, where, out of politeness or respect, we might get stuck in bad habits.

  2. Because clear communication is essential to what we do as missionaries.

    With a calling to “preach the Word”, we carry a burden to communicate clearly God´s message, calling a people, whose language is not our own, into reconciliation with Him. In order to do this we must dedicate ourselves to a profound study of the language, doing our best to ensure that we do not serve to confuse what God has called us to make clear.

  3. Because competence builds confidence.

    As we move out to do God´s work, there is a need to convey with confidence the message that we communicate. If we are more concerned with the language than we are the message, our self-doubt about how we say what we are trying to say may communicate to our listeners an uncertainty about the actual message that we share. An uneasiness about our competence in the language may even tempt us to keep our mouths shut when the need or the Spirit would have us do otherwise. Confidence, therefore, so that we might boldy declare our message can be built as we gain a competence in the language through our studies here.

  4. Because we work better together

    In a context like CINCEL, where A/G missionaries gather from all over Latin America, we find incredible opportunities to mix with other missionaries, to exchange our burdens and ideas with one another, and to sharpen one another as we study together. For example, I sat with David Isabelli, a fellow missionary to Mexico, recently during a break in the library. He shared with me insight into several ministry ideas that I had contemplated incorporating when we returned to Mérida. Without this opportunity, I might not have been able to have this interaction.

So as we move through these six weeks in Costa Rica, we’re looking forward to maximizing these benefits, understanding that because of them, we’ll be better missionaries.

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